Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sunday 14 June 2015
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsfield
A calm and comfortable pelagic, with the sou-west winds barely reaching the 10 knot mark all day. Sea and swell less than 1m, meaning that no one’s feet even got wet! Water temperature at the shelf was 20-21 degrees.
"New Caledonian type" Storm-petrel. Photo: Al Richardson
There were several highlights today, with the sheer number of albatross clearly being an obvious one, as too was an unseasonal Arctic Jaeger that put on a great aerial display. Specifically, the highlight was a “New Caledonian type” Storm-petrel that showed up not long before we set sail for home. The identification of the bird has been discussed at length with the consensus being that it is a “New Caledonian type”; an intriguing record, especially given the time of year and the company the bird was keeping.
"New Caledonian type" Storm-petrel. Photo: Enrique Couve.
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0704 returning at 1653.
There was an air of anticipation about the Argonaut this morning, given the fact that a pelagic hadn't been run out of Port Stephens since March and with the change of season in the interim, the possibility of a “good winter haul” was an exciting prospect. There were several newcomers to the boat, including a visiting birder from Patagonia who had much experience with seabirds in that part of the world (we were hoping he’d find something seen commonly there, but rarely here!).
The first activity we noticed was behind a fishing trawler slightly south of our course, but we decided to steer towards it as it was apparent there were many small albatross in attendance. As we began our approach we started to throw our berley out, hoping to entice some birds closer to us, which worked a treat. It wasn’t long before we had the majority of the 70-80 Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross that were behind this trawler following the Argonaut. Along with these Yellow-noseds were a couple of adult Campbell Albatross and a heap of Silver Gulls that were to remain with us for the entirety of the day. A distant giant-petrel was picked up, but never came in to the boat.
A couple of Black-browed and Shy-types came in whilst en-route to the shelf, as did a Buller’s Albatross (the first of 3 for the day) that had a broken leg that was festering quite badly. A few Fairy Prions and a Hutton’s Shearwater were also noted. With the benign conditions we decided to head into deeper water and so motored beyond the shelf break to -32 55 43 / 152 38 19 into about 600m of water. Water temperature was between 20-21 degrees.
The ‘oily rag’ went over and it wasn’t long before numbers of Wilson’s Storm-petrels grew. A few Solander’s Petrels came and went, with birds visible on the horizon for the most of our time out wide. There appeared to be a turnover of albatross and in particular today was marked by the number of Yellow-nosed, Campbell and Shy-types (easily the greatest number of each for a Port Stephens trip thus far). Every Shy-type seen was an adult, whilst just 3 of the many Indian Yellow-nosed were juveniles.
A likely male Antipodean (Gibson’s) Albatross was the only Wandering-type for the day, visiting the boat on two separate occasions. Pods of Risso’s and Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins both came in to have a look at us, with the bottlenose swimming around the boat and literally looking up at us (Steve getting some good underwater footage with his GoPro). The presence of Risso’s Dolphins was interesting in that we’d only observed them during warmer water pelagics in March and April.
Gibson's Albatross. Photo: Tim Strong.
Not long before the whistle was due to blow to mark the start of our return to port, a cry of “Black-bellied Storm-petrel!” went out. This was a knee-jerk reaction to a stormy with white in the underparts and it didn't take long before we realised we were looking at a New Zealand (type) Storm-petrel. Contrary to our 2 previous sightings (March 28 2010 off Port Stephens; April 14 off Swansea), this bird gave us more prolonged views, albeit still somewhat distant. To most eyes on board there was very little discernible difference in size and behaviour to the Wilson’s that surrounded it. For this reason, we all made the assumption that it was a New Zealand, though peering at the screens of cameras did reveal a bit of darkness in the underwing coverts and the (considered outside) possibility of a “New Caledonian type” was raised, but not taken too seriously at the time.
Closer scrutiny later (by many experienced seabirders and other experts) concluded that the bird was indeed a “New Caledonian type” given the dark underwing coverts, paler throat, longer-winged / broader-handed / smaller-headed jizz of the bird. These were things that were certainly not apparent in the field, though some observers did come forward later saying that they’d had the impression the bird was marginally larger than the Wilson’s. This is an intriguing record of this yet-to-be-described taxa, given that it was seen in June at nearly 33 degrees south (the bird was seen at 32 56 00 / 152 38 50, barely half a nautical mile from where we’d started the drift) and in the company of mostly cold water species.
That last assertion was however tested when a dark bird appeared at a great distance in the wake of the boat during the return leg (though still wide of the shelf). At first it was called as a Brown Skua and every one of the ~60 Silver Gulls lifted high into the air. Next thing we knew, the bird catapulted at breakneck speed towards the gulls in a sheer display of velocity that any raptor on earth would be happy of matching. “It’s an Arctic Jaeger!” was shouted out as it harassed several of the gulls for a short period.
The remainder of the return leg was largely uneventful, but having said that there will still excellent numbers of albatross in attendance and a few prions here and there to keep us on our toes. The final bird of the day was seen just a couple of miles from the heads when a giant-petrel appeared at a distance (same bird as earlier?). Several on board were hoping hard to see a pale green tip to the bill, given that Southerns are now something of a rarity up here, but alas it turned out to be a Northern. It gave great views as it flew in to the rear of the boat and happily gorged itself on the last of chicken skins left in the esky.
Wilson's Storm-petrel. Photo: Tim strong.
All in all, it was a fantastic winter pelagic with numerous birds around the boat the whole day, the magic “20 species outside the heads cracked”, some very friendly and playful dolphins and another piece in the New Zealand/New Caledonian stormy jigsaw puzzle picked up.
Species: Total outside the heads (maximum number visible from the boat at one time) – many are estimates. Taxonomy follows the BirdLife Australia Working List V1.1
Wilson’s Storm-petrel: 40 (12)
“New Caledonian” type Storm-petrel: 1
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross: 130+ (75)
Black-browed Albatross: 3 (1)
Campbell Albatross: 7 (4)
Buller’s Albatross: 3 (1)
Shy-type Albatross: 16 (all adult and just the one possible candidate Shy)
Antipodean Albatross: 1 (D. a. gibsoni)
Northern Giant-petrel: 1
Fairy Prion: 35 (7)
Sooty Shearwater: 1
Hutton’s Shearwater: 2 (1)
Solander’s Petrel: 15+ (6)
Australasian Gannet: 65 (15)
Arctic Jaeger: 1
Crested Tern: 10 (4)
Caspian Tern: 1
Silver Gull: 150+ (60)
White-bellied Sea-eagle: 2 (1)
Whistling Kite: 1
Sooty Oystercatcher: 1
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin: 50+
Risso’s Dolphin: 20+
Humpback Whale: <10