Recent reports of an unprecedented influx of Great Shearwaters, with sightings in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Eden NSW and Kaikoura, attracted a good number of last minute bookings on the Halicat by birders keen to add this species to their Australian and/or life list. Usually, with these sorts of expectations (as was the case for last month's trip), the actuality turns out to fall short of those expectations, but this was certainly not the case today on one of Sydney's most remarkable pelagic trips. After we left Sydney Heads, we encountered the least number of birds that Steve or myself could ever remember on a Sydney trip, motoring out 10 NM with nothing more than Silver Gulls and a couple of Crested Terns and Australasian Gannets. With high water temperatures, we feared that it would be another quiet day but, as we approached the shelf break, everything changed. The next three hours or so brought SOUTH POLAR SKUA, WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD and then the amazing visit of GREAT SHEARWATER which was the only bird during the entire day which came to the boat to feed on our berley, which it did at point blank range for upwards of half an hour

We also had some frustratingly far distant views of possible Soft-plumaged/ Herald Petrel for which even Raja's photographs could not provide sufficient detail, two birds which were seen by Tom Wilson and myself which appeared to be White-headed Petrel (but again at very long distance), and finally, we had a very quick glimpse of a disappearing large shearwater which may have been a Buller's. At one stage, David James said to me "on a day like this, you feel like just about anything can happen" and indeed that was the sort of day it was

Surface water temperatures were 20.1degC in the harbour, 21.4degC inshore and up to 24.0degC beyond the continental shelf break, this being a full 2degC higher than on the March trip at a time of year that one would expect temperatures to be falling. We departed from Rose Bay ferry wharf at 7.20am and returned at 4.20pm. Sea conditions were reasonably benign with a north easterly swell of less than a metre and hardly any chop on top of that. The wind started off quite light at 5 knots from the west and freshened a little during the return journey to perhaps 10 knots or so and backing around slowly to the north east. The weather was mostly sunny and warm and, with the flat sea conditions and plenty of excitement, there were no cases of sea sickness


We headed out of the harbour with a complement of 18 on board, comprising local birders and visitors from the USA and the UK. While we were still in Rose Bay, we encountered a small pod of Common Dolphins with at least one Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin with them. After leaving Sydney Heads, we initially headed north towards Long Reef on the premise that any group of inshore shearwaters might have a Great Shearwater travelling with them. However, we encountered nothing at all other than Silver Gulls) in this zone and soon set a heading for Brown's Mountain, the underwater seamount located some 22 NM ESE of Sydney Heads. For the first 45 minutes or so, we encountered almost no bird activity except for a Crested Tern and two Australasian Gannets, probably the most barren stretch of birding that we have ever had off Sydney. However, a fly-by Willy Wagtail heading towards land some 10 miles distant provided some light relief and a small pod of Common Dolphins came and rode on our bow for a while. A single Wedge-tailed Shearwater, closely followed by a single Flesh-footed Shearwater raised interest levels a tad, an early returning Brown Skua flew by at close range and then an adult Yellow-nosed Albatross resting on the water allowed a close approach, and then a distant Black-browed Albatross was spotted by some observers. A single Hutton's Shearwater passed behind the boat giving good views of the underwing in perfect light and the first Wilson's Storm-Petrel of the day was seen by most observers on board. As we approached Brown's Mountain, activity suddenly picked up massively with a huge flock of shearwaters (primarily Wedge-tailed) feeding on a school of baitfish. We began to see our first pterodromas of the day in the form of Great-winged (Grey-faced) and Providence (Solander's) Petrels with the latter looking immaculate in their fresh plumage. We stopped the boat and drifted while we laid out a berley slick but it soon became apparent that the birds were not interested in our offerings today, although a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels came by providing excellent views

We decided to set off on a slow cruise into deeper water and, very shortly after, the call of SOUTH POLAR SKUA went up and good views of an adult intermediate morph some 100 metres behind the boat were had by all. David James noted the start of moult in the primary coverts which is typical of the sequence of the post-breeding moult of this species in the Austral winter. A single Wandering Albatross was seen but did not approach the boat and single Fluttering Shearwater and Short-tailed Shearwaters were added to the day's list. Barely had the excitement of the skua died down before Tom Wilson spotted a WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD which provided brief but excellent views to all, including a dive for food which was caught on a sequence of photographs by Raja. The consensus was that it was a juvenile bird as it appeared to be in post-juvenile moult and was moulting in its extended central tail streamers

As we continued our slow cruise northwards and then slowly back to the east, we came across an adult Black-browed Albatross resting on the water which proved to be of the Campbell Island subspecies impavida. The call of a distant pterodroma went up and Nikolas described it as having a 'Hutton's Shearwater type plumage with dark back, pale belly and dark underwings' which was the consensus of all who got onto the bird. At the time Soft-plumaged Petrel was considered the most likely identification but examination of Raja's distant shots afterwards could not positively confirm that diagnosis. The bird was definitely long-winged and some photos suggested white underwing markings suggestive of Herald Petrel but, with other photos showing plain darkish underwings, it was felt that perhaps the light was playing tricks. The structure of the bird strongly suggested one of these two species

As we began to approach the shelf break from the east, the real excitement of the day broke out with the call of GREAT SHEARWATER getting everyone scrambling with binoculars and cameras. Actually, binoculars were not really necessary as the bird came straight into the boat, settled on the water and began to wolf down our berley with great gusto. There was a lot of back slapping and hand shaking amongst those for whom this was a desperately anticipated life bird (myself included) and the bird stayed around the boat for an extended period of time allowing fantastic views and photographic opportunities. Images of this bird, the tropicbird, the South Polar Skua and the mystery pterodroma can be seen on Raja's website at . The location where the Great Shearwater was seen was S 33 degrees 59.978 seconds, E 151 degrees 44.904 seconds

As we headed back over the shelf break, Tom Wilson and I studied at very long distance behind the boat, a pair of very white-looking pterodromas which were almost certainly White-headed Petrels but, again, they were just too far away to see any detail. Similarly, a little later, a large shearwater was fleetingly seen going away and the consensus was that it was probably a Buller's Shearwater but the views were inconclusive. On the way back to Sydney, there were no new bird species but we had the visit of a very large pod (c. 100) of Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphins and, shortly afterwards, a pod of about 50 Risso's Dolphins. All-in-all, it was one of the most exciting pelagic birding days that we have had off Sydney and that, after the least exciting start to the day in memory!


(Note that the numbers in parentheses represent the maximum number of that species in view at one time) Great-winged Petrel 12 (2)
Providence Petrel 32 (3)
possible White-headed Petrel 2 (2)
Soft-plumaged/Herald Petrel 1 (1) pale morph (unidentified to species) Possible Buller's Shearwater 1 (1)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 700 (400)
Short-tailed Shearwater 1 (1)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 35 (6)
Fluttering Shearwater 3 (1)
Hutton's Shearwater 1 (1)
Wandering Albatross 1 (1) gibsoni Black-browed Albatross 2 (1) one impavida Yellow-nosed Albatross 1 (1)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 8 (3)
Australasian Gannet 34 (6)
Brown Skua 1 (1) early return SOUTH POLAR SKUA 1 (1)
Silver Gull 70 (20)
Crested Tern 9 (2)


Inshore bottlenose Dolphin 1
Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphin 100
Risso's Dolphin 50
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 18
Willy Wagtail 1

The next Sydney pelagic trip will be on Saturday 14 May 2011 departing Mosman Ferry Wharf at 6.45am and Rose Bay Ferry Wharf at 7.00am. Call Hal at 0411 311 236 to make a booking