Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Britannia Seamount Trip

Black Petrel, and what a beautiful bird. It might be my new most favourite pelagic bird (smile)

When one travels 200 km offshore for three nights, pelagic sea-birding can become an extreme sport. An extreme sport needs extreme equipment and the motor yacht Phoenix One certainly fits the description of "extreme equipment" (smile).
Our destination. Thanks to Google Earth

I heard about a trip to the Britannia Seamounts in early October and I was in a state of excited anticipation from the moment I got the invitation. A trip to the Seamounts in December is a first ever. There maybe nothing special out there or there may be something entirely new to Australia. The first trip to the seamounts was in April 2012 and the second was in April 2014 and on both those trips a new storm-petrel was seen and, as yet it has not been determined exactly what it is; it could be a new species or one that hasn't been seen in 150 years, a Lined Storm-petrel.
Mystery Storm-petrel. Photo taken in 2012

A trip in December may get us another look or maybe it will get us just a list of birds commonly seen off Brisbane. And so, on the eve of my departure from Melbourne I can feel the anticipation that comes before a major pelagic trip, and the fear linked to the condition called Pelagicdipphobia, the fear that I wont actually get on the boat, that the plane will be late, that a big storm will materialise from nowhere, etc etc, and all the other irrational fears.

*  *  *  *  *  *
Phoenix One. 

Well, the plane wasn't late, Paul & Ruth gave me a ride to the boat and the boat actually left a bit early. The trip started with a tour of the boat and being shown to our cabins. Mine was a twin share and we had our own bathroom with shower and toilet. The bathroom had green marble tiles and all the cabins, including the main cabin, had white carpet. Very nice. We sailed at about 8 pm and I was in bed by 9 pm so I could be up and ready at first light. We cruised through the night and when I awoke on Tuesday morning the sun wasn't up but a few of the other birders were.
Birding from the top deck

Cutting berley from the rear deck

Out on deck I joined the others scanning for birds. There were 3 or 4 possible new birds for me but the one I really wanted was black Petrel. It is not the most uncommon of birds but I had missed it on 3 previous trips. After about 1/2 an hour the sun was up and a golden light spread across the water and then, into that golden light flew a Black Petrel. It was my first bird for the trip and it was a TICK! Yeaah!
White-chinned Petrel in the early morning light. 

After that the bird numbers grew and in came Great-wing Petrel, Black-winged Petrels and the first of many Flesh-footed Shearwaters. Then there was a distraction, the smell of fresh espresso coffee. The trip was getting harder by the moment.
Birds feeding on the berley behind the boat.

Great-winged Petrel. The amount of white on the face varies from bird to bird

The next excitement was when a Long-tailed Jaeger came powering in and started harassing the Great-winged Petrels and we were given an exhibition of power flying by both birds. I soon got repeat views of Black Petrels as 2 or 3 new ones arrived at the slick and then a surprise bird from way down south appeared, a White-chinned Petrel. They are common off Victoria where I do most of my pelagic trips but the Queenslanders got quite excited as it was an uncommon bird in their waters.
Long-tailed Jaeger harassing a Great-winged Petrel

Long-tailed Jaeger

Then about 1/2 an hour later, at about 1030 the next southern visitor arrived, a Wandering Albatross, race gibsoni, flew up the slick and stayed with the boat for some time. About an hour later a second Wandering Albatross appeared and it seemed that there was some sort of pattern developing; three southern birds over the Britannia Seamount in one morning.
Flesh-footed Shearwater

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

White-chinned Petrel

After this, new arrivals slowed down and we were able to eat our hamburgers for lunch in relative peace. Of course it couldn't last and the excitement rose again as a third Wandering Albatross arrived, this was a definite pattern. But to change the theme our next bird was a land bird, a Cattle Egret in breeding plumage 200 km from the nearest land!
White-chinned Petrel over a Flesh-footed Shearwater

To finish the day off the first of many Tahiti Petrels arrived. By 1800 our concentration started drifting and beers started to appear, then cheese and biscuits to go with them. When dinner arrived we were treated to two fully set dining table and Cape Grim organic steaks, cooked perfectly. After dinner some people sat and partied but I crawled off to bed to be ready for the next day.
Britannia Seamount sunset

The dining table

Cape Grim steak, rare, with salad

Wednesday morning we woke to new conditions. The calm winds and mirror seas had given way to 25 knot northerlies gusting to 30 knots. The Phoenix One was so well fitted with stabilisers that I didn't even realise the wind strength until I got on deck and looked at the seas and blowing white caps. The boat was so steady that I could put my coffee down anywhere and there was no fear of it slopping or tipping over.
Black-winged Petrel

White-faced Petrel and Black-winged Petrel

Gould's Petrel

Gould's Petrel

The first Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphins arrived at about 0700 and pods of them came and went throughout the day. Then another jaeger arrived along with some Kermadec and Tahiti Petrels and we all scanned for anything new. At 0830 a small flash of white was seen in the wake and it moved off to port and away. I got a few quick photos of what I expected to be a Wilson's Storm Petrel but when I got them on the computer it turned out that there was also a White-bellied Storm Petrel, another unusual bird to find in those waters.
Kermadec Petrel. The plumage on this species is very variable. This is a dark phase bird.

Medium phase

Pale phase

At 0930 the excitement levels rose again as a Gould's Petrel joined the birds feeding behind the boat and stayed long enough for us all to get good looks. This was soon followed by a skua with a very pale neck, another southern bird, a South Polar Skua. This rush of southern birds was quite unexpected and had the Queenslanders all excited. but I wanted northern birds. Sigh, we were having great birding but where were the Polynesian Storm Petrels, the New Zealand Storm Petrels, the Collared Petrels, the new birds for me?
Tahiti Petrel

Black-winged Petrel

Great-winged Petrel

After that things quietened down until lunch time when a White-tailed Tropicbird joined us. It was not a new bird for me but it was a juvenile with lots of black marks on its back and wings. At this age with its black markings, in the distance, it could have been a Red-billed Tropicbird, a tick for me, and I took heaps of photos and hoped ....... but no, just a White-tailed.
White-tailed Tropicbird

Tahiti Petrel

The afternoon went past with no new birds but plenty of wonderful tropical birds to watch, the Kermadecs, the Tahitis, the Black-winged. By 1700 the beers and cheese were out again and a wonderful smell was coming from the galley. Dinner was a roast, no two roasts; ham or lamb or if you wanted, as many did, a mixture of both. Wine and coffee and perusing photos on the laptops provided a gentle close to the trip as we turned for home. My list for the trip totalled 18 pelagic species and one tick. Add that to the fun of doing a pelagic on a luxury motor yacht and the trip turned out to be very special in deed, with thanks to John, Paul and Brian for getting it all set up for us.
The cheese platter served on the top deck

We got off the boat at about 0800 on Thursday, said our good-byes and headed our various ways. A magnificent 3 nights and 2 full days of birding came to and end, without any storms (25 to 30 knots is not a storm, it is good pelagic birding weather, smile) or other problems. The storm did come though. When I got home I heard the Brisbane area was being battered by 40 to 50 knot winds and rain. Now that would have been too rough to be out in!
Off-shore Bottle-nosed Dolphin

Flying Fish

Cattle Egret

An apology. Some sky and water colours have taken on a strange hue somewhere between my computer and google. I have tried to correct it but it is late in the afternoon on New Year's Eve so I have given up.

Happy New Year everyone.

All text & images © Jenny Spry

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