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 :)

1 comment:

  1. Great report Bawden, never salivated and pissed myself so much at the same time. Steve Davidson