Monday, December 14, 2015

Pilot Whales off Portland

In the process of transitioning to a new blog site for various reasons but while setting it up I will split the limited posts I get to these days :)

Last Sunday 13/12/2015 a group of 10 birders were out on the “Timaru” from Portland in South-west Victoria. This is a new boat for us so we are still training the crew on what is required for a successful pelagic birding trip and they are learning fast. Unfortunately on this trip we had no shark liver and only fish frames for berley which may have affected our ability to attract and hold birds around the boat. However conditions were very calm, with very little swell or wind and on such days birds are often reluctant to feed anyway. After an uneventful trip out (aside from good numbers of Great-winged Petrel well inside the shelf) and first stop beyond the shelf it was decided to move out deeper looking for birds.

Great-winged Petrel

We were motoring to a second spot when the call went out for “Whales!” The boat quickly stopped and through binoculars I immediately saw the curved dorsal fin and bulbous black head of what I was sure were pilot whales. Over the next 15 minutes we observed many animals around the boat but all kept at least 100 meters away at all times. It was hard to estimate numbers but there was at least 20 animals but probably more. There was clearly a variety of sizes ranging from very small where the dorsal fin barely came above the water to very large with big hook backed fins. Many bad photos were taken due to the distance but zooming in we could see the distinctive white saddle behind the dorsal fin on some animals which combined with the bulbous head confirmed them as pilot whales. The next question was “what kind of pilot whale?”, as the two species, long-finned and short-finned are notoriously difficult to split in the field. it would seem that short-finned pilot whale has never been recorded in Victoria, being a largely sub-tropical and tropical species while there are many records of long-finned pilot whale, particularly in the Bonney Upwelling where we were. In addition experts who have looked at the photos agree they are long-finned, so long-finned they are! A new mammal for me and suddenly the pelagic was looking right up. The animals lingered for perhaps 15 minutes, mainly logging on the surface before quietly slipping from sight. Cetaceans aside from Common Dolphin are a special event on Portland pelagics and these pilot whales joined a list of others I have seen in recent years including Blue, Fin, Southern Right, Humpback and Killer whales.

Pilot whale showing saddle

Pilot whale pod

Once the pilot whales disappeared things did improve on the birding front. Across the whole day a highlight was the large numbers of Great-winged Petrels – conservatively we would have seen at least 250 including disturbing some large rafts but the number could easily be higher than that. Other highlights included three White-headed Petrels, only the second time I have seen these on a Victorian pelagic and a very nice Wandering Albatross with a nearly white tail. On the boat we decided this was an “exulans” or true Wanderer and was a very nice bird that made several passes. A good bit of time at Lawrence Rocks and we made it back to Portland. With the promise of shark liver on the next pelagic I am looking forward to January.

Wandering Albatross

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