Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report- Sunday 27th November 2016
Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsfield
Steady 2 to 2.5m primary swell from the south, with a mild secondary swell discernible from the north-east. Very light (if any) winds for the outward journey, making for a very pleasant ride out. For the first hour at the shelf we were sitting literally in the doldrums, with glassy seas and baking hot sunny skies. A large rain band was situated seaward of our position at the shelf break and by about 11:30am hit us with a vengeance. Suddenly we were in the midst of 20-25 knot east to north-easterly winds, which persisted for the remainder of the day, perhaps dropping off slightly in the late afternoon. We got drenched by the downpour which lasted for about half an hour before the rain stopped, though skies remained overcast. Water temperature not noted.
Cook's Petrel. Photo: Jodi Osgood
Departed wharf at 7:07am returning 4:33pm. A truly remarkable day at sea. A slow start really for birds, with no attendant shearwaters at the rear of the boat, though good numbers of migrating Sooty Shearwaters were seen en-route to the shelf. The only activity we did see was some surface-breaking fish with some shearwaters and Common/Spotted Dolphins in the area. Suddenly a massive whale surfaced briefly, continuing south a rate of knots. Several images were obtained of about half a dozen of these very quick-moving rorquals, identified as most likely Sei Whales.
Whilst it was virtually bird-less for the first half hour or so of the drift things changed very rapidly. While we were baking in hot, still conditions, we could see a large frontal system a few miles wide of us, with obvious rain inside it. As it got very close to us we could see the white caps on the other side where the ocean was being whipped up by the strong winds. We could also see lots of brown birds that turned out to be flocks of Grey-faced Petrels. As soon as the wind (and rain) hit us we were surrounded by birds. From that point on the complexion of the day changed. Once again very few birds showed any interest in our berley, though there were good numbers being attracted to the slick. Scanning the slick was however, very difficult due to the driving rain and very lumpy conditions once the sea state changed. Some birds did follow the boat back to shallow water (and many Fleshy-foots came into the wake) though a lone Solander’s Petrel did appear out of nowhere only 8 miles from the heads.
Gould's Petrel. Photo: Jodi Osgood
20 species (including ‘types’) were recorded outside the heads, representing good diversity. Highlights would have to be the number of Cookilaria petrels seen, including one Cook’s and a very good number of Gould’s Petrels counted. The high count of Grey-faced Petrels is also significant and similar counts off the Hunter coast have always been in late October/November.
Cook's Petrel. Photo: Jodi Osgood
Counts are totals for birds seen outside the heads (with the maximum number visible from the boat at one time in brackets) – many are estimates. Taxonomy follows the BirdLife Australia Working List V2.0.
Little Penguin: 1; a single bird not far from the heads.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 300 (200). Many scattered individuals, with a loafing flock of about 200 birds seen on the water on the way out. Again not interested in the boat at all.
Flesh-footed Shearwater: 40 (15). A handful of birds seen on the way out, but good numbers (including birds feeding in the wake) on the return leg, from about 7 miles from the heads. All birds in inshore waters.
Short-tailed Shearwater: 25 (4). All inshore. Only the single bird on the outbound leg, with the remainder seen once close to the inshore islands.
Sooty Shearwater: 30 (7). Several migrating groups of 3 to 7 birds seen on the outward journey. Fewer birds seen on the way back. None in pelagic waters.
Fluttering-type Shearwater: 1. Surprisingly, just the one bird seen for the day, about 30 minutes before reaching the heads.
Wilsons Storm-petrel: 8 (2). Mostly single birds, all in pelagic waters except for one bird about 45 minutes into the return leg.
White-faced Storm-petrel: 3 (1). All in pelagic waters, seen feeding in the slick.
Black-browed Albatross: 1; a single sub-adult seen on the return leg.
Black-browed type Albatross: 1; a young bird seen at the shelf break wasn’t able to be placed to species level.
Shy-type Albatross: 4 (2). One bird seen on the way out, the remainder pelagic. All impossible to assign to species level.
Wandering type Albatross: 1; adult bird that came in from well behind the boat to join the throng of Fleshy-foots about 10 miles out on the return leg. Has been discussed but identification not (or likely to be) resolved.
Gould’s Petrel: 16 (2). Highest count for a Hunter-based pelagic; includes 3 sightings of 2 birds seen together. All pelagic except one bird seen (and photographed) 10 miles from the heads on the return leg.
COOK’S PETREL: 1; single bird that arrived in unison with another Cookilaria (which wasn’t able to be seen well enough). Photographed and seen very well after coming in to less than 15m from the boat, passing to the stern side. Identification has been discussed and will be submitted to BARC as a Cook’s Petrel (albeit a bird showing one or two traits potentially overlapping with Pycroft’s).
Grey-faced Petrel: 200 (25). Arrived in numbers once the instant the wind set in. There was a continuous turnover of birds evidenced by steady arrivals from the horizon. All pelagic except for a small number of birds that followed the boat in. No candidate macroptera birds seen.
Solander’s Petrel: 8 (1). All pelagic except for one bird that appeared in the wake about 8 miles from the heads (uncertain if this bird had followed us in). Also a very bedraggled individual at the shelf with a broken lower mandible in extreme moult.
Australasian Gannet: 4 (2). All inshore.
Pomarine Jaeger: 15 (2). Just the one bird (a dark phase) seen in pelagic waters, remainder inshore.
Arctic Jaeger: 3 (2). All inshore.
Crested Tern: 2 (1). Surprisingly few of these today.
Silver Gull: 10 (2). Most close to heads, with 2 birds following boat into deeper water.
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin: 10 – seen in the same vicinity as the Sei Whales.
Indo-Pacific Common Dolphin – 10 seen in the same vicinity as the Sei Whales
Sei Whale: 6 – a pod of very fast-moving animals were picked up in an area with good surface activity (fish breaking surface, feeding shearwaters + dolphins). One animal in particular was massive. Identification considered most likely based on dorsal, size, speed of movement and presence at surface activity. Second record for Port Stephens pelagics.
White-Spotted Eagle Ray(?) – a very large individual seen at the shelf break almost immediately after cutting the engines.