Outing to Cape Point National Reserve.
10 June 2023.
Leader Mel Tripp.
As we edge towards the Winter Solstice you might think that snuggling under a duvet would be the best place to be on a chilly Sunday morning. But you’d be SO completely wrong!
This is what a band of 45 Cape Bird Club members and assorted guests discovered on 11 June. Some of us abandoned those cosy duvets well before 07:00 to meet at the gates of the Cape Point Nature Reserve at the appointed time. The breeze was stiff and it was hard to recognise one another in our beanies, scarves and puffer jackets zipped up to the chin. The morning’s leader, Mel Tripp, emphasised that there was NO GUARANTEE that we’d see any pelagic birds, although the conditions were auspicious. We all tried to pretend that we had no expectations (although some of us were hopping from one foot to the other with excitement).
We set off in convoy to the viewing point at The Cape of Good Hope beach. As the cars in front of us disappeared over the horizon I had the distinct impression that I was the only driver who hadn’t realised this was a race. I was soon distracted by the Total Experience of being in such a stunningly wild and beautiful place, at a time of year when the inter-play between light, cloud and water creates dramatic and ever-changing vistas. The car ground to a halt and we got out to gasp at our surroundings.
We hadn’t gone much further when I had to screech to a halt again, this time for Eland. I was really appreciating the muted, tawny coats of these magnificent and agreeably large mammals when the image of a smallish, iridescent blue-green bird with a beady orange eye popped into my mind’s eye. I didn’t actually SEE the Cape Starling, you understand, just remembered it from the 1,000 others I’d come across before in my lifetime.
Eventually we arrived at the parking lot near the viewing point. I love that location – it’s so low and flat, and the ordinariness of the birds there, and the basking seals, help one to transition from the city centre to this most south-WESTERN tip of Africa.
But the real excitement came when we got onto the rocky ridge below the cliffs, where the more expert amongst us had already set up an array of scopes. This day was delivering! There were hundreds of birds active between the furthest stretch of kelp and the horizon, and as far as one could see to the left and to the right. Many of them were just close enough to distinguish with binoculars, especially when shafts of light broke through the clouds and illuminated their wings.
Cape Gannets and Sooty Shearwaters seemed to be the most numerous, and there were apparently some White-chinned Petrels and a Southern Giant Petrel as well. I didn’t see the Shy Albatross, but was mesmerised by my lifer, a Black-browed Albatross, that glided close to the surface, weaving its way back and forth across the swell. At one point there were so many birds in the air – soaring birds as well as gulls and terns – that they seemed like white confetti. Cape Cormorants flew below them in long dark skeins. And then, to seal the utter magical-ness of the day, two Hump-backed Whales broke the distant surface and processed across our ocean view.
A happy aura of contentment descended on the cliff face as the assembled crowd realised this had been A Great Day. Many thanks to the organisers, to those who couldn’t use their own scopes because the rest of us were butting in, and to Jacque Smit who so patiently showed us how to distinguish pelagic species from their flight patterns. It was a joyful thing to be part of such a disparate bunch of people – from different places and of different ages – united in an intense appreciation of birds. And it was a joyful thing, too, to leave the birds behind after a while and walk along the track above Dias Beach: that’s the thing about birding – it takes you anywhere and everywhere.
“This was my second birding outing and my first time at Cape Point so the day was bound to be a good one. It was amazing being able to see not only the Black-browed Albatross and the many Cape Gannets but also Hump-backs for the very first time!” (Mpho Havhi (Limpopo Province), student at The FitzPatrick Institute)
“A beautiful outing; incredible scenery and a wonderful group of nature enthusiasts to share in it with – what an incredible privilege to have such excellent seabird species on Cape Town’s doorstep! Seeing a wild Black-Browed Albatross from shore was a first for me and a real highlight!” (Robi Watkinson (UK), student at The Fitzpatrick Institute).
“I’m so thankful to have had the opportunity to go seabird watching with the Cape Bird Club last week. It was my first time seeing these birds outside of a textbook and I felt so lucky to be learning from such experienced birders. I could have sat on that cliff with them all day.” (Abbey Campbell (USA), student at The FitzPatrick Institute)
photographs by Charles Britz, Jacque Smit, Su-Mari Gwilliam and Jane Doherty.
Report by Jane Doherty.