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Black Skimmer “Rhynchops niger” at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, Cape Town, South Africa Friday 5 October 2012

In flight the Black Skimmer “Rhynchops niger” at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph by:  Brian Vanderwalt
In flight the Black Skimmer “Rhynchops niger” at Rietvlei Nature Reserve, Cape Town, South Africa. Photograph by: Brian Vanderwalt

Last Thursday a strange bird was sighted at Rietvlei Nature Reserve in Table View 12k north of Cape Town.  Two birding experts were called and the bird described to them and it was not long after that they arrived at their supposed urgent “site meeting”.  It turned out that this skimming bird was not the African Skimmer as was first expected but an American visitor from the North.

Numerous American bird books were consulted and it was confirmed that it was in fact a Black Skimmer “Rhynchops niger”.  This became the first photographed Black Skimmer on the African continent and thereby confirmed.

Further investigation suggested that the tropical hurricane that had hit the Gulf coast on America had swept this bird firstly to Ireland, County Mayo, where it only stayed one day and then worked its way down the west coast of Africa to Cape Town.  The distance is approx 11 000km which it travelled in 35 days. 

A number of local and a few up country birders made the urgent pilgrimage from early on Friday to the Reserve.  The Reserve management even accommodated them by opening the gates at 6am and only closing them at 7pm.  Throughout the day many up country visitors flew in but many could only arrive on the Saturday.  I had a birding client until late afternoon and only arrived, through the heavy evening traffic at 5.30pm.  The bird was not difficult to locate as all you looked for was the crowd of birders!!!!!!!!

The bird was roosting on the grassy bank when I arrived and after some calling it took off and was immediately chased by Hartlaub’s Gulls.  It even skimmed beautifully over the water for us.  The large red and black bill was a sight to see as was the blackness of the bird. It certainly looked as if it was ready to breed. The black line down the central tail feathers was clearly seen when it banked. This flyby happened a few times until just before 7pm when it flew away westwards into the rapidly setting sun, this time being chase by a larger Kelp Gull.  And that was the last time it was seen here in Cape Town and missed by many who delayed their pilgrimage or flights to Saturday!  

However on Sunday a few birders discovered a Black Skimmer in Walvis Bay, Namibia. This was 1600km up the west coast in a straight line so in all likelihood it was the same bird.  This bird was also photographed and comparing it with pics of the bird seen in Cape Town it appeared to be the same bird.  Further investigation showed that Tony Tree in 1998 had in fact seen and documented a bird in Walvis Bay,Namibia which turned out to be a Black Skimmer.  This bird certainly caused a BIG STIR here in the Cape Town & South African birding community.  Need more of those!

Now that the excitement has passed and the bird has flown, we can once again take stock of our lives/birding!!!!!!!!!!

Brian Vanderwalt

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I have been an avid birder in the Western and Northern Cape for over 45 years. Since 1999, I have guided Day trips and Overnight Tours (5 days or longer), as well as organised Birding weekends and Bird Ringing (Banding) outings. Read more...

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