Pelagic pioneers

It was one of the most exciting moments in my birding “career” to have solicited a full crew for the first ever pelagic birding trip launching from Saint Lucia. While we were still manoeuvring along the beach towards the launch, some of our birders got their first lifer: the resident sooty tern was doing early morning exercise laps!

We eventually got underway and to the Safe Zone behind the breaker line without much hang time or major bumps and only a single breach! It was a remarkable feat considering the choppy nature of the surf at the launching site off the sand bar that isolates the Saint Lucia estuary from the ocean. Once in the “Safe Zone” our skipper closed throttles and allowed us to get out of the restricting life jackets.

Just as we got underway again to our deep-water destination when I spotted a soft-plumaged petrel!

We were 500m from shore and here we had a bird reputed to forage only over deep water beyond the continental shelf; a bird that are rarely seen close to land; for me a lifer to boot. On the way to our deep water chumming waypoint we must have seen another ten of these birds. Once the chumming started in +1000m deep water off the continental shelf I estimated that we attracted 30-odd more soft-plumaged petrels, continuously swooping around our vessel and investigating the chum slick.

En route to the deep water waypoint we recorded a juvenile Indian yellow-nosed albatross, some common terns and a few Antarctic prions.

We set out our first chum at our deep water waypoint (+1000m) and it immediately started to attract birds. Dozens of Antarctic prions alighted on the water, looking for smaller bits coming off the chum to feed on. A few Wilson’s storm-petrels showed up, doing much the same as the prions. White-chinned petrels zoomed over the slick from all directions and took some of the larger bits coming off the chum.

After travelling up-and-down the length of the slick for about an hour, we refreshed it with another chum.

Arctic terns showed up a few times and a great-winged petrel also put in a few fly-bys.

At 11:00 we put down out last chum. By this time it had become blustery and our skipper requested permission to head for Richards Bay harbour, cruising with the swell and wind as the trip back to Saint Lucia had become risky; it would have meant heading directly into that chop as well as the now very strong wind.

The run towards land was done at right angles to the choppy swell and the wind and we all got soaked by the spray. We soon got into the lee of the land and the wind and chop became noticeably less. In the shallower waters humpback whales abounded. We saw a few distant breaches and came quite close to some whales…

We soon reached Richards Bay harbour mouth where we were entertained by a small pod of bottlenose dolphins. The fierce wind and choppy sea was replaced by a serene slow chug to our moorings. Our tour operator organised three cars to transport us back to Saint Lucia. Our pelagic adventure was over.

We recorded the following bird sightings during the trip: Sooty tern (1), soft-plumaged petrel (40), Indian yellow-nosed albatross (3), Antarctic prion (60), Arctic tern (3), Swift tern (15), Common tern (5), great-winged petrel (2), Wilson’s storm-petrel (3), white-chinned petrel (50). The number in brackets is an estimate of how many of each bird we saw.

Then next outing from Saint Lucia is planned for 23 September.

In the beginning

I am rather adrift with what I’m trying to do with my brand new website. The big thing about sharing my African experiences must start somewhere. So, I guess my latest adventure must be my departure point.

I have always been intrigued by the potential to get really special bird sightings by doing a pelagic trip off the small coastal town Saint Lucia . The warm tropical waters of the north-east coast of kwaZulu Natal hold some special birds available nowhere else in the South African sub-region. Reasonably regular pelagic trips (on average 10 per year) are being undertaken from Durban harbour. It has been my vision to test St Lucia as a base for pelagic trips for a while now to see if the extra distance (about 200 km closer to Mozambique) would make a difference. The biggest difficulty in the past has been finding trawlers (The Bird Magnet!) off Saint Lucia. Being a marine reserve kind of precludes the trawlers operating close enough to the launching point in densities sufficient to easily locate them.

Then recently a successful method to attract pelagic birds to a small vessel was developed and proven off Durban. The secret is to deploy a 25-kg frozen chum made up of minced sardines, cod liver oil, anchovy oil and minced up shark liver in water at the continental shelve drop-off with the vessel staying in close proximity. The chum melts and creates a slick that is detected by the pelagic birds in the surrounding area by smell and their resultant feeding activity serves to start up a pelagic bird party with upwards of 300 birds consisting of more than 15 species.

Using this method now makes a pelagic trip out of Saint Lucia viable.

So, why Saint Lucia? Having a holiday home there means I get there often.  My thinking is that we are 250 km further north than the pelagic birding start out of Durban harbour and that much closer to warm tropical waters that may bring us in contact with bird species not seen further south. A few that comes to mind are Tropical shearwater, Wedge-tailed shearwater, White-faced storm-petrel, Red-tailed and white-tailed tropicbirds, red-footed booby and maybe even a Frigatebird! None of these can be guaranteed, but WOW! If we do encounter one or more of these, the South African birding community will be abuzz!

All the arrangements have been made to make this pioneering pelagic trip happen: the boat has been booked for this weekend and Dr David Allen will supply the chums as well as accompany us as the pelagic expert on board. Some of the “guests” already booked on the trailblazer are super pelagic specialists themselves!

The weather forecast for Saturday is for a clear day with fresh NNE winds and a choppy sea; a little uncomfortable for birders, but very good for pelagic birds.

I’ll get the skippers official go-ahead this evening (dependant on his take of the expected surf conditions, considering that this trip involves a beach launch!) We have a full compliment of birders. With some pelagic birding boffins sharing my optimism and scrambling to get a berth, already I had to turn some patrons away… all good for filling up the boat for the next outing!

 

Hello world!

This site is a work in progress. It may morph into something quite unforeseen, but for now the aim is to log my African adventures, both past and future.

Some of the topics I will cover is listed below:

  1. Birding
  2. Photography
  3. Cooking and baking
  4. Poetry
  5. Trip reports
  6. Bird species accounts

I hope you will enjoy the posts.