Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sun 9 March 2014
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsfield
In contrast to the pelagic 2 weeks ago, it was a return to classic early autumn conditions today with east / north-east winds experienced for the entire day with very little swell and mild seas. A strong downhill current out wide combined with the northerly winds pushed us rapidly southwards, with us drifting nearly 5 miles in the first hour at the shelf. Water temperature at the shelf was a very warm 26 degrees. In stark contrast to our last trip, no one was seasick today.
This was possibly the best pelagic run out of Port Stephens, laced with highlights that we would normally be happy to see on any given day singly, but combined they made for an exceptional day at sea. There were more cries of “stop the boat!” than a Tony Abbott election campaign speech. Easily the stand-out for the day was a totally unexpected adult Light-mantled (Sooty) Albatross that gave frustrating ‘going away’ views as it flew south en-route to the shelf. The other highlights were more ‘expected’ at this time of year in warm water and included singles of Streaked Shearwater, Tahiti Petrel, an intermediate phase Kermadec Petrel and a White-necked Petrel (the latter 2 seen now on consecutive trips). A Black Petrel was photographed but not actually seen or called on the day (as frustrating as that is). An adult Sooty Tern was nice, as were 2 Long-tailed Jaegers including a stunning adult with tail streamers half grown out. “Good” numbers of Fleshy-footed Shearwaters was another highlight.
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. Photo: Michael Kearns
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0703 returning at 1715.
The first birds seen up upon leaving the heads was a pair of Little Penguins near a small fishing boat – the first seen from The Argonaut since late 2012. Small numbers of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters followed the boat but were generally not too interested in the offerings. Not too much further out a good number (perhaps 30 birds?) of Fleshy-foots joined in and was at times the only species behind the boat. This ended when a very hungry and eager Streaked Shearwater flew in, instigating the first ‘stop the boat!’ for the day. As it turned out we didn't really need to stop for this bird as it followed us for the rest of the way to the shelf and for an hour or so out there (so was with us for more than 3 hours).
Streaked Shearwater. Photo: Dick Jenkin
A Shy-type Albatross was seen, along with small numbers of both Fluttering and Hutton’s Shearwaters. The first Long-tailed Jaeger arrived at about the half-way mark, before Neil asked Ann Lindsey about a large, dark bird that had just rounded the bow of the boat, heading south. When the shock of what was flying past had subsided, a loud scream of excitement came from Ann and all on board looked in the direction to which she was generally pointing, where a Light-mantled Albatross was seen flying casually southwards. The boat was ordered to stop once again as camera shutters went into overdrive. Unfortunately, the views were both brief and predominantly of the bird flying away and although it did make a turn back to look at the boat it circled and continued on towards ‘where it belongs’. We did notice that its legs were dangling and I would appreciate any feedback on why this might be. It is interesting also that this is only the second confirmed record of a Light-mantled in the Hunter; the first being an exhausted bird that was found on Stockton Beach on the 19 March 2012 (that later died). Thus the only Light-mantleds we have recorded up here have both been during the month when the water is warmest.
As we continued I remarked to someone “imagine if we get a Tahiti Petrel today as well – what an odd couple that would be!”.
With the excitement of this sighting buzzing through the boat, we made our way to the shelf and about an hour after the Light-mantled, sure enough a Tahiti Petrel was seen at some distance in the wake of the boat. Just before yet another cry to stop the boat was yelled, the skipper put the engine into idle and motors cut as we had reached our destination (32 55 30s / 1542 33 40e). Again, the views of this bird were frustratingly distant.
Tahiti Petrel. Photo: Steve Roderick
It didn't take long before before the first Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel flew in but things seemed to go very quiet after the high intensity journey out. A beautiful adult Long-tailed Jaeger with growing out tail streamers did provide some excitement though. We were drifting south very rapidly and decided after about 90 minutes to reposition and head north towards where we’d arrived. As it turned out we didn't get anywhere near this location because of the current but on this short journey an intermediate phase Kermadec Petrel flew in from the north, requiring yet another stopping of the boat for what were pretty ordinary views of the bird that once past the boat, did not return to enable better looks.
After another uneventful drift we wondered if the running engines were actually attracting birds to the boat! With only 15 minutes left on the final drift we were looking at the prospect of making it 3 pelagics (and over 8 hours at the shelf) without a single storm-petrel sighting. Fortunately this did not happen as a Wilson’s Storm-petrel was picked up by an eager eye to the east, with most on board getting a fleeting glimpse.
Most of the shearwaters began to follow us as we made our way back to port, along with one of the Great-winged Petrels for some distance. About 30 minutes into the return leg a White-necked Petrel was picked up well back in the wake and once again the skipper was ordered in no uncertain terms to stop the vessel in its tracks. The remainder of the journey yielded not much more aside from a second Shy-type albatross, an Arctic Jaeger and a Caspian Tern close to the heads and handful more Fluttering/Hutton’s Shearwaters. At least that is what was thought on the day*.
It was an extremely enjoyable autumn pelagic with 23 species seen outside of the heads, including 14 species of Procellariiformes with 5 species of petrel and the Light-mantled to cap it off nicely.
* Post-script to trip report: With quite a number of Fleshy-footed Shearwaters following us back, I (along with others scanning the trailing flocks from the stern of the boat) checked each Fleshy carefully to ensure that we didn't miss a possible Black Petrel. As it turned out, I have uncovered an unmistakeable image of a Black Petrel, which adds to an already good list of birds, but is somewhat frustrating as trip leader.
Species: Total (maximum number visible from the boat at one time) – note that many are approximations.
Little Penguin: 2 (2)
Wilson’s Storm-petrel: 1
Shy-type Albatross: 2 (1)
LIGHT-MANTLED (SOOTY) ALBATROSS: 1
Short-tailed Shearwater: 4 (2)
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 100 (60)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 250 (80)
Hutton’s Shearwater: 4 (2)
Fluttering Shearwater: 2 (1)
Fluttering (type) Shearwater: 5+
STREAKED SHEARWATER: 1
Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel: 4 (2)
KERMADEC PETREL: 1
WHITE-NECKED PETREL: 1
TAHITI PETREL: 1
BLACK PETREL: 1
Australasian Gannet: 5 (2)
Sooty Tern: 1
Crested Tern: 6 (4)
Caspian Tern: 1
Pomarine Jaeger: 7 (3)
Arctic Jaeger: 1
Long-tailed Jaeger: 2 (1)
Silver Gull: 1
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin: 30+