Sunset birding on departure

BirdLife South Africa Flock at Sea AGAIN! 2017 – part ii (the birds)

We were surprised by the intensity of the birding that took place on Flock At Sea AGAIN! 2017. In retrospect we shouldn’t have been, but being around 2,000 serious twitchers was, at turns, overwhelming and hilarious. Tony and I spent quite a lot of time on deck 4 of MSC Sinfonia, bothering our friend Ian. An enduring memory of this time was turning around from the rail to see a wall of K-Way clad birders charging towards us like buffalo, heading for the stern of the ship, where something special had just been spotted.

Annoying Ian
Annoying Ian

There was serious camera hardware on board. Tony’s modest 200-500mm Sigma lens sometimes gets admiring glances from the uninitiated, but on this cruise it left something to be desired (as you can see in comparison to Ian’s rig in the photo above).

The gun show
The gun show

It is known by anyone who’s been on a boat that taking photos on the ocean is difficult, especially of a fast moving, distant subject such as a bird. Tony had a go at some bird photos, with reasonable success. Trying to identify what we’d seen afterwards was fun. We were definitely not the people who were calling the name of the bird before photographing it! Once we came across a large aggregation of birds feeding on something on the surface, and once some dolphins, but there were fewer marine mammal sightings than we’d hoped.

An older wandering albatross
An older wandering albatross

I loved seeing the albatross, and because of their great size and confidence in approaching the ship, I found them easiest to identify. Both Peter Harrison’s talk  and Carl Safina’s brilliant Eye of the Albatross emphasised the extraordinary longevity and fidelity of these birds, and the loneliness of their lives in between visits to the breeding islands. In addition to the ones pictured above, we also saw Indian yellow-nosed albatross, which I’d previously seen sitting on the surface of the ocean above the wreck of the Fontao in Durban, waiting for snacks from the fishermen there.

There were plenty of places to watch the sea all around the ship. Deck four ran along both sides of the vessel close to the ocean, and the triangular viewing platforms that protrude at the stern were a popular sunset location. Around the central area on the top deck that contains the swimming areas, a raised wrap-around deck also provided good viewing opportunities, but it was too high up for proper bird watching.

The light varied a lot depending on the time of day (duh!) and the degree of cloud cover. It was windy almost all the time. I was surprised by the speed of the ship; when we were moving between birding locations we cruised at up to 25 knots. Only on one of the days was the sea rough enough to splash onto the lower decks.

Wind protection
Wind protection

We saw some things we’d never seen before, like an extravagant double rainbow just before sunset. It was wonderful to be completely surrounded by ocean, and to watch how the colour of the sea changed through the day. We were travelling over deep water, and the profound blue of the ocean when the bottom is hundreds of metres below is something special. Look at the wake in the rainbow picture for an example.

Double rainbow
Double rainbow

We saw a few other ships, but not as many as I’d expected. There was some tooth-gnashing among the twitchers when, on the last full day of the cruise as we headed back towards Cape Town, some fishing trawlers were seen in the distance. It was fascinating to watch the trawlers turn on a dime and mow back and forth, but the clouds of seabirds behind the ship remained just out of proper sight.

Fishing trawler at work
Fishing trawler at work

There’s an album of photos (including some of the ones I’ve included here) on facebook, if you’re interested! And if you’re interested in seabirds, I can’t think of a better place to start than Carl Safina’s Eye of the Albatross.

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Clare

Lapsed mathematician, creator of order, formulator of hypotheses. Lover of the ocean, being outdoors, the bush, reading, photography, travelling (especially in Africa) and road trips.

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