• Sunday, 12th November 2017, Port Stephens, NSW, Australia

    Port Stephens Pelagic Trip Report- Sunday 12th November 2017

    Boat: M.V. Argonaut, skippered by Ray Horsfield

    A gentle south-easterly airstream had been hitting the NSW coast for days leading up to this trip. The forecast was for one of those days that you would have thought would be too calm. We were all concerned there wouldn’t be enough wind for the seabirds that we target on these November trips – the Gadfly petrels. However once on the water we were pleased to be punching into a pretty stiff 15 knot sou-easter that caused a bit of spray for those standing at the starboard side of the stern (i.e. the berley boy!).

    This strong breeze may have been associated with a large rain band that we skirted the southern edge of. The breeze did drop off once at the shelf and we had a fairly consistent ~10knot easterly with us for most of the day. Swell was 1 to 2m, being a bit more sizable in deep water. Water temperature was not taken.

    Mottled Petrel. Photo: Alex Berryman

    Departed wharf a bit late at 7:16am returning at 4:53pm. As with last month, there were very few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters inshore. The vast majority of shearwaters were small flocks of Short-taileds flying south on migration; thought at the time to (rightly) be a promising sign. Just over an hour from the heads a rather unusual-looking petrel was seen, eventually settled on as being a very worn Solander’s. Still, being only 10 miles from the heads it was considered an interesting observation. A second Solander’s was seen, exhibiting a rather pale belly patch. Then another Pterodroma was seen flying south on a mission – “what’s going on?” we thought, thinking that it might be another Solander's. This bird was photographed (at a distance) by Michael Kearns and after scrutiny on the rear of a camera, it revealed itself as a Mottled Petrel!

    This was yet another new bird for the Hunter Region list; the second in as many pelagics following the Soft-plumaged from 4 weeks earlier. Not everyone had gotten onto the bird but that wasn’t to matter as within a half-hour a second Mottled was seen. These birds were clearly on migration south amongst the Short-taileds. Another couple of Mottleds were seen, followed by a Grey-faced and then a Gould’s. We’d seen 4 species of Pterodroma before we had reached theshelf break. For years I’d been talking about having a “five Pterodroma day” off Port Stephens and clearly this was going to be our best shot at it. We started our drift at a peak area of activity, on the western edge of our average of drift starting points (at 32 55 9s, 152 33 48e). Before long the numbers of Grey-faced Petrels built to a point where they were clearly the most common bird at the boat. One, then two Wandering-type Albatrosses joined the fray as another each of Gould’s and Mottled were logged. A White-faced Storm-petrel joined a small band of Wilson’s that had entered the slick and a couple of Shy-type Albatrosses came in, as well as another Gibson's. With the slick trailing away to the south we had the feeling that we were drifting north into shallower water, so we repositioned in a south-easterly direction to get into deeper water. Barely had the engines shut down before a pale-headed Cookilaria was picked up, identified as a Cook’s, our 5th Pterodroma for the day! A submission to BARC has been made.

    Little Shearwater. Photo: Alex Berryman

    A couple more White-faced Stormies came in and then the only Solander’s seen in deep water, along with a couple of young Gibson’s Albatross – the first ‘brown birds’ we've seen off Port Stephens in a long time. At around 1:15pm we decided to leave slightly early to buy us some time amongst the migrating Short-taileds inshore, but just before the skipper could turn the ignition key a Black Petrel came right in and landed at the rear of the boat, giving ‘luxurious’ views to all on board. Thus our stay in deep water was extended somewhat.

    A Campbell Albatross was the first bird added to the day’s list as we started our journey back to port. About an hour from the end of our drift and after at least one more Mottled and Gould’s sightings we were wondering what other species could come next and push us towards a record haul of birds for a Port Stephens trip. Suddenly Michael Kearns alerted us to a Fluttering-type looking shearwater flying rapidly south across the wake of the boat. The bird appeared to be a “bit different” and I did my best to get all eyes on board towards the bird. This is always an extremely difficult thing to do with small shearwaters and it disappeared without a trace (and alas only 5 people on board saw the bird to my knowledge). The quick-draw photographers at the rear of the boat had managed to rattle off identifiable images that showed the unmistakable features of a Little Shearwater; just the second at-sea record for the Hunter.

    A few more Mottled were seen and a Hutton’s Shearwater was photographed. Another ‘brown’ Gibson’s Albatross was added to the tally of ‘Wandering-types’ for the day, making it one of the best days for these oceanic denizens that we have had off Port. Up to 20 Grey-faced Petrels followed us back and interestingly a Black Petrel, then followed by a second bird, were found in the wake of the boat. One of these birds followed us almost to the heads! It was very late in the day before we found our one and only Flesh-footed Shearwater; very conspicuous by their absence today. The final highlight was watching 2 very eager Arctic Jaegers harassing Silver Gulls just before we entered port, enabling some great photographic opportunities at the end of an extremely entertaining and exciting day. Remarkably, not one Cetacean was seen.

    24 species were recorded outside the heads, representing an outstanding diversity of birds for Port Stephens, being the highest count to date for a Port Stephens trip (after 23 species seen on 10th October 2010 and 9th March 2014). Today’s trip had the highest ever count of tubenoses too, with 19 species (82% of birds recorded) which is two greater than October 2010 and 5 more than March 2014.

    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.

    White-faced Storm-petrel: 3 (3). All pelagic, as is often the case not arriving til late in the drift (2 of them at the second drift stop).

    Wilson’s Storm-petrel: 15 (11). All pelagic, though one bird was seen about half way back to port (may have followed boat?).

    Wedge-tailed Shearwater: 200 (50). No large aggregations today, which is unusual, especially inshore in the afternoon. Many marauding individuals in pelagic waters.

    Short-tailed Shearwater: 400 (80). Not a single bird in deep water and all migrating flocks only in smallish numbers (80 the biggest group).

    Sooty Shearwater: 2 (1). One bird seen at close range as it flew north to the boat, the other bird fairly close to the heads amongst Short-taileds.

    Flesh-footed Shearwater: 1. Very conspicuous by their absence. This lone bird not seen until about 30 minutes from the heads on the return leg.

    Hutton’s Shearwater: 2 (1). Both inshore, flying through the wake.

    Fluttering/Hutton’s-type Shearwater: 1. Only the one unidentified bird.

    LITTLE SHEARWATER: 1. Observed flying south across the wake about an hour into the return leg, unfortunately by only 5 observers. Just the second at-sea record for Hunter waters. NSW ORAC submission made.

    Antipodean Albatross: 3 (1). With the vast majority of Wandering-types determined to be exulans (mostly from photograph analysis) only 3 birds were considered likely antipodensis birds, all of the subspecies gibsoni.

    Wandering Albatross: 15 (3). Most seen at the shelf break, with up to 6 birds sitting on the water at one point. The count includes one young bird (see photo).

    Campbell Albatross: 1. Seen just inside pelagic waters as we started out journey back to port.

    Black-browed Albatross: 1. Seen and photographed a few miles short of the first drift point.

    Black-browed type Albatross: 2 (1). Both indeterminate young birds.

    Shy-type Albatross: 5 (2). Two pelagic, three inshore, all indeterminate adult birds.

    Black Petrel: 2 (2). Initially one bird at the end of the second drift, that flew in as we were about to leave, then 2 birds seen behind the boat from about 10 miles out (one considered to be the shelf bird that followed us in, but this could obviously be a wrong assumption).

    Solander’s Petrel: 4 (2). 3 inshore amongst Short-tailed groups, one bird pelagic. At least one bird appeared to be very worn, with a pale belly.

    Grey-faced Petrel: 120 (50). All pelagic, though many birds followed the boat back to about the 5 mile mark. Clearly the most common bird in deep water as evidenced by 50 being visible at any given time. Feeding voraciously at rear of boat, submerging for up to 5 seconds to get at scraps of mince.

    MOTTLED PETREL: 12 (1). Despite seeing a dozen individuals we did not see more than one bird at a time, so probably migrating through in small numbers. First seen about 13 miles from the heads in association with Short-tailed flocks and majority seen inshore (only 3 birds seen whilst drifting in deep water). New species for the Hunter Region. NSW ORAC submission made.

    Gould's Petrel: 7 (1). All but one bird in pelagic waters (which was seen about an hour into the return leg). Some birds gave great, extended views (by Gould’s Petrel standards anyway).

    COOK’S PETREL: 1. Seen briefly not long after repositioning to the start of the second drift point. Photographed and a BARC submission pending.

    Australasian Gannet: 3 (2). All inshore and all adults.

    Arctic Jaeger: 4 (2). All inshore. Single bird on the way out, two pale birds harassing Silver Gulls a few miles out and then a dark bird right near the heads.

    Crested Tern: 5 (2). Close to the heads.
    Silver Gull: 8 (6). Close to the heads.

    White-bellied Sea-eagle: 2 (1). Both birds came in to investigate on the way in (and one had been present on the way out.

    Southern Ocean Sunfish: 1, close to the shelf.

    None seen.