Saturday, April 12, 2014

Portland Pelagic 6th April

The Friday night before a Sunday pelagic trip is always a tense time. Because it is a 4 to 5 hour drive to Portland where the boat is it is Friday night when the final decision is made about the probable weather conditions to be expected and the final decision on whether the trip will happen or not.
Location map thanks to Google Earth

Wind can make or break a pelagic. If there is no wind the birds tend to sit on the water and are hard to find. It also means that the smell from the fish parts and fish oil that are used as berly will not travel. Sea birds have a remarkable sense of smell and can pick up the scent from berly for many kilometres and can be seen flying in from down-wind to find it.
Southern Pride returning from a fishing trip. She is a wide boat with a large rear deck and has room for 12 passengers

If there is too much wind then it can be anything from uncomfortable to being too rough to go out. In the middle there is that band of wind strength, between about 10 and 20 knots, that gives some waves and swell that the birds enjoy and also spreads the smell of berly. Of course this much wind can induce sea-sickness in some birders but it is essential for a good trip. Those who have prepared by performing whichever ritual they believe will ward off this dreaded ailment look forward to a good breeze on the day of a pelagic trip. It is not a short trip either as it is approx 45 km out to edge of the Continental Shelf where the pelagic birds are found. We leave the dock in the half-light at 0700 and get back in the late afternoon, about 1600.
Raft of Flesh-footed Shearwater

The waves may be small but the swells can be huge. Here a 9 metre (30 feet) fishing boat is all but hidden from our view by 3 metre swells rolling in from the Southern Ocean.

Last Sunday the weather was perfect with a good breeze, no rain, blue skies and a good variety of species. For most on board the wind strength was almost perfect, for a couple though it tipped over into the "too much" zone and sea-sickness took over. This was a shame as the crew on the Southern Pride know how to look after us and when the large platters of sandwiches and salad came out bird watchers turned and dove on them like a flock of starving gannets. A little later a similar thing happened to the large platter of sweet biscuits but rather than gannets the attack was more like a flock of storm-petrels. Fingers hovered in indecision over the plate and searched for the preferred delicacy; a jam tart? a chocolate cookie? a small coconut concoction? With the choice made the fingers touched down, picked up and flew off. Sigh, birding can be so hard.
The last of the salad and biscuits

On the trip out to the edge of the shelf we passed large rafts of prions and it looked like we were in for a good day, my pelagicdipphobia would be receiving excellent treatment. Out at the shelf we found large numbers of Flesh-footed Shearwaters, the occasional White-faced and Wilson's Storm-petrels, Short-tailed Shearwaters, Northern Giant Petrel and Fairy Prions. My list for the day came to 23 species.
White-faced Shearwater

The highlights were seeing 7 species of Albatross and a Brown Skua that put on a spectacular display of terrorising the Flesh-footed Shearwaters as it attempted to steal their food. An unexpected bonus on the return trip was a distant fly-by from a Cook's Petrel, an uncommon bird for the waters off Portland.

Juvenile Wandering Albatross

Intermediate stage Wandering Albatross with very worn plumage

Near mature Wandering Albatross soaring on its 2 metre wingspan

Heavy vermiculation on a Wandering Albatross

Brown Skua

Brown Skua hunting down a Flesh-footed Shearwater to steal its food

The shearwater is finally driven into the sea ..

... and then tries to escape before the skua can turn

Flesh-footed Shearwater

Northern Giant Petrel

Small Mollymawks; Buller's Albatross (rear), Black-browed Albatross (centre) and Shy Albatross (front)

Campbell's Albatross (Mollymawk)

Yellow-nosed Albatross (Mollymawk)

Dark headed Buller's Albatross

Buller's Albatross with a Shy Albatross in background

Buller's Albatross

Shy Albatross surfacing after diving to retrieve food

All images & text © Jennifer Spry