Why would two Portuguese, a Mauritanian, a Cape-Verdian, a French, an American and a Belgian set off on a boat trip one morning in October? Seabirds of course! With Gabriel in town, Bruce over from the US, Miguel and Antonio as motivated as ever to get out of the office and to have some of their BirdLife colleagues strengthen their seabird id skills, it was time to organise our now annual autumn pelagic, on October 1st.
Conditions were perfect to get out on our small boat (organised through Nautilus Diving: merci Hilda!) though probably a bit too calm for active seabird migration. We chose to head straight west to the edge of the continental shelf, rather than try the “trawler area” off Kayar as this is quite a bit more distant from Ngor. Needless to say that expectations were high as is always the case during these rare opportunities to get close views of the treasured tubenoses – storm petrels, shearwaters – skuas and maybe some Grey Phalaropes or Sabine’s Gulls.
A Manx Shearwater zooming past the boat was one of the first pelagic species we got to see, followed by quite a few Sooty Shearwaters (Puffin fuligineux).
Further out, Wilson’s Storm Petrel became the dominant species, with a few dozen birds seen – and probably many more that went undetected – particularly around the upwelling area. Almost all were obviously actively migrating, and we managed to get some good views of several of them as they zoomed past our boat. Of course, several storm petrels remained unidentified, but we did manage to get decent views of at least two European Storm Petrels (though alas no pictures!). The toes projecting beyond the tail that are diagnostic of Wilson’s are more or less visible on the pictures below.
Up next: skuas, or jaegers as our American friends call them. We didn’t see many, with just three Pomarines and just as few Arctic Skuas, as well as an obliging Long-tailed Skua. The latter was an interesting bird that we aged as a third-summer moulting into third-winter plumage. It briefly joined two Pomarine Skuas (second-year birds?) allowing for nice comparisons of size and structure.
Rounding up our seabirds is this Red (Grey…) Phalarope (Phalarope à bec large), the only one we saw during the trip but somehow Bruce managed to get a picture:
As seems to be quite often the case during these pelagic trips, some landbirds were also encountered, in our case European Turtle Dove (Tourterelle des bois) of which we twice saw singles migrating over the ocean (in October 2016, the PAOC pelagic recorded at least three species of passerines, including a migrating Bluethroat). One of our doves had a very worn and messy plumage, probably a moulting young bird:
Our complete eBird checklist, expertly compiled by Miguel, can be found here. We really ought to add the Osprey that can just about be seen sitting on top of the Almadies lighthouse, but which was noticed only later on this neat picture by Bruce of the lighthouse – Africa’s westernmost building, constructed some time in the 19th century (precise date seems unknown?) on a reef that lies just off the Pointe des Almadies.
Many thanks to Antonio and Bruce for sharing their pictures!
Last Wednesday morning, a small party of excited birders set off from Ngor on a much anticipated Pelagic Trip. (Yes that’s right, a PELAGIC! One of those crazy things us birdwatchers will do just to see a few special birds…)
Destination: the Kayar Canyon, some 30km ENE off the Pointe des Almadies. This area is known to hold a good diversity of seabirds, attracted by trawlers that roam this part of the ocean and by the abundant food that they provide to shearwaters, skuas and terns. This is also where last year’s PAOC excursion was headed, and where we intended to go at the end of November 2016 at the tail end of a two-week trip by my Swiss friends but which had to be aborted (too much wind…). Approximate coordinates are in the bottom right corner of the Google Earth image below:
Why a pelagic? Well, first of all there’s the opportunity to do a different kind of birding, and mostly there’s the chance of seeing 1) birds that you won’t see from the shore (or only miles away as distant dots against the waves that you can barely identify), and 2) finding oneself amidst a raft of shearwaters or a flock of hundreds of seabirds feeding behind a trawler is a really unique experience. And 3) I was particularly keen to figure out what exactly those Calonectris shearwaters that have been migrating past Ngor in recent weeks are: Cory’s or Scopoli’s?
If you still need to be convinced that such a trip is worth the effort, despite the possibility of being horribly seasick and stuck on a boat for an entire day, here’s a good read: Birdist Rule #55: Go on a Pelagic Birding Trip. Then again, some on the other hand will argue that one should not go on pelagic trips, ever: highly entertaining article from the 10,000 birds blog.
So what did we see? For the first two hours, nothing much really… a few dozen Calonectris shearwaters which proved to be mostly Scopoli’s, with 2-3 Cory’s, a probable Grey Phalarope followed by a second bird that was flushed by the boat and of which we got much better views, allowing us to confirm its ID; just a few skuas (1+1 Arctic, 1 Long-tailed, 1 Pomarine), three Black and a few Arctic Terns. Oh and lots of flying fish! And finally a few European Storm Petrels and two Sooty Shearwaters as we approached our target area. Species diversity was building up a bit by that time, and as we neared the first trawler this is what we saw:
Birds everywhere – hundreds of shearwaters!! Skuas! Terns! More Storm Petrels, including a few more European but now also several Wilson’s.
We realised that there were several Cape Verde Shearwaters flying around and resting on the surface – as it turned out this ended up being the most numerous species of the trip, with several hundreds of birds.
Also these two adult Sabine’s Gulls…
…soon to be followed by our first Great Shearwater:
The spectacle of seeing so many seabirds in a feeding frenzy was truly amazing, and much worth the time and effort to get out here. It somehow felt as if we arrived in some oasis after a long desert crossing…
A few more pictures can be found on our facebook page.
And these are the totals for the day:
- At least 6-800 Cape Verde Shearwaters (a conservative estimate… probably lots more)
- +100 Scopoli’s and 20-25 Cory’s at a minimum – good views are needed to distinguish these two species (things were easier back in the days when both were “just” Cory’s!)
- 3-4 Great Shearwaters (three single birds sitting on the water, and I found one bird photo-bombing one of my pictures),
- 2 Manx Shearwaters
- 2 Sooty Shearwaters
- +10 Wilson’s Storm Petrels
- 5-10 European Storm Petrels
- Just one Gannet
- 1 ad. Long-tailed Skua by the trawlers, plus two young birds en route.
- At least 4 Arctic and ca. 10 Pomarine Skuas
- Two adult Sabine’s Gulls, plus a 1st year on the way back to Ngor
- A few Sandwich, lots of Arctic, and probably also some Common Terns
- 1-2 Grey Phalaropes
Finally, a word of thanks for Julien and Mame from Nautilus Diving!