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2000 Birders on a Boat

Posted Sunday 7th May 2017 at 19:00 by xmesox
I was recently part of the Flock at Sea 2017 birding cruise, organized by Bird Life South Africa. The cruise saw nearly 2000 birders on board the MSC Sinfonia, as we departed from Cape Town harbour and made our way south into the open oceans. On board was sea birding expert Peter Harrison, acting as a guide along with several of our local experts.

After boarding fairly late in the afternoon of the Monday (24 April), we awoke the next morning where a large number of birders found themselves on the bow and stern, looking over the waters. We were now nearly 200 nautical miles south of the Western Cape province.


We watched the sun rise from behind broken clouds, giving way to rich light. A beautiful Wandering Albatross banked occasionally, silhouetted in front of the warm toned skyline. Not minutes after sunrise had peaked, did we get our first real rare bird of the day, a Grey Petrel passed alongside us -- with short lived views.


View Sooty Albatross Image

Light-Mantled Albatross

The target bird in the minds of many was no doubt the Sooty Albatross, a species seen by few individuals. Within an hour of the Grey Petrel we got it! In the wake, a large dark bird was picked up and identified as the Sooty. It moved up towards us, offering great views on the starboard side. The smiles echoed through the decks, now stacked with birders -- binoculars and cameras all pointed out to sea.

Despite the now triumphant mood that sat with us who had seen the Sooty, nature had not yet done providing us with special sightings.

"Is that a Sooty in the wake?", asked someone

"It seems very light?", another queried.

This was enough to bring the guides on deck to raise their bins. "LIGHT MANTLED SOOTY!" were the cries, coming from the various guides on board, almost synchronously. An individual was headed our way up the wake. An extremely rare bird, with less than 15 confirmed records for Southern Africa.

The bird was a lifer for many of the country's top listers and even Peter Harrison himself held a smile as he talked about how special it was to see both Sooty and Light Mantled within South African water, on the same morning.

The day wasn't done yet though, as we continued to enjoy great sea birds throughout the day.

The following day gave us views of another special bird, the White Headed Petrel -- a rare bird that was also needed by many of the top listers on board.


Of interest was also the sighting of two birds which Peter Harrison declared to be Tristan Albatross. The Tristan Albatross is extremely similar to the Wandering, and for the most part there is still no consensus that there is a way to differentiate the two by sight in the field. However, this is a topic that Peter Harrison has been studying and should soon release his findings on. The claim is that he has found ways to identify the Tristan in the field, which if true would be an amazing discovery. You can read more on the Tristan identification challenge here.


After a cracking sunset on the third day, we got some more good sightings on the Thursday. A SubAntarctic Shearwater and Little Shearwater were both seen and photographed. These two birds were recently split, with the Little Shearwater originating from more tropical waters on the east of South Africa.


Also seen was a Salvin's Prion, which I unfortunately managed to miss (can't be everywhere on the boat).

We got dozens of Albatross individuals passing across the wake as we entered shallower waters again on the return, due to the amount of trawlers in the area.

If you enjoyed reading this, there is a much more indepth and lengthy post about the adventure on my site (with a lot more images) which can be found here.

In total I managed to see 30 species after leaving the harbour, 10 of which were lifers for me! The list below is only what I saw and does not take into account species that I missed.

Sooty Albatross
Wandering Albatross
Antarctic Prion
Black Browed Albatross
Black-Bellied Storm Petrel
Grey Petrel
Cape Gannet
Cape Cormorants
Great Shearwater
Great Winged Petrel
Shy Albatross
Indian Yellow-Nosed Albatross
Atlantic Yellow-Nosed Albatross
Light-Mantled Albatross
Little Shearwater
Northern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel
White Headed Petrel
Soft-Plumaged Petrel
Sub-Antarctic Skua
White Chinned Petrel
Wilson’s Storm Petrel
European Storm Petrel
Cory’s Shearwater
Great Shearwater
Arctic Tern
Sooty Shearwater
African Penguin
Swift Tern
Hartlaub’s Gull
Grey Headed Gull
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