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.