Plett Pelagic Birding Trips - Gwen Penry
(This report first appeared in the November 2014 edition of the BirdLife Plettenberg Bay newsletter. - Ed.)
Over the winter months the waters off South Africa are visited by numerous pelagic bird species. There are several very popular and sought after trips run out of Cape Town, with people queuing up months in advance to get out onto the ocean and see the species that, unless you have a boat, you never get the opportunity to see. Over the years that I have been at sea, in pursuit of whales, I have developed a great interest in the birds and am infamous for getting more excited at the sight of an albatross than for the distant blow of a whale.
In July and August 2014 we put together several trips out to sea specifically for dedicated birders and I was delighted at how well they were attended just by local Plett birders. The last of these trips was on the 26 August and 8 of us headed out for 3 hrs of spectacular sightings. Shortly after launching the boat we came across 4 penguins, 2 adults and 2 juveniles. We watched them for a while but they are generally boat shy so we headed into deeper water to find the larger treasures. Between the point of Robberg and approximately 10 miles offshore we came across large groups of White-chinned Petrels, Sooty Shearwaters and had the opportunity to watch Cape Gannets foraging and doing their spectacular plunge dives.
At the 100m depth contour the conditions tend to change and we regularly find a hub of activity along this line, from whales and seals, to a higher concentration of bird activity. We stopped the boat, cameras at the ready to capture that classic teardrop shape of the white-chinned petrel as it glides past, and there it was…coming straight towards us like a stealth bomber, an immature Yellow-nosed Albatross. After several fly pasts it came to rest on the water just a few metres from the boat and gave all on board the perfect opportunity to get some beautiful photographs. After about 20 minutes of watching it, and much to our delight, we were joined by a juvenile Shy Albatross who also came in to land next to the boat. It was a perfect opportunity to see the two species side by side and observe the size differences between them. Shy albatross fall into the group ‘medium sized albatrosses’, often called mollymawks. They are easily separated from the large wandering-type albatrosses by their dark backs and broader, shorter wings and smaller bill. However, they are larger and longer winged than the other Thalassarche mollymawks (e.g. the yellownosed and black browed) and characteristically have a narrow black border to the white underwings.
With the onset of summer just around the corner, we can also look forward to some summer visitors, such as the Cory’s shearwater that is a trans-equatorial migrant to the south Atlantic and Indian Oceans between November and May. Although many of the albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels that we see in winter will migrate back to their breeding grounds on Antarctic and sub Antarctic islands, we can still see Yellow-nosed, Shy and Black browed Albatross year round. Other species we have the chance to see off Plett in summer are; Great-winged petrel, white-chinned petrel, Great shearwater, Wilson’s storm petrel, Subantarctic Skua and not forgetting the gannets, cormorants, terns and gulls that we are fortunate to have all year round.
If you would like to book a trip please email Gwenith Penry on firstname.lastname@example.org / email@example.com. Or call me on 072 817 7979.