Friday, April 20, 2012

The first ever birding trip to the Queensland and Britannia Tablemounts

Friday 13th of April to Monday 16th April 2012.
The TexasT (image from website)

Looking aft (image from the website)
Sometimes opportunities have to be grabbed fast. An email from Paul Walbridge said that, due to a cancellation, two places were available on a pelagic trip to the seamounts off Southport, Queensland. Now, I have a particular thing about boats so when there is an opportunity to combine a boating trip with a birding trip I am in faster than a diving gannet. I rang Paul and grabbed one of the spots. Yea.

My cabin (image from the website)
Then I started on my research. Where were these seamounts? What birds are out there? Google Earth answered the first question for me and I found them about 100 nautical miles off the coast from Brisbane. For the second question I went to the BirdLife atlas website and there I found that no one had done a record sheet for that spot. It appeared that this was going to be the first trip ever to look for birds at these “tablemounts”. There might be anything out there.
Course map (Google Earth)

Then I went to the website for the boat we were to use, the TexasT. Not the most romantic name ever but the website showed me a “25 metre luxury motor yacht”. This was going to be some trip. I was going to be sharing an en-suite double cabin that even had its own TV. And for creature comforts she is fitted with a deck bar, teppanyaki BBQ (whatever that is), icemaker, stabilisers and a covered rear deck to keep the rain and sun off while we bird watch. Sigh, so different to anything I had ever been on. This was going to be fun.

I flew out of Melbourne and was collected in Brisbane by Paul and Kathy, Queenslanders are so nice, and we headed for Southport and the boat. She was moored at Sanctuary Cove, a nice enough little spot, and after dinner we went on board at 1900 and headed out to sea.

When we woke next morning, Saturday, we were about 100 nautical miles off the coast at the Queensland Seamount, and it was a perfect morning for a pelagic. The sun was out and the wind was about 25 knots from the south-east. As the TexasT has stabilisers there was no serious movement of the boat, not even enough to spill a cup of tea, and we sat down to breakfast with flocks of Flesh-footed and Great-winged Petrels circling in our wake. Once we started putting out some berley more and more birds arrived. Wilson’s Storm-petrels were first to join the berley slick and soon after, at 0915, the cry went out, “pale breasted storm petrel – and its got streaks!” All the cameras and binocular swung and sure enough, we had our first New Zealand Storm-petrel for the trip. There is going to be some study needed of the hundreds of photos taken over the two days but it looks like we ended up with about 10 different birds. What a wonderful find.
New Zealand Storm-petrel ©

New Zealand Storm-petrel ©
New Zealand Storm-petrel ©

In fact it really turned out to be a storm-petrel trip as we ended up with five different species; White-faced, Black-bellied, White-bellied, Wilson’s and New Zealand. This was a spectacular count of storm-petrel species and all from on top of the seamounts, a strip of water about 100 nautical miles long and 30 nautical miles wide.
White-faced Storm-petrel

Wilson's Storm-petrel showing yellow webbing on feet

Black-bellied Storm-petrel

The morning progressed and we motored slowly south at about 3 knots spreading berley all the way. Kermadec Petrels came in as did Providence Petrels, and these were soon joined by Gould’s Petrels and White-necked Petrels. Over our lunch of sandwiches filled with fresh roast chicken or other meats and salads we discussed the New Zealand Storm-petrels and watched Flesh-footed and Great-winged Petrels fight for lumps of shark liver. How good can it get?
Gould's Petrel

White-necked Petrel

White-necked Petrel

The bird count grew as we added Red-tailed Tropicbird, a very beautiful and very young Wandering Albatross and more storm-petrels to our list. By the time the sun was going down and we were starting to think about pre-dinner drinks my list for the day was 16 species. This is a respectable list for a day of pelagic birding and we discussed plans for the next day. It was decided to continue south for the night, to the Britannia Seamount, and then motor slowly north the next day.
Juvenile Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

On Sunday morning the wind had dropped and for the first hour or so, from about 0700 to 0800 bird-wise things were fairly quiet and our bacon and eggs breakfast was consumed in relative peace. By about 0900 the wind was once again freshening and more birds began to appear. We motored on to our most southerly point of the trip (28º 48’ 01”  155º 50’ 25”), then turned and headed north. We added Red-tailed Tropicbird and Pomarine Skua to our lists as well as Brown Noddy and Sooty Tern. Two more Wandering Albatross joined the berley trail and at last, at about mid afternoon, we added Tahiti Petrel. This bird came in very close and we had wonderful views as it arced across the stern.
Red-tailed Tropicbird

Pomarine Jaeger

By the time evening came around my list was 21 species but as usual one bird, an Arctic Jaeger, had done a fast fly-by and escaped my view so the boat count was 22. As the sun went down I had seen Wandering Albatross, Great-winged Petrel, Providence Petrel, Kermadec Petrel, White-necked Petrel, Gould’s Petrel, Tahiti Petrel, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Short-tailed Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Wilson’s Storm-petrel, *New-Zealand Storm-petrel, White-faced Storm-petrel, *White-bellied Storm-petrel, Black-bellied Storm-petrel, Red-tailed Tropicbird, White-tailed Tropicbird, Brown Noddy, White Tern, Sooty Tern and Pomarine Skua. (*Ticks)
Great-winged Petrel 

Kermadec Petrel

Providence Petrel

After dinner on Sunday we turned west and headed for port. This trip had been the first time a group of birders had visited the seamounts east if Brisbane, and it was a resounding success. Twenty-two species of seabird including five species of storm-petrel had been seen, and one of these was the Critically Endangered New Zealand Storm-petrel.
Tahiti Petrel

Flying fish

Details of the New Zealand Storm-petrel can be found on the BirdLife International website at:
Some information copied from that website states:
Previously assumed to have been Extinct following the lack of records since three specimens were collected in the 1800s, this species was spectacularly rediscovered in 2003, with multiple annual records subsequently. Although there is very little information on which to base an assessment, the species has been precautionarily classified as Critically Endangered on the basis of an extremely small population which could be susceptible to the impacts of introduced predators … .
“… one individual was observed and photographed off the Mercury Islands, North Island in January 2003, and subsequently a flock of 10-20 were observed and photographed north of Little Barrier Island, North Island in November 2003. Since then birds have been observed in the Hauraki Gulf each summer (October to April). It is thought to be a summer-breeding visitor to the Hauraki Gulf, although a nest site has yet to be found. A bird apparently of this species was seen well and photographed off the southern end of New Caledonia in April 2008, which may represent a bird in, or migrating to its non-breeding range, and up to three were reported on pelagic trips off New South Wales, Australia in March and April 2010. …
“Population assumed to be tiny based on small number of records since 2003. Most have been of small numbers, but flocks of 10-20, 11 and 10-30 birds have been recorded.”
Office work - someone had to do it
With the Southport Pelagic trip on the TexasT seeing approximately 10 New Zaland Storm-petrels spread over the length of the seamounts it represents an internationally important find, both because of the number of birds seen and also the discovery of a new location for these rare birds. I knew this trip was going to be special but I had no idea just how special. It can only be hoped that further trips will be made to the seamounts and that more information can be gained on the habits of this special bird.

The back deck late in the afternoon

Sunset on the Britannia Seamount

All images on this blog are © to Jenny Spry 2012 unless stated otherwise and can not be used without permission

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