Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Magnificent Eaglehawk Pelagic Prologue

I thought my Eaglehawk Pelagic blogs need a prologue so ...

After the official reports of the trips on September 14th and 15th came out, twelve pelagic fanatics who had missed out got together and booked the boat for last weekend, the 21st and 22nd.  As it turned out though it seems our weekend had been an eruption of birds and the event had subsided or passed on. While the trips on the 21st and 22nd had similar variety as normal (30 species) it sadly did not match the previous weekend for the quantity of birds seen nor the number of “special species”. That weekend of the 14th and15th is now starting to be called “the most spectacular pelagic in southern Australian waters ever”.

The final list of 35 species for the 14th/15th weekend is:
Southern Royal Albatross;  Northern Royal Albatross
Wandering (Snowy) Albatross;  Antipodean (New Zealand) Albatross
Black-browed Albatross;  Campbell Albatross;  Shy Albatross;  Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross; Grey-headed Albatross
Light-mantled Albatross; Sooty Albatross
Grey-backed Storm-Petrel
Fairy Prion;  Antarctic Prion;  Salvin’s Prion;  Slender-billed Prion
Short-tailed Shearwater; Sooty Shearwater
Northern Giant Petrel; Southern Giant Petrel
Common Diving Petrel
Great-winged Petrel – gouldi and macroptera;  White-headed Petrel;  Soft-plumaged Petrel;  Blue Petrel;  Grey Petrel; White-chinned Petrel;  Cape Petrel;  Little Penguin
Australasian Gannet;  Black-faced Cormorant;  Crested Tern;  White-fronted Tern; Pacific Gull; Kelp Gull; Silver Gull.

After the 14th/ 15th pelagic Marlene and I stayed on at the Lufra so we could go birding on the Monday and when I woke up and looked out the window I saw how lucky we had been with the weekend weather. A mix of low cloud and rain cut visibility so I couldn’t see across Pirates Bay and the wind was strong from the north-east. The day was not at all pleasant so we had a leisurely breakfast in the dining room and gazed out at the drab, grey scenery, then had another cup of tea. The Lufra I should mention is an Art-Deco hotel built in the 1930s and it still retains some of the charm and ornamentation of that period so it is a wonderful place to stay, and the food is very good. The wood fire in the lounge makes it a very pleasant place to sit with a drink after a hard day's pelagic birding.
Two skinks sunning on a forest log

Our land birding actually started on the Saturday night when a group of us went to see the local Masked Owl. Then on the Sunday night Marlene and I set out on another owl-prowl hoping to find a Morepork, a task at which we sadly failed. At one point a Tawny Frogmouth flew over the car but that was all the bird life we saw.

I did learn the excitement of driving at night on Tasmanian country roads though. Small mammals and marsupials were everywhere. Eastern Barred Bandicoots scuttled off the edge of the road as we approached and Brush-tailed Possums just sat and watched. Small wallabies (Red-bellied Pademelon) also sat and watched as we went by but Potoroos, small marsupials related to the wallabies and the size and shape of a brown bouncing basket ball covered in fur, had a death wish. As we drove the night roads these small dark brown fur balls would explode unseen from the side of the road with the speed of a startled Ferrari and cross in the headlight beam a metre or less in front us (well, maybe 5 metres), and be off the other side of the road before our car could travel that one metre that would have proven fatal. However, judging by the number of road kills we saw much of the Tasmanian fauna is, sadly, very bad at estimating the speed of approaching cars.
Shearing shed with Merino rams in the foreground. Piles of sheep pellets can be seen under the shed.

Of course Tasmanian roads are all single lane; well that’s how they felt as on-coming cars did their best to remove the side mirror and peel a layer of paint from our diminutive hire car. Scary stuff. The narrow winding roads also make birding difficult because, when a new bird is seen and the brakes go on, it is hard to get the car far enough off the road to allow other cars to pass. But we survived and duly spent a wet and windy Monday looking for little brown birds in the dripping forests. Of course all birding is good birding so we had a fun day with plenty of birds showing off for us. On getting home I even found out that the Olive Whistler in Tasmania is a different race to the Victorian one so I got a ticklette – as everyone knows a “tick” is when you see a new species but for those who haven’t yet heard about “ticklettes”, they are what you get when you see a new race of a previously seen species.

Flame Robin. First you catch your caterpillar ...

... then you beat it on the log until caterpillar juice comes out and it is dead.

Tasmanian Scrubwren.

Tasmanian Thornbill showing its tuft of white feathers at the vent.

Olive Whistler being a "skulker" in the thick undergrowth.

Yellow Wattlebird.

Masked Lapwing chick with a buzz of feathers around a very skinny neck

Forest Raven

Tasmanian Native-hen

I ended the Eaglehawk weekend with 58 species of non-pelagic birds, the best being the Masked Owl.

My bird of the weekend though has to go to the Grey-headed Albatross because this species is uncommon in Australian waters and I got only my second, and best ever, view.

All text & images © Jenny Spry

Saturday, September 21, 2013

Eaglehawk Pelagic, Tasmania 14th & 15th Albatross, Albatross and more Albatross!

There was some apprehension aboard the Pauletta as we left Pirates bay on Saturday because there was very little wind and the seas were quite calm. It was perfect weather for fishing but for bird watching there needs to be some wind. Without wind pelagic seabirds tend to sit quietly on the water and not come in to the smell of the berley. With some wind the birds lift off the surface and start gliding across the wave tops. We needn't have worried though because once we got out near the shelf edge there were birds everywhere and the only ones missing were the small prions and storm-petrels.

A perfect day for pelagic birding is 10 to 20 knots of wind, a medium swell with some small waves on top so the boat doesn’t move around too much, and, of course, sunshine to show the birds off to their best and keep everyone smiling. And that is EXACTLY what we had on Sunday resulting in 35 species, from the diminutive Common Diving Petrel with a wingspan of 35 cm and its disconcerting habit of flying full speed straight into the face of a wave and disappearing, up to the Wandering Albatross with its majestic wingspan of up to 3.5 metres. As we arrived at the shelf break we were 13 really happy birders.
View looking south over Pirates Bay and the anchorage.

I am told that on a windy day a pelagic seabird can smell tuna or shark liver oil, our preferred lure, for about 10 km. I don’t know how true this is but the birds sure come in from somewhere when some is poured on the water. Albatross are often one of the first species to arrive.
Pauletta at her mooring. The houses in the background are part of the village of Doo Town.

Location and approximate trip map. Thanks to Google Earth.

Seeing a member of the Wandering Albatross group at sea is an awesome sight, especially when it is a Snowy Albatross, Diomedea exulans. With a wingspan of between 2.5 and 3.5 metres and the males weighing up to 11 kg this is a seriously large bird. It’s near cousin the Antipodean Albatross, Diomedea antipodensis, is about the same size, only darker on the wing.
Snowy Albatross with Tasman Isle (left) and Cape Raoul (right) in the background.
Snowy Albatross, Diomedea exulans. I am told the red tinge on the neck is caused by their diet.
Snowy Albatross pair with Shy Albatross in the background. The size difference between the species is very apparent. 
Antipodean Albatross, Diomedea antipodensis.  There are 6 plumages stages recognised in Wandering Albatross based on the age of the bird. This is approx a stage 4.
Antipodean Albatross in stage 3 to 4.

Antipodean Albatross possibly race gibsoni in stage 1 plumage.

The other large albatross are the Royal Albatross, Northern and Southern, weighing about 6 kg and with a wingspan of about 3 metres they are sometimes, at a distance, hard to pick from the Wanderers.
Northern Royal Albatross with black leading edge to wing.

Southern Royal Albatross with white leading edge to wing, best seen here on left wing.
Southern Royal Albatross showing the black cutting edge to bill common to both Royal Albatross.

At the other end of the scale are the small albatross, the molymawks, like the Black-browed or Shy Albatross. These birds have a wingspan of some 2 metres and weigh 3 to 4 kg, still large birds, as birds go, but seen side by side to a Wandering Albatross they seem quite diminutive.
Shy Albatross.

Shy Albatross.

Campbell Albatross with diagnostic yellow eye.

Black-browed Albatross with its dark eye and mainly dark under-wing.

Juvenile Grey-headed Albatross with all black bill.

Adult Grey-headed Albatross with yellow edges to bill.

The dainty members of the albatross tribe are the Sooty (Phoebetria fusca) and Light-mantled Albatross (Phoebetria palpebrata). Their wings are about 2 metres long, fine and pointed and they weigh in at about 2 to 3 kg. While they are still big the long, narrow wings give them the most beautiful of profiles as they effortlessly glide across the waves.
Sooty Albatross.
Sooty Albatross showing pale cutting edge to bill and a Great-winged Petrel race gouldi. Some authorities have split this bird from Great-winged and it is now Grey-faced Petrel.
Light-mantled Albatross.

One other albatross species was seen by two people as we steamed back toward Pirates Bay was a Yellow-nosed Albatross, but sadly I missed it. They are a very beautiful molymawk with a deep black bill that has a fine line of yellow along the top edge, shading to pink at the tip. Seeing this bird meant that, in one weekend, we had seen eleven albatross species in one day! 

I didn’t get a photo of the Yellow-nosed on Sunday so I dug around and found a picture I took off Port Fairy. It isn’t quite sharp but at least you can see what they look like.
Yellow-nosed Albatross.

The only local molymawk we missed was a Buller’s Albatross, but we did see one off Eaglehawk exactly one year before so I have added its photo, just so it doesn’t feel left out.
Buller's Albatross.
And as I said before, every time I think of those two days off Eaglehawk a smile comes to my face and my eyes glaze over and I am back out there, bobbing around in a boat surrounded by magnificent birds. My thanks go to the trip organiser and birder extraordinaire Rohan Clarke and the skipper John Males for organising the trip and I hope to do many more.

All photos & text © Jenny Spry

Friday, September 20, 2013

Eaglehawk Pelagic, Tasmania 14th and 15th September

On Saturday we saw 29 species of seabird off Eaglehawk Neck followed by 35 species on Sunday. It was, without a doubt, the most remarkable 2 days of pelagic birding I have had in over 30 trips. Eleven species of Albatross came and went and both days were topped off with 10 Grey Petrels and “flocks” of White-headed Petrels!!! Unheard of! To put it in perspective my highest previous one day count was 22 species off Port Fairy, Vic. Birds of the trip? Grey-headed Albatross, Grey Petrel, Sooty Albatross and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross.
Location and trip map; with thanks to Google Earth

In this blog I will concentrate on seabirds other than the Albatross, and those I will give their own blog because they were so numerous and beautiful.

I used to think all it would take to cure my Pelagidipphobia ('the fear of missing a new bird or wonderful sighting by missing out on going on a pelagic birding trip’. According to the medical professions, once acquired this phobia is totally without cure [smile]) would be a weekend like this but no, the “win” has just left me stressing for the next trip – hopefully out of Portland, Vic, in October. And then in December I am doing a half-day pelagic out of Cocos Is. No one, as far as I know, has ever done a pelagic out of Cocos, there might be anything out there. Just think of the possibilities!!

The condition were perfect with low water temperatures, light to moderate winds, just enough to get the birds off the water, sunshine and a moderate swell with small waves on top. We motored out of Pirates Bay in the Pauletta and headed for the Hypolites Rocks where there was a small group of Australian Fur Seals and one New Zealand Fur Seal and the normal groups of Black-faced Cormorants and Australian Gannets.

The Pauletta on her moorings in Pirates Bay
Hypolites Rock and the cave and rock shelves that the seals enjoy.
Once past here it is not far out to the edge of the shelf, and Tasman Island and the tall rock spires of Cape Raoul form the back-drop to the trip. By the time we were at the edge of the shelf and in about 200 fathoms of water the albatross and petrels were becoming common but further out we could see large numbers of birds rising above the horizon. We motored on out to a depth of some 600 fathoms, about 35 kms off shore, and here the real birding started. Seabirds flew past, circled the boat for a look and came in to the berley trail. Each species came close enough so we could get good looks at all the markings, and watching various species of albatross glide in on massive wings was sheer bliss.

Northern Giant Petrel with its dark bill tip

Southern Giant Petrel portrait showing the green bill tip

Northern and Southern Giant Petrel. They are about the same size as the small albatross (molymawks)

Soft-plumaged Petrel

White-chinned Petrel

Great-winged Petrel race gouldi

Great-winged Petrel race macroptera

White-headed Petrel dorsal view

White-headed Petrel ventral view

Grey Petrel

Grey Petrel

Cape Petrel race australe from New Zealand waters

Cape Petrel race capense from the Indian Ocean and South Africa

Slender-billed Prion

Fairy Prion

Antarctic Prion

Blue Petrel ventral view

Blue Petrel dorsal view

Short-tailed Shearwater with Tasman Island in the background as we headed back to Pirates Bay

Every time I think of the two days a smile comes to my face and my eyes glaze over and I am back out there, bobbing around in a boat surrounded by magnificent birds. To misquote the Bard, “Such trips as this my dreams are made on;”

all images and text © Jenny Spry