Birding has been an all-consuming interest for Patrick Cardwell since boyhood days spent in a wildlife-rich environment. When he isn’t snapping photos in the field, training local bird guides, or supporting seabird-related conservation initiatives, he runs Avian Leisure, a birding and wildlife safari company out of Cape Town established in 1998, with his wife, Marie-Louise. In this epic post, Patrick depicts just how dynamic the pelagic birding is off Cape Point in South Africa. This may be the most awesome pelagic you’ll ever experience…
For me it was the publication in 1984 of Peter Harrison’s ground-breaking identification guide to ‘Seabirds’ that opened up the off-shore world of pelagic birding right on Cape Town’s door step. I remember way back in that same year commissioning the services of an active sport fishing boat to head out into the ‘deep’, 30 miles beyond the lighthouse at Cape Point itself, in search of a working trawler, in the hope of adding a suite of pelagic sightings to my expanding ‘life list’ of Southern African birds.
It was a Benguela Nino year, and pelagic seabirds were in super-abundance in the south eastern Atlantic, with the total of species by variety and number exceeding all expectations for the birders on the inaugural trip as we pitched and wallowed about in the rolling swells on our way out to the trawling grounds.
To this day, the anticipation of a weather-dependent sea birding trip still holds great appeal for me, and with it the hope of sighting something new and exciting as the ‘mega-tick’ of the day. In many respects a pelagic trip off Cape Point is the marine equivalent of the classic African ‘safari’ game drive. You have some idea of where you are going for the day, and what you are most likely to see, but in reality you are open to the forces of nature, along with a generous dose of ‘good luck’.
This is the exciting adrenaline appeal bit that drip feeds the desire to return over and over again to the trawling grounds for another seasonal sift through the thousands of seabirds orbiting in tireless flight, in the hope of seeing something new.
This desire also triggered my decision to move to Simon’s Town, a charming old naval base with a coastal village atmosphere, some 45 minutes from the centre of Cape Town, to be right on the doorstep of the main pelagic departure point in False Bay. Here one is close to the scenically impressive Cape of Good Hope National Park as well as the Boulder’s Coastal Park, home to hundreds of breeding African Penguins.
African Penguin braying
Aside from the diversity of birdlife and resident mammals of the Cape Peninsula, the bay itself supports thousands of Cape Fur Seals, a healthy population of Great White Sharks, several species of dolphin and whale, as well as countless thousands of seabirds attracted by shoals of bait fish within this marine protected area.
A typical pelagic trip with one of the registered pelagic charter operators starts with a sunrise safety and orientation briefing on the jetty, followed by a short scenic cruise to Cape Point, with stops en route to view rafts of African Penguins heading out to sea, and various terns and cormorants roosting on the offshore granite boulders along the rugged shoreline. Here and there the occasional Cape Gannet can be seen plunge-diving in the distance, while Kelp Gulls in loose groups fly past on their way out to the trawling grounds. In fact, it is a source of fascination to me as to why a relatively small minority of the resident population take the time and trouble to fly so far out to sea on the off-chance of securing a scrap within the melee of squabbling seabirds, when the vast majority of Kelp Gulls loaf about the local landfill sites in keeping with their kind all over the world …
After the mandatory safety stop inside of Cape Point, to radio through our intended course for the day and approximate return time, we round the precipitous headland to take in the impressive and steadily unfolding view of the south western tip of the African continent in the early morning light. It is indeed an awesome and wonderfully spectacular sight, so aptly described by Sir Francis Drake on his epic voyage in 1580, as by for the’ Fairest Cape in all the World’.
Cape Point Lighthouse
Soon we are well on our way to the south west with the trawling grounds and, hopefully, an active stern trawler or pole fishing boat in mind, as the rugged landscape steadily recedes and eventually fades from view below the distant horizon. Around this time the first of many pelagic seabird sightings for the day arcs into view, usually in the form of a White-chinned Petrel as it careens across the bow, followed by intermittent sightings of Sooty Shearwater, flap-gliding on silvery-white wings low across the wave crests, often in association with wavering flight lines of black and white Cape Gannets and hundreds of low flying Cape Cormorants, heading steadily northwards along the outer reefs of the Atlantic coastline.
This inshore marine environment is rich in anchovy and sardine during the warm summer months, making it an ideal fishing ground for Swift Tern and Sandwich Tern operating on a solitary basis, while loose flocks of Common Tern flutter and swoop over shoals of bait fish forced to the surface by predatory game fish. Such activity hardly goes unnoticed by piratical and falcon-like Parasitic Jaegers and the larger, more thickset and not as common Pomarine Jaegers, readily on the lookout for a kleptoparasitic feeding opportunity along the outermost reefs.
Soon afterwards a confident shout heralds the sighting of the first albatross of the day… This is usually a Shy Albatross as sweeps in slow and graceful flight over the wake before veering away on motionless wings giving all the opportunity to see the characteristic axillary ‘thumb-print’ on the mainly white underwing.
This is always an encouraging sign and marks the start of a steady uplift in seabird sightings as an increasing number of albatross across the age class spectrum wheel around us in seemingly effortless flight, along with a steadily expanding entourage of petrels and shearwaters as we make our way up the wake of the first of several trawler options available to us on a good birding day.
Dominant in number, on almost a year round basis, are the ubiquitous White-chinned Petrels, with the possibility of a much sought after Spectacled Petrel (conspicillata), endemic to Tristan da Cunha, loafing within the roosting rafts of gregarious seabirds, affording all on board close up sighting and photographic opportunities of this striking seabird.
By now the first Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, with its distinctive white head and neck, has usually been ‘ticked’ off as it sailed past on well arched wings, followed by several sightings of immature and adult Black-browed Albatross and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross weaving and flapping their way through the feeding frenzy of seabirds strung out along the wake in mind-numbing numbers.
Here and there boldly patterned Pintado Petrels in their highly distinctive black and white chequered plumage weave and glide by on stiff set wings, interspersed with brisk bursts of shallow wing beats, as they veer away from us, while intermittent Great Shearwaters, with their distinctive dark caps and conspicuous white sub-terminal tail bands, glide by to vanish beyond the next wave crest.
By now the action around us is usually frenetic with hundreds, if not thousands of pelagic seabirds in view, as the skipper does his best to keep up with the trawler and position the boat with good viewing and photographic light always in mind as he works up and down the wake in search of new sightings.
Yet it is the retrieval of the net that triggers the greatest seabird response as, almost on cue, the otter doors clang on the gantry signalling the next retrieve, and with it the birds converge on the bulging net as it breaks surface surrounded by porpoising Cape Fur Seals and plunge-diving gannets taking immediate advantage of whatever spillage occurs.
Pelagic Scene off Cape Point: Trawl being retrieved
This is the best time for close-up photography, so engrossed are the squabbling birds with their feeding priorities as they slow their pace to alight on the surface as scraps and by-catch drifts back along the wake triggering a competitive feeding frenzy.
Close by, opportunistic Subantarctic Skuas in klepto-parasitic mode snatch scraps away, while both the larger more bull-necked Northern and Southern Giant Petrels muscle their way through the foraging crowd clustered around the surfacing net.
Southern Giant Petrel amongst Pintado Petrels
Here and there during the summer months tern-like Sabine’s Gulls join in to plunge and dip delicately after scraps and every so often the occasional Arctic Tern puts in a transient appearance before veering away from the madding crowd …
Further back along the more open and less crowded sections of the wake, loose flocks of Wilson’s and European Storm Petrels patter across the surface and flutter about in zigzagging flight as they pick up minute food items streaming back along the slick line adding their presence to the regular crowd of habitual trawler followers. Other summer specials occasionally encountered are Manx Shearwaters cutting across the line of travel along with the far more numerous and gregarious Cory’s Shearwaters, and, infrequently, a Flesh-footed Shearwater for the more astute observer ‘sifting’ through the mass of seabirds orbiting the boat.
But it is the winter months that bring out the best when stormy seas and gusting south westerly winds usher in careening Pterodroma gadfly-petrels with Soft-plumaged Petrels and Great-winged Petrels soaring and towering high above the wind-swept wave crests in fast and dynamic flight. Such conditions at this time of year could also usher in the chance appearance of a majestic white-backed Northern or Southern Royal Albatross and, for the very lucky, a Wandering Albatross as the ultimate mega-sighting of the day …
Yet it is not all about the larger birds as an occasional gull-like Antarctic (Southern) Fulmar may well come gliding past on stiffly set wings or even a far more exciting Gray Petrel wheeling through the thick of the feeding flock or roosting unobtrusively on the surface in the company of White-chinned Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters at this very special time of year.
Seabirding is not without its identification challenges even with good photographic images for later reference purposes, with the Prions proving the most difficult to identify at sea. Generally, it is the Antarctic Prion (desolata) that occurs sporadically off Cape Point in the winter months, although other species of Prion have also been reported from time to time. Also present in good El Nino years are the occasional and much sought after Blue Petrel with its distinctive black sub-terminal tail band with white trailing edge, a unique diagnostic feature amongst petrels.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel
Within the storm petrel collective, Black-bellied Storm Petrel migrate northwards through the trawling grounds during the September to October period. Larger than the Wilson’s Storm Petrel, as the dominant storm petrel species throughout the year, the Black-bellied Storm Petrel’s bounding and distinctive contour hugging flight pattern makes it relatively easy to identify as it zigzags its way up the wake before vanishing in a flash behind a windswept wave.
As with any ‘game drive’ a trip to the ‘deep’ is not without other surprises such as the occasional sighting of an enormous sunfish basking on the surface or a breaching thresher shark with its long whip-like tail or a giant leatherback turtle loafing contentedly in calm sea conditions or an exuberant school of Dusky or Common Dolphin sporting about the boat. Add to this regular sightings of Humpback and Southern Right Whale, inside and outside the bay, as well as year round sightings of Bryde’s Whale and occasional summer reports of Orca in pursuit of dolphin off Cape Point, and you have some idea as to what to expect in the way of the ‘unexpected’.
Heading back to Simon’s Town, usually with a following sea making for a comfortable return run to Cape Point, is not without interest as the boat draws in close to Partridge Point for sightings of the endemic Bank Cormorant with adjacent Cape Cormorants for comparison purposes.
Bank and Cape Cormorants
Closer to harbour returning ‘rafts’ of penguins can be seen making their way back to Boulder’s Beach for the night while African Black Oystercatchers, White-breasted Cormorants, and Hartlaub’s Gulls, along with a few solitary Crowned Cormorants can be found loitering around the mooring buoys near the town jetty.
African Black Oystercatcher
All in all, a pelagic trip off Cape Town is a memorable and unforgettable experience, certainly a ‘must do’ for any dedicated birder visiting South Africa. Aside from sea birding, the Cape Peninsula and indigenous ‘fynbos’ habitat of this smallest of all the floral kingdoms in the world is rich in Cape endemics, such as Cape Sugarbird and Orange-breasted Sunbird, with a suite of typical semi-arid Karoo birds in reserve should the pelagic trip be cancelled due to adverse weather or sea conditions at the time.
For more on pelagic birding, details relating to local charter operators and accommodation options in Simon’s Town, and general birding information in Cape Town and beyond, contact Patrick Cardwell at Avian Leisure.
Table Mountain at dusk
All photos © Patrick Cardwell