10 Nov 2012 Report
After several days of quite benign weather off Sydney, a strong southerly airstream moved in overnight on Friday and we knew that we would be in for a very bumpy ride on Saturday. It turned out to be one of those days that really highlighted the adage that "pelagic birding is wet, miserable, uncomfortable and sickness-inducing, but somebody has to do it". However, it also added considerable weight to the old theory that the rougher it is, then the better it is for birding as we had one of best days on the Halicat with 26 species recorded. As well as recording most of the expected species for November, we had many highlights including GOULD'S PETREL, two BLACK PETRELS, an early Buller's Shearwater, all four skua species (including two Long-tailed Jaegers and a late Brown Skua), and a Buller's Albatross.
It was a fairly cool and cloudy Sydney summer day although the sun did break through later in the trip but the temperature did not rise above 20 deg C and it felt much colder than that in the strong southerly wind. Sea water temperatures were in the region of 18.5 deg C throughout and sea conditions were very uncomfortable with a 2 metres sea on top of a 1.5 to 2 metre swell. Interestingly, the worst sea conditions were encountered in the middle section of the trip in both directions and, when we were drifting off the shelf break, the conditions were reasonably acceptable. The winds were around 15 to 20 knots from the SSE all day and there were several cases of sea sickness on board which was unsurprising under the circumstances. We departed Rose Bay at 7.10am and arrived back at about 3.00pm.
We headed out of the harbour with 19 passengers on board from Germany, Austria, USA, UK and Australia and, for many, it was their first pelagic experience. David James set up a berley trail as we left the heads and we were followed by numbers of Silver Gulls which were soon joined by some Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. It quickly became apparent that the conditions were going to be very difficult with everyone holding on tight in the heavy bumps and clouds of spray, so much so that when we saw a Humpback Whale breach some 500 metres to the south, there was no thought of changing course into the sea to have a closer look. As we made our way slowly east, we added Crested Tern, some Short-tailed Shearwaters, the odd Fluttering Shearwater and our first albatross of the day, an immature Black-browed, to the list. The upper deck was vacated by everyone except the skipper and myself after a large wave broke over the deck soaking everybody but, after a brief stop, we continued on our way to the shelf albeit quite slowly. There were plenty of birds around as we crossed the abysmal plain and we added Shy Albatross, several more Black-browed Albatross, a few Australasian Gannets, Arctic Jaeger and Pomarine Skua to the day's tally. A small group of Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphins came past the boat but did not stay with us.
As we finally approached the shelf break, things quickly began to hot up with our first Great-winged Petrels putting in an appearance and then, the first real excitement of the day when a BLACK PETREL came up behind the boat and then stayed with us for a long while feeding on the berley. In the difficult conditions, it was decided not to attempt to reach our usual location of Brown's Mountain (an undersea mount) and we stopped and set up a berley trail just over the shelf break about 20NM from the heads. The birds came in to the berley slick in good numbers and variety and we soon added Cape Petrel, a second BLACK PETREL, a lovely adult Campbell Albatross, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Long-tailed Jaeger, Sooty Shearwater, Hutton's Shearwater and White-faced Storm Petrel to the list. A late Northern Giant Petrel joined the feeding birds on the slick and was then joined by a second bird.
After drifting for a couple of miles, we motored back up the slick to our starting point and commenced a second drift. Steve's sharp eyes saw a Buller's Albatross approaching the boat and, at the same time, a GOULD'S PETREL appeared on the slick - everyone had good views of both birds but neither of them stayed around. A young Wandering Albatross (race gibsoni) arrived and fed around the boat to the delight of those who had this species high on their wish list - it was to be the only one of the day. Surprisingly, we did not record a single Providence Petrel which is most unusual for a November trip.
After a short third drift with no new birds, we decided to start heading back to Sydney as the wind was certainly not moderating. About 8 miles from the heads we encountered a large feeding flock of shearwaters and went to investigate - we had seen this flock on the way out but conditions were too difficult to make a detour. The flock comprised Wedge-tailed, Fluttering and Hutton's Shearwaters but also seen were a Sooty Shearwater and an early Buller's Shearwater, the latter being seen flying directly away and being missed by quite a few people. A Brown Skua put in a surprise appearance after I had told someone that it was too late in the year for this species and, to round things off, we located our first and only Flesh-footed Shearwater of the trip (and the season so far - problems on the breeding grounds on Lord Howe Island seem to have affected their numbers). Despite the difficult conditions, everyone on board had a ripper of a day and went home with some great memories.
(Note that the numbers in parentheses represent the approximate maximum number of that species in view at one time)
Northern Giant Petrel 2 (2)
Cape Petrel 4 (2) all nominate race capense
Great-winged Petrel 24 (8) all race gouldi
GOULD'S PETREL 1 (1)
BLACK PETREL 2 (2)
Buller's Shearwater 1 (1)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 260 (200)
Sooty Shearwater 3 (1)
Short-tailed Shearwater 160 (50)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 1 (1)
Fluttering Shearwater 15 (6)
Hutton's Shearwater 12 (4)
Wandering Albatross 1 (1) gibsoni
Black-browed Albatross 30 (20)
Campbell Albatross 3 (2)
Shy Albatross 7 (3) both nominate race cauta and
the NZ race steadi (White-capped Albatross)
Buller's Albatross 1 (1)
Wilson's Storm Petrel 10 (2)
White-faced Storm Petrel 2 (2)
Australasian Gannet 9 (5)
Brown Skua 1 (1)
Arctic Jaeger 2 (1)
Pomarine Skua 7 (3)
Long-tailed Jaeger 2 (1)
Silver Gull 150 (100)
Crested Tern 3 (1)
Humpback Whale 1
Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphin 6
Flying fish 1