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South Africa

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Text and pictures: Tim Jackson. Article from the December 2012 issue of Africa Geographic Magazine.

Scientific editor Tim Jackson is an enthusiastic birder and, as a resident of South Africa’s interior, he was keen to tick a couple of pelagic species on his bird list. So of course a visit to Cape Town would see him hopping aboard a little boat and heading southwards into the choppy waters beyond the city’s famous landmark, Cape Point.

White-chinned petrels swirl across the early-morning sky as we leave Simon's Town harbour, giving us a taste of the pelagic riches that await us off Africa's southern tip.Cape Town is a beautiful city with a multitude of attractions for both nature lovers and those who prefer the urban sprawl. For the birding fraternity, the scenic coastline and productive waters are a magnet, and a well-known attraction is the boat excursions that head into the ocean below the tip of the continent to search for the seabirds that roam the waves there. I’m one of that fraternity, so on a visit to the city I wasted no time in joining a pelagic birding tour.

It’s exciting, casting off with a group of passengers who range from die-hard birders to out-and-out amateurs to see albatrosses, petrels, skuas and the like. As we exited the harbour at Simon’s Town, the sweeping fin of a sunfish – a large and rather bizarre-looking creature – cut the surface of the water before diving deeper. We headed for Cape Point and the open ocean, hugging the coast as we did so, and were greeted by an early morning departure of African penguins en route to their fishing grounds. As we watched the small gaggle make its way out to sea, a fishing boat passed us, its crew eager to make their inroad into the snoek population.

Here we were dumped into the ‘washing machine’, a bubbling mass of water that gently bucked and tossed the boat around

An unusual perspective. An obligatory stop in the turbulent waters of the 'washing machine' allows us to take some pictures of Cape Point from a very different angle.Our first sighting of pelagics came in the form of white-chinned petrels, flying with a couple of kelp gulls. The raised fluke of a southern right whale seemed to give us a farewell wave as we headed for the open ocean. Here we were dumped into the ‘washing machine’, as skipper Alan Blacklaws called it, a bubbling mass of water that gently bucked and tossed the boat around as we took the customary happy snaps of the point. From here the aim was to head south-west as far as our fuel tanks could carry us in search of fishing trawlers – magnets to any bird wandering the oceans. ‘We’ve got a four-in-five chance of finding one,’ Blacklaws told us as we made a beeline for the area.

Fleet-winged fumble-foot

Black-browed is one of the more common albatrosses that can be seen on a Cape pelagic birding trip. Chances of seeing them are better in the winter months, particularly around trawlers.

Medium-sized albatrosses are sometimes called mollymawks, a name coined in the 17th century from the Dutch word mallemugge, meaning ‘foolish gull’, because of the birds’ awkwardness on land.

Albatrosses are regarded as the world’s most threatened family of birds. Nineteen of the 21 species are considered Threatened, Endangered or Vulnerable. Some populations have halved in the past 20 years. Most threatened are the Critically Endangered Amsterdam,Tristan and waved albatrosses.

Bingo! Fishing trawlers provide really productive birding. Here, almost 50 kilometres from land, we waited patiently with the birds for the nets to be hauled aboard.A bit more looking forward and not watching the way we had come and I may have seen the false killer whale that the skipper spotted before it dived down close to the boat, the glassy water on the surface a telltale sign of the one that got away. I was excited, however, by our first shy albatross. These birds, which only breed on three islands off Tasmania along Australia’s south coast, travel an incredible 10 000 kilometres to the Cape’s waters outside the breeding season each year. It was quite unbelievable how many ‘shys’ we saw. I’ve read a lot about the mechanics of albatross flight, but that doesn’t make it any less amazing to watch the birds glide by effortlessly, just centimetres above the wave-tops.

As we sailed on, Cape Point disappeared into the distance. We were truly in the open ocean now, as the birds we were seeing bore out – sooty and great shearwaters, Wilson’s storm-petrels and black-browed albatrosses. Excitement levels rose as we found a soft-plumaged petrel. Not a regular in these waters by any means, it had a few of us dashing for the bird book to confirm its identity.

The fishing trawlers seemed to elude us. We watched closely, buffeted by the light wind and rocked by the swell. With time running out we eventually made out the top deck of another vessel in the distance and set course for it. Bingo! We’d found that trawler. And it soon proved apparent why these boats are so popular with pelagic birders.

As we neared the vessel, the bird sightings picked up, building to a full orchestra of pelagics, all fighting for fish scraps. The graceful albatrosses had transformed into a squabbling flock of fish-guzzlers, bullying the smaller birds as they chased them off the catch. The pintado petrels (or Cape pigeons, as they are affectionately known because of their habit of pecking at the water for food) were definitely on the losing end of many a fight. The white-chinned petrels too. We spotted an Indian yellow- nosed albatross among its black-browed and shy cousins.

As the food ran out, the fighting died down. Catching our breath and eating a spot of lunch, we saw another trawler appear. This time things were quieter. Typically the trawlers lift their nets after they’ve been on the seafloor for four hours and this one still had another three to go, but there were still some good pickings.

We added a few northern giant-petrels to our bird lists and a group of subantarc-tic skuas settled calmly on the bow of the boat. Although the various giant-winged albatross species stole much of the limelight, the diminutive Wilson’s storm-petrels provided good entertainment too. Not settling once to land, they fluttered butterfly-like just above the sea in search of titbits. Every now and then they would come down to the surface, almost dancing on it with their tiny legs, to peck at a small morsel before lifting off again.

The arrival of a third trawler was a real reward. This time as we drew up to the boat it was apparent that the crew were drawing up the trawl net. Nearby, a gaggle of expectant Cape fur seals waited for the spoils, while the noise of the winches hauling up the trawl lines had the seabirds in a spin. As we waited patiently with the rest of the pack the occasional Cape gannet flew past, showing little interest in the events that were unfolding.

We were in for further surprise as, while watching the passing albatrosses, some sharp-eyed birders picked out a southern royal albatross, another irregular visitor here.

White-chinned petrels constantly dipped their heads beneath the surface to monitor the status of the trawl net

On the water, the white-chinned petrels constantly dipped their heads beneath the surface to monitor the status of the trawl net. Their diving abilities would help them reach the catch first.

Again we were treated to frenetic activity as the net finally reached the surface. But the pickings were meagre; it was almost empty. We were now 50 kilometres south-west of Cape Point and our skipper was getting anxious as we had reached the limit of his range and the fuel gauges were dipping. It was definitely time to head home. With the swell pushing us from behind, we made good progress and, as we reached Cape Point, we stopped again in the washing machine and watched the skeins of Cape cormorants flying round the peninsula. We had left the ocean’s wanderers behind.

Diminutive Wilson’s storm-petrels… fluttered butterfly¬like just above the sea in search of titbits

As we returned to Simon's Town harbour, a guard of swift terns greeted our arrival.We chugged into Simon’s Town harbour. Some of the snoek fishermen, who’d been hard at it with their hand lines all day, were still busy; other boats, heavily laden, were heading gingerly back to port. Above them the kelp gulls circled. We passed a small colony of bank cormorants and another of Cape fur seals. In the harbour, the long buoys that marked the start of the moorings made a convenient perch for swift terns, and our last sighting was a pair of African black oystercatchers.

My pelagic wish list had been well filled. It wasn’t just the seabirds that impressed me, but also the mammals and the wealth of coastal birds we’d seen. By getting into that small boat I had been propelled into a world so completely different from our own – and yet so accessible. No matter how dedicated a birder – or not – you are, your first pelagic trip is guaranteed to throw up a few lifers as well as a wealth of other ocean specials. And spending a brief time at sea with some of those pelagic birds in their own environment is very special indeed.

Why shy?

A shy albatross dominates in a scrap over foot) with white-chinned petrels. These birds have flown 10 000 kilometres from southern Australia to winter off the Cape coast.During the winter months, shy albatrosses (above) hardly seem the most bashful of birds, regularly coming up to check out pelagic trippers. So how did they get their name? According to Paul Scofield from Canterbury Museum in New Zealand, it’s a direct translation of the bird’s species name cauta, from the Latin word meaning ‘to be on one’s guard, or avoid’. Shy, basically. Scofield has a couple of ideas as to why ornithologist John Gould gave them this distinction when he named the species in 1841.

The first alludes to a description of the apparently demure look the bird seems to have due to its narrow eye stripe.The second is more practical. Gould caught the first specimen from the back of a ship as he was sailing to Australia.’It is possible that it simply describes how difficult it was to capture,’ suggests Scofield.

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