Hooked on pelagic bird watching

2016-09-01 06:00
A young Shy Albatross made a number of fly-bys though adults were initially scarce.           Photo: SUPPLIED

A young Shy Albatross made a number of fly-bys though adults were initially scarce. Photo: SUPPLIED

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CAPE Gannet . . . White-breasted Cormorant . . . Atlantic Yellow-nose Albatross . . . Pintado Petrel . . . Orca . . . Short Fin Mako Shark . . .

Hop onto a boat and head into the choppy waters beyond Port St Francis - experiencing hundreds of albatrosses only an arm’s length away and searching for adrenaline-pumping rarities. Step into the world of pelagic bird watching and give yourself a dose of the waterman lifestyle that St Francis Safaris bring to life.

Daniel Danckwerts of Rhodes University in Grahamstown with expertise in Marine Biology and an all-round nature enthusiast, along with ten Eastern Cape birders, recently set out on a pelagic from Port St Francis with Tim Christy as their skipper.

“We met outside the quaint little harbour at 07:00 on August 13, and were soon steaming southwards,” says Danckwerts. “Hopes were high and cameras were charged!

“The weather, though terribly overcast, was in our favour with awesome sea conditions and only a light westerly breeze.”

The first seabirds, including Kelp Gull, White-breasted Cormorant, and Cape Cormorant were seen perched on the harbour wall and a number of South African Fur Seals playfully followed the boat.

Close to Cape St Francis, a small group of African Penguins were seen briefly, and more Fur Seals were seen resting on the rocks.

“Entering open water, we soon encountered our first White-chinned Petrel. Other common species included Swift Tern and Cape Gannets. It wasn’t until we were about 30km from shore that we saw our first albatross, in the form of Indian Yellow-nosed, which brought much excitement to all those on board. Further and further we went and soon Shy Albatross joined the species following our wake,” says Danckwerts.

Bird numbers picked up immensely nearer the 200m depth mark, some 40km from shore. Rafts of White-chinned Petrels were encountered and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses were abundant.

A young Shy Albatross made a number of fly-bys though adults were initially scarce.

“Huge bird activity on the horizon caught our attention and, as we drew closer, Tim shouted “ORCA!” Instead of looking out to sea, many of us turned to question Tim’s ID. Sure enough, a cow and her calf were seen! This lifted our spirits as this was only the third time in 25 years that Tim had seen Orca off St Francis,” says Danckwerts.

“Their attention was elsewhere, however, so views were always brief and quite distant. We later discovered that they’d killed an Oceanic Sunfish. Once their meal was finished, they quickly moved off leaving a large flock of birds behind.

“We decided to toss our first chum block. The response was immediate. White-chinned Petrels and Subantartic Skuas were the first to feed, followed by Indian Yellow-nosed and Shy Albatrosses. An unusually dark immature Yellow-nosed Albatross appeared. A Short Fin Mako Shark appeared in the distance. Next was the diminutive Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, followed by Southern Giant Petrel. While the former put our best photographer’s skills to the test, the latter offered closeup views and perfect photographic opportunities.”

Somewhat later, an Antarcitc Prion appeared, once again challenging those with ca-meras. An immature Black-browed Albatross, with its dark underwings, then glided past the starboard side. All of the aforementioned species remained with them for some time. It was only later that a Pintado Petrel appeared.

“The “catch” of the afternoon was a live Oceanic Sunfish right beside our boat!”

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