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.
|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 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.|
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.
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.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