Topic : Sea Birds
Article 36 31 August 2007
Pelagic Bird Species Recorded off Richards Bay, KwaZulu-Natal
Seabird watching off Richards Bay really began in September 2002, when the first group of birders headed out of port not really knowing what to expect. Traditionally pelagic birding in South Africa had been linked to ports with known trawling grounds close to shore; Durban and Cape Town. As there are no trawling grounds off Richards Bay it was viewed that there would be no concentrations of seabirds and as such any trips would yield poor results.
On this first trip though it was planned to try and make use of any natural phenomenon that may cause seabirds to concentrate in a particular area and off Richards Bay this meant heading out to the shelf-break waters where the south flowing Mozambique current would encounter the edge of the continental shelf causing a nutrient rich upwelling. This upwelling should result in improved feeding grounds for any pelagic species and also as the 15-20 nautical mile wide shelf waters off Richards Bay are typically shallow (50 to 60 metres) for almost the whole distance out to the shelf edge it was considered unlikely that many pelagic birds we be encountered in these waters as their common food sources such as deep-water squid species would be absent. Thus, the decision was made to head out until the 1000 metre seabed depth contour was reached.
Anyway, our hypotheses were right and we found that there were seabirds present off Richards Bay in good numbers and varieties if you went to their foraging grounds and that trawlers, whilst undoubtedly bring-in much higher numbers of birds, were not necessary for a good pelagic experience. Indeed, the importance that shelf-break waters play in seabird distribution has led to some species, notably Great-winged and Soft-plumaged Petrels being found to be common in such waters, whilst previously they were considered to be rare birds off KwaZulu-Natal.
To date, there have been 17 sea-birding trips from Richards Bay and a total 26 different species identified; including such mega-rarities as Barau’s Petrel, Black-naped Tern and White-faced Storm-Petrel. The trips have covered all seasons with the most variety in the period June to Oct and with January to May as very poor in terms of numbers and species. The following table illustrates the basic occurrence rate of the different pelagic species encountered so far. Contact address, Andrew Sutherland