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South Africa

Cape Recife, Algoa Bay

Mandela Bay, Port Elizabeth

Tony Tree and Les Underhill
Animal Demography Unit

  Cape Recife, aerial view
Photo L.G. Underhill
Cape Recife, looking northwest towards the city of Port Elizabeth in the haze. This photograph was taken at high tide. At low tide large areas of wave cut platforms, up to 100 m wide, are exposed

Cape Recife forms the western extremity of Mandela Bay, and lies 10 km southeast of the city of Port Elizabeth. This headland is regularly used by terns and other seabirds, and is probably the most important diurnal tern loafing sites in the Eastern Cape. Until a few years ago it was also an important nocturnal roost site, but the activities of fishermen and perlemoen poachers have caused them to abandon Cape Recife and seek alternative places to roost at night.

Cape Recife is one of the tern "hotspots" along the southern African coastline. Twelve species of terns have occurred here, of which seven are migrants from the Palearctic. Although of these species occur as only vagrants, Cape Recife is the place where vagrants seem most likely to occur. One rare species, the Roseate Tern, has been recorded breeding here in the past, and another, the Damara Tern has bred since 1999.

In summer, Common Terns are the most numerous species, with the number of loafing birds during the day time frequently in the thousands. Small numbers of Common Terns overwinter; these are mainly pre-breeding birds, aged one or two years. Sandwich Terns are very common in summer. Small numbers are seen in winter.

Arctic Terns occur sparsely, mainly during winter, and also on southwards migration between October and December. We presume that winter birds are young prebreeding birds which have moved north to the coast to avoid harsh conditions farther south in the Southern Ocean. The occurrence of Arctic Terns at Cape Recife has been confirmed by mistnetting for ringing; in the early 1970s, when terns were using Cape Recife as an overnight roost, 1.6% of "Commic Terns" caught in mistnets were Arctic Terns.

There are a few records of Little Terns, which normally occur in estuaries. There is one record of a Lesser Crested Tern in December 1977. A Black Tern was mistnetted at night in January 1972. Likewise, the handful of records of Whitewinged Terns were all mistnetted at night during summer.

Swift Terns breed on the islands of Mandela Bay, and there are day roosts at Cape Recife. Numbers of "loafing" birds at Cape Recife fluctuate widely; at any time of the year, there can be between zero and 1000 Swift Terns present. Ring recoveries and colour-ringing have revealed that many of the birds at Cape Recife are on passage to and from the offshore islands of the Western Cape and even those of Namibia. Juveniles from the Western Cape islands fledge in autumn, and migrate eastwards towards KwaZulu-Natal; many pass Cape Recife within a few weeks of leaving their breeding colonies. Cape Recife is an important staging area for this species.

When majority of Palearctic terns leave in autumn for the northern hemisphere breeding grounds, they are replaced by Antarctic Terns, a nonbreeding winter visitor from the Southern Ocean. They regularly loaf at Cape Recife, from March to November. The largest recorded flock numbered 360 birds at a daytime roost, but higher numbers have been suspected at night in the past.

  Cape Recife - Lighthouse
Photo Dr Norbert Klages
The lighthouse at Cape Recife

Caspian Terns were recorded on about 15% of bird counts made along the Cape Recife shoreline in the 1980s. For a species that is usually associated with estuaries, this is an unusually large reporting rate for a stretch of open coast. The maximum number of birds reported on a single count was three. The reporting rate seems to have increased since those surveys. In 2001, we are gaining insight into the possibility that this is a "nursery area" for Caspian Terns from breeding colonies farther west; colour marking is showing that two-somes occurring here consist of a parent with a semi-dependent chick. There is a large breeding colony of Caspian Terns 20 km to the northeast at a saltworks in the Swartkops River valley; we do not yet know if parents bring chicks from this colony to Cape Recife.

The Damara Tern, "Endangered" in South Africa, has its easternmost breeding colony near the mouth of the Sundays River, 40 km to the northeast in Mandela Bay. It is being seen with increasing frequency at Cape Recife. In 1999 and 2000, successful breeding was suspected to have taken place in the nearby dune system. This was finally confirmed in 2001, when a nest was found by Paul Martin and Alf Taylor from which a single chick was successfully reared. Damara Terns feed mainly inshore along the wave cut platforms and in the sandy bays between the rocks.

The Roseate Tern, regarded as "Endangered" in South Africa, has been recorded breeding at Cape Recife. This species bred at Cape Recife between 1963 and 1968, but predators and human disturbance resulted in breeding failures. Roseate Terns are particularly sensitive to disturbance while breeding; they no longer attempt breeding on the mainland, and a slowly increasing population breeds on the Mandela Bay islands. Over the past few years about 250 pairs breed on Bird Island in winter. Colour-flagged birds from this colony are frequently seen at Cape Recife. Roseate Terns are often seen at Cape Recife in breeding plumage in autumn, prior to breeding. However, the largest numbers occur in spring, when numbers are swelled by the progeny of the year.

Four species of gull have been recorded, with the Kelp Gull being the commonest. Greyheaded Gulls are being seen with increasing frequency. Recently, Hartlaub's Gulls have started occurring; these are presumably from the newly-established breeding colony in the estuary of the Swartkops River. The Siberian Heuglin's Gull has also recently been identified. Whitebreasted Cormorants and Cape Cormorants also utilize Cape Recife as a roost.

  Cape Recife
Photo Dr Norbert Klages
Cape Recife

The wave-cut platforms northwest of the point support substantial densities of migrant waders, mainly in summer. Among the resident waders, African Black Oystercatcher and Whitefronted Plover occur throughout the year and breed. This is a minor nursery area for young oystercatchers, and colour-ringed birds from as far afield as Knysna have been identified.

Curiously, Threebanded Plovers are winter visitors, occurring mainly from May to August. We do not know where these birds are coming from, but it is likely that they are altitudinal migrants from cold places farther inland, possibly the Karoo.

A pair of African Penguins attempted to breed at Cape Recife in May-June 1981. An egg was laid, but it is not known if it even hatched. This incident took place one year prior to the establishment of mainland breeding colonies of penguins at Stony Point and the Boulders.

Cape Recife was in the news in June-July 2000, because this was the place at which unoiled African Penguins were brought to after the Treasure oil spill. About 19 500 penguins were released here, including the three penguins, "Peter", "Pamela" and "Percy", that were fitted with satellite tracking devices so that their routes home could be monitored. These birds had been captured clean on Robben Island and Dassen Island, and were relocated to Cape Recife to prevent them from becoming oiled in the polluted seas around their islands. The return distance to their breeding colonies was about 800 km; clean up of the landing beaches on these breeding islands had been completed when the birds returned, about a fortnight after release.

From the viewpoint of the roosting seabirds and the waders feeding in the intertidal zone, the most serious threat is ever-increasing levels of disturbance, caused by sightseers, anglers, bait-collectors, perlemoen poachers, and off-road vehicles. Being close to a major port, the threat of an oil spill is ever-present. For example, on 29 July 1985, the bulk-ore carrier Kapodistrias went aground on Thunderbolt Reef, just south of Cape Recife. Fortunately, winds were offshore, and only limited amounts of oil reached the shore. At least 1180 penguins were oiled in this incident.