Despite 25 knot northerlies and 3m seas forecast by BOM, it was a reasonably languid day on the sea with a smallish swell and winds that never got over 15 knots coming from a northerly direction all day. Seas were between 1-1.5m and it was a comfortable tea-bag for the punters on the shelf. To my knowledge no one was sea-sick.
A great day at sea, with 20 species recorded outside of the heads. Without doubt the highlight was a very attentive GREAT SHEARWATER, which to my knowledge is the first bird in Australian waters since the flurry of records in autumn this year and would also be the northernmost record on the east coast (please correct me if I’m wrong here – I have been in SE Asia for the past 4 months!). Other highlights included having 3 BLACK PETRELS around the boat, good views of a single GOULD’S PETREL and a couple of SOOTY TERNS. A rather unseasonal Brown Skua was also seen.
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0705, returning at 1655.It was a nervous exit through the heads with the incredibly varied forecasts in mind. Various websites such as Seabreeze and Willyweather predicted gentle northerlies on slight to moderate seas, whereas the bureau was talking about 25 knot winds creating a 3m sea. Fortunately they were wrong (as is often the case – the bureau does seem to err on the side of extreme caution with their forecasts) and it was pleasant journey to the shelf with the usual brigade of shearwaters in attendance. Large flocks of mainly Wedge-taileds were seen behind trawlers not far from the heads whilst small groups (max 40 birds) of Short-taileds were seen zooming south as we made our way to the drop-off. The highlight of the journey out was an unexpected Brown Skua that parted the small throng of Silver Gulls and Pomarine Jaegers briefly. We were all surprised to see one of these guys at this time of year (noting that the SOSSA website shows a presumably single sighting of Antarctic Skua for November).
Once at the shelf it was the usual gaggle of brown customers at the back of the boat when suddenly a cry of “Buller’s Shearwater!” went up. Initially that was what we all thought we were looking at in the slick until the underwing and tail pattern could be seen, with it dawning on us that we had a Great Shearwater on our hands. What didn’t help was the fact that this bird’s hindneck was completely brown, robbing it of any “capped” appearance. Just as this was happening a Sooty Tern flew overhead and the first Great-winged Petrel came in.
The Great-wings (some in heavy moult with only 5 primaries) were very attendant to the boat and seemed fairly hungry, jostling out other birds for the minced pickings. In fact the Wedgies were largely uninterested in the berley for most of the day, content to sit some distance from the boat. This was to be a dangerous occupation for the birds as we were joined by a 2-metre Mako Shark that cruised around the boat for about an hour. On several occasions we had to draw our oily rag from the water as it made half-hearted swipes at it and on at least one occasion it made a very quick bee-line for the shearwaters which were wise to its approaches.
The Great Shearwater came and went perhaps 5 or 6 times, with new excitement at every return. We were confident that it was the same bird due its lack of a distinct cap. Wilson’s Storm-petrels started to appear in the slick after about 90 minutes (longer than normal), peaking at about twenty birds. A lone White-faced also joined them. At around midday Steve got onto a distant Cookilaria which obligingly came straight towards our starboard side, giving great views of a Gould’s Petrel as it flew past.
Not too much later another Sooty Tern flew over and then the first of 3 Black Petrels appeared, one of which stayed with the boat til about 5nm from the heads on the rather uneventful trip back to port. Finally we were all treated to another attempt of a Sea Eagle to take a shearwater, this time unsuccessful. All in all a very entertaining and diverse day at sea.
Great Shearwater. Photo: Allan Richardson
Great Shearwater. Photo: Allan Richardson
Species: Total (maximum number visible from the boat at one time)
Wilson’s Storm-petrel: 25 (12)
White-faced Storm-petrel: 1
Fluttering Shearwater: 1
Hutton’s Shearwater: 1
Fluttering-type Shearwater: 3 (1)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 1200 (1000; though maximum 20 around our boat)
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 40 (20)
Short-tailed Shearwater: 150 (40)
Sooty Shearwater: 1
GREAT SHEARWATER: 1
Great-winged Petrel: 10 (4; most gouldi, one possible macroptera)
Solander’s (Providence) Petrel: 2 (1)
GOULD’S PETREL: 1
BLACK PETREL: 3 (3)
Australasian Gannet: 5 (2)
Crested Tern: 7 (4)
SOOTY TERN: 2 (1)
Pomarine Jaeger: 15 (5)
Brown Skua: 1
Silver Gull: 6 (4)
White-bellied Sea-Eagle: 1
Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphin: ???, but large pod of probably 100+ amongst schooling fish
Humpback Whale: 2
Southern Ocean Sunfish: 1