Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sun 24 November 2013
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsefield
A stiff sou-wester maintaining at around 15 to 20 knots for the entire journey to shelf combined with a relatively short wave period made for a bit of a bumpy (and wet) ride, particularly those manning the berley bucket at the port aft of the boat! Winds turned and dropped slightly after about an hour at the shelf break and moved slowly around to the sou-east. Water temperature was not noted, but all of those at the back of the boat with wet feet concurred that it was on the ‘warm side’. Some of the birds seen, as well as the presence of a Manta Ray, were also suggestive of warm water.
A sub-adult Masked Booby was a definite highlight, being the first confirmed live record for the Hunter Region and a new bird for many observers on board. 3 Sooty Terns and 3 Long-tailed Jaegers were also seen, with one Long-tailed spending an extended amount of time in the slick. Any day with two sightings of Gould’s Petrels is also a good one.
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0710 returning at 1635.
Once out of the heads the search was on to see if the flocks of inshore Short-tailed Shearwaters were still in attendance. The first shearwaters seen were Wedge-tailed, though some Short-taileds did follow the boat soon after. However, these birds were not in the numbers that had been reported during prior weeks, though those that were present seemed quite hungry or at least interested in the berley. We did encounter a flock of about 200 birds which upped the count of Short-taileds for the day. Numbers of Wedge-tailed were perceivably lower than other spring-summer pelagics, but there certainly wasn’t a dearth of these birds. The first of only a handful of Fleshy-foots appeared about half an hour into the trip. 3 Pomarine Jaegers came and went as well.
Two interesting sightings were made on the trip out, one being in the form of a single White-throated Needletail zooming south about half way out. But before this there had been a bird with white underparts picked up by Dan Williams. Although views were frustratingly brief, it was apparent that it was a ‘Cookilaria’ of some description and only 2 features could be discerned, being a ‘pale-ish’ head and very white underwing. This points towards the bird having been a Cook’s Petrel, but there could be no certainty in this, so it will be recorded as a Pterodroma sp. in the records.
After a very bumpy and wet ride, we finally reached out drift start at 32 54 58s 152 35 10e. Two jaegers seen flying to the north were identified as Long-tailed but the views were frustratingly distant for those who had not seen one before. We were barely 15 minutes into the drift when someone asked “is that a gannet coming in?”. Having heard that a Masked Booby had been seen on the Wollongong pelagic the day before*, we all swung around for a better look. Sure enough, it was a sub-adult Masked Booby and it came right into the boat and held into the breeze, floating barely 2m above our heads. At one stage it moved towards the canopy and shaped to put the landing gear down as if it wanted to have a rest for a while. It actually then flew south for a short distance and landed on the water. At that moment a pair of Sooty Terns flew in from the north and as they continued south the booby joined them before all three disappeared out of sight.
The first Pterodroma able to be identified arrived in the form of a late Solander’s Petrel and a lone Melon-headed Whale was picked up breaking the surface by one lucky punter. A White-faced Storm-petrel arrived to join the small throng of Wilson’s that had now gathered in the slick. The next major excitement however, was when a cry of “Tahiti Petrel!” came from somewhere. Alas there was no Tahiti, but a very dark-headed Gould’s Petrel flying around the rear of the boat. In terms of Cookilarias, this bird was quite confiding, doing a couple of passes of the boat, enabling all on board reasonably good views.
A third Sooty Tern arrived before a very obliging Long-tailed Jaeger came in and fed in the slick. This bird stayed for well over an hour and enable prolonged views and numerous photographs to be taken. An albatross appeared on the southern horizon, soon becoming evidently an adult Shy-type. Not surprisingly, this generated much discussion about the identification of Shy-type
Albatrosses, taxonomy and all things related. The third (and probably fourth) petrel species of the day was seen when a Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel missing some flight feathers arrived at the boat. This was expected to be the first petrel seen! This bird actually returned later on the day, easily recognisable by the state of the wing. A second bird was seen later in the day just before leaving the shelf.
More Shy-types came in to the boat over the course of the day and we ended up counting 5 distinct birds, which is interesting for Port Stephens in November, particularly in the company of things like Masked Booby and Sooty Terns. A second Gould’s Petrel was much less obliging than the first and scooted north of the boat at a good distance. Having drifted along the edge of the shelf for
the entire three-and-a-bit hours, we finished the drift at 33 0 8s 152 31 0e and started the trip journey back to port. There was to be one more bit of excitement however, just before the engines were started. A huge, elongated diamond-shaped shadow was seen just below the surface, with ‘wings’ flapping. On size and shape it was identified as a Manta Ray as it swam under the boat.
The return leg was possibly the quietest of any Port Stephens pelagic, with all attendant birds at the shelf choosing to ignore the trail of berley left behind as the Argonaut made its way back to inshore waters. It was virtually 2 hours with no birds following the boat before we hit the inshore shearwater flocks, where we found several more Fleshy-foots than we’d had out wide. Three distant immature Black-browed Albatross were seen before we were approached by the only Arctic Jaeger for the day, being a dark bird not far out of the heads.
All in all it was a very entertaining pelagic with a good mix of winter and summer birds.
* Comparison with images of the Wollongong bird reveals that the two were different birds, with the Port Stephens bird having a paler head and some darker underwing coverts.
Total (maximum number visible from the boat at one time) – note that many are approximations.
White-faced Storm-Petrel: 1
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel: 10 (7)
Black-browed Albatross: 3 (1)
Shy Albatross: 5 (2)
Short-tailed Shearwater: 400 (200)
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 20 (8)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 150 (50)
Solander’s Petrel: 1
Great-winged Petrel: 2 (1) – both gouldi
Gould’s Petrel: 2 (1)
Unidentified ‘Cookilaria-type’ Petrel: 1
MASKED BOOBY: 1 (sub-adult)
Crested Tern: 4 (2)
Pomarine Jaeger: 6 (4)
Arctic Jaeger: 1
Long-tailed Jaeger: 3 (2)
Silver Gull: 5 (5)
White-throated Needletail: 1
Short-beaked Common Dolphin: 5
Melon-headed Whale: 1
Manta Ray: 1