Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sun 28th April 2013
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsefield
A slow-moving high pressure ridge in the Tasman had created a lengthy period of gentle seas up the east coast and the combined sea / swell today was around 1m.
Despite most models predicting calm conditions along the eastern seaboard, winds at the shelf were a stiff 15 knots from the west / south-west. This gave rise to hope that there would be more activity than the previous two Port Stephens trips in March, where the ocean was like a millpond.
Apart from a rather late Streaked Shearwater about an hour from the heads on the way out, the highlight for mine was witnessing a White-bellied Sea-Eagle taking a Wedge-tailed Shearwater from the wake of the boat on the return leg, in pretty spectacular fashion. If I may add a “lowlight” to this section, it would be the remarkable lack of Pterodromas again, with a hat-trick of Port Stephens trips now without a single petrel of any description seen.
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0710 returning at 1655.
The early phase of the journey out was very promising, with hordes of hungry Wedge-tailed and Fleshy-footed Shearwaters joining the boat; clearly more was on offer than the 2 trawlers that had attracted their attention prior. Also joining the Argonaut were a mob of Silver Gulls that made the journey out to the shelf and back. These were accompanied for a brief period by some Crested Terns and unusually, 3 Caspian Terns. Two Arctic Jaegers were seen harassing the terns at the end of the wake.
About an hour into the trip the call of “Streaked Shearwater” went up and the
boat stopped to see if the bird would come any closer. Unfortunately it remained quite distant but for an extended period, so that everyone on board got at least prolonged, if somewhat distant views. A little further along a group of 7 White-faced Herons were seen flying south. Upon arrival at the shelf (32 55 12 / 152 35 20) there were already a group of Wilson’s Storm-petrels in attendance and after a period of ‘slicking’ we soon had throngs of these birds. One person did a count and ran out at 70 in the first 50m of the slick. There were likely well over 100 of them along the length of the slick. Despite our best efforts, nothing with pale underparts was seen. This was until a couple of White-faced Storm-petrels arrived. A pod of Cetaceans moved through, identified tentatively as Pygmy Killer Whales, whilst the identity of a second pod of much larger animals remained a mystery. Apart from a couple of Short-tailed Shearwaters, the storm-petrels were once again the only birds we watched at the shelf that we hadn’t dragged out with us from inshore waters. With the stiff breeze creating a nice white-capped ocean we all thought that a Pterodroma must show – but alas it wasn’t to be, and we clocked up our 9th consecutive hour in deep offshore water without even a hint of a petrel.
It was an uneventful return to port (just a lone Pomarine Jaeger added to the list) until we got within a couple of miles from the heads. Quite often when we approach the heads we see one or two White-bellied Sea-Eagles come for a look, usually remaining high up, though on one occasion a bird has taken a Short-tailed Shearwater. Today, the lone Sea-Eagle was keen to try his luck with the birds that were following our boat. It made a half-hearted stoop towards the birds in the wake, but then came in at a shallow angle and snatched a Wedge-tailed Shearwater that was actually underwater at the time! I have a series of images that shows the bird coming in, with nothing but water visible at the point that his talons hit the surface, but for the tips of a few feathers of the shearwater that was possibly hiding from the predator? The next frame shows the Sea-Eagle plucking the bird from out of the water from where it quickly made off with its catch.
2 Whistling Kites came out immediately to investigate and then our last bird for the day was a dark Eastern Reef Egret flying near Tomaree Headland. With such a disappointing day at sea (only 6 tubenose species seen), it was great to have a flurry of action at the end of the day.
Species: Total (maximum number visible from the boat at one time)
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel: 200 (100)
White-faced Storm-Petrel: 3 (2)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 540 (500)
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 80 (40)
Short-tailed Shearwater: 3 (2)
Streaked Shearwater: 1
Australasian Gannet: 25 (4)
Crested Tern: 9 (4)
Caspian Tern: 3 (3)
Arctic Jaeger 2 (2)
Pomarine Jaeger: 1
Silver Gull: 50 (30)
White-faced Heron: 7
Eastern Reef Egret: 1
White-bellied Sea-Eagle: 1
Whistling Kite: 2 (2)
Indo-Pacific Common Dolphin: 15
Pygmy Killer Whale(?): c.5
Unidentified Cetacean: c.5