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Cape Pelagic Birding

Modified: 2009/04/02 10:58 by admin - Categorized as: Western Cape
The very cold and nutrient rich upwellings along the continental shelf offshore on the west and southwest coasts of southern Africa create bounteous feeding opportunities for pelagic seabirds, attracting vast numbers of albatrosses, petrels and other oceanic wanderers to within close reach of our shores. Furthermore, the healthy Fishing industry that cashes in on the abundant fishing resources in these same upwellings provides further motivation for the presence of large quantities of seabirds, as the escapees from the trawl nets and the plentiful scraps and off casts which are a by-product of the processing of recently caught deep sea fish within these trawlers provide an easier and even more prolific source of food for these foraging birds. The continental shelf narrows to a pinched 30 nautical miles just south west of the Cape Peninsula, and with this benevolent act brings these fishing grounds, and with them some of the world's most exciting pelagic sea-birding, within reach of birders visiting cape Town. A day trip out to the edge of the continental shelf on a game fishing boat or small charter vessel can expose you to a quite unique and breathtaking birding spectacle that will be a highlight of a birding trip to southern Africa. While normal pelagic bird densities in these waters are already high in comparison with tropical waters; it is not unusual to find in excess of 5000 pelagic seabirds in the wake of an active trawler. The sea birding is most prolific during winter, when large numbers of southern breeding birds are in our waters, but summer pelagic trips can also be very rewarding.



On a typical winter pelagic trip one would expect to see Shy Albatross and Black-browed Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Pintado Petrel, Wilson's Storm-Petrel and Cape Gannet in large quantities, and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, Northern Giant-Petrel, Southern Giant-Petrel, Great-winged Petrel (more a summer visitor), Soft-plumaged Petrel, Broad-billed Prion and Subantarctic Skua in smaller numbers, with irregular birds such as Wandering Albatross, Grey-headed Albatross and Southern Fulmar being seen on a few occasions most years, the first two primarily beyond the continental shelf. In addition, there is always a chance of encountering rare vagrants to our waters, and over the years, odd species such as Northern Royal Albatross, Kerguelen Petrel, White-headed Petrel, Blue Petrel, Grey Petrel, White-faced Storm-Petrel and many others have been recorded.

By contrast, a summer pelagic trip offers a whole new set of birds, with lesser quantities of most species being present. Additional species that can be expected to be seen include Cory's Shearwater, European Storm-Petrel, Parasitic Jaeger, Sabine's Gull, Arctic Tern and Red Phalarope. They join the ever present White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Wilson's Storm-Petrel and Cape Gannet, and reduced numbers of Shy Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, largely immature birds, and Northern Giant-Petrel and Southern Giant-Petrel. Great-winged Petrel are present in larger numbers than in winter, and Manx Shearwater and Pomarine Jaeger occur irregularly. For those who are fortunate enough to venture into the deep waters beyond the shelf, there is a strong likelihood of encountering Leach's Storm-Petrel and Long-tailed Jaeger.

The transition periods between summer and winter are also of great interest, as a number of species are only available in our pelagic waters during these periods. In particular, Black-bellied Storm-Petrel is regular on the shelf during October and May, and Great Shearwater is very common in September and October, and again in April and May. Late March, April and May also witness mass movements of northern skuas from the Indian Ocean through into the atlantic on their northerly migration, and flocks of hundreds, or occasionally thousands, of Parasitic Jaeger are accompanied by lesser, but still appreciable, numbers of Pomarine Jaeger and occasional small groups of Long-tailed Jaeger. These migrations are easily observed from the coast, in particular within False Bay during the season’s prevalent Southeast gales.

Pelagic birding trips also provide a fine selection of coastal seabirds en route to and from the deeper waters. In the harbours, on the coastline, and within a few kilometres of the shore one is likely to encounter African Penguin, Cape Gannet, Cape Cormorant, White-breasted Cormorant, Bank Cormorant and Crowned Cormorant, Swift Tern, Kelp Gull and Hartlaub's Gull and possibly Egyptian Goose. In addition, during summer one will see numbers of Common Tern in coastal waters, which are replaced during winter by the Antarctic Tern.

Although the preferred means of seeing pelagic seabirds is through undertaking a suitable boat trip, it is possible to see a good selection of the above birds from the shore, by positioning yourself on a raised promontory or exposed portion of shore with a strong telescope and sturdy tripod. Birding is generally best during strong onshore winds, in particular in winter storms. The best locations are cape of Good Hope in cape Point Nature Reserve, and at Kommetjie, adjacent to the lighthouse. During winter, birds that may possibly be seen from the shore include Shy Albatross, Black-browed Albatross and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross, Northern Giant-Petrel and Southern Giant-Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, and Subantarctic Skua, while in summer all of the above (except the skua) are possible in smaller numbers, with the addition of Cory's Shearwater, Parasitic Jaeger and Sabine's Gull (good from Mouille Point, Table Bay). Despite the convenience of this sort of birding, views of the birds are generally not wonderful.



Pelagic sea-birding trips, of one day's duration, are generally undertaken on a chartered 14m game fishing boat out of Hout Bay, or a 20m launch out of Simonstown, both types certified for operations, far from the coast. Pelagic charters are very expensive, due to the cost of operating these vessels, and so have tended to be undertaken on an ad hoc basis, as local demand requires. Local and overseas interest has been increasing, leading to attempts to organise these charters on a more regular basis. The winter of 1997 saw pelagic trips being undertaken on a monthly basis on a vessel capable of taking 18 passengers, and it is hoped that this momentum will be maintained.

Visitors to cape Town interested in a pelagic trip should contact Trevor Hardaker of Zest for Birds at Telephone +27 21 557 0624 or +27 82 780 0376 , or e-mail to enquire regarding planned trips. Alternatively, game-fishing boat charters or single or double berths out of Hout Bay can be arranged via Barrie Rose on telephone +27 21 757 318 (a/h) or .

John Graham 2001

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