Special visitors predict storms in Gansbaai

Henry

A special group of European visitors have been visiting Gansbaai in the Overstrand since August. These light travelers weigh only about 28 g and have no problem covering the 11,500 km to the South African coast within a month. Hydrobates pelagicusthe European storm petrel, bears a name that literally means “water runner on the open sea”.

“The swift has a mystical status because of its small stature and great skills. Mariners were convinced, and some still believe, that the European tern is an indication of storms and stormy sea conditions that are on their way,” says marine warden, Wilfred Chivell, of Marine Dynamics.

He and Christine Wessels, spokesperson for the organisation, sailed out from Kleinbaai harbor a week ago with the skipper Hennie Otto to see the flock of barnacles dancing on the water. On the same day, the Overstrand municipality issued another notice for “disruptive weather conditions and stormy seas”, which was predicted.

“Who knows, maybe there is some truth in this superstition,” jokes Chivell.

He explains that the European tern, with a length of 14–18 cm and a wingspan of 36–39 cm, picks up food from the sea surface or just under the water. “It looks like a dance on the waves.”

Unlike many other visitors at this time of year, says Chivell, European swifts return year after year with the same partner. The two lovers, mature at four to five years of age, lay a tiny egg during the breeding season, weighing up to 6.8 g. Both parents share the responsibility of hatching the egg, which can take between 38 and 50 days. Parenthood is short lived and after just 50 to 80 days the young are ready to take on the world and its dangers on their own.

According to Chivell, there is a small decrease in the number of barn swallows worldwide, but they are not yet considered an endangered species.

These visitors can still be seen on the coast until the end of May this year, even as far as East London, after which they will begin their return to the North.

“Look out for the tiny black body with white just above the tail on its croup, and if you see them dancing in the surf, check your weather app to see if there are any storms coming,” concludes Chivell.