There had been some very good seabirds reported off the NSW coast in the past couple of weeks and I had some optimism that it could be a really good day on the ocean today. This optimism was fuelled by the fact that weather conditions were settling down after a good blow earlier in the week and that there should be some really hungry birds around. In the event, it didn't turn out this way at all and we had one of our quietest days for some time.
There were no rarities seen and several species which might be expected in September (Fairy Prion, Cape Petrel, Brown Skua, Buller's Albatross, Wilson's Storm Petrel) failed to put in an appearance. Besides the birds, we recorded False Killer Whales, Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin, Short-beaked Common Dolphin, Southern Ocean Sunfish, fur seals, Humpback Whales and a flying fish - so there was plenty to keep the interest levels up. We left the heads in good sea conditions of less than one metre sea on a one metre swell and with light south westerly winds in the morning, conditions remained quite benign for most of the day. The journey out to the shelf break was under a heavy overcast with intermittent light rain which made for difficult light conditions, both for identification and photography. We arrived at Brown's Mountain in good time just after 10.30am and set up a berleying drift for about 45 minutes. With no birds coming in to the berley, we set off on a northwards track along the shelf break before turning back for home at about 12.30pm. with the wind backing around to the north west and freshening a little, we had a nice following breeze for the trip back and arrived at Rose Bay just after 3.15pm. Sea water temperature was a little warmer than normal for September running from 18.5 deg C to just over 19.0 deg C.
We departed from Rose Bay with 14 passengers, our smallest group of birders this year, and while we were still in the harbour we sighted a group of the resident Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins and a distant loafing fur seal. As we left the heads, the fish offal berley immediately brought in good numbers of Silver Gulls and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters along with some Greater Crested Terns and the odd Australasian Gannet. These were joined by a few immature Black-browed Albatross and several groups of Fluttering-type shearwaters flew by which were very hard to identify in the gloomy conditions. However, examination of photographs revealed that most of these birds were Fluttering Shearwaters and just a few were Hutton's Shearwaters. A classic newly fledged Shy (White-capped) Albatross in very fresh plumage joined us for a while and a few Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen in passing. About 12NM off Sydney, we had to make a detour to pass behind a large merchant vessel which was travelling northwards and, as we crossed its wake, the throng of birds following our boat suddenly peeled off and instantaneously disappeared all in the space of about 30 seconds - it was a very strange occurrence which I haven't seen before.
For the rest of the trip to the shelf break at Brown's Mountain, we had no birds following the vessel despite attempts to berley them in. We had distant views of a small group of False Killer Whales and a brief visit from a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins. A giant petrel was seen at some distance and did not approach the boat closely enough to allow identification as to species and a distantly seen storm petrel was thought to be a White-faced. (A second storm petrel was seen later in the trip and examination of a very fuzzy photograph the next day confirmed that it was indeed a White-faced Storm Petrel). As we approached Brown's Mountain medium distance views of both Great-winged and Providence Petrels were obtained but none came very near the boat. Similarly, our only Wandering-type albatross of the day passed by the boat at a distance of 400 meters and wasn't seen again. The large size and very white appearance of the bird indicated that it was indeed a Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) rather than the Gibson's race of Antipodean Albatross. We started a drift at Brown's Mountain and, for the first time in my memory and despite the good berley trail, we did not see a bird of any sort for 45 minutes.
The decision was taken to motor northwards and see if we could find some birds by travelling, and to a certain degree this tactic paid off. We had the visit of a giant petrel with quite indistinct coloration on the bill tip but examination of photographs on board showed it to be a Northern Giant Petrel. Shortly after turning for home, we spotted a group of Humpback Whales travelling south and motored over for a closer look. While we drifted waiting for the whales to appear, we were visited by several Black-browed and Shy (White-capped) Albatross, the Northern Giant Petrel and a Southern Ocean Sunfish. The four Humpbacks eventually re-surfaced close by giving great views and photo opportunities. On the journey back to Sydney, no new species were seen but we came across some large flocks of Fluttering and Hutton's Shearwaters resting on the water. For the regulars on board, it was something of a disappointing day but there were several people for whom this was their first pelagic trip and they found plenty to hold their interest during the day.
BIRD LIST (Note that the numbers in parentheses represent the approximate maximum number of that species in view at one time)
Wandering Albatross 1 (1)
Black-browed Albatross 12 (5) no adult birds
Shy Albatross 5 (2) all thought to be White-capped
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 1 (1) seen by only one person on board
Northern Giant Petrel 1 (1)
Giant Petrel (sp) 1 (1)
Great-winged Petrel 4 (1)
Providence Petrel 3 (1)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 200 (120)
Short-tailed Shearwater 15 (6)
Fluttering Shearwater 500 (450)
Hutton's Shearwater 20 (15) numbers estimated based on the proportions of those identified
White-faced Storm Petrel 2 (1)
Australasian Gannet 8 (3)
Greater Crested Tern 8 (4)
Silver Gull 80 (60)
Humpback Whale 4
False Killer Whale 6
Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin 6
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 20
Southern Ocean Sunfish 2
Fur seal (sp) 4
Flying fish 1
The next Sydney pelagic trip is scheduled for Saturday 11 October 2014 departing from Cremorne Point ferry wharf at 06.45am and Rose Bay public wharf at 07.00am. Please e-mail me or Hal at email@example.com to make a booking. Booking well ahead is a great help in our planning.