Sunday, May 12, 2013

Portland Pelagic 5th May

When I looked at my birding records I saw that the last Birds Australia Port Fairy pelagic that I had been on was in March 2007. That was more than 6 years ago. Quelle horreur!! The situation had to be remedied.

Of course here was that one spectacular trip out of Port Fairy, organised by Neil Macumber, to see the Great Shearwater when it was in town in 2011 but apart from that I had not been on a Victorian trip for far too long. The situation rectified itself when the weather was pronounced "good" and the 5th of May BirdLife Portland trip went ahead.

Portland is not close to Melbourne, it is about a five hour drive for me so it was good to have Scott on board for the ride. We unloaded our bags at the motel and headed for dinner. For me the pre-trip dinner is an important part of the pelagic because it is a chance to sit down with fellow birders, some of whom I may not have seen for a year or more and catch up over a good pub meal and a drink.

Sunday morning was overcast when we arrived at the boat but the strong winds of the past week had dropped off and we had about 10 knots out of the south east. This meant that, while the swells were still enormous, there were no serious waves. So, even though we went up and down a lot the ride was not wet or uncomfortable. As this was my first trip out of Portland I was glad to see that we travelled close to the Australasian Gannet rookery on Lawrence Rocks on the way out, and closer still on the way back.
Lawrence Rocks off Portland is an important Australasian Gannet rookery
The ride out to the shelf takes a couple of hours and on this trip the birds were few and far between. A White-fronted Tern went past as did a few Fluttering Shearwater and the occasional distant Australasian Gannet.

Even when we got to the shelf it remained quiet for some time. We bobbed around on the swell as we waited for some birds and berly was cast behind the boat. It took about ten minutes, maybe more, but come they did. First on the scene were some of the smaller albatross, mollymawks, and we soon had a nice following of Black-browed and Shy Albatross. Fairy Prions joined them and then the storm petrels arrived; Wilson’s, Grey-backed and White-faced. It was turning into an excellent trip.
Fairy Prion
Campbell's Albatross with the pale eye in the background and Black-browed Albatross with a dark eye in the foreground used to be subspecies of Black-browed but have been split by the IOC
Grey-backed Storm-petrel with very worn plumage
A surprise for me happened when the lid on one of the big iceboxes was opened and a huge tray of sandwiches appeared. This was a pelagic first for me and the swarm of hands over the platter was as thick as the swarm of feeding gannets diving on prey. I was going to take a photo of this event but as I had one hand on my binos and the other on an egg and lettuce sandwich the photo never happened. I did, however, get a photo of the lunchtime biscuit platter before they all disappeared but as you can see the on-board gannets had cleared the salad platter before I could get to the camera. The second large icebox was full of soft drinks and bottled water, and tea and coffee was available whenever wanted. Such luxury.
Shy Albatross chasing food with water sheeting of its wings
Juvenile Shy Albatross with its dark collar and grey, black-tipped bill
The empty salad plate and dwindling biscuit plate with Glen showing how many Sooty Albatross we have seen, or was it the number of biscuits she has eaten?
The first large albatross, a Northern Royal, arrived at this stop and when they appear I know I am on a pelagic. They are just so beautiful as they glide in on their two metre wingspan. By the time the trip was over we had seen four large albatross, two Northern Royal and two Wandering.
Juvenile all brown Wandering Albatross
Sub-adult plumage of Wandering Albatross
Northern Royal Albatross with its all black upper wing
The second stop was the spectacular stop of the trip. As we threw the berly over a Sooty Albatross approached the boat and landed. Spectacular. The Sooty is an uncommon sight off Victoria so everyone was thrilled and many people onboard ticked of a new species.

Sooty Albatross
Sooty Albatross
It was then that things started to get ridiculous. This uncommon bird was joined by a second, and we had 2 Sooty Albatross sitting beside us, and then a third bird arrived. Never before have I seen three Sooty Albatross together. What a trip.

When a Sooty Albatross comes in everyone wants a photo ......
but where do you look when a second one arrives?

To maintain the quality of the day the call went out that there was a “different looking” prion behind the boat. We all then got good looks as the bird joined the feeding birds. Antarctic Prion? Salvin’s Prion? No one was sure but as it turned out after consulting various people and sending photos around it was agreed that it was an Antarctic Prion. Another tick for many on board.
Antarctic Prion
Antarctic Prion
And birds aren’t the only interesting natural events. We had a Man-of-War jellyfish at one stop, the first I have been able to inspect closely. Normally I keep well away from such stinging beasts but this time, by leaning over the side I could see the beautiful fluorescent colours and delicate sail. There was also a small pod of dolphins just as we got back to Lawrence Rocks, and on the rocks, Fur Seals and Sea Lions. Sadly the photos are not as good as I had wanted because my good 100 – 400 L lens was in hospital having an image stabiliser transplant and I had to use my older, basic 70 – 300 lens.
Portugese Man-of-war showing its fluorescent spots and tail. A mist of stinging tendrils up to 10 metres long hangs below this small, innocuous looking bladder.
Common Dolphin
When I finally got my list worked out and photos checked I had seen 24 species for the day, including the inshore species such as Black-faced Cormorant, Pacific Gull, Silver Gull and Australasian Gannet. Bird-wise, the surprise for me was that we had not seen many petrels, other than a Southern Giant Petrel and a few Great-winged Petrels, but hey, with Antarctic Prion and Sooty Albatross on the list, who could complain?
The terns and Silver Gulls line up on the water's edge while the cormorants, seals, and Sea Lions rest further up. The top shelf of Lawrence Rocks is reserved for the gannets.

All images and text © Jenny Spry

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