South Atlantic Birding: Antarctic Petrels

On the 24th September a new species made it onto the trip list, Antarctic Petrel. Back in 2012 I only saw this petrel on one date and that was just north of the South Shetlands. Unfortunately today’s bird did not hang around for photographs, but our luck was in and the following day we had a further four birds interacting with the ship for an hour or so. The ship was still above 50 degrees south so it was quite surprising to see a bird which is usually more associated with ice floes. No doubt the birds involved had moved north for the winter and were probably making their way back south when we encountered them.

Antarctic Petrel, South Atlantic, 25 Sep 2014

Antarctic Petrel, South Atlantic, 25 Sep 2014

Antarctic Petrels breed in vast colonies on islands close to the Antarctic Continent and are one the few species to breed on the continent itself. Some of these breeding colonies are said to exceed a million birds. It must be some site.

Antarctic Petrel, South Atlantic, 25 Sep 2014

Antarctic Petrel, South Atlantic, 25 Sep 2014

Steve C

White-headed Petrel and Sooty Albatross in the South Atlantic.

Following on from several Tristan visitors on the 18th September we had another on the 20th: Sooty Albatross. Not one bird but four over the period of a couple of hours. Unfortunately whenever I see a Sooty Albatross, the conditions tend to be grey and over cast and the 20th was no exception. Still it is always nice to see a Sooty, one day I’ll manage a decent image.

Sooty Albatross, South Atlantic, 20 Sep 2014

Sooty Albatross, South Atlantic, 20 Sep 2014

Later in the afternoon I connected with a most welcome seabird; a White-headed Petrel. This was a life bird for me, and even though conditions had now deteriorated considerably since we saw the last Sooty, I was mighty pleased to get some record shots of a bird which I have been after for a good few years. Looking at it a week or so on, a factor that helped get the bird was probably the ship sailing from South Africa straight to the Falklands, instead of visiting Tristan da Cunha like I had back in 2012, This meant that we sailed further south whilst being more easterly than back in 2012. Obviously sailing in a part of the Atlantic Ocean I had not previously sailed in and bringing the ship into the range of the Petrel. We had several consecutive days where observed small numbers of White-headed Petrels but then as we neared South Georgia they seemed to dry up and we have not seen one now for the last five days.  I know they can occur further west towards the Falklands and South America, but I guess the main foraging range of the species is well to the east of South Georgia. All in all a great bird.

White-headed Petrel, South Atlantic, 21 Sep 2014

White-headed Petrel, South Atlantic, 21 Sep 2014

White-headed Petrel, South Atlantic, 21 Sep 2014

Steve C.

Antarctic Prions in the South Atlantic

It is impossible to spend any length of time ‘down south’ and not come across that most puzzling of bird families the Prions, or Whale-birds as they are often referred to. By the way I can vouch for the use of the name Whale-bird. Twice in the last couple of weeks we have seen some large flocks of Prions and sure enough after a few minutes of watching we witnessed a Whale blow in the same vicinity. They are a tricky species to identify and I am not sure if anyone really knows how many different species and sub-species there actually are. What I am pretty certain about is that the most common seabird around the ship on between the 18th and 22nd of September was the Antarctic Prion.  On the 18th we had approximately a thousand birds over the afternoon and as always it is probably an under-estimate. In total over several days the total will be approaching 3000 birds. Then when you consider that we only see birds in a miniscule portion of the ocean around the ship the numbers of birds out there must be astronomical. Anyway enough gassing, below are a few images of the Antarctic Prions that approached near to the ship during that period.  What I can guarantee is that they will not be the last.

Antarctic Prion, South Atlantic, 19 Sep 2014

Antarctic Prions, South Atlantic, 19 Sep 2014

Antarctic Prion, South Atlantic, 19 Sep 2014

Antarctic Prion, South Atlantic, 19 Sep 2014

Steve C

Wandering or Tristan Albatross in the South Atlantic

(continued from Steve’s last post) The following day we encountered further heavy seas, so unfortunately the upper deck was a no go area. Tony and I spent a few hours birding from the bridge windows. Whilst not ideal it is better than not birding at all. The first bird to fly into view was a member of the Wandering Albatross family. The bird did not look overly big when compared with the nominate race but I appreciate judging size can be very deceptive at sea, depending on conditions. The bird concerned also showed the breast band and mottled brown back as I had seen back in 2012. (See several blog entries on the Tristan/Wanderer debate back in late October, early November 2012). Either way, I cannot be certain so the bird goes down as a Possible.

Wandering Albatross (prob Tristram), South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Wandering Albatross (prob Tristram), South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Fortunately not all seabirds are as difficult to id as the Wanderer complex. As with the day before we had numerous White-chinned Petrels accompanying the ship and among them was a single Spectacled Petrel. Now I do like a straight forward id every so often, and this bird drops right in. The Spectacled Petrel only breeds on Inaccessible Island in the Tristan da Cunha group. In Harrison’s Seabirds the Spectacled Petrel is noted as a sub-species of White-chinned, but I ‘m pretty sure they are now classed as separate species in their own right. Great-winged Petrel is another bird that breeds in the Tristan group and we had several birds fly by the ship. Never straight forward to id but once you get your eye in, the bull necked appearance coupled with a stout short bill points you in the right direction. These latter two birds both breed in the Tristan da Cunha group, hopefully increasing the chances of the Albatross being Tristan as the vast majority of the species breed on nearby Gough Island. But as always, I cannot be certain.

Spectacled Petrel, South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Spectacled Petrel, South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Great-winged Petrel, South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Great-winged Petrel, South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

White-chinned Petrel, Atlantic, 18th Sep 14

Steve C

Ghana, West Africa birding: Senegal Coucal, Black-necked Weaver opposite the Labardi Beach Hotel, Accra

After our demoralizing stroll along the Labardi Beach Steve and I headed across the road from the Labardi Beach Hotel to investigate the lake that was evident when we researched the area on Google Earth. Within a hundred yards of the plush hotel with its manicured gardens we found ourselves amongst a much poorer community that backed onto the lake. Once again there was litter absolutely everywhere the vast majority being composed of plastic. It appeared that most other materials had value and were consequently collected for reuse, including scrapped vehicles at various stages of being stripped into their component parts. However, that clearly didn’t apply to plastic that apparently had no value and wasn’t collected by the authorities. Consequently, plastic objects of all descriptions were simply discarded and were strewn absolutely everywhere. Unsurprisingly the lake was also smothered with litter. Apart from a couple of Common Moorhen there was no evidence of any life on or in the water which wasn’t surprising by the contents of the ditches that flowed into the lake. They appeared to be nothing more than open sewers. However, a few waders were evident on the muddy shore. African Wattled Lapwing was a ‘lifer’ and also present were three more Common Sandpiper. Nearby scrub contained small groups of Yellow-billed Shrike and two Senegal Coucals, both ‘lifers’.

Yellow-billed Shrike, Accra – 6 Aug 14

Senegal Coucal, Accra – 6 Aug 14

Amongst the improvised dwellings were several Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, impressive Scarlet-chested Sunbirds, a species of Firefinch and a pair of Black-necked Weavers, again all ‘lifers’. Consequently, the day was far from a disaster.

Northern Grey-headed Sparrow, Accra – 6 Aug

Black-necked Weaver (female), Accra – 6 Aug 14

Black-necked Weaver (male), Accra – 6 Aug 14

As the daylight faded we headed back to the hotel where we had ‘scran’ washed down with a couple of beers. I opted for a spicy bean Ghanaian dish served with a bowl of plantain. It turned out to be a very good choice.

Our afternoon of ‘birding’ had always been Plan B. Plan A had been to arrange a visit to the Shai Hills with a local ‘birding’ guide. Unfortunately though, the Sunday Routine wasn’t until the following day when Steve and I were due to fly home for our watch rotation leave.

Good birding,

Tony T BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Ghana, West Africa birding: Common Sandpiper, Pied Kingfisher and copious amounts of filth and litter – Labardi Beach, Accra

The second day alongside in Tema was a Saturday Routine. Having been duty the day before I made sure I caught the first transport after lunch into Accra with Steve. The traffic turned out to be absolutely horrendous and it took two hours to travel the 40 miles to Accra. From the drop off point in the centre of the city the transport then headed for the Labardi Beach Hotel which was our destination. Species spotted during the journey included Pied Crow, Laughing Dove, Piapiac, Western Plantain-eater, Purple Glossy Starling, and Hooded Vulture. Most were observed whilst the minibus was stationary, stuck in congestion, with street sellers selling all sorts of merchandise from nuts, veg and water to watches, maps and pictures along the long lines of queuing traffic.

It took a further twenty minutes to reach the hotel. Unlike the other members of the Ship’s Company Steve and I headed for the beach rather than the pool side bar. Unfortunately, the weather remained very overcast as it had done virtually every day since HMS PROTECTOR had left the Cape Verde Islands. The cause was the position of the Inter Tropical Convergence Zone (ITCZ) that marks where the northeast and southeast trade winds meet. The resulting band of cloud that encompasses the globe near the Equator remained rooted over the coast of the bulge of central West Africa.

Common Sandpiper (x2), Labardi Beach, Accra – 6 Aug 14

Sadly we found the sandy Labardi Beach absolutely smothered in litter. The sight was extremely depressing. Presumably the filth is collected prior to the start of the dry season because I couldn’t imagine paying guests tolerating the litter, despite a small raked, litter free area immediately outside the hotel perimeter fence where there were rows of empty deckchairs. I suspect our disgust showed because the two beach sellers selling ‘famous works’ kept apologizing to us for the litter as they accompanied us along the beach. Unsurprisingly, we didn’t stay long and Steve didn’t even bother getting his camera out.

Common Sandpiper, Labardi Beach, Accra – 6 Aug 14

Pied Crow, Labardi Beach, Accra – 6 Aug 14

Cattle Egret, Labardi Beach, Accra – 6 Aug 14

Pied Kingfisher, Labardi Beach, Accra – 6 Aug 14

A stroll around the manicured hotel garden added Striated Heron (flyover), Western Reef-heron (flyover), Common Bulbul (several), Common Moorhen and Green Wood-hoopoe (x3) to the day list. Two large Lizards on a lawn were also particularly noteworthy.

14 Large Lizard sp., Labardi Beach Hotel – 6 Aug 14

Good birding,

Tony T BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Shy Albatross off the South African Coast

HMS Protector sailed from Cape Town and headed out into the South Atlantic. The wind was gusting up to 35 knots and the sea state was on the rise as we sailed west. We passed small parties of Cape Gannets and many flocks of Cape Cormorants before getting into deeper waters. It was here the first Black-browed Albatrosses started turning up soon followed by good numbers of Shy Albatross’s and White-chinned Petrels. Shy Albatross is the largest of the Mollymawks and breeds around Tasmania and New Zealand.

 

White-chinned Petrels, South East Atlantic, 17 Sep 2014

Shy Albatross and White-chinned Petrels, South East Atlantic, 17 Sep 2014

Shy Albatross, South East Atlantic, 17 Sep 2014

We then came across two trawlers in quick succession and whilst we did not approach overly close it was clear that literally thousands of seabirds were in attendance and the general vicinity. In the region of 300 Shy Albatross’s, (probably a gross under-estimate) were scavenging along with approx 200 Cape Gannets, 500  White-chinned Petrels and around 100 Kelp Gulls. The images do not do the spectacle any justice what so ever.  As we watched a bird caught my eye which I believe is a Sooty Shearwater which was in company with a White-chinned Petrel. Possibly an immature bird but something about it had me thinking it maybe something different possibly Wedge-tailed, but more than likely just Sooty given the area we were in. Any thought welcome.

Trawler in the SE Atlantic 2

White-chinned Petrel and prob Sooty Shearwater, South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Probable Sooty Shearwater 1, South East Atlantic, 18 Sep 2014

Shy Albatross, South East Atlantic, 17 Sep 2014

Steve C

South Africa Birding: Swift Terns in Cape Town Harbour

After a very pleasant August at home, I flew to Cape Town in early September to re-join Protector. The ship was undergoing a three week maintenance period and although I was kept quite busy, I did enjoy a few birding days. Swift Tern, Sterna bergii also known as Crested Tern was common in the harbour and in the region of twenty birds were often seen feeding in close proximity to the ship. On the afternoon of the 6th I spent an hour or so photographing the birds in action. The birds would circle and then briefly hover before plunging in after a fish. The success rate appeared to be high. The bird ranges from South Africa up the Indian Ocean to the Arabian Gulf and past India and the South China Sea into the Pacific Ocean. The bird is relatively easy to id given its large size and banana like bill.

Steve C

Unknown macro moth onboard HMS PROTECTOR in Tema, Ghana, West Africa

HMS PROTECTOR berthed alongside Tema, Ghana on the morning of 5 Aug 14. I was unable to step ashore on day one of the visit because I was Officer Of the Day. However, I was able to tick off a couple of ‘lifers’ in the form of Pied Crow and Long-tailed Cormorant from the Bridge Roof as the ship came alongside before I assumed my duty. However, the most impressive sighting of the day was a large moth that settled on one of the rear port bridge windows mid-morning. I have absolutely no idea of its identity, although to be found within a busy dockyard it is presumably an extremely common species. Unfortunately the moth settled on the window just minutes before my presence was required at the gangway for the departure of the Commanding Officer on official calls ashore. However, after the CO had been ‘piped’ ashore I grabbed a small plastic container and collected the moth and took it to my cabin. During a lull in my responsibilities of military command of a Royal Navy warship I took a record photograph of the moth with my DSLR lens stood on the couch, to get the subject on the cabin table in focus with my telephoto lens, dressed in full tropical uniform, as you do. Satisfied with the result I resumed the daily battle rhythm of Officer Of the Day.

Moth sp., Tema, Ghana – 5 Aug 14

Good mothing,

Tony T BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Santiago Island, Cape Verde birding: Common Quail regularly encountered around Praia Airport

In celebration of the commissioning of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth the Commanding Officer of HMS PROTECTOR honoured the order issued to all RN Units to ‘Splice the Main Brace’ whilst the ship remained alongside in Cape Verde. The occasion also provided the ideal opportunity for a Ship’s Company photograph in tropical uniform. After the formality of the Ship’s Company photograph followed by Departmental and individual Mess photographs everybody mustered on the Main Deck from where, with a generous tot of rum in hand, the Commanding Officer offered a toast to HMS Queen Elizabeth and in the age old tradition of the Royal Navy of ‘Splice the Main Brace’ we necked our rum.

Once secure had been piped Steve and I headed back to the airport scrub for our second and final session of birding in Cape Verde where we optimistically hoped to connect with Raso Lark and Cream-coloured Courser. Our efforts proved fruitless but as the taxi drove off and we readied our binoculars and cameras a Helmeted Guineafowl appeared beside the roadside vegetation. It was the first of several encounters with what was an alert and evasive species and one we didn’t see at all during our previous visit to the site.

Helmeted Guineafowl, Praia Airport scrub, Cape Verde – 11 Jul 14

Helmeted Guineafowl, Praia Airport scrub, Cape Verde – 11 Jul 14

The typical habitat that surrounds the airport (carefully framed to omit piles of fly tipping and bushes smothered in ensnared plastic bags. The amount of litter was at least an order of magnitude greater at PRTR’s next port of call)

Common Quail was the next most abundant species seen. On several occasions we almost trod on a bird before it burst into flight. Most appeared to be paired up because each time one bird was flushed a second would eventually follow. Consequently, once a Quail was flushed we stopped and eagerly searched for the second bird but despite the proximity its presence only became apparent once it took flight. Frustratingly, by the time we brought our cameras to bare the bird would be well on its way to nearby cover where it would disappear.

Common Quail, Praia Airport scrub, Cape Verde – 11 Jul 14

Common Quail, Praia Airport scrub, Cape Verde – 11 Jul 14. Photographed by Steve Copsey

Common Quail, Praia Airport scrub, Cape Verde – 11 Jul 14

Other noteworthy sightings included Alexander’s Kestrel, Alexander’s Swift, Cattle Egret, Black-crowned Finch-lark, Grey-headed Kingfisher, Iago Sparrow and Spectacled Warbler.

Iago Sparrow (male), Praia Airport scrub, Cape Verde – 11 Jul 14. Photographed by Steve Copsey

Despite failing to connect with the target species we had a thoroughly enjoyable afternoon. Back in town we sought out another outdoor street restaurant and enjoyed well deserved local cuisine and alcoholic beverages where we discussed the pelagic species tomorrow might bring – Cape Verde Shearwater, Maderian Storm-petrel, etc on the passage to West Africa.

Good birding,

Tony T BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

Sanderling on migration – North Atlantic

Still out in theNorth Atlantic and yesterday was areal bird fest. Initially I hadn’t been on the upperdeck but then I received a few reports of birds around the flightdeck. As soon as I got up there I could see that a juvenile Wheatear was close to the hangar and wasn’t really moving when people were wandering close. This is usually a bad sign and indeed I found the bird dead later that afternoon. Closer inspection showed that the bird had absolutely no fat or muscle, its breast bone was like a scythe

 

 Also present through the day were two Pied wagtails and Two Meadow Pipits. All were extremely active and kept coming into land before being flushed by passing sailors.

 

 My last “passenger” was a single juvenile Sanderling. Again I feared for this bird as it wandered up and down the “wastes”, the two side passageways along the upperdeck. It seemed not to fear people as it came precariously close to their feet. It remained all day but I didn’t find its corpse that night. I would like to think it carried on its migration successfully, but I doubt it.

 

Hopefully more visitors soon
Mark C.

North Atlantic Vis Mig

It’s been a while since I have submitted a blog entry for various reasons. Three weeks in the US with my three sons and constantly away at sea have combined to limit my opportunity to relate my birding adventures. That said, I am still at sea, exercising in the North Atlantic. A few days ago I had the usual phonecall “There’s a bird in the hangar”, my favourite sound. The bird was pretty active and I straight away realised it was a wayward
Pied Wagtail.

Even though birds have no problem flying in the hangar, they often struggle to get out, with the majority of the time the door nearly fully open. This was no problem for the wagtail as eventually it just walked out. Another land bird that visited the ship was a female Peregrine.
I had no camera this time and it was getting towards dusk. She did a few loops of the upperdeck, tried to land to no avail and eventually flew off to the North.

Other than that this area has been really good for Cory’s and Great Shearwaters with Short-beaked Common Dolphin regular and the odd sighting of Long-finned Pilot Wales.
Mark C

House Sparrow resurgence in my Fareham Garden

I saw a photograph on the HOS website recently taken by Peter Milinets-Raby. It showed a large flock of House Sparrows on his shed roof. It spurred me on to knock up a quick entry regarding the species in my garden. When I first moved south back in 93 I saw very few House Sparrows in my Fareham Garden. Greenfinches were by far the dominant species at the feeders. In the last few years the roles have been completely reversed. I hardly see a greenfinch nowadays, however House Sparrow numbers have been creeping up for the last four or five years. I returned from overseas a couple of weeks ago to find more House Sparrows than ever using the feeders. I regularly see up to fifty birds zipping around the garden, moving from shrub to shrub before arriving at the feeders en masse, as you would expect with a great deal of bickering and scuffling. The flock contains males, females and a good number of juvenile birds.   I say around fifty but the chances are there is more likely to be double the numbers involved over a prolonged period. The birds have obviously enjoyed another good breeding season. Long may it continue? The only surprising thing is the lack of a local Sparrowhawk taking advantage of the seasonal abundance. All the images below were taken this morning in my garden.

Steve C

Madeiran and Wilson’s Storm Petrel in the Gulf of Guinea

Like I mentioned in the last entry, birds can be rather thin on the ground in the Gulf of Guinea. However, two Storm Petrel species did make it onto the ‘condensed list’. As we left Cape Verde Islands we had a couple of sightings of Madeiran Storm Petrel, and although rather distant we were happy with the id. We then had several more sighting over the next week or so. Unfortunately the birds never came overly close to the ship usually preferring to give the bow a wide arc as they passed. Only on the 23rd did any birds come within record shot distance so I was grateful for that at least. Apologies for the poor quality of the images, but the weather was very grey and overcast for the entirety of our stay in the region. It could be down to the West African wet season or my ability as a photographer, you choose.

Madeiran Storm Petrel, Gulf of Guinea, 23 July 2014

Madeiran Storm Petrel, two of four, Gulf of Guinea, 23 July 2014

When we got a little further south, nearer to where we came across the Whales the Madeiran sightings petered out and we started to see Wilson’s Storm Petrel instead with a peak count of around twenty birds on the 29th July. The majority of the Wilson’s seemed to have a very direct flight as if they were in a rush to get somewhere and this threw us at first as we were both more used to birds pattering in the ship’s wake, but we got there eventually. As we headed back north towards Ghana the reverse happened. The Wilson’s were replaced once again by Madeiran. The flap flap glide style flight of the bird becoming more noticeable the more we saw them.

Wilson's Storm Petrel, Gulf of Guinea, 31 July 2014

Wilson's Storm Petrel, two of thirteen, Gulf of Guinea, 30 July 2014

A brief stop just off the island of Sao Thome produced a pair of distant White-tailed Tropicbirds as well as eight Yellow-billed Kites, a sub species of Black Kite. Although we were anchored a few miles off land several off the Kites passed the ship as they headed out into the nearby anchorage, where they could be seen foraging in the vicinity of a container ship picking up morsels off the surface .

Yellow-billed Kite, Sao Thome, 2 Aug 2014

 

Steve C