14 Jul 2012 Report
For the past several days, the Sydney region had been under the influence of light to moderate westerly and north westerly winds resulting in a long period of benign sea conditions. We have found that, in these conditions, the birds are able to find food with greater ease and are therefore less likely to be attracted by our berley which in turn means that you are likely to see less birds. Such was the case today with a bird species count of only 14 which is extremely unusual for July and noteworthy for the fact that none of the six Wandering Albatross, nor any of the Providence Petrels, landed on the water to feed on the berley during our offshore drifts.
If that introduction gives the impression that it was a dull day, nothing could be further from the truth. A well seen LITTLE SHEARWATER provided some of the most experienced birders on board with a life 'tick' and the cetacean activity was nothing short of remarkable with Southern Right Whale, Humpback Whales, False Killer Whales, a beautiful and obliging Dwarf Minke Whale, Short-beaked Common Dolphins and a Shortfin Mako Shark all being recorded during the day.
It was a typical Sydney winter day with bright sunshine warming things up after a bit of a chilly start and with the temperature getting up to around 18degC in the middle of the day. Surface water temperature was 15.6 deg C at Sydney Heads and it rose steadily all the way to the shelf where it reached 17.1 deg C. We departed from Rose Bay at 7.15am and returned just after 3.30pm. Sea conditions on the way out to Brown's Mountain were quite benign with maybe a 0.5m chop on top of a small swell. However, the 5-8 knot WNW breeze in the morning increased to 15-18 knots at lunchtime and the first few miles of the trip back to Sydney were quite choppy. Only one case of sea sickness was noted which was very good considering that we had a full boat.
We headed out of the harbour with a full complement of 40 passengers on board, comprising local, interstate and overseas birders and including some who were on board to see cetaceans rather than birds. I had my old job back on the berley table as David James was overseas and we set up a berley trail as soon as we left Rose Bay wharf - however the following Silver Gulls lost interest shortly after we left the heads and it proved impossible to attract a following of birds on our trip out to the shelf. Just as we reached the heads a small group of Little Penguins were spotted and they showed well for everyone on board. We had barely got under way once more before a whale was seen close to South Head which turned out to be a Southern Right Whale much to everyone's great excitement. It has been a good few years since we have had a Southern Right Whale on the monthly pelagic trip and everyone had excellent views. A few minutes later, two Humpbacks were seen breaching at some distance but, after motoring to the presumed location, they did not show themselves again.
After this exciting start to the trip, hopes were high for more rarities but for most of the way to Brown's Mountain, we did not see an awful lot to get the pulses racing. There were Australasian Gannets, a few Black-browed Albatross (and, further out, even more Yellow-nosed Albatross), a large flock of Fluttering Shearwaters was distantly seen but only the odd straggler came near the boat and a Southern Giant Petrel put in a brief appearance. At the 8NM mark, we were joined by a small pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and, at the 15NM mark, Steve spotted a pod of False Killer Whales but, despite our best efforts, they could not be relocated. The first of many delightful little Fairy Prions began to appear and, with the excellent light and their unusually close approaches, many photographic opportunities were presented for all the keen photographers on board.
As we reached the continental shelf drop off, there were very few birds in evidence despite the large number of fishing boats over Brown's Mountain. However, a berley trail was set up and, after a slow start, became quite well attended mostly by Yellow-nosed Albatross and a few Black-browed Albatross. One of the juvenile Black-broweds had an unusually dark head leading a few people to enquire as to why it was not a juvenile Grey-headed Albatross. To see the characteristics that showed it to be a Black-browed, see Nikolas Haass's posting to the SOSSA website. Providence Petrels approached the berley trail but did not stay around, several Wandering Albatross (all Gibsons) flew past the boat but did not linger and a White-faced Storm Petrel was seen briefly by most on board before it quickly departed. Perhaps one of the most interesting occurrences during the drift was the appearance of a medium sized Shortfin Mako Shark which came up close to our gunwales and fed on the fish scraps which were thrown over. Good photographs and even a movie were obtained!
The journey back to Sydney commenced earlier than usual as the freshening westerlies would limit how fast we could travel without making the ride too uncomfortable. As we headed back over the shelf break, the shout of LITTLE SHEARWATER went out from Rob Hynson and good views of this rare species were obtained as it passed across the back quarter and flew away with its characteristic flight pattern. This is the fourth record of Little Shearwater from the Halicat over the years and a submission will be made to NSW ORAC. The last excitement of the day was arguably the best when a single dorsal fin was spotted at some distance away as we were motoring at some speed for Sydney. A decision was made to go back and investigate, which was just as well since the dorsal fin was attached to a Dwarf Minke Whale! This species is normally interested in boats and this individual was no exception as it swam around the boat having a look at us and providing excellent views for several minutes. Several Brown Skuas were seen on the journey back in, thereby providing the last addition to the species count for the day. Despite the fact that many of our 'normal' winter species (Shy Albatross, Wilson's Storm Petrel, Cape Petrel, Northern Giant Petrel, Great-winged Petrel) were not recorded, it was nevertheless a truly absorbing and rewarding day to be out on the ocean.
(Note that the numbers in parentheses represent the approximate maximum number of that species in view at one time)
Little Penguin 4 (4)
Southern Giant Petrel 1 (1)
Providence Petrel 10 (2)
Fairy Prion 90 (6)
Fluttering Shearwater 120 (100)
LITTLE SHEARWATER 1 (1)
Wandering Albatross 6 (2) gibsoni
Black-browed Albatross 12 (3)
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 35 (18)
White-faced Storm Petrel 1 (1)
Australasian Gannet 30 (5)
Brown Skua 4 (2)
Silver Gull 100 (60)
Crested Tern 12 (5)
Humpback Whale 6
SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE 1
DWARF MINKE WHALE 1
False Killer Whale 6
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 5
Shortfin Mako Shark 1