Wednesday, 13 March 2013

She's found her legs... Thank Flock!

Flock at Sea 2013

The sea calls to us and the draw is usually strong, for some more so than others. Gone are the days of wind, t'gallants, hornpipes & rum. Even so, we joined the return-ticket migration ex Cape Town to Namibia's Walvis Bay and we did so on the MSC Opera for some champagne and a la carte dining..

On the whole Birdlife's Flock at Sea 2013 was relatively successful whilst the MSC Opera was, generally, average.

I was disappointed by the, as it turned out, grossly inefficient embarkation & disembarkation procedures. A general free-for-all on the Friday, in the shadow of Cape Town's noon-day-gun, left both virgins (1st timers) & veterans ruffled & shuffled.

Here's what happened.

12pm - Opening bell.

Queue 1 - Luggage check-in. (ave. time -30 minutes.) The veterans avoided this palaver, dropped off their correctly- labelled luggage at 'baggage-handling' and joined queue 2. The virgins knew no better..

Queue 2 - Boarding allocation. (ave. time-1 hour.) Veterans & virgins both. No short-cuts, no clever tricks. SPF 30 required.

Queue 3 - Batch-allocation for processing. (ave. time-1 hour) Virgins perspired in the stuffy holding cell whilst Veterans sipped 'not for own-account' juice or water and patiently circled their choice of program off that night's activity schedule.

Queue 4 - Processing. (ave. time - 3 minutes.) ['Buon giorno.  Come sta?  -  'Smile please...']    Eh?      Flock off...!

Queue 5 - Deck 5 - Reception: Credit card / cash processing. (ave. time-1 hour) Smokers, nerves shattered, gathered in the smoking lounge, a novel idea for South Africans, to suck on some peace .. Non-smokers in this queue which stretched around this lounge & back to reception turned iridescently green on sea-smoke induced paranoia...

...and so it was, on & off, in Cape Town & Walvis.

Nota Bene -  'Psssst Capitano Pinto - we were all essere un po'di fuori (roughly: out of our minds) and we will chiudere il becco (roughly: to close one's beak..) when and only when you allocate prospective guests a STAGGERED time of embarkation prior arrival!

4 pm - All aboard; toot toot & off we went. Helicopters, world-records, binoculars and egos. Woohoo - Flock on!

6 pm - Hang on. Where's my luggage?

11 pm - Hold the boat! Where's my luggage...? By now I puzzare da fare schifo (roughly: stank to high heaven..)!      ps: if you're wondering about the Italian, the Opera is Italian -crewed & owned.

'Normal' people hung out here
Four more brief comments on the Opera if I may? 

Firstly, an observation of the cosmopolitan crew yielded some pertinent insights. If I had license to generalise, the vagaries in attitude between East & West was remarkable. I think I like Eastern service more than Western churlishness, especially at the table!

Secondly, the food was surprisingly iffy and that's being generous. How difficult can a cloche-covered egg & bacon be?

'Weirdos' hung out here
Thirdly, our Capitano had as much authority on his boat as I have in the kitchen. Yes I can make tea or even pop the bread in the toaster unaided, but I would surrender my financial affairs if I even glanced at the oven without authority.... His frantic calls to HQ for permission to change course or to unlock Deck 5, to allow photographic access, was an impotent lifting of the corporate veil which left little to admire!
Lastly, who can ever forget the evening entertainment especially the heart-shaped & pelican-sized floral headgear the boat's mincers donned on stage. I chuckle still...

Birdlife did well, very well. They also missed a trick or two.

Of the 2000 passengers on board only 1100 or so were Birdlife-affiliated. The remaining 900 'normal' passengers found our antics ...odd.

'Storm-Petrellll.... 'Where?? Bloody hell! ..Get out of the way. Damn you... RUN!!' - The abiding memory of 20+ birders frantically scrambling over a deck-chair on which reclined a bikini-clad 'normal' who, in fear, exited chair right & who then abandoned deck with some alactrity, will stay with me forever.

Beaks at Sea 
Wearing masks at sea to celebrate oneness with Birdlife at the Capitano's dinner was novel but would have been better if the entire ship's company had been apprised of the dress-code. Allocated seating made for slack-jawed silences at your table of strangers, none of them birders, clad as we were in our toucan-billed finest.. A cruel fate for the 'normals'! If Birdlife had presented a few logo-embedded masks to the 'normals' would that not have been two birds dead wif one stone..?

Early morning hopefuls
The birding itself off the Opera wasn't great; it really wasn't, for two reasons.

Firstly ALL cruise boats sail close to shore if they can. If you liked cormorants, gannets & terns then you were in for treat. Pelagic birding as a result was poor to middling at best.

No question most of us were hoping for a pelagic rarity or two. Thus motivated, we kept vigil at the railings, watchful. Why then schedule lectures in the middle of the morning...?

The other observation is perhaps a little more controversial. Most of the guides were land-based experts and not sea-birders. Masks off to them for their efforts, preparation and enthusiasm but a moulting Subantarctic Skua can never become a South Polar whomever the hailer or the dollars spent at the pool-side bar.

As for the pelagic birding itself, we recorded 4 Storm-Petrels, 3 Albatross, 3 Petrels, 4 Skuas, 2 Shearwaters and a specialist gull..; 3 of which were lifers! Birding on our first morning back to Cape Town was nullified by bad weather. I suspect we left behind one or two specials in fog-clad obscurity.

Alisha, my better half, is the very worst of sailors and suffers from chronic seasickness. She's always on the 'verge of death' each time she goes out to sea. This time however and for the very first time, Alisha suffered not at all; not once, not ever. Has Alisha found her sea-legs...?       Flock yeah!

Foggy-damp. Birdless or so it seemed
If we had to choose one spot to bird in Namibia it would have to be Walvis Bay & nearby Swakopmund. It's simply sublime.

A quirk of fate, some poor planning and a healthy dose of bad karma had us turn left instead of right which mean't we found our Avis rental 30 minutes late. As a result we dipped on the Swakopmund-based Elegant Tern which flew the roost no more than 2 minutes before we arrived on site... Days spent out to sea & we bombed by two (2) minutes!
Such is birding. The Buff-breasted Sandpiper, another lifer, was nevertheless a convincing consolation and so too the American Golden Plover, also a lifer.

As always we're grateful to the people who put us onto the rarities. Mark, Niall, Kevin & Allan et al for the BB Sand & Martin B. for the AGP. A special thank you to our good friends Louis and Ralda Heyns who joined us for the day and who kept the slavering hordes at bay until we returned to the sandpiper site from a scheduled lunch with friends in Swakopmund.

Since this is my blog and I'll gripe if I want to (with apologies to Ms. Gore) it would have been nice if the Pacific Golden Plover had been flagged for ALL to see.        Nice picture, Professor...!

Sadly the time permitted on-shore was too short to make a good fist of it. Still, any time spent in Namibia is better than a poke .. in the eye.

Buff-breasted Sandpiper
Cape Rock-jumper

We rounded off the trip with a few days in Cape Town itself. Fortunately we were called back to a very confiding Cape Rock-jumper, a bird we ourselves had missed and what a bird it turned out to be. Our thanks to Kevin, Niall & Callan et al. Who said birding's not a team sport?

So we dipped, dabbled, squawked, ticked and rolled with the tides. All in all a flocking good trip!