Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report – Sunday 10 January 2016
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsfield
Very comfortable conditions with fairly glassy seas on a moderate swell of 1.5 to 2m. Some small gusts threatened to pick-up at the shelf, but for our entire time in deep water there were no white caps on the sea surface. The nor-easter did pick up about half way back to port, to about 15 knots. Drift Start -32 55.93 152 35.24, end at -33 1.586 152 31.693. Water temperature at shelf break ~22 degrees.
Despite seeing at least 4 Gould’s Petrels during the course of the day (including having 2 around the boat at the same time), the show was probably stolen by a beautiful pale phase Kermadec Petrel that remained faithful to the boat for up to 15 minutes, making some spectacularly close passes. There could have been more than 4 Gould’s, but some short gaps between sightings left us deciding on 4 birds. Other highlights were some fantastic dolphin displays and a Threadfin Leatherjacket associating with a blue bottle jellyfish and a gorgeous metre-long dolphinfish under the boat at the shelf break – stunning in the clear cobalt blue water.
Kermadec Petrel. Photo: Mick Roderick
Departed Nelson Bay Public Wharf at 0704 returning at 1656.
There was an element of excitement at the wharf in the wake of the recent East Coast Low that had hit the Hunter Region, along with a frigatebird and Sooty Terns having been seawatched from the coast just north of Port Stephens. As well as a pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins, the “usual suspects” were in attendance for the journey out, comprised of “the Big 5” shearwaters (Wedge-tailed, Short-tailed, Flesh-footed, Hutton’s and Fluttering), as well as the odd Huttons-type that evaded identification. One of the Flesh-footeds was found to have fishing line dangling from its left wing.
Part the way out, someone shouted “storm-petrel!” and a pale-bellied small bird was seen flying away from the boat to the south. A single image of “a bird” showed a Hutton’s Shearwater, though many people felt the bird called as a stormy was way too small for a Hutton’s-type and mutterings of a getaway Little Shearwater were made. We will never know…
The oily jumpsuit went overboard just as we reached the shelf break and we kept motoring about another mile before setting up a drift. The seas could only be described as ‘smooth’, which although not necessarily good for bird activity, made for great photographic opportunities. One such opportunity arose when a blue bottle was seen on the surface not far from the boat. It was soon noticed that a tiny leatherjacket fish (about 20mm in length) seemed to be associating with it (later identified as a likely Threadfin Leatherjacket Paramonacanthus sp.; thanks to Helen Larson for her help). In fact, the fish was seen taking small flecks of the chicken mince berley as well! Other fish sightings came in the form of a beautiful metre-long Mahi Mahi (dolphinfish) that swam around under the boat for a minute or two; resulting in the immediate deployment of GoPro’s under the water, and a sunfish fin seen waving at us from about 100m distance (flying fish were also seen on the way back to port).
Gould's Petrel. Photo: Mick Roderick
Despite the complete lack of wind, our first Pterodroma arrived after a short amount of time, in the form of a stunning Gould’s Petrel that did many passes of the boat over several minutes. This had been the ‘target bird’ for a few visiting birders on board (some from Canberra, some from the UK) and so the prolonged sighting was very well-received. A second bird was seen about half an hour later before a slight lull in proceedings occurred.
This lull was broken with gusto as an unusual bird caught the attention of a keen observer. As the bird came into view we realised we were onto a pale phase Kermadec Petrel, which ended up staying in proximity to the boat for nearly a quarter of an hour. While this bird was flying around a Grey-faced (Great-winged) Petrel came in, as did one, then two White-faced, Storm-Petrels. Suddenly there was also one, then two Gould’s Petrels around the boat and the place was abuzz.
Nothing else new came into the boat before we had to leave for home. A number of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins delighted us with some great acrobatic displays and bow-riding for the early parts of the homeward leg.
A Sooty Shearwater was picked up about 5 miles out from the heads amongst a fairly lacklustre inshore shearwater activity. A sub-adult Australasian Gannet also showed some interest in the boat towards the end, with a sea-eagle rounding out the day’s list just before entering the heads.
Species: Total outside the heads (maximum number visible from the boat at one time) – many are estimates. Taxonomy follows the BirdLife Australia Working List V1.2
White-faced Storm-petrel: 2 (2)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 250 (35)
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 20 (6)
Short-tailed Shearwater: 8 (2)
Sooty Shearwater: 1
Hutton’s Shearwater: 9 (2)
Hutton’s-type Shearwater: 4
Fluttering Shearwater: 4 (1)
Great-winged (Grey-faced) Petrel: 2 (1)
GOULD’S PETREL: 4 (2)
KERMADEC PETREL: 1
Australasian Gannet: 1
Pomarine Jaeger: 2 (1)
Crested Tern: 6 (2)
White-bellied Sea-eagle: 1
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin: ~50
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin: ~10
Mahi Mahi (Common Dolphinfish): 1
Threadfin Leatherjacket: 1
Flying Fish: 1
(Southern Ocean?) Sunfish: 1