Monday, July 6, 2015

An unexpected “tern” of events

Shy Albatross

Conditions looked good in the lead up to the monthly Portland Pelagic in June so it was no surprise when the boat was confirmed on Friday evening. Jagged a lift down with Paul and Ruth who were back in the saddle after a few months off. As we pulled into Portland, the bay looked eerily flat which we hoped wouldn’t put the birds off. Thought about the parma but ended up sticking with the usual porterhouse and a few beers which was a good choice.
Up early for the usual Macca’s breakfast – really the only thing it is good for is a pre pelagic muffin and a coffee then down to the Southern Pride for a 7am kick off in the darkness. As we headed out beyond Lawrence Rocks there was a truly spectacular sunrise with all shades of pink and orange. Bird numbers were quite low on the way out with a few Shy and Black-browed Albatross and the odd Fairy Prion. A loose raft of about 10 Fairy Penguins provided some brief excitement. Conditions were very gentle with just a slight swell and almost no wind which meant a lot of birds were just sitting on the water.

Sunrise over Lawrence Rocks

Sooty Shearwater

Things weren’t boding well when we arrived at the shelf and there was hardly a bird to be seen. The first few Shy’s hardly even looked at us as they cruised on by. Eventually a few birds settled and things began to build with reasonable numbers of Fairy Prions having us all looking for something more interesting. A couple of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters joined in the feeding briefly and Great-winged petrels of both races flying through and around but not really feeding. Of interest a flight of around 4 terns flew through and circled the boat a couple of times. The two closest to the boat were clearly juvenile and their slight bill had me thinking Arctic but I decided being the Northern Summer it could not possibly be in this plumage so it must be a juvenile White-fronted tern which I am not particularly familiar with. Still I took plenty of pics of the close terns to examine later. Again some 20 minutes later another similar flight of terns came through and throughout the day we had single obvious adult White-fronted terns doing fly bys. It wasn’t til I posted some pictures on Facebook a couple of days later which I had speculatively titled “juvenile White-fronted Tern” than Rohan Clarke and Kevin Bartram both independently and rather urgently said Antarctic Tern which is a mega bird for a mainland pelagic in Australia. The ID was confirmed by the doyens and the subsequent discussion showed I have a hell of a lot to learn on the topic of “commic” terns which is something I had been avoiding for a long time. One issue we had on the boat is we did not have a field guide with any terns in it which is clearly an oversight although it may not have helped in this case. It looks like these birds – we seem to have had at least three and possibly as many as six birds are the 5th mainland record with punters usually having to go to Macquarie Island. There were a number of very excited phone calls and text messages the night the ID was confirmed.

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern
We had two further stops and species numbers built slowly with Cape Petrel and Yellow-nosed Albatross paying us visits. There continued to be good numbers of prions and the odd storm-petrel in the slick but nothing rarer eventuated despite a lot of scanning. We had Antarctic, Salvin’s and Slender-billed Prion on the last trip but this time there was not a whalebird to be found.

Fairy Prion

Great-winged Petrel
We were getting close to leaving thinking at best this would be a pleasant but below average pelagic when Scott spotted a lovely adult Salvin’s Albatross sailing in which landed right behind the boat and began to feed. I can hardly remember my last Salvin’s Albatross so it was great to get plenty of good photos. It then even took off and followed the boat giving us some nice chances to get pics of the underwing. Adult Salvin’s have not been recorded often in recent years on SE Australian pelagics and many birds that were previously identified as juvenile Salvin’s have probably been misidentified so it was certainly thought to be the bird of the day at the time and put smiles on faces.
The trip back in was largely uneventful although things did pick up around Lawrence Rocks with a Brown Skua smashing a couple of gannets and the first Northern Giant-petrel sailing past as well as the usual Fur-seals, Kelp Gulls and Black-faced Cormorants. Despite the flat conditions and reports of Southern Right-whales and Humpbacks around we did not see any whales on the day and only a couple of Common Dolphins.

Salvin's Albatross

Salvin's Albatross

The Port Fairy pelagic went out the same day so there was a few anxious moments as we found out what birds they had – Soft-plumaged Petrel being their bird of the day which was probably shaded by our Salvin’s Albatross but ended up being blown out of the water by the Antarctic Terns! Unfortunately it turns out that the Southern Pride has been sold with the September trip being the last however the good news is that a new boat in Portland has been found so a new chapter of these trips can begin. Check out the BirdLife Victoria Activities Page on the BirdLife Australia website if you are interested in getting on one of these trips.

Monday, April 20, 2015

A rather "soft" day at sea

Its been a long time since I have written anything but a visitor on a recent Portland pelagic was too good not to share. Wandered down with the crew as usual on Saturday afternoon with the most interesting low-light being a road-killed Grey Goshawk at Panmure - this ended up in a bag for deposit at the museum and surprisingly was not forgotten in the hotel room fridge. The forecast had deteriorated some what so we were expecting a bumpy trip but it was actually quite pleasant.

Grey Goshawk

After the usual steak and a few beers at Macs we were up early. Quite a bit of activity on the way out with a few jaegers the highlight. Just before the shelf a cookilaria type petrel escaped from view, the brief views I had indicated Gould's but could not be sure. This and a good number of Fairy Prions were hopefully a good sign. The first berley point had a good variety of common species and just as we were leaving an early Brown Skua provided brief excitement.

Kangaroo Fairy Prion
Shy Albatross
On arrival at the second berley point there was immediate excitement as a White-headed Petrel flew through - a first on a Victorian pelagic for me but it did not stick around. Soon after in the slick immediately behind the boat was another Pterodroma which threw me for a second until I realised it was a Soft-plumaged Petrel with quite a bit of pale underwing. This proved to be the star performer of the day and stuck around for at least 20 minutes - even landing in the slick to feed. I have seen these a number of times on Southern Australian pelagics but never had one behaving like this. Many photos taken by most onboard.

Soft-plumaged Petrel
After that it was all a bit anti-climactic although there continued to be plenty of birds around the back of the boat. A young black-browed was of interest with the horn colour coming through on top of the bill.

Black-browed Albatross

Wilson's Storm-Petrel

Great-winged Petrel

The trip back in was largely uneventful with a couple of jaegers again being the highlight. A thick bodied bird flew away from the boat at one stage and was probably a Pom but alas got away. As sea conditions were deteriorating and running out of time we skipped Lawrence Rocks so missed a few usual species. All in all a great day at sea and an enjoyable weekend with some very good people.

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

Sooty Owl Redux - another Bunyip evening

Had been chatting with a couple of young birders - Owen and James who were keen to see their first Sooty Owl as well as some of the other avian delights of Bunyip State Forest so I arranged to meet them there last weekend for an afternoon and evening out in the forest. I have probably mentioned before that Bunyip is my favourite birding spot so I didn't need much of an excuse to get out. First birds heard at Mortimers Picnic Ground were Crested Shrike-tit, Satin Flycatcher and Cicadabird so off to a good start. After checking out a nice female flycatcher we chased down the Cicadabird which gave nice views of the male which was a new bird for Owen and his dad. A Brush Cuckoo gave its weird frenzied call and only unsatisfying flight views on the way through.

Crappy Cicadabird shot

From here we drove across Link Road stopping at a couple of my favourite spots which were largely quiet. A single Lyrebird and a couple of Rufous Fantail were of interest as was a single Fallow Deer disappearing into the brush.

Brown Goshawk

At the beginning of Ash Landing Road was a Brown Goshawk which sat nicely allowing a couple of quick snaps - somewhat surprisingly this a bird I dont record particularly often at Bunyip. We stopped at the first creek which was nice and birdy as usual with a number of Beautiful Firetail a highlight. Walking along the road things were again a little on the quiet side although we added Scared Kingfisher and Large-billed Scrubwren to the day list.

A quick trip into Gembrook for dinner and back out to the helipad to await dusk. Southern Emu-wren were common as usual in the grassy heathland as were Scarlet Robin. I managed to get some photos of a rather bold native rodent while the others went off to check out Dyers Picnic Ground to see the resident Satin bowerbird. Later examination of the photos indicated the rodent was a Swamp Rat which I was happy to get in pixels.

Swamp Rat

Before dusk the inimitable Melbourne Birder Steve Davidson showed up  with client in tow also looking for nightjars and other night birds - this was a birder tick for both James and Owen. It was rather cool and overcast with few flying insects but on dusk we heard a couple of brief nightjar calls then nothing. A Sooty Owl called from the creekline north of the helipad but as usual would not come in to visit.... I have heard this bird a number of times over the years but have never set eyes on it. There was a brief moment of excitement as a Sugar Glider flew in and landed above our heads while an Owlet-nightjar churred away in the gully. 

We gave up on the nightjars (Steve had better luck elsewhere) and wandered up Ash Landing Road which was largely quiet aside from a couple of yapping Sugar Gliders and a couple of brief calls from a distant Sooty that was again not responsive. Looking for Sooty Owls in Bunyip is generally a matter of methodically checking likely areas and so it was on our third stop on Link Road. I heard the bird as soon as I left the car so wandered up the road a little and gave a quick burst of the tape and a lovely Sooty flew straight in. As is often their want it gave a great display with wings raised and would not keep quiet.

Who wants a cuddle?

This was a new bird for the other three and in the end we had walk away views as we left it in peace. We continued along Link Road trying other locations with not muck luck as the wind was now rising. Back at Mortimers were a surprising number of Boobooks making a variety of calls- at least 3 or 4 birds giving some decent views which was a nice way to round out the evening.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

A quiet day in the office

Last Friday we got the word that the Portland pelagic was on - two months in a row - almost unheard of! So following the usual Saturday morning swimming lessons I headed over to Preston for a lift down with Scott and Peter. There had been southerly winds in the days leading up so there was some expectation that something good would turn up. Had the usual steak and a couple of beers at Mac's and early to bed.

Up bright and early and down to board the Southern Pride with Dodgy and Nev running the show. The signs were good - almost the first bird seen was an Arctic Jaeger above the harbour before we had even cast off. In the harbour itself were many Short-tailed Shearwaters resting on the water awaiting their fate - part of the huge wreck that is occurring up and down the South East coast this year. Heading out to Lawrence Rocks and beyond we passed plenty more Short-tails which were looking a bit more healthy as well as a couple of Fluttering.

Probably the bird of the day went begging about half an hour short of the shelf when a distant large skua/jaeger type was seen briefly settling on the water. We stopped and burleyed but could not pull it in. Out on the shelf we had a good day but with nothing spectacular - 5 species of albatross, good numbers of White-chinned Petrels and 3 Storm-petrels in close were of interest. Reasonable numbers of Fairy Prions gave something to pick through as did a couple fo Sooty Shearwaters passing through. Much like the last few Portland pelagics I have done really. A few Common Dolphins were the only mammals of the trip

Back in the harbour a Pied Cormorant was of interest - quite an uncommon bird in the Portland District. There were also further Short-tails on the beach and waiting to die in the shallows. Its quite sad knowing there is really nothing that can be done for them.... wrecks are a part of life for this species and hopefully this year is just part of the cycle and not something more sinister.

It did allow for some nice portrait shots on grass which you don't get every day with this species.

We toodled off to the gannet colony at Point Danger afterwards to look for the Cape Gannet but were unsuccessful - gannet numbers were well down on the previous visit. A Rufous Bristlebird nearby put on a bit of a show and a Northern Giant-petrel flying past was of interest.

It was near here where I got the bird of the day - an endangered Mellbloms Spider Orchid, TICK! This was down to as low as 30 plants a few years ago and has made a small recovery. However the site was largely overgrown and right next to the smelter! Could certainly do with some maintenance and probably not from Alcoa! In the end we only found one flower a bit past its best. I did spend some time getting much better photos of the more common Greencombs Spider Orchid type but didn't realise this until we got home... doh!

Mellbloms Spider Orchid

Large? Greencomb Spider Orchid

Then started the long trip home which went rather quickly as the conversation ranged from birds to birds and some more birds :-)

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A South African Interloper in Portland

Last Friday night I made the call and the word was that the Portland Pelagic was going ahead. Great news as it has been more miss than hit over the pas year or two. I arranged a lift down with Paul Dodd and Ruth Woodrow and met at their place around noon as we hoped to check the gannet colony before checking in. Zipped down the well worn path to Portland and headed straight to the gannet colony at Point Danger which is near the smelter. As far as I'm aware this is the only mainland colony in Australia and is overflow from the nearby large colony on Lawrence Rocks. Aside from seeing Australasian Gannets at close quarters, we were checking the colony for Cape Gannets, a vagrant from southern Africa which are reported occasionally in Australian colonies. Interestingly Australasian Gannets turn up in South African colonies too!

The last couple of hundred meters to the viewing platform has several water filled holes so is probably best attempted in a car with reasonable clearance, but it is an easy walk in. We were fortunate that on arrival the caretaker was there and he let us go in through the gate close to the colony - he could not really have stopped us... the lock had been stolen.... Was a great experience being so close to a gannet colony with many of them courting. I scanned the colony repeatedly looking for all black tails or long gular stripes with no joy and eventually wandered off chasing a nearby calling Bristlebird... only to go running back when Ruth found a gannet with a long gular stripe! The bird stubbornly preened away and would not show its neck but it had the courtesy to spread its tail showing all black feathers and its iris was much paler than the surrounding Australasian Gannets. It eventually raised its head and there was the beautiful long stripe extending well down the neck. TICK! Very exciting and a totally unexpected bonus! Thanks Ruth! :)

We spent about 20 minutes observing the bird with Paul and Ruth taking about 10 memory cards worth of photos. To say we were excited was an understatement - its been quite a few years since one had been publicly reported here although their presence has been suspected. Eventually the cold wind defeated us and we went back to Mac's for a celebratory beer or two and a steak.

It was the start of daylight saving so the 7am start on the boat was really 6 am and it sure felt like it after a night of waking up every 30 minutes to check if the phone had really rolled over to daylight savings. Conditions were very calm all day with just about 3m of swell so I was quite comfortable and mostly dry sitting on the back of the boat. Headed out past Lawrence Rocks where good numbers of recently returned short-tailed shearwaters provided something to look at. Knowing that its a long 3 hours out to the shelf in Portland I packed the headphones which was a really good idea so spent my time listening to Midnight Oil which seemed an appropriate soundtrack while watching shearwaters and Shy albatrosses glide above the waves.

All in all it was a good day at sea without anything particularly special - I am probably spoilt after my previous weekend off Tassie. Still there were nice birds with a number of Antipodean Albatrosses, both Giant-petrels, both races of both Cape and Great-winged Petrels and reasonable numbers of Flesh-footed Shearwaters amongst others. There were three berley stops and we added steadily to the list at each stop with flybys from White-fronted Terns and a couple of species of Storm-petrels. We had a large tub of shark liver which we would kill to have down on a Tassie pelagic where it is in very short supply.

Probably the most interesting bird of the day was a darkly hooded Shy type Albatross which flew in. The underwings were very clean which indicated it was Shy but there was some thought that it may have been a Salvin's due to the striking hood. Later examination of photos confirmed it was a Shy, likely of the NZ race steadi as they breed later and it is very unlikely a Tassie bird would still have such a strong hood.

 Eventually it was time to slip the headphones back in for the trip back - this time Something for Kate's "Feeding the birds and hoping for something in return" seemed appropriate. A couple of Arctic Jaegers chasing terns and a young Sea-eagle on Lawrence Rocks rounded out the list. Was a most enjoyable day at sea.

Eremaea list

Friday, September 20, 2013

A holy trinity of albatross - another long weekend in Tasmania

Last weekend saw me heading down to Tasmania again for another long weekend of pelagic birding. Unfortunately my main camera body had just died so only had my old d40x which has suffered one to many drops over the years so I don't have too many pictures this time round. I flew across on Shitstar on Friday evening and was conveniently sitting next a young Mormon missionary who had been doing God's work in the dark, third-world backwater that is Tasmania for the past couple of months - we had a good conversation and I had to nod solemnly when he explained how eye opening it was being in such a disadvantaged country compared to 'Murica. I must have made a good impression because I was offered a copy of the Book of Mormon but unfortunately for him I don't smoke.

Landed at 9:30 pm and was pleasantly surprised to have the hire car upgraded again, this time to a Renault Latitude which was quite fancy with leather seats and no keys. Zipped down to the Lufra in Eaglehawk Neck which was uneventful aside from a couple of possums and an Eastern Barred Bandicoot. There were a few punters already at the Lufra so together we sacrificed a goat which is standard practice before most pelagic trips and upon examination of the entrails we found the omens to be good... we just did not realise how good....

A group of 13 keen pelagic birders gathered on the wharf at the aptly named Pirates Bay and boarded the sturdy Pauletta (I really should get a photo one of these trips) Sea conditions were very good as we motored out and headed towards the Hippolytes where we saw the usual Black-faced Cormorants and Kelp Gulls as well as a Peregrine and a Swamp Harrier. Of interest there was a New-Zealand Fur Seal in among the Aussies, probably collecting the dole. There were good numbers of Diving-petrels as we chugged further out as well as the odd Shy and Giant-petrel. As we closed in on the shelf we had our first White-headed Petrel quickly followed by a Soft-plumaged - great start and a sign of things to come! This first White-headed Petrel was quickly followed by others all moving south and it was apparent we were in the middle of a large movement - we ended up seeing over 100 for the day. A large stubby grey petrel appeared and the call of Grey Petrel went up - my first lifer for the trip - a very smart bird. As we moved further out beyond the shelf a distant Light-mantled Sooty Albatross was spotted by our eagle eyed leader Rohan Clarke - this is a bird I had dreamed of seeing since I was about 5 years old and I was in a bit of a quandary as it drifted further away... I wanted to see it close, I wanted to see those eyes... still I needn't have worried. As it rose and dipped above the waves its pale mantle glistened in the sun and the smile was hard to wipe off my face.

At the second berley point there were still plenty of White-headed Petrels and the more common pelagic species continued to turn up. Nice specimens of both Wandering and Antipodean albatross were a highlight as well as both Royals, White-chinned Petrel and more Grey Petrels. An albatross with a grey head sauntered into the boat and I remember thinking thats a very dirty underwing for a Bullers.... it was a lovely adult Grey-headed Albatross - another lifer... as it circled the boat a Blue Petrel was spotted - yet another lifer - I did not know where to look first!! As it turns out I should have stayed on the Grey-headed as it was the first of 30+ Blue Petrels we saw for the day - each seemingly getting closer to the boat as they passed by, continuing the north to south pattern of the White-headed's.

Of interest was the rare pelagic Skylark at 500 fathoms, probably on its annual migration to its breeding grounds somewhere NNE from Macquarie Island. After a glorious few hours which included another distant Light-mantled Sooty we headed back in closer to the shelf. Again more White-headed and Blue Petrels - we had taken to calling them White-headed Sparrows. As we were about to toss it in, two prions with what I would call "stonking great bills" flew through... Upon examination of photos later they were Salvin's!!! Lifer number 5 for the day!! We trundled back to port through calm seas and it must be one of the few pelagics where more sightings of Blue and Grey Petrel hardly raised a mention let alone the call of "STOP THE BOAT!!!"... although another Grey-headed Albatross, this time a juvenile did warrant the call. Conditions were so mild that I actually felt almost fresh stepping back on the wharf which is unusual for a Tasmanian pelagic trip.

Over a cleansing ale back at the Lufra we digested the day which included 9 taxa of albatross, 100+ White-headed Petrel, 30+ Blue Petrel and 6 or 7 Grey petrel and wondered what tomorrow would bring. On dusk a few of us wandered out to Port Arthur where the resident castanops Masked Owls again put on a good show, in particular showing the size difference between the sexes. This site also remains one of the easiest places in Australia to reliably see Long-nosed Potoroo among the many Tasmanian Pademelon. On the way back to the hotel for dinner I found a Morepork sitting in the middle of the road - as with any member of the Boobook family it gave me the most contemptible stare in askance as to why I was on its road before flying off. After a standard Lufra dinner which consisted of a slab of cow carcass and gravy a few of us headed out spotlighting again - it was quiet with only a few Tawny Frogmouths seen.

The next morning again saw 13 of nearly the same maniacs lined up on the wharf again and there seemed to be a bit more ginger in the swell as we headed out. A few Common Dolphins and a Sea-eagle broke it up on the way to the Hippolytes where the usual suspects were again in residence. Beyond the Hippolytes we again started to run into White-headed Petrel, this time even in greater numbers than the day before... in fact many times during the day you could not look around without seeing multiple birds... estimate of at least 200 for the day but that is probably an underestimate. There was a distant Sooty Albatross which would have been another lifer but this was filed BVD (Better View Desired) 

Sooty Albatross - Rohan Clarke

Again we had a cracker of a day with my three most desired pelagic birds - Sooty, Light-mantled and Grey-headed Albatross making multiple close passes of the boat - indeed we had 11 taxa of albatross for the day!! I certainly had the previous distant views of both Sooty and Light-mantled improved dramatically with multiple birds circling around the boat although none of them landed. Again we had good numbers of both Grey and Blue Petrels with 10 + of the first and near 40 of the second including many close to the boat. After lunch prion numbers increased, mostly Fairy but by the end of the day we had a couple of Antarctic, a Salvin's (which I missed - seeing its bum head out to the horizon) and finally a Slender-billed seen very well which was lifer number 7!! for the weekend! Slender-billed has been something of a bogey bird of mine so was very pleased to get it under the belt. Other birds which were not seen Saturday included Grey-backed Storm-petrel, macroptera Great-winged Petrel and White-fronted Tern.

As we headed back in the afternoon the swell picked up and we got a bit wet for the first time. The first and only Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross pushed the albatross list to 11 for the day with only Bullers and Salvin's missing from the likely possible suspects. The White-headed Petrels persisted all the way back to the Hippolytes. Again savoured the day over a cleansing ale before playing owl guide and taking some more punters down to Port Arthur where the female owl again put on a show. Managed to make it back just in time before the kitchen closed and consumed the other half of yesterdays cow.

I had originally planned to head up to Loila Tiers near St Helens on the Sunday but after managing to get a spot on the second boat I had to change the agenda on the Monday. I had a brief lie in and was on the road before 8am and headed straight for the Weilangta Forest Drive where my first task was to push some tourists in a bogged Wicked Camper out of the mud. This is a favourite birding spot of mine when down for Eaglehawk Pelagics and it again delivered as a reliable spot for Tassie Thornbill, Pink Robin and Olive Whistler. The weather was turning to shit and it was raining quite heavily as I drove through to Orford where I poked around the river mouth turning up a half dozen Hooded Plovers and a similar number of Fairy Tern. I headed from there up to Freycinet where I again have to question the daily fee of $24 for entrance to the park when they don't even provide rubbish bins.... Still Freycinet is a lovely place and I jogged across to Wineglass Bay and back - birding was very quiet but still worth the visit. 

From here I took the slow route back to Hobart through the Wye River State Reserve (which was fogged in, wet and sleety) and Lake Leake (Dusky Robin and again wet and sleety and not much else) and back to the airport. I did of course have to give the car a bit of a hose off before returning it. I was flying back on Tiger and it never ceases to amaze me the people who travel and think that their $54 fare entitles them to anything.... as it turned out, the flight was delayed an hour and when we got on the plane we heard that the tanker had run out of fuel... so another 45 minutes of twiddling thumbs until we took off.

All in all, a fantastic long weekend in Tassie with 7 Lifers! around 105 bird species including such nice non pelagic birds as Fairy Tern, Pink Robin and Olive Whistler as well as a good mix of endemics and 14 native mammal species. My bird of the trip was a tie between the first adult Grey-headed Albatross on the first day and the first adult Light-mantled Sooty that circled the boat on the second day. Also visited some great country and am counting down to my next visit. Thanks to Rohan Clarke for organising and being such a fantastic leader - certainly the best pelagic birder I have been out to sea with and a great teacher. Also big thanks to Simone and Lucas for letting me go - I love you both :)