• Sunday, 23rd June 2013, Port Stephens, NSW, Australia

    Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sun 23rd June 2013

    Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsefield

    With an(other) impending East Coast Low bearing down on the NSW coastline and news forecasts that were heralding a virtual apocalypse, the skipper was somewhat apprehensive about the journey to the shelf. The forecast was for light winds on a moderate swell, but it was the predicted 150-200mm of rain on the BOM website that had him worried. As it turned out, we were extremely lucky and it seemed that the bulk of the rain that did fall was on land, though we skirted a very dark storm front situated off Seal Rocks. Swell was 2 to 2.5m, settling down somewhat in the afternoon, whilst the winds were out of the sou-east at a reasonably stiff 15 knots, creating a pretty good chop. Water temp at the shelf was approximately 19 degrees.

    This was a trip with a few highlights and was easily the best winter pelagic that we have run out of Port Stephens in this ‘round’ of organised trips (since 2010). 19 species of seabird were recorded and a total of 22 bird species outside of the heads. The number of attendant albatross was a definite highlight and having at least 3 Buller’s Albatross was good for Port Stephens. We also had sightings of the Hunter’s first Antarctic Prion since 2000 and the first Slender-billed Prion since 2002. A Black-bellied Storm-petrel was also nice to see, even if it did keep fairly wide of the boat.

    Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0720 returning at 1635. After a false start and a quick return to the public wharf to fetch our last passenger we set off in quite comfortable conditions – gentle offshore breeze into a moderate but widely-spaced swell amongst a cloudy sky, but far from the rainy conditions that we had all driven through on our way to Nelson Bay earlier. The first Fairy Prion and Black-browed Albatross were encountered before we’d even made the ocean proper, setting the scene for the day. Normally I don’t start throwing the berley out til we at least clear Boondelbah Island,but with a number of albatross showing interest in the boat, I started only a mile or so from the heads. From this point onwards we were constantly followed by mostly Black-browed, but also Shy and Yellow-nosed Albatross. There seemed to be high proportion of adult Black-broweds too. A Brown Skua joined in just before the arrival of the first Buller’s Albatross. This species is (or has been) scarce in these waters and always gets the camera shutters going mad. The remainder of the journey to the shelf break was a matter of having many albatross following the boat and motoring through occasional groups of Fairy Prions, the odd Fluttering Shearwater and a distant look at the day’s only Wandering Albatross. Once at the shelf itself (-32 56 8 /152 33 26), it wasn’t long before we had our first Wilson’s Storm-petrels and a Solander’s Petrel. It was such a relief for me to see the Solander’s as we have had 3 pelagics this year that have been ‘petrel-less’. Many gannets were also at the shelf, with two separate flocks of about 30 feeding birds each (with albatross below) seen out wide. A Northern Giant Petrel had honed in on us and before long some Fairy Prions settled in to feed near the rear of the boat. After about 10 minutes on the drift Al Richo and I had noticed a prion that appeared bulkier and darker around the side of the head but had lost it amongst the Fairy’s. Moments later Dan Williams called a pale-backed bird and once we got a good view of the tail we confirmed it as a Slender-billed Prion. While people were getting onto the Slender-billed the bulkier bird came back into view and we called “Antarctic Prion”, giving us 3 prion species for a brief time (neither of the non-Fairy’s hung round for long). These are the first Slender-billed and Antarctic Prions for pelagics run off the Hunter coastline for many years (since 2002 and 2000 respectively). About 20 minutes passed before a Black-bellied Storm-petrel came in, unfortunately only making one pass of the port side at a moderate distance. With the drift unusually taking us north, we had drifted back inside the shelf, so we changed our position back over the edge and it wasn’t long before we once again had a Slender-billed Prion at the boat. This was followed by a Cape Petrel and the first of two Great-winged Petrels. This Cape Petrel was ravenous and from communications with others is likely to be the only Cape Petrel seen on a NSW pelagic so far this year. But the day belonged to the albatross and for the entire journey back to port we were accompanied by a throng of these magnificent birds. A second Northern Giant-Petrel was seen briefly about 2/3 of the way back in and the now-customary welcoming committee of Sea-eagles came to greet us near Tomaree (but did not pick on anything on this occasion). We were surprised to have not seen even a hint of a whale all day and the only Cetaceans were two fleeting glimpses of an unidentified dolphin at the shelf. An absolutely cracking winter’s pelagic with a constant attendance of albatrosses and 3 prion species to keep us on our toes.

    Mick Roderick

    BIRDS Species: Total (maximum number visible from the boat at one time)

    Wilson’s Storm-Petrel: 15 (6)
    Black-bellied Storm-Petrel: 1
    Black-browed Albatross: 50 (30) - at least 5x impavida
    Shy Albatross: 11 (3)
    Yellow-nosed Albatross: 9 (3)
    Buller’s Albatross: 3 (2)
    Wandering Albatross: 1
    Northern Giant-Petrel: 2 (1)
    Cape Petrel: 1
    Fairy Prion: 150 (25)
    Slender-billed Prion: 1 (poss. 2?)
    Antarctic Prion: 1
    Fluttering Shearwater: 4 (1)
    Fluttering-type Shearwater: 2 (1)
    Great-winged Petrel: 2 (1) - at least one gouldi
    Solander’s Petrel: 2 (1)
    Australasian Gannet: 200 (70)
    Brown Skua: 1
    Crested Tern: 12 (8)
    Silver Gull: 40 (30)
    White-bellied Sea-Eagle: 3 (2)
    Sooty Oystercatcher: 1
    Pied Cormorant: 1

    Unidentified dolphin sp: 2