1 May 2018

1 May 18 - West African Pelagic - Day One: Razo From The Sea

Our first morning at sea was the final approach to Razo Island: home of our last endemic landbird, Razo Lark. This was planned to be our only planned zodiac cruise of the West African Pelagic. The island is a strict nature reserve & we wouldn't get the chance to land, but we had a chance of seeing them from the zodiacs. As I woke up, it was clear that there was a significant wind blowing & the Plancius was pitching & rolling. We had been told that it was likely to up to 30 knots of wind & it felt it. A number of the new passengers were absent from breakfast & that number had increased by the evening meal: they were clearly not enjoying the movement. I was also feeling uneasy about the morning. Not due to the weather, as my sea legs were now well-trained, although I had hit the seasickness tablets just in case. But I wasn't confident we would get the go ahead to put the zodiacs in the sea in these conditions. Especially, with a new Expedition staff team on board.
The sea was pretty choppy as we made the final approach to Razo: I wasn't confident the zodiacs would be launched
It was a nervous few hours waiting for news on the zodiacs. It didn't help by being told, that we didn't have the time in the schedule to hang around & wait for the wind & seas to calm down. Not that the forecast was expecting that the wind was likely to drop & it would take even longer for the seas to calm down.
Razo is a fair low, flat island: We were now fairly close & the sea was still looking choppy
Still there were potential Seabird Ticks to look for as I hadn't seen any of the few Cape Verde Storm-petrels or Boyd's Little Shearwater seen on the day before we arrived into Cape Verde. Nobody has seen a Fea's Petrel from the Plancius so far. Additionally, there were still a few other potential Western Palearctic Seabird Ticks we could see. Armed with coffee & early morning biscuits, I headed up to the bridge wing for some pre-breakfast Birding (obviously the biscuits didn't count as breakfast).
Cape Verde Shearwater: This species was formally considered to be a subspecies of Cory's Shearwater, but has now been split as an endemic species which is restricted to Cape Verde
Cape Verde Shearwater: They are smaller & short-winged that Cory's Shearwater & don't have the lazy bow-winged appearance that Cory's Shearwaters can show. The dull pale pinkish bill with a black subterminal band differs from the heavier, pale yellow bill with a black subterminal band of Cory's Shearwaters
Cape Verde Shearwater
Cape Verde Shearwater
Cape Verde Shearwater: The hand of the underwing is dark which is similar to Cory's Shearwater, whereas, the Mediterranean breeding Scopoli's subspecies of Cory's Shearwater has the white extending further into the centre of the hand
Cape Verde Shearwater
Cape Verde Shearwater: They have pale pink legs which is similar to Cory's Shearwaters
Red-billed Tropicbird: This Red-billed Tropicbird flew past the Plancius just before breakfast
Red-billed Tropicbird: This is the mesonauta subspecies which occurs in the Subtropical & Tropical East Pacific, Caribbean & East Atlantic. It is a different subspecies to the nominate aetheneus subspecies that we saw around St Helena & Ascension Island
Finally, the news came over the tannoy that the Plancius were going to put a couple of zodiacs in the water to see if it was OK. It was & we got told to get ready for our trip. We had asked if all the Wildwings party could stay in one group & when they tossed a coin the previous evening, we were in the first group of zodiacs. We would get around 75 minutes in the zodiacs to look for the Razo Larks, including a cruise along the coast to a cliff with some nesting Red-billed Tropicbirds.
Razo Island: It was a bit more sheltered as we reached this corner of the island
Razo Island: It looks an unforgiving island. But not having had people living on it, Razo had become a final sanctuary for the endemic Razo Lark. In 2018, a small population of thirty Razo Larks were moved to nearby Santa Luzia island to hopefully set up a second breeding population. At the time of writing this Post (Nov 18), twenty Razo Larks are pairing up & singing. Hopefully some will breed during the breeding season (Oct/Nov)
Razo Island: There were a couple of basic camps on the island. Initially, I thought they may be local fishermen's camps, but more likely there are associated with SPEA (Birdlife Portugal), Bisosfera (a Cape Verde NGO) & their colleagues who are studying the Razo Larks
I got into one of the zodiacs with a number of the Wildwings group who had come up from Ushuaia. We figured that we were used to the zodiacs & didn't want to be in a zodiac with others who potentially weren't used to zodiacs. It would also be more fun as all the Wildwings punters who stayed on were good friends after a month at sea. We cruised up & down the edge of the barren volcanic edge of the island, but were struggling to see much. We did see a potential Razo Lark candidate in flight over the flat plain behind: realistically it wasn't identifiable on the brief view, but probably was one. There was a shout over the radio, that one of the other zodiacs had seen some around the rough camp. We quickly headed that way & confirmed that it was a party of at least 25 Cape Verde Sparrows. Not a good start.
Cape Verde Sparrows: This party were perching on one of the ledges near the camp
These Cape Verde Sparrows were claimed on several occasions to be Razo Larks by inexperienced punters & Expedition staff. A bit later, there was a second report of a single Razo Lark on the rocks near the camp, but it flew off before we got there. We hung around this time, as this individual was nearby, but not with the Cape Verde Sparrows. Fortunately, it flew down again & looked promising. I still couldn't be certain with the bins, so I blasted off some photos & a quick check on the back of the camera confirmed it was a Razo Lark. Directions continued to be given in our zodiac, but it was only when it flew off that we realised Lorraine hadn't seen it. Not good news.
Razo Lark: The Razo Lark was standing on one of the coastal rocks & just a bit too far to be be sure of the identification with the bins on a pitching & rolling zodiac. The harsh light didn't help
Razo Lark: Fortunately, the camera helped in confirming the identification
Razo Lark: Two hours earlier, I didn't think we would get the zodiacs launched, so I won't complain too much about the quality of these pictures
Razo Lark: Many of the Razo Larks are colour ringed
Razo Lark: This was probably the sharpest picture, so it is a pity it is looking away
Razo Lark: Soon after taking this final photo, it flew back to the plain above the rocky shoreline & we didn't see it again. This was our final endemic Passerine
Eventually, all the zodiacs left for the Red-billed Tropicbird cliff. The Razo Lark hadn't reappeared & we took a quick vote on what we should do. Only one of the zodiac, new Wildwings punter, Neil Bowman voted to head off for the cliff for some photos for the day. He had seen & photographed them in the past and was outvoted as the rest of us agreed to stay to give Lorraine more time to see the Razo Lark.
Morten: Our Expedition leader returns with his zodiac
We returned to the Plancius, where Lorraine was told she could go out again if she wanted. She did & saw at least one Razo Lark. Neil was also given the opportunity to go out again & he declined. So he can't have been too upset at missing the Red-billed Tropicbird cliff. I heard later that the views from the other zodiacs weren't brilliant & not as good as the views we had enjoyed of passing individuals on the Plancius. Razo ended well for us. We now had the afternoon to carry on seawatching for the remaining Seabird Ticks.
The nearby island of Branco: An inhospitable looking island
A close up of the rock slide on Branco
Another Cape Verde island: I'm guessing this is Sao Nicolau
There was time for lunch today as we remained off Razo Island during lunch while the zodiacs were being loaded back onboard the Plancius. I was back on deck for our departure from Razo Island. There were still a number of new Seabirds to see.

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