Cape Leeuwin Seawatch

Subject: Cape Leeuwin Seawatch
From: Frank O'Connor <>
Date: Mon, 29 Jul 2002 01:17:27 +0800

I spent most of the last week at Augusta in the south west corner of WA. I went out to Cape Leeuwin several times to seawatch. The conditions were very good. That is gale force winds on the Wednesday and Thursday and strong winds on Friday and Saturday. However the birding was disappointing except for the Wednesday.

On Wednesday there was a very strong westerly wind blowing. After the rain cleared in the morning I went to the Cape at about 13:30 and stayed until about 15:30. I sat down on the ground in the lee of a bush to shelter from the wind and keep low to reduce the shake of the scope. Very little to start with. The expected Yellow-nosed Albatross, and a Southern Giant-Petrel hung around for a while. Then a Shy Albatross. Then three smaller birds passing a Yellow-nosed Albatross. Couldn't be certain, but they looked most like Soft-plumaged Petrels. Then a group of 10 birds close together. Flying straight into the wind. Many fleeting glimpses between the swells. Very dark above. Very white below. Flying quickly with very few glides. But the wing length was too short for shearwaters (e.g. Little or Hutton's) or most of the petrels that I know. I wasn't sure what they were. I would need to do some homework with all the reference books I brought.

About 10 minutes I got onto another flock of about 20 smaller birds. They looked the same as the first flock. A thought began to form in my mind. These definitely weren't Little Shearwaters. Maybe ..... Common Diving-Petrels????? But they are very rare in WA .... I think.

A short while later I saw three larger birds fly through. These were long winged. Hutton's Shearwaters? But they were heading west. They should have been heading east back to NZ (although this is about a month early anyway). And I usually see Hutton's in WA strung out in a line while these three were just close together. More homework.

Another two possible Hutton's flew through. Then a scattering of about 15 or so birds over several minutes. These were smaller but longer winged. Were these Little Shearwaters? I have only seen these in WA as singles or twos. Could 15 pass through in a short period? More homework.

Then another close flock of about 30 of the smaller birds again. Yes they were very dark above and white below. The tail looked square. The wingspan was longer than the length of the bird, but not a lot longer. They couldn't be prions as they were too dark. The light wasn't always great but there were patches of sunlight. These weren't pale grey. They were dark above. I guess the distance was 400 to 500 metres through my 60 times zoom. I could distinguish general colours and size, but very little of the body shape. I have only seen Common Diving-Petrels once on a pelagic off Tasmania. They were quite close to the coast in about a 5m swell! Very fat bodies.

Three more possible Hutton's went through and a Great Skua. The total for the afternoon was ~40 Yellow-nosed Albatross, 2 Shy Albatross, 1 Southern Giant-Petrel, ~60 Australasian Gannets (almost all adults), ~60 possible Common Diving-Petrels, ~20 possible Little Shearwaters, 8 possible Hutton's Shearwaters, 3 possible Soft-plumaged Petrels, 9 Sooty Oystercatchers. I was very surprised not to see any all dark petrels such as Great-winged and White-chinned which I have seen fairly commonly in previous years in September, or others such as Cape Petrel or White-headed Petrel which I have seen before at the cape. And no Wandering Albatross, Blue Petrel, Grey Petrel, prions etc which I was hoping for. And no beach washed birds anywhere that I checked during the week.

I did my homework, and things were as I thought. Very very few records of Common Diving-Petrel in WA. But they were at roughly this time of year. And a party of them recorded 50km south of Albany. The books describe them as having "quail like" flight. These were flying quickly but I wouldn't have described them as flying like quails. Also they are supposed to fly into waves. These were going over the waves when needed, and along the lee face of the waves on many occasions (hence I got quite a lot of fair views of them). But these birds didn't appear to be feeding, but simply flying west (or possibly around the cape).

Hutton's Shearwaters do start returning south in late July. Not clear whether this refers just to the Kimberley / Pilbara. I see them in mid August on the Perth pelagics, and sometimes off the coast. These birds could have been feeding as they weren't just flying straight into the westerly wind, but cutting back a few times and they weren't in a line.

Little Shearwaters do breed (in winter?) off the south coast near Esperance and Albany. Large colonies further north in the Abrolhos Islands. But surely you wouldn't get a loose flock strung out over 100 to 200 metres together? Very little information relevant to WA except a mention of groups up to 6. These birds weren't flying dead straight but they never cut back. i.e. they moved a bit side to side but always kept flying generally in a westerly direction.

Thursday saw a strong front pass through, and I went to the Cape about 15:30. But very disappointing. The winds were stronger than the day before and again from the west. But I only saw a few Yellow-nosed Albatross (about 8) and some gannets (about 5). No smaller birds at all. I left at about 16:15.

Friday had a few passing showers. I went to the Cape about 14:45. Again very disappointing. The wind was still westerly and had dropped to just strong! I sheltered from a light shower for a short while and then looked for the seabirds. Again very little and no smaller birds at all. I left at about 16:00 before a rain band passed through.

Saturday was lighter winds but they had changed to the south. I got to the Cape at about 11am. Again the action was very slow. I saw about 15 Yellow-nosed Albatross, 2 Black-browed Albatross and about 5 gannets. I left about 12:30 to watch the football (a good day for eagles to help the scrubbird take the outright lead again ... although the hawks let me down) However, the guy looking after the information shop at the Cape came out and talked to me briefly. Bill Gates! No BS! He mentioned that during the big storms a couple of weeks earlier they had found a Sooty Shearwater and a "diving something" which they had sent to CALM in Busselton. So there were very likely to have been Common Diving-Petrels at the Cape two weeks earlier. So I need to chase these up, and check with the museum.
Frank O'Connor     Birding WA
Phone : (08) 9386 5694                Email : 

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