The Cape Gannet Morus capensis is a conspicuous resident of the southern African coast, and it is hard to believe that it is regarded as a ‘Vulnerable’ species.
They often gather to feed around trawlers, and follow the annual sardine run up the east coast to KwaZulu- Natal in winter. At such times large numbers of birds can be observed flying beyond the breakers, plunging into the sea with closed wings and leaving a plume of spray as they disappear beneath the surface. The total population is estimated at 20 000 pairs that breed in dense colonies at six islands off the cape and Namibian coasts. In winter some birds migrate up the west coast to the gulf of Guinea
The African Oystercatcher Haematopus moquini is found on islands, the coast and adjacent wetlands, from northern Namibia to northern KwaZulu Natal. It is very distinctive with its black plumage and bright orange bill. It is regarded as ‘Near-Threatened’ and suffered population losses in the 1980s, mainly due to disturbance by humans on its breeding beaches, that brought numbers down to around 4 500 birds. A ban on beach driving has seen an increase to around 6 000 birds.
The photograph of the wave crashing down on the birds was taken at Malgas Island, and won Peter Chadwick the Gerald Durrell Endangered Wildlife Award in the Veolia Environment Wildlife Photographer of the Year Award. This is what he said about the photo during an interview at the Natural History Museum in London:
“African (Black) Oystercatchers are me for a charismatic species with their distinctive and contrasting coloration and with their ability to survive in the harsh coastal environment. They have to brave the crashing waves on a daily basis and time their reactions down to the millisecond. Many consider them as rather boring and it is only when you get to spend time with them that you realise just how fascinating their lives are. The winning picture of the birds taking off from the rock as a wave crashes over them really showcases the harsh yet fragile environment that these birds live in, while also highlighting their need for complex social interactions.”
Hartlaub’s Gull Chroicocephalus hartlaubi is a common resident species with an estimated 13 000 pairs breeding on offshore islands, coastal wetlands and large buildings. Distribution is from the central Namibian coast all the way around to the east coast at Port Elizabeth. These birds are often active at night, and visitors to the Cape Town Waterfront may be treated to a spectacular evening display of flying Hartlaub’s Gulls, lit up by onshore lights that turn them into bright pearls tumbling and wheeling against a black and velvet sky.
The Swift Tern Thalasseus bergii is a common resident all around the coast of southern Africa. Large numbers of them follow the ‘sardine run’ along the east coast in winter. The population is believed to be increasing, and an estimated 8 – 12 000 pairs breed colonially on islands and in coastal wetlands from central Namibia to Port Elizabeth in the Eastern Cape.
The African Penguin Spheniscus demersus is the only penguin that breeds in Africa, and is found from northern Namibia to East London. The species is classified as Endangered, and has lost half its population since 2004. The reasons for the decline are many, and include competition with pelagic fisheries, disturbance at breeding colonies, predation and polluted waters, including oil spillages. The current population is estimated at 26 000 pairs that breed on islands and at a few coastal sites along the west and south coasts.
The Cape Cormorant Phalacrocorax capensis is found all around the southern African coast, from northern Namibia to Port Elizabeth as a breeding resident, and further north up the east coast as uncommon up to Durban and as a winter visitor to the Mozambique border. Although it is estimated to comprise a population of 100 000 birds, numbers have decreased over the past 20 years and because of this it is regarded as Near-Threatened. They breed colonially on cliffs and offshore islands.
This article with images by Peter Chadwick first appeared in the Environment #9, Summer 2011 edition.