South Atlantic Birding: Shy Albatross, Grey Petrel and White-faced Petrel

After Watch Rotation Leave I rejoined HMS PROTECTOR on 8 Sep14 alongside Cape Town, South Africa. The ship was alongside for a Tech Stop and as an engineer it was a very busy time, particularly as the Royal Navy is currently hemorrhaging engineers. However, Steve and I were still able to get out occasionally for a spot of ‘birding’. My first outing was to the Kirstenbosch Botanic Gardens. Both Steve and I were then able to enjoy a day out together with a local birder that took us more than ninety kilometers from the city. A significant defect kept the ship alongside for an extra 48 hours to enable time for the required stores to be delivered. The delay provided an impromptu afternoon off for the Engineering Department, to the unfounded disgust of the other departments, and enabled Steve and I to visit Table Mountain. Over a month after PRTR sailed for the Falkland Islands I still have photographs to process of the numerous ‘lifers’ I connected with. However, rather than keep jumping back and forth between South Africa and the present we’ll post our South Africa entries during our next Watch Rotation Leave.

Cape Town, South Africa – 16 Sep 14. (I will definitely be back)

PRTR sailed in a much improved material state on 17 Sep 14. Initially the conditions were calm but on the second day the sea state began to increase and continued to over subsequent days. Consequently, the upper deck was often placed out of bounds. Fortunately though, Steve and I were granted permission to proceed out onto the Main Deck together in all but the worst of the weather, as the ship endured persistent stormy weather for the remainder of the passage to South Georgia.

Cape Town and the westward passage across the South Atlantic Ocean to South Georgia was to be my last opportunity to enjoy ‘pastures new’ during my extended time onboard PRTR. For the westward passage to South Georgia I had two target species having already seen Cape Gull, Hartlaub’s Gull and Cape Gannet whilst in Cape Town. They were Shy Albatross and White-headed Petrel; however, I had the good fortune to connect with a third. Shy Albatross was almost guaranteed and sure enough Steve and I spotted a total of approximately 100 as PRTR headed west during the first day out of Cape Town. However, none were seen the following or on subsequent days.

Shy Albatross, South Atlantic Ocean – 17 Sep 14

Shy Albatross, South Atlantic Ocean – 17 Sep 14

Two days later I connected with a single White-faced Petrel. It was a species that was occasionally seen for the following three days as PRTR altered course and took a more southerly route westward to avoid the worst of the forecasted stormy weather. Unfortunately, the views were always a little distant and often obscured by fog in the heavy swell.

White-headed Petrel, South Atlantic Ocean – 22 Sep 14

The third species, although not really unexpected after a little homework, was Grey Petrel. It was the first bird I spotted in an afternoon birding session from 01-deck after stepping out of the back of the accommodation tower. Regrettably, Steve was still getting changed in his cabin but we both connected with a second bird later in the day.

Grey Petrel, South Atlantic Ocean – 21 Sep 14

On the 23rd I spotted my favorite species of the South Atlantic and Southern Ocean – Antarctic Petrel. We encountered several birds over the next three days with a particularly memorable spectacle of four birds flying around the ship on the 25th.

Antarctic Petrel, South Atlantic Ocean – 25 Oct 14

The picture below shows the sea conditions encountered on the 27 Oct 14. There were a few occasions when I regretted the Officer Of the Watch granting Steve and I permission to leave the warmth and comfort of the accommodation tower.

A stormy South Atlantic Ocean – 27 Oct 14

Good birding,

Tony T BSc (Hons) GeoSci (Open)

South Atlantic Birding: Common Diving Petrels and Kerguelen Petrels

The 26th of September was a very overcast and dull day, but one which turned up a decent range of species. Common Diving Petrel was by far the most common species with over 80 birds seen during the lunch and early evening sessions. Diving Petrels are not hard to identify as such, but separating Common form Georgian is a real headache. Hopefully I will get to see more of the latter in the coming months. If I manage some shots I will try and knock up an id feature on the two. That said I have read quite a bit on the two and studied a lot of images in the various guides and there are quite a few differences on identifying features between the guides. I guess it’s all part of the fun.

Common Diving Petrel, South Atlanticm, 26 Sep 2014

Common Diving Petrel, South Atlanticm, 26 Sep 2014

We also came across several Kerguelen Petrels, another species that I had only seen the once before back in 2012. The species has a very distinctive fast high arcing flight that can be spotted at great distance. The dark features of the bird were not to be seen at their best in the overcast conditions, but hopefully I’ll see some more when the sun is shining. Other birds seen were small numbers of Cape Petrels, Southern Fulmars, Blue Petrels and the first Chinstrap Penguins of the trip

Kerguelen Petrel, South Atlantic, 26 Sep 2014

Kerguelen Petrel, South Atlantic, 26 Sep 2014

Cape Petrels, South Atlantic, 26 Sep 2014

Southern Fulmar, South Atlantic, 26 Sep 2014

Steve C

Birding Hampshire : Siberian Stonechat

It has been a long time since I had been birding in Hampshire, in fact I have only been a couple of times in 2014. This is mainly due to the amount of time that my ship spends at sea combined with a need to be with the family, no tears for me please. So with a free day today I looked at Birdguides and decided to head out to Titchfield Haven for the Siberian Stonechat that has been reported for the last week or so. The bird could be seen from the Meadow Hide and on arrival I straight away connected with an old friend of the Amigos, Dave Wallace. The Stonechat was some distance off and was moving to and fro along the edge of a reedbed. It seemed to keep low, often on the ground or very near. As the bird is very pale it quite often dissapeared in amongst the multi-coloured foliage but was soon picked up again through the scope.

Siberian Stonechat, Titchfield Haven, Hampshire, 26th Oct 2014

Co-incidentally the only other bird of this species that I had ever seen was on this same date in 2012 when whilst ringing at Portland Bird Observatory, Martin Cade trapped one in the top fields. My camera phone image below was the best I could do at the time.

Siberian Stonechat, Portland Bird Obs, 26th Oct 2012

Mark C

South Atlantic Birding: Blue Petrels and Kerguelen Petrels

Since the ship sailed from South Africa we had been running into heavy seas and gale force winds. The 23rd of September being one of the roughest days I have witnessed in 34 years in the Navy.  The ship sailed headlong into a sea state 9 accompanied by 80 mph gusts, riding up and down 50 foot waves. No holiday Mr Steele, stick with wheels.  I did take some super slow-motion video of the conditions which I will try and put on the blog when I am next home.  The 27th was less wild but we still had a sea state 6 and 50mph gusts. Blue Petrels were out enjoying the conditions as were Kerguelen Petrels. We had approximately 400 Blue Petrels zip by the ship, possibly on their way to South Georgia which holds around 70,000 breeding pairs. They were skimming the wave tops and provided a great viewing spectacle.

Blue Petrel, South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

Blue Petrel, South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

Blue Petrel, South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

As I mentioned in a previous entry Kerguelen Petrels are easy to identify by their fast flying high arcing flight. In these conditions they were in their element and like the Blue Petrels were zipping around the ship, although never coming as close. Numbers were in the region of about 100 birds. Other birds out and about were small numbers of Southern Fulmars as well as the odd Northern Giant Petrel, more on them later. Tony also picked up the first Fairy Prion of the season. The only surprise was the lack of albatrosses; as had been the case over the last five days in the rough conditions. Today we only had four Black-brows and a distant Grey-headed.

Kerguelen Petrel, South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

Kerguelen Petrel, South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

Prob Northern Giant Petrel 1 , South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

Southern Fulmar, South Atlantic, 27 Sep 2014

Steve C

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)