Sydney Pelagic Trip Report - Saturday April 9, 2011

To: "birding-aus " <>
Subject: Sydney Pelagic Trip Report - Saturday April 9, 2011
From: "Roger McGovern" <>
Date: Mon, 11 Apr 2011 17:07:54 +1000




Recent reports of an unprecedented influx of Great Shearwaters, with
sightings in South Australia, Victoria, Tasmania, Eden NSW and Kaikoura,
attracted a good number of last minute bookings on the Halicat by birders
keen to add this species to their Australian and/or life list. Usually, with
these sorts of expectations (as was the case for last month's trip), the
actuality turns out to fall short of those expectations, but this was
certainly not the case today on one of Sydney's most remarkable pelagic
trips. After we left Sydney Heads, we encountered the least number of birds
that Steve or myself could ever remember on a Sydney trip, motoring out 10
NM with nothing more than Silver Gulls and a couple of Crested Terns and
Australasian Gannets. With high water temperatures, we feared that it would
be another quiet day but, as we approached the shelf break, everything
changed. The next three hours or so brought SOUTH POLAR SKUA, WHITE-TAILED
TROPICBIRD and then the amazing visit of GREAT SHEARWATER which was the only
bird during the entire day which came to the boat to feed on our berley,
which it did at point blank range for upwards of half an hour. We also had
some frustratingly far distant views of possible Soft-plumaged/ Herald
Petrel for which even Raja's photographs could not provide sufficient
detail, two birds which were seen by Tom Wilson and myself which appeared to
be White-headed Petrel (but again at very long distance), and finally, we
had a very quick glimpse of a disappearing large shearwater which may have
been a Buller's. At one stage, David James said to me "on a day like this,
you feel like just about anything can happen" and indeed that was the sort
of day it was.



Surface water temperatures were 20.1degC in the harbour, 21.4degC inshore
and up to 24.0degC beyond the continental shelf break, this being a full
2degC higher than on the March trip at a time of year that one would expect
temperatures to be falling. We departed from Rose Bay ferry wharf at 7.20am
and returned at 4.20pm. Sea conditions were reasonably benign with a north
easterly swell of less than a metre and hardly any chop on top of that. The
wind started off quite light at 5 knots from the west and freshened a little
during the return journey to perhaps 10 knots or so and backing around
slowly to the north east. The weather was mostly sunny and warm and, with
the flat sea conditions and plenty of excitement, there were no cases of sea




We headed out of the harbour with a complement of 18 on board, comprising
local birders and visitors from the USA and the UK. While we were still in
Rose Bay, we encountered a small pod of Common Dolphins with at least one
Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin with them. After leaving Sydney Heads, we
initially headed north towards Long Reef on the premise that any group of
inshore shearwaters might have a Great Shearwater travelling with them.
However, we encountered nothing at all (other than Silver Gulls) in this
zone and soon set a heading for Brown's Mountain, the underwater seamount
located some 22 NM ESE of Sydney Heads. For the first 45 minutes or so, we
encountered almost no bird activity except for a Crested Tern and two
Australasian Gannets, probably the most barren stretch of birding that we
have ever had off Sydney. However, a fly-by Willy Wagtail heading towards
land some 10 miles distant provided some light relief and a small pod of
Common Dolphins came and rode on our bow for a while. A single Wedge-tailed
Shearwater, closely followed by a single Flesh-footed Shearwater raised
interest levels a tad, an early returning Brown Skua flew by at close range
and then an adult Yellow-nosed Albatross resting on the water allowed a
close approach, and then a distant Black-browed Albatross was spotted by
some observers. A single Hutton's Shearwater passed behind the boat giving
good views of the underwing in perfect light and the first Wilson's
Storm-Petrel of the day was seen by most observers on board. As we
approached Brown's Mountain, activity suddenly picked up massively with a
huge flock of shearwaters (primarily Wedge-tailed) feeding on a school of
baitfish. We began to see our first pterodromas of the day in the form of
Great-winged (Grey-faced) and Providence (Solander's) Petrels with the
latter looking immaculate in their fresh plumage. We stopped the boat and
drifted while we laid out a berley slick but it soon became apparent that
the birds were not interested in our offerings today, although a few
Wilson's Storm-Petrels came by providing excellent views.


We decided to set off on a slow cruise into deeper water and, very shortly
after, the call of SOUTH POLAR SKUA went up and good views of an adult
intermediate morph some 100 metres behind the boat were had by all. David
James noted the start of moult in the primary coverts which is typical of
the sequence of the post-breeding moult of this species in the Austral
winter. A single Wandering Albatross was seen but did not approach the boat
and single Fluttering Shearwater and Short-tailed Shearwaters were added to
the day's list. Barely had the excitement of the skua died down before Tom
Wilson spotted a WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD which provided brief but excellent
views to all, including a dive for food which was caught on a sequence of
photographs by Raja. The consensus was that it was a juvenile bird as it
appeared to be in post-juvenile moult and was moulting in its extended
central tail streamers.


As we continued our slow cruise northwards and then slowly back to the east,
we came across an adult Black-browed Albatross resting on the water which
proved to be of the Campbell Island subspecies impavida. The call of a
distant pterodroma went up and Nikolas described it as having a 'Hutton's
Shearwater type plumage with dark back, pale belly and dark underwings'
which was the consensus of all who got onto the bird. At the time
Soft-plumaged Petrel was considered the most likely identification but
examination of Raja's distant shots afterwards could not positively confirm
that diagnosis. The bird was definitely long-winged and some photos
suggested white underwing markings suggestive of Herald Petrel but, with
other photos showing plain darkish underwings, it was felt that perhaps the
light was playing tricks. The structure of the bird strongly suggested one
of these two species.


As we began to approach the shelf break from the east, the real excitement
of the day broke out with the call of GREAT SHEARWATER getting everyone
scrambling with binoculars and cameras. Actually, binoculars were not really
necessary as the bird came straight into the boat, settled on the water and
began to wolf down our berley with great gusto. There was a lot of back
slapping and hand shaking amongst those for whom this was a desperately
anticipated life bird (myself included) and the bird stayed around the boat
for an extended period of time allowing fantastic views and photographic
opportunities. Images of this bird, the tropicbird, the South Polar Skua and
the mystery pterodroma can be seen on Raja's website at . The location where the Great Shearwater was seen was
S 33 degrees 59.978 seconds,  E 151 degrees 44.904 seconds.


As we headed back over the shelf break, Tom Wilson and I studied at very
long distance behind the boat, a pair of very white-looking pterodromas
which were almost certainly White-headed Petrels but, again, they were just
too far away to see any detail. Similarly, a little later, a large
shearwater was fleetingly seen going away and the consensus was that it was
probably a Buller's Shearwater but the views were inconclusive. On the way
back to Sydney, there were no new bird species but we had the visit of a
very large pod (c. 100) of Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphins and, shortly
afterwards, a pod of about 50 Risso's Dolphins. All-in-all, it was one of
the most exciting pelagic birding days that we have had off Sydney and that,
after the least exciting start to the day in memory!




(Note that the numbers in parentheses represent the maximum number of that
species in view at one time)


Great-winged Petrel              12       (2)

Providence Petrel                32      (3)

possible White-headed Petrel     2        (2)

Soft-plumaged/Herald Petrel      1        (1)   pale morph (unidentified to

Possible Buller's Shearwater     1        (1)

Wedge-tailed Shearwater          700     (400)

Short-tailed Shearwater          1        (1)

Flesh-footed Shearwater          35       (6)

GREAT SHEARWATER                 1        (1)

Fluttering Shearwater            3       (1)

Hutton's Shearwater              1        (1)

Wandering Albatross              1       (1)   gibsoni

Black-browed Albatross           2        (1)   one impavida

Yellow-nosed Albatross           1        (1)

Wilson's Storm-Petrel            8        (3)

WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD          1        (1)

Australasian Gannet              34       (6)

Brown Skua                       1        (1)    early return

SOUTH POLAR SKUA                 1        (1)

Silver Gull                      70       (20)

Crested Tern                     9        (2)




Inshore bottlenose Dolphin                 1

Oceanic Bottlenose Dolphin                 100

Risso's Dolphin                            50

Short-beaked Common Dolphin                18

Willy Wagtail                              1



The next Sydney pelagic trip will be on Saturday 14 May 2011 departing
Mosman Ferry Wharf at 6.45am and Rose Bay Ferry Wharf at 7.00am. Call Hal at

0411 311 236 to make a booking.



Roger McGovern  












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