Trip Highlights: Three species of albatrosses, Black-bellied Storm Petrel, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Great Shearwater, three species of whales: Humpback, Southern Right, and Bryde's
Our day's birding started with the great variety of coastal species present in the Simon's Town harbour. These included Kelp, and Hartlaub's Gulls, Great crested (Swift), and Sandwich Terns, African Oystercatchers, Cape, Crowned and White-breasted Cormorants. We added a fourth species of cormorant, Bank, just as we left port. A pair was seen roosting on one of the marker buoys, along with a single Crowned Cormorant.
As we headed south towards Cape point, there were multiple sightings of rafts of African Penguins and Cape Fur Seals feeding in the bay, along with numerous sightings of the species already seen in the harbour. Our first pelagic species: Sooty Shearwater was spotted close to Cape Point. The species' characteristic silvery underwing coverts showed up well in the low morning light.
After our customary photo stop at Cape Point, we turned south-west and headed out into deeper waters. Despite the very choppy conditions around the Point, known locally as the Washing machine, the open ocean was thankfully very flat and windless. As we ventured farther out, we encountered good numbers of Sooty Shearwaters, White-chinned Petrels and Cape Gannets. A pair of Humpback Whales caught our attention, and we managed a few quick views before they swam off.
Our skipper located a few fishing vessels, and decided to investigate the closest one, despite travelling too fast for fishing. This vessel turned out to be a stern trawler busy processing their recent catch. The large amount of fish discards in turn attracted just over a thousand-plus seabirds, creating the classic Cape pelagic spectacle! The mass of birds trailing the trawler included three species of albatrosses: the most numerous being Shy (White-capped), followed closely by Black-browed, and a few Atlantic Yellow-nosed (recently returned in fresh plumage). The most numerous species were however the hundreds of White-chinned Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters, with smaller numbers of Cape (Pintado) Petrels, a common winter visitor to the Cape. More typical coastal species, like Cape Gannets and Kelp Gulls were also very abundant. We also had a single Great Shearwater, Brown (Subantarctic) Skua and a Northern Giant Petrel in amongst the masses of birds. A group of Cape Fur Seals was almost present behind the boat, competing with the birds for scraps. The vessel slowed and eventually stopped allowing good numbers of Wilson's Storm Petrels to gather and feed on the thin slick of fish oil typical of these trawlers. The call of "Black-bellied Storm Petrel" went up as a single bird fly past our boat. We got several more fantastic sightings of this uncommon passage migrant, which is present off the Cape Coast in spring and autumn, as they move between their sub-Antarctic breeding grounds and more tropical waters.
After a great morning of seabirding, we headed back to shore. The trip back was mostly quiet, but closer to the coast, an abundance of small bait fish, attracted flocks of feeding Cape Gannets, Common and Great Crested Terns and Sooty Shearwaters. The highlight was a single Bryde's Whale, which briefly surfaced a few times, as it too chased the same bait fish attracting the seabirds.
Once back in False Bay, we headed up to Partridge Point to get views of the breeding Bank and White-breasted Cormorants, as well as visiting the nearby Cape Fur Seal haulout. We received news of a nearby Southern Right Whale cow and calf. After a few close views, they dove and could be seen swimming under our boat before moving away.
We continued on back towards the harbour, spotting several groups of African Penguins before ending a great pelagic outing.
Pelagic species seen and approximate numbers:
Shy/White-capped Albatross - 75-100
Black-browed Albatross - 50-75
Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross - 5-7
Northern Giant Petrel - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 200-300
Great Shearwater - 1
White-chinned Petrel - 600-700
Cape (Pintado) Petrel - 50-60
Wilson's Storm Petrel - 20-30
Black-bellied Storm Petrel - 1
African Penguin - 50-60
Cape Gannet - abundant (coastal and pelagic)
White-breasted Cormorant - 10-15 breeding pairs
Cape Cormorant - abundant
Crowned Cormorant - 5-7
Bank Cormorant - 20-25 breeding pairs
Kelp Gull - common (coastal and pelagic)
Hartlaub's Gull - 8-15
Great Crested Tern - common
Common Tern - 5-10
Sandwich Tern - 2
African (Black) Oystercatcher - 2
Cape Fur Seal - abundant (coastal and pelagic)
Southern Right Whale - 2 (incl. calf)
Humpback Whale - 2
Bryde's Whale - 1
A message from Cape Town Pelagics:
A huge thank you to our experienced skippers who are
able to safely lead us to the best birding areas and
skillfully manoeuvre the boat into just the best position
while all on board are busy concentrating on the birds!
Coordinating a pelagic trip over a year in advance
with guests from all across South Africa and different
countries around the world requires an organised office
team. We thank them for their special eye for detail
- and for the sometimes last-minute rearrangements
and frustration if the weather delays the trip to
another day! Our biggest thank-you is to our Cape
Town Pelagics guides who take time out of their work,
often involving seabirds and conservation, and time
away from their families, to provide our guests with
a world-class birding experience. Cape Town Pelagics
donates all it profits to seabirds, and so all the
participants who join the trip make a contribution
towards bird research and conservation - a big thank
you from all of us.
Trip Report by Cape Town Pelagics
guide Vincent Ward.
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