MSC Sinfonia
ABOVE: So…from 24-28 April 2017 I’ll be aboard the MSC Sinfonia, along with almost 2000 other birders, looking for pelagics such as albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters. And having a roaring time in general. The cruise to nowhere…will I see you there?

In a few days time birders from all over Southern Africa will converge at the docks at Cape Town to board the MSC Sinfonia. The event is organised by BirdLife South Africa, as part of their 88th AGM. But BLSA does not do boring AGMs like most companies – each year the event (called Flock) is held at a different top birding spot in South Africa. And this year, it will be somewhere off the coast of the Western Cape. The ship will essentially be cruising southwest to the edge of the continental shelf, where we hope to pick up pelagic seabirds that are virtually impossible to see from the shore. We’re talking Sooty Albatross, Grey Petrel, Subantarctic Shearwater, various storm petrels, and the massive Wanderer of course! In addition to birding, the cruise will feature talks by birding experts, a penguin-themed dinner and various other birding-themed attractions. I can’t wait!For those in the

For most of us, chances to study seabirds are relatively few and far between. If you feel a little intimidated by seabirds, have no fear – you are not alone! Fortunately a number of guides have been arranged to help identify and point out the birds on Flock at Sea. Nevertheless, it is essential that you brush up on your pelagic prowess and turn to that oft-ignored first few pages in your field guide. My wife asked me to help her review some of the bird IDs (not that I can lay any particularly claim to being a seabird expert). I have done my fair share: a handful of daytrips off Cape Town and Durban and the incredible trip down the Mozambique Channel to Europe Island aboard the MV Madagascar in November 2005. I also spent my 19th birthday aboard the SA Agulhas, along with 100 other fortunate birders, who braved the August seas for some spectacular winter pelagic birding in these waters. Now 15 years ago, I am aching to lay eyes on some of the specials we encountered on that trip again! Hopefully I will in a few days…

Anyways, partly to help out my wife and partly as a service to the birding community (with some added marketing for my books 🙂 ), I ended up producing a three-page guide to identifying South African seabirds. The guide is catered specifically for the Flock trip, and therefore excludes species that are restricted to the Indian Ocean and that we are unlikely to encounter. The coloured dots indicate how likely we are to see each species. It was actually a lot of fun to draw these cartoon-style birds, and recap some of their pertinent ID features in the process. The guide is not intended as a definitive guide – seabirds are notoriously variable, and it is impossible to cover all the variation on three A4s. For example, the great albatrosses take several years to reach adult-like plumage, and keep changing throughout their lives. Even after 20 years they still undergo subtle plumage changes. There is also some sexual, geographical and wear-related variation. But I hope that my guide will at least cover the basics, and help you make sense of these bewildering birds.

PS: I’ll be giving two talks on digital painting onboard. Hope to see you there.

PPS: While I won’t bring along books to sell on the cruise, I will carry around a sample copy of the LBJs and Waders books. If you’re keen, I’ll give you a card and we’ll hook you up after the trip.

Black-bellied Storm Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli
ABOVE: Black-bellied Storm Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.
White-chinned Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli
ABOVE: White-chinned Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.

You can download the pdf version of the guide below, or the three pages in jpeg format. Please feel free to print a copy (some people have said it might be good to have them laminated to deal with the moist air and sea spray). Otherwise, save it on your phone or iPad. You are welcome to share it on social media, and send it to your friends – it took me many hours to draw all this, so I really do hope that people will get some use out of it! Enjoy.

Click on the thumbnail images above to download full resolution A4 versions, or click here to download the pdf.

Cape Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli
ABOVE: Cape (Pintado) Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.
Southern Giant Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli
ABOVE: Southern Giant Petrel by Dylan Vasapolli / Birding Ecotours.