A great day off Southport 16/3/02

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Subject: A great day off Southport 16/3/02
From: "Andrew Stafford" <>
Date: Sat, 16 Mar 2002 22:01:39 +1100
A trip that had come perilously close to cancellation only the night before turned out to be one of the all-time great Southport pelagic excursions today. With the planned smaller boat not ready, 16 lucky birders boarded the beautiful Skybird at a slightly higher price. It turned out to be one hell of an investment.

While only 14 bird species were seen beyond the breakwater, an astonishing seven of these were petrels. March is traditionally a great pelagic month hereabouts, but it's fair to say that no one could have predicted such an outcome after a thoroughly ordinary start to proceedings. As the boat pushed into a gentle one metre swell, the usual early mobs of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters quickly dissipated, and we steamed out to the shelf, bathed in brilliant sunshine, but with very few feathered friends to keep us company.
That all changed shortly after reaching the shelf as a lonely but brilliant white bird charged towards the boat from the port side. "White-tailed Tropicbird!" I yelled instinctively. Wrong. The bird was a White Tern, a lifer for myself and plenty of others, or at least those yet to visit Lord Howe Island. The bird flew directly over the boat and disappeared to the south, occasionally dipping to feed upon the surface as it went.
With little else to be seen bar a few Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters, I wondered if this might be the sole cause for excitement for the day. Wrong again! As the first of surprisingly few Tahiti Petrels made their appearance, and with a Gould's Petrel fleetingly sighted by a few sharp-eyed observers, things suddenly looked full of promise.
That promise was fulfilled almost immediately upon reaching our destination, a small underwater peak, and began berleying in earnest. Shearwaters immediately began gathering around the boat, and another cookilaria-type petrel was briefly sighted but typically kept it distance. It sounds romantic, but I'm not exaggerating when I say there was a bit of a hush around the boat for the next few minutes! Everyone was on alert and there was a real sense of anticipation.
The next hour was simply one of the best and most exciting times at sea I've ever experienced. It was kicked off by an intermediate-morph Kermadec Petrel which put in a brief but close enough appearance to be clinched by most on board. Then another cookilaria was spotted, this time heading straight for the boat from port. With an extensive grey half-collar, heavy black diagonal underwing bars and no contrast between cap and mantle, there was no delay in identifying this bird as a Black-winged Petrel - one of just two records for Southport pelagics.
More was to come, with two Great-winged Petrels (race gouldii) appearing to feed around the boat. Another pair of Gould's Petrels whizzed past the stern at high speed, and at least one other individual at last made repeated close approaches to the boat, thrilling everybody on board after earlier frustrating glimpses.
By this stage everyone was in raptures, but there was more to come. A small pod of around a dozen Risso's Dolphins was a delightful addition to the trip list. Then came what most thought to be the icing on an already rich cake, a magnificent White-necked Petrel in spanking plumage that was spotted just behind the stern and which moved off quickly but not before plenty of oohing and aahing from all on board.
Reluctantly the engines were started and we were off again, but while the trip home was almost as devoid of birds as on the way out, two sightings capped the day. The first was a scattered group of Spotted Dolphins (broken up into smaller pods) briefly circled the boat, with many pausing for a spot of bow-riding as the sea flattened out.
But the final addition to the day's list was simply bizarre: an exhausted White-headed Petrel, at least 2000 kilometres out of range at the tail end of a hot Queensland summer! Incredibly, the boat almost drove over the top of this bird when barely another was to be seen: at what odds? The bird, which was starving and ridden with sea-lice but still alert, was easily captured and has been taken into care.
How it came to this unexpected location is pure guesswork: perhaps it landed on a ship after a blow, and was transported north, far from its normal feeding grounds? This bird is the first White-headed Petrel to be recorded from a Southport pelagic and surely one of very few live records for Queensland.
So it was that a very happy group of birders plus one rather bemused petrel alighted on shore at 3.30 pm. A few pelagic newbies on board probably think it's always this easy.
Species list:
Great-winged Petrel 2
KERMADEC PETREL (intermediate) 1
Tahiti Petrel 6
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
Flesh-footed Shearwater
Huttons/Fluttering Shearwater 2
Pomarine Jaeger 1
Silver Gull
Crested Tern
Risso's Dolphin 10-12
Spotted Dolphin 40-50
A very tired, but pleased as punch
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