Category Archives: Birding Events

Flock at Sea 2017 – Mostly Birding at Sea

Two weeks ago we were on the MSC Sinfonia, around 200 nautical miles (in kms that’s .. um .. very far) south of Mossel Bay, now we’re back in that town and have had time to reflect on what turned out to be a truly memorable trip, for many reasons. Here’s my take on it……

The Build-up

Ever since booking our places on the “Flock at Sea 2017” cruise some 9 months prior, Gerda and I had been looking forward to the experience of a 4 night cruise aboard the MSC Sinfonia, along with almost 2,000 other birders – a  “cruise to nowhere” out of Cape Town with the main aim of seeing as many sea birds as possible in three and a bit days, cruising in the waters off the southern coast of South Africa.

A facebook page created for the event and regular Birdlife SA emails provided essential information, building to a crescendo in the final weeks and days leading to embarkation day – 24 April 2017.  There was also no shortage of seabird ID advice including a set of ID sheets depicting the birds most likely to be seen which I printed and put in my trip file.

Faansie Peacock was also good enough to produce and share a wonderful, concise set of “cartoon-like” sketches of the probable species, with notes on the features to look for, which I printed and carried with me folded in a pocket for reference – these proved to be super-useful for a quick check when a number of species were spotted in quick succession.

Flock at Sea Cruise

 

The Cruise

This was not entirely a new experience for me, having had the privilege of doing two pelagic trips out of Simonstown ( near Cape Town) in the past, however the  mode of transport was very different this time – a large cruise liner with close to a couple of thousand other passengers and 700 or so crew, versus a small ex-patrol vessel with about 15 people on board and one or two crew.

We had travelled from Mossel Bay the day before embarkation, staying overnight in the Commodore hotel at the Waterfront, so it was a short drive to Berth E at Duncan Dock, where I dropped Gerda off with our baggage, parked in the nearby parkade and returned to the quay to join the already long queue….. for the next couple of hours while the previous load of passengers disembarked very slowly due to IT problems at Immigration (or so we understood). This was not necessarily a bad thing – it gave us time to get acquainted with others in the queue, meet up with some old friends and take in the buzz of 1,945 keen birders all looking forward to the next few days.

The long queue at Berth E

Once boarding commenced, it all went quite rapidly and a couple of further queues later we had taken care of all the formalities and could enjoy a late lunch in the buffet restaurant and settle into our cosy cabin.

The queue snaking through the terminal
At last!
Our cosy cabin

The emergency drill followed and by 4.30 pm we were departing from Cape Town harbour and heading out into Table Bay in perfect weather, the ship leaving a trail of churned sea and the classic view of Table Mountain receding slowly as we stood on the rear deck, enjoying the moment. I couldn’t help thinking of Sir Francis Drake’s comment – he called it “a most stately thing and the fairest cape we saw in the whole circumference of the earth” – and who can argue with that!

The emergency drill
Flock at Sea Cruise departs
Leaving Cape Town
Leaving Table Bay – first sunset

First birds encountered were those favouring the shallower waters close to land – White-chinned Petrel, a skein of Cape Cormorants flying by in their typical V – formation, Cape Gannets and the first Albatross – a Black-browed sitting on the sea.

Later, dinner was in the Galeone Restaurant at the table to which we had been allocated, along with our dinner-table companions for the cruise, Herman & Magda Sauer and Ben & Carolien Prinsloo.

The next 3 days were busy, with our time divided between meals – breakfast in the room, buffet lunch and sit-down dinner, birding from the decks, attending talks and spending time just relaxing with Gerda.

Birding at Sea

  Day One (Tuesday)

The birders who were up early enough on the first morning were treated to sensational birding, the highlight being a Light-mantled Albatross, classed as a mega-rarity in Southern Africa. Unfortunately I missed out on this opportunity and had to be content with the 3 lifers I saw later on during the day – certainly a thrill but dampened somewhat by hearing what I had missed during the first few hours.

The rear decks seemed to be the place to be, crowded with  keen birders on every available level, to the extent that I had to wait patiently for some to disperse before finding a place at the rail. At other times I spent time on the bow decks and on the side decks which provided a different perspective.

All hands / birders on deck!
The stern deck

Regular sightings of birds flying into the calmer wake of the ship were announced by the experts and were met by a hum of excitement by the layers of birders, followed by clicking of the many cameras. Albatrosses were plentiful, including Wandering, Southern Royal and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, with Sooty and Great Shearwaters  and a White-headed Petrel (my first lifer for the trip) in the mix. On our way back to the cabin a Sooty Albatross flew by for my second lifer of the morning, albeit a view diffused by the glass sides at that spot.

Returning in the afternoon to the still crowded stern decks, I added a further lifer when an Antarctic Prion glided past the wake and an imposing Northern Giant Petrel swept by in grand fashion.

  Day Two (Wednesday)

I made sure I was in position early morning, which was a lot quieter birding-wise, nevertheless Shy Albatross and Soft-plumaged Petrel showed well. After a quick breakfast in the cabin I was back on the stern decks where chumming was being done using large frozen blocks of chum, to little effect it seemed, other than another White-headed Petrel which performed beautifully in the wake along with a Northern Giant Petrel.

Late afternoon saw me in position once again on the rear deck for some further birding, when a double rainbow developed and soon stretched across the horizon in a display that was nothing short of amazing – it also reminded me of  those half-moon shaped “orange slice” sweets we used to have as a treat when we were kids.  As a bonus, at that moment a clutch of Albatrosses glided gracefully across the face of the rainbow, turning it into a quite magical scene, impossible to reproduce in an ordinary photo.

 

Amazing double rainbow
Albatrosses gliding by the rainbow

As if this was not enough, it was followed by a sunset to dream about as the ship slowly continued on its way into the night.

Sunset at sea

The wind had come up strongly, which made for interesting, slightly drunken walks down those long passages, a challenging shower experience and a night of being bounced gently in our bed as the Sinfonia battled against 80 km/h winds and high swells – thank goodness for stabilizers!

  Day Three (Thursday)

Down the long passage and onto the stern deck, where several birds were hanging around the wake – Shy and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Great-winged Petrel, Great Shearwater and White-chinned Petrel were all prominent, plus a couple of new species appeared when Cape Gannets were seen nearby and a lone Subantarctic Skua flew in close to the ship. After breakfast I added Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross to my list before heading to the theatre for a highlight of the trip – the talk on Albatrosses by Peter Harrison.

The lo..o..o..n.n.ng passages
View from the top deck

This was followed by lunch where after we headed to our cabin for a bit of a break from all the activity………..  not for long, as I glanced through the cabin window and noticed an Albatross passing by, then another…. and another. So I grabbed my gear and headed to deck seven starboard to find a continuous stream of seabirds passing by – my guess was that they were heading towards the trawler we had seen earlier, “towing” in its wake a flock of many hundreds of birds.

Trawler with Flock of birds – at sea

The stream continued steadily for more than an hour during which time a few hundred Albatrosses, Gannets, Petrels, Shearwaters and Storm Petrels passed from bow to stern, many doing an airborne pirouette and a pas de deux before going on their way – apart from the thrill of the lifers on Day One, this was for me the absolute birding highlight of the trip. Just a pity all the Birdlife guides were attending the AGM, so there was no one to confirm the ID of some of the trickier birds that passed by, including some Storm Petrels in the distance.

All this excitement needed a short nap to recover, by which time the wind had died, the sea had gone quiet with hardly a swell and the birds had all but disappeared.

However that was not quite the last of the birding – after dinner at 10.30 pm I went to deck 6 starboard where it was said Great Shearwaters were feeding and sure enough there they were, up to seven visible at a time, feeding near the ship’s side, drawn to it by the lights.

My Bird List for the Trip

So what birds did I see? Some really good ones actually……….

  Albatrosses

Black-browed Albatross was the most frequently seen Albatross :  black back, broad black edging to the white underwings, orange bill

Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Black-browed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Shy Albatross was next most numerous : black back, narrow black edging to the white underwings, bluish bill

Shy Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Shy Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Wandering Albatross seen several times on the first day : largest of the Albatrosses, white back, mostly black upper wings fading to white nearer body

Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Wandering Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Southern Royal Albatross seen once on day one : white back, black wings with white patches (No Photo)

Sooty Albatross seen once on day one (Lifer!) : all dark with white crescent around eyes

Sooty Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Sooty Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross seen a few times during trip : black back, black edging to white underwings, white face with black bill

Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Flock at Sea Cruise

Atlantic Yellow-nose Albatross seen just once : as for last species but grey face (No Photo)

  Petrels

White-chinned Petrel seen regularly throughout trip : large dark seabird with pale bill and white “chin” at base of bill

White-chinned Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-chinned Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

White-headed Petrel seen a couple of times (Lifer!) : smaller seabird with dark bill, white face with dark mask around eyes

White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
White-headed Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

Northern Giant Petrel seen a couple of times : large dark seabird with heavy bill

Northern Giant Petrel (Juvenile), Flock at Sea Cruise

Great-winged Petrel seen regularly throughout trip : medium-sized dark seabird, dark bill

Great-winged Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise
Great-winged Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

Soft-plumaged Petrel seen just once : smaller seabird with light body, grey neck band, dark bill

Soft-plumaged Petrel, Flock at Sea Cruise

   Shearwaters

Sooty Shearwater seen a few times : small dark seabird with silvery underwing, dark bill

Great Shearwater seen regularly throughout trip : small seabird with light body, mottled wings, black cap and dark bill

Great Shearwater, Flock at Sea Cruise
Great Shearwater, Flock at Sea Cruise

  Other Species

Cape Gannet seen regularly during trip : unique giss – easily identifiable

Cape Gannet, Flock at Sea Cruise

Antarctic Prion seen once during trip (Lifer!) : small pale blue-grey seabird with dark “lazy” M across upper wings

Antarctic Prion, Flock at Sea Cruise

Subantarctic Skua seen a few times on last day : large, dark seabird with white underwing flashes

Subantarctic Skua, Flock at Sea Cruise

The Talks

I had planned to attend more but the birding was just too attractive, so in the end I limited it to three of the talks :

Dale Morris on Bird Photography – he showed us an impressive set of his images along with tips on getting that different shot, more art-like compared to the usual “bird on a stick”, as he put it.

Faansie Peacock on Digital Painting – fascinating and inspiring enough to persuade me to try it at the earliest opportunity (I have ordered a graphics tablet as a starter)

The end result of a 40 minute digital painting session – and he made it look easy!

Peter Harrison on Albatrosses – Ocean Nomads – the person introducing him used phrases such as “inspiring”, “best speaker he had ever heard”, “brings tears to your eyes” which I was wont to dismiss as hyperbole, but once his mesmerizing talk was done, I realised he was spot on. Certainly one of the best speakers I have heard and yes, I had a tear welling at times during his talk, which had me literally spellbound and on the edge of my seat for the full hour.

Albatrosses have always held a certain magic for me, which Peter Harrison took to a new level – I will never view Albatrosses quite the same again.

And it’s Over!

We docked before sunrise in Cape Town harbour, only to be met by the most beautiful scenes of the harbour bathed in the early morning hues, turning ordinary dockyard scenes into those worthy of hanging on your walls.

Cape Town Harbour at sunrise
Cape Town Harbour at sunrise

A fitting end to a spectacular and memorable trip! Thanks and Well done to Birdlife SA!

And we’re (almost) off!

So, here we are in Cape Town – relaxing in our hotel room after a not too strenuous drive from Mossel Bay. Why are we here? You may well ask and here’s the answer …. ( there is a small clue in the photo at the top)

Tomorrow at midday we board the MSC Simfonia along with 1943 other birding enthusiasts for a special cruise arranged by Birdlife SA and said to be the most birders ever gathered together on a ship of any kind.

It promises to be quite special with 30 seabird experts at various spots on the ship to help ID the seabirds that we come across. We will be heading into the deep seas south of South Africa, renowned for the diversity and numbers of sea birds so there should be no shortage of potential sightings – who knows what could turn up in that watery wilderness!

A selection of sea birds

Just have to go through the checklist – tickets, check; baggage labels – check; binos – check; camera with long lens – check; penguin outfit – er what? Oh yes there a “penguin evening” to celebrate international penguin day – check.

Right we are all set!

Birding Big Day 2016 – A Day in the Country

Birding Big Day (BBD) 2016 was, for me, a mostly unplanned, ad hoc affair – in fact I was not even planning to participate at all until, spurred on by messages on the Facebook birding pages from Ernst Retief, I decided to register at the last moment on the Friday before BBD at around 6 pm.

This left me with no time for any sort of planning for the day ahead and with a one man team – OK, I did include my wife’s name to boost the numbers, but being a non-birder she was there for moral support and a bit of spotting. Thus I had already ignored two of the main requirements for a successful BBD ie –  planning the route in advance and doing research on what species to expect along the way.

Added to that, the fact that we had just arrived in Mossel Bay for our end-of-year stay and that the Southern Cape falls some way behind the recognised prime birding areas of SA in terms of numbers of bird species, meant that I was not over-confident about reaching the target of 100 species that I had set myself.

The alarm duly woke me at 4.30 am on the Saturday and I started recording a few species that I could hear –  Spotted Thick-Knee, Cape Sparrow and Cape Robin-Chat amongst them – as they greeted the early morning and I got dressed and gathered the all-important provisions to see me through the day. A walk in the garden was good for a few more including the Cape Sugarbirds that are constant visitors to our Pincushions, then I was on my way by 5.30 am – a peek at the leaderboard on Birdlasser showed that the leading team was into the 80’s already!

Cape Sugarbird - loves the Pincushions!
Cape Sugarbird – loves the Pincushions!

A slow drive through Mossel Bay Golf Estate added several more and I exited the gate with a list nudging 20. A quick detour  in and out of the local mall’s parking area added the two Gull species that I had hoped to find there – Kelp and Grey-headed and then I was on the main road heading west to the N2.

From there it was a question of driving at my customary atlasing speed with windows wide open to listen for calls, following the N2 up to the R327 to Herbertsdale, where I turned off onto a long stretch of quiet country road and started birding in earnest, stopping every couple of hundred metres to get out and listen. Two of my favourite Larks were close to the road, seemingly awaiting my arrival  – Red-capped and Agulhas Long-billed, while the grassy fields on either side held Stonechat, Cape Longclaw and Zitting and Cloud Cisticolas.

Agulhas Long-billed Lark giving it all with his distinctive call
Agulhas Long-billed Lark giving it all with his distinctive call

A call like a squeaky gate opening gave away the presence of Large-billed Lark as I continued to add slowly but steadily to my list.

Large-billed Lark - often heard before being seen, with its "squeaky gate" call
Large-billed Lark – often heard before being seen, with its “squeaky gate” call

A roadside dam, usually full of waterfowl, had just a few Egyptian Geese and Red-knobbed Coots, nevertheless two more for the list. Further along on a side road a heavy-billed small bird turned out to be Brimstone Canary, after which there was a long stretch without new species, until a large dam some way from the road produced the two regular Cormorants – Reed and White-breasted. Shortly afterwards I turned off on a gravel road signposted Hartebeeskuil Dam and immediately saw the tree where I had found a Jackal Buzzard nest-building 18 months ago. A pair flew out as I approached and a Juvenile was perched nearby so they had clearly been successful.

Jackal Buzzard with nest material (July 2015) - pretty sure it's the same pair that I saw on BBD 2016 - this time with a juvenile nearby
Jackal Buzzard with nest material (July 2015) – pretty sure it’s the same pair that I saw on BBD 2016 – this time with a juvenile nearby

The road followed the ups and downs of the rolling hills through pretty Southern Cape countryside, almost distracting me from the task at hand, but a coffee-and-rusk stop set me on the right path again and was also the signal for a White-necked Raven to fly overhead. Shortly after, I was thrilled when I spotted a Black Harrier flying low over the fields, wings spread wide for maximum gliding ability.

A short distance further some interesting looking habitat in a valley with a stream running through it seemed worth further investigation and turned up trumps when a Black Stork suddenly flew from its concealed position, while a Blue Crane was also visible and a Little Rush Warbler’s call floated up from the small stream.

Black Stork
Black Stork

Hartebeeskuil dam was my next stop, but was nowhere near as productive as on a previous trip and I carried on somewhat disappointed. The rest of this road was sparse until the last hill before reaching the R328 Hartenbos/Oudtshoorn road when a Booted Eagle soared overhead.

The Geelbeksvlei road which passes through Klein Brak  on its way to Hartenbos was my next target, always a pleasant drive and with a variety of birds. The first stream I stopped at produced a Black Saw-wing and Rock Kestrel, while the fallow fields adjoining it had numbers of Cape Crows.

A side road I have never investigated before turned into a worthwhile deviation as I added the 3 common Ducks/Teals (White-faced, Yellow-billed, Red-billed) and Moorhen at a small farm dam.

Yellow-billed Duck
Yellow-billed Duck
White-faced Duck on farm dam
White-faced Duck on farm dam

My next stop was Mossel Bay Sewage works where the ponds, just visible from outside the normally closed gate, had a variety of waterfowl. I had to be content with distant views, unlike the team of BBD birders inside the fence, who had obviously pre-arranged access to the works (mental note to do the same next year). Nevertheless I was able to ID Cape Teal, Cape Shoveler, Southern Pochard and Little Grebe before continuing to my next stop at Mossel Bay’s Point to pick up some of the seabirds not yet on my list.

By this time it was after midday, my total stood at 88  and I was considering calling it a day, with no one to boost my flagging spirits – there’s a definite advantage in being part of a team rather than one lone birder in these events. After a quick stop at the Point, where I added Cape and White-breasted Cormorant, Swift Tern and Hartlaub’s Gull, I headed home for an extended lunch break and to decide what to do with the rest of the day.

Grey-headed Gull (light eye differentiates it from the similar looking Hartlaub's Gull) at Mossel Bay's Point
Grey-headed Gull (light eye differentiates it from the similar looking Hartlaub’s Gull) at Mossel Bay’s Point

My wife joined me at this stage and we set off for Great Brak River for an afternoon coffee, without intending to do any further serious birding, but by the time we headed back to Mossel Bay around 4.30 pm and spurred on yet again by the tallies coming through on Birdlasser, my second wind kicked in and we made a couple of stops at bridges over the river near Hartenbos, adding Greenshank, Black-crowned Night-Heron and – hallelujah – my 100th species for the day, a Little Egret.

With my target reached, every bird after that was a bonus and I was curious to see how many more we could add in the few hours of daylight still left. We looked for access to the riverfront, as I could see what looked like Flamingoes in the distance, and duly found a friendly caravan park manager who invited us in to look around. Venturing to the water’s edge we spent a good half hour or so adding Greater Flamingo, Caspian Tern and Lesser Swamp Warbler amongst others and left with 108 as our new total.

Back home again at 6 pm I decided on one last sortie into the fynbos area of our estate for the “fynbos specials” that hang out there and was happy when Cape Bunting, White-throated Canary and Karoo Scrub-Robin all obliged by making an appearance. Our day’s birding ended soon after with a Cape Rock-Thrush perched on a neighbour’s roof to close out at 112 species, earning the Reid Wobblers position 111 in the standings. Not exactly fireworks when compared with the counts of the top teams, but hey, we had a ball!

A selection of some of the other birds encountered :

Fiscal Flycatcher
Fiscal Flycatcher
Common Waxbill
Common Waxbill
Southern Red Bishop
Southern Red Bishop
Yellow Bishop
Yellow Bishop
White-throated Swallow
White-throated Swallow
Booted Eagle
Booted Eagle
Grey-backed Cisticola
Grey-backed Cisticola

Birding Big Day 2016 – a Great Success

This media release from BirdLife SA says it all

Nice to be part of such a great day – I will be describing my BBD experience in a forthcoming post.

Birding Big Day 2016

South African birdwatching record smashed!

Johannesburg, 1 December 2016

On 26 November 2016, BirdLife South Africa hosted its 32nd annual Birding Big Day (BBD). During this BBD, teams of birdwatchers attempted to see as many of South Africa’s bird species as possible in a 24-hour-period. This annual event is also used to raise much-needed funds for BirdLife South Africa’s conservation work. BirdLife South Africa is an organisation dedicated to the conservation of our country’s birds, especially the species which are threatened with extinction.

The previous record, during BBD 2015, saw 606 bird species being recorded in South Africa. This record was smashed during BBD 2016 when 654 birds were seen! This is 77.2% of the 847 bird species which have been recorded in South Africa. This amazing achievement is due to the effort of 810 birders who participated in 265 teams. Each team can consist of up to four birders. In total 32 290 bird sightings were recorded during the day. Each team logged the birds seen on BirdLasser, a mobile app, and the sightings were uploaded to an online map where people could view the progress of teams.

Just over 60 additional teams participated in a more informal way, and this means that about 1 000 birders participated in BBD 2016.

The most common species recorded were Hadeda Ibis, Egyptian Goose, Cape Turtle Dove, Blacksmith Lapwing and Laughing Dove.

The team record of 325 species, set in 2008 by team Zonke Inyoni, was equalled by the same team; an amazing achievement! This total was achieved despite some bad weather experienced in the morning. The second team was Team Hamerkop who saw 305 species. Wat-Kyk-Jy recorded 282 species.

Not only was the South African record broken during BBD 2016, but it will also be remembered for many other successes. Awareness was raised about bird conservation, over 300 birders downloaded the BirdLasser app, and it is hoped that many of them will soon contribute valuable data to citizen science projects such as the Southern African Bird Atlas Project. Above all, the day was about celebrating the wonderful bird diversity we have in our country.

For more information about the event see http://www.birdlife.org.za/events/birding-big-day or on Facebook https://www.facebook.com/events/179752395770520/

The link to the interactive map is http://www.birdlasser.com/events/bbd2016

For more information about BirdLasser see www.birdlasser.com and to download and install the app search for “birdlasser” on the Google Playstore and the App Store.