Cleaning Penguins

On 23 June 20 years ago the ship MV Treasure sank off Cape Town spilling tons of bunker oil into the sea. The penguins of Dassen and Robben Islands were badly oiled. Various environmental organisations led by Cape Nature organised the rescue and cleaning of the oiled penguins. I heard an appeal for volunteers. So after work at 4 I volunteered.

I was met by an enormous man called Big Mike and I was handed a waterproof suit and told to carry boxes of penguins from the fleet of army trucks that rolled in in a steady stream.

Now penguins have sharp beaks and they were sorely unhappy so they would peck at any unguarded human flesh the could reach as I learnt when carrying soggy, disintegrating cardboard boxes the evening before. Vicious beaks would appear out of breathing holes at every opportunity. Amazingly I did not get pecked, but it was seriously close a number of times.

At about 10 the stream of trucks stopped. At about the same time a local pizza chain provided free pizzas. After what passed for dinner, I was told to help build pens out of porta pools donated by a local pool company. At 12 I nodded to Big Mike and headed off home.

Next evening after work I went back and spend the first part of the evening cleaned penguin excrement out of the porta pools. Then I got the job of building runways to guide penguins to a specially constructed and filled pool. That done we dismantled empty penguin pools, washed them thoroughly and rebuilt them.

I watched them feeding penguins. The penguins were getting sardines packed with antibiotics. The feeders for the most part had bandages on their hands where they had been pecked except for one woman who was completely unscathed and faster than anyone else. Someone would pass her a penguin and she, sitting on an upturned bucket would clasp the furious creature between her knees and wave an enticing hand over the penguins head. The penguin would lunge at the hand, she would catch the penguin in mid peck, jam its beak open, drop a sardine into its throat and clamp the beak closed before the bird had any idea of what had happened. She was absolute magic to watch.

At some stage, I snarled at someone, “I hate penguins!”
“Why are you here then?” obvious question.
“So my grandchildren can hate them too.”

At midnight I went home, showered, slept and reported for work the next morning. That evening I went back but the line of volunteers was long. I was relieved that someone else would be there as I was tired.

It was one of those pinnacle experiences that you remember forever.

Last week I got an email from Cape Nature advertising the opening of their hiking trails and it had this paragraph:

“This month marked on the 20th anniversary of South Africa’s worst environmental disaster. On the 23rd June 2000, the bulk ore carrier, MV Treasure was battling tempestuous seas in a storm off the coast of the Western Cape when the vessel foundered and sank, causing 1,300 tons of oil to seep into the ocean. This put the two large colonies of African penguins on the nearby Robben and Dassen islands in grave danger. What happened next has been called the largest animal rescue ever attempted.”

So, it turns out that not only did I have the rare and privileged experience of rescuing penguins but purely by accident I was part of a world record. 😊

See the Cape Nature page on this rescue effort.

Birding Photography


Or African Harrier Hawk. We occasionally see this magnificent raptor in the Cape Town CBD. This time a neighbour spotted the bird and called us. It was sheltering from a Cape winter storm in a palm tree. I managed to get some pictures. The problem was that it was quite dark and rainy. Also the neighbour had fire burning and the smoke drifted across our line of sight. The troubles of birding photography.

Birding Photography

Processing RAW Photographs

They say you should should only photograph using RAW images but I have not put any effort into learning the processing packages. A recent picture of a Juvenile Fiscal Flycatcher had bad contrast and lighting, It was ideal for post-processing using DarkTable. The result was pleasantly surprising. Here are the results of my initial efforts. Probably with more practice the results will be better, but I am quite pleased with what I achieved.

Badly lit juvenile Fiscal Flycatcher

This is the original pictures. Note how little detail is visible on the back of the bird and how the colours are muted.

Processed Fiscal Flycatcher

Here is the same picture after processing. The difference is quite marked.


Klaas’ Cuckoo

Great excitement in the household when we spotted a Klaas’ Cuckoo in Gardens, Cape Town. We had heard vague whispers of its call, but not enough to be sure. Then one morning during lock down, it came to cheer us up. Isn’t she a beaut?

Birding flower Photography

Birds on the Tecoma Capensis in Riviersonderend

Sunbirds are incredible fliers and they love the honey suckle in our garden.

Femail Malachite Sunbird
And landed.
Cape Turtle Dove. I cannot resist photographing them, they are just so beautiful

Sacred Ibises Collecting Nest Material at Rondevlei

It is nearly spring and all the birds at Rondevlei are building nests. It has always amazed me the amount of building material
an ibis will carry in its beak to the nesting site. These pictures give you a typical but brief day
in the life of a nest building ibis.

First off, they seem to do quite a bit of hanging about with the mob on any warm sandbar

But then some or other time the impulse to build gets going.

Here is an ibis coming in to land. Not very gainly, but they seem to survive which is all that really matters.


This is a dense reed patch and they pull it apart to get building material.

Hey! Don’t stand on me. The terrapin at the feet of this ibis never moved an inch in the time I was there,
so I guess he wasn’t really concerned about being stood on.

This guy got himself all tied up in knots.

And, off they go, carrying the bits and pieces to a reed bed in the middle of the vlei.


Red Eyed Dove in the Yellow Wood

A Red Eyed Dove and a fledgling came to visit


Birding flower Kruger National Park Photography

Visit to Kruger Park

In early September and before the rains, we visited the Kruger National Park. The grass was low and the animals plentiful. Here are a few of our pictures.

Lowveld Sunset


The original cliched lowveld sunset picture.

Blue head

African Hoopoe

Spotted Hyena and pup

Goliath Heron



Birding Cape Town Photography Sea Travel Western Cape

Birding on the Symphonia

We went on a cruise with 2000 other birders looking for pelagic birds.

We got some really great shots and had a really good time. We left Cape Town in the late afternoon

Lions head and Table Mountain

The sunset was marvelous

Then next day, the birds

And then back again.

There is a video here




Birding Cape Town

Birding Trip Down the Cape Peninsula

We were approached to test an app for logging birds during a competition. The organisers needed people to log birds from all over the country in an arbitrary manner. We volunteered.

My wife Amanda and I live in Cape Town on the slopes of Table Mountain.

Table mountain is the  base of a triangle of land, a peninsula and being really original, we call it “The Peninsula” but we may on occasions refer to parts of it as the “South Peninsula”.

The first European name of “The Peninsula” was the “Cape of Storms” so named by a very wind blown Portuguese explorer who was blown past the tip of Africa and had to beat his way back to find land again. This picture of a yacht under a single genoa sail and trailing a sea anchor will give you and idea of the power of our local wind.

Winds can gust up to 70 km/h which is when  the harbour is closed, people get blown off their feet and buses get blown over. Cape Town is beautiful, but you do not really want to go out in one of our serious gales. You can see pictures of a serious winter storm here. We did, and survived. We reserved tent in the Smitswinkel Tented camp for Saturday evening and set out at 12 on Saturday morning to our first stop, Milnerton Lagoon. The mountain on the right is Devils Peak

It doesn’t look windy but at that stage it was blowing at about 30 km/h. The white spots you can see in the water are Greater Flamingos. In the following picture, Pied Avocecs work the mad flats.

Having scored about twenty bird species we moved on to Intaka Island and still in sight of  a bit ofTable Mountain and Devils Peak through the construction site. The cloud you can see is the Table Cloth and only arrives when the wind is really moving.

Intaka island is a water reclamation site for Century City. It really is a special place surrounded by the city and is open to the public. You can take a ferry from the big shopping centre and cruise at your leisure around the whole area. Read more about Intaka here. We scored the cute picture of the day here too.

Red Knobbed Coot chicks just starting to fledge.

Bath time, weavers in partial mating plumage. We moved onto Kirstenbosch Botanical Gardens where we “knew” there were baby owls to be seen. No such luck they had moved on. But the scenery and the flowers made up for it.

The top picture is a Mountain Dahlia and the bottom one is an unusual picture of a King Protea. Normally they are shown fully open. This one is partially open which, I think makes a nice difference. Kirstenbosch is in the Fynbos Biome which has the most species of plants (9000 ) in any biome but it is also the smallest biome in area. See more on Kirstenbosch here.

We moved on towards Smitswinkel bay and we both assumed we knew where the tented camp was. Down by the sea, at Smitswinkel bay.

You can see the settlement with the end of the peninsula, Cape Point, in the distance. The only access is down a gravel path so we loaded our bag with sleeping bags, dinner and a bottle of bubbly and set off down.

Only to find that the tented camp was back up the slope and 2 km further. Please note that the bay is a jealously guarded piece of property and visitors are not really welcome. So we climbed back up, drove the 2 km and found the tented camp.

Nestled in a grove of wind blasted flowering gums, it is one of the overnight stations for the four day Hoerikwagga Hiking Trail which traverses the Table Mountain chain.

The accommodation is basic, but comfortable. Problem is that when the wind is blowing the tent thunders quite dramatically.

By this stage we had gotten 44 birds and were seriously considering going straight home, but the Cape Point Nature reserve was right next door, so next morning we headed that way.

Looking back toward Cape Town, the sea blown flat by the howling wind. The wind was really strong, we watched with some amusement as a Cape Longclaw flew up, was blown backwards, gave up and took to walking.

Everlastings. The hillside was covered in them.

A Black Headed Heron caught and lost a snake, then stood staring into the bush the snake had vanished into for a long while before giving up and moving on.

This is a screen shot of the BirdLasser App we use for tracking our sightings. A great app, limited to South Africa.

In all we got 62 birds, which considering the wind was not a bad score