9 Nov 2013 Report
The final Sydney pelagic trip of the 'Halicat Era' had extraordinarily good fortune from the weather gods - had it been scheduled a day earlier or a day later, it would not have got out. After a few days of very strong north winds, the conditions calmed right down on Friday night and then, the southerly buster forecast to hit at lunchtime on Saturday did not arrive until we entered the Sydney Heads at about 3.30pm. The last couple of trips, and most recently the Sunbird/Wings trip ten days ago had been characterised by huge numbers of extremely hungry Short-tailed Shearwaters which were prepared to fight the albatrosses for food and, in conjunction, there were very few Wedge-tailed Shearwaters at a time when this species should be the most numerous off Sydney. Today, normal November service was resumed with very good numbers of Wedgies, fewer and less desperate Short-taileds and reasonable numbers of Flesh-footed Shearwaters, the latter being our first record of the summer. Good numbers of birds were present for the entire trip and the species count of 20 meant that a lot of our visitors added some species to their life lists. The only minor rarity of the day was Black Petrel, with two birds arriving together on our slick and staying to feed for quite a while and then another bird was seen about halfway back to Sydney.
Incidentally, with regard to the Sunbird/Wings pelagic on December 1st, another era came to an end as it was David Fisher's last visit to Australia as the leader of this group since he will be retiring in March 2014. I mention this as a lot of birding-aus subscribers will know David - he is a fine field ornithologist and one of the nicest people you will meet.
We left the heads in remarkably benign conditions with light winds and a swell of 1.0m to 1.5m and no sea on top of that. The conditions remained this way for the entire journey to the shelf break but, with the expectation of a strong southerly change at lunchtime we made our berley stop about 5NM short of Brown's Mountain in anticipation of an early return. As it turned out, the three hour trip back was equally comfortable and we were hit with very strong south winds just as we entered Sydney Harbour. Surface sea water temperatures were in the range of 20.5 deg C to 21.0 deg C for the entire trip. We departed from Rose Bay at 7.20am and returned at 4.15pm.
We left the harbour on the MV Lormar with a full complement of 24 passengers with several visiting from overseas and the remainder from around Sydney and the Central Coast. While still in the harbour, we encountered our first cetaceans of the day with views of the resident pod of Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins lounging around near Watson's Bay. David had the berley going straightaway and, although we saw a few moribund Short-tailed Shearwaters just inside the harbour, it was immediately obvious that the hoards of starving birds which descended on us in recent trips were no longer there. We quickly attracted a following of shearwaters but the Wedge-taileds easily outnumbered the Short-taileds. As is usually the case at this time of the year, there were fewer Australasian Gannets in evidence and we had a couple of Greater Crested Terns follow the boat and a few well seen Hutton's and Fluttering Shearwaters pass by. It was not long before we were joined by our first albatrosses, immature Black-browed and both juvenile and adult Shy.
The usual discussions regarding the separation of the NZ White-capped from the Tasmanian nominate race took place and I always think that many of our hypotheses need to be backed up with a lot more research. A Pomarine Skua began to follow the boat as did an Arctic Jaeger shortly afterwards thereby allowing those on board to study the difference in structure between the two species. At about the 10 mile mark, we had a brief visit from a couple of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins and, then, a few minutes later a larger pod of these cetaceans came to the boat and rode on our bow for a while. Just before reaching our berley location, a Common Tern approached the boat for a close look at us and quickly disappeared and we then came across the only Southern Ocean Sunfish of the day.
With our concerns for deteriorating weather, we decided to make our berley stop about 5NM short of Brown's Mountain, just over the beginning of the continental shelf break. With David laying down a good slick, new species began to appear on a regular basis. The first of these was a handsome adult Campbell Albatross which was joined later by two more. David and I were wondering why, at this time of the year, all the Black-browed Albatross are immature birds and the Campbells are all adults. A very late immature Yellow-nosed Albatross was the next new species to appear followed by the first of several Wilson's Storm Petrels, a couple of Providence and Great-winged Petrels, and the our only Wandering-type Albatross of the day, an Antipodean Albatross ssp gibsoni. The principal excitement of the day came with the arrival of two Black Petrels which came and fed on the berley close to the boat giving great views to everyone. The journey back to Sydney did not bring any new species, although a third Black Petrel was seen by some on board at about 8NM from the heads. We also had our third cetacean species of the day when a group of Short-beaked Common Dolphins came by close to the boat and kept on going. With the excellent weather conditions, the good numbers of birds present and the species count of 20, all on board had a great time and we finished off in the harbour with drinks and snacks to celebrate the end of an era.
Although, I had said previously that Hal and I were retiring from organising pelagics, we have been re-thinking this position because there is a real danger that without the continuity from the Halicat period, it would be very difficult for a new organiser to start from scratch. We have tentatively identified a boat that might be suitable for pelagic work and we plan to meet with the owner in the next few weeks to see what sort of arrangement could be made. We are hopeful that we will be in a position to run the next pelagic in February 2014 so please put February 8th into your diary with a question mark.
(Note that the numbers in parentheses represent the approximate maximum number of that species in view at one time)
Antipodean Albatross 1 (1) adult gibsoni
Black-browed Albatross 15 (7)
Campbell Albatross 3 (3)
Shy Albatross 10 (5)
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 1 (1)
Great-winged Petrel 4 (2)
Providence Petrel 2 (1)
Black Petrel 3 (2)
Wedge-tailed Shearwater 360 (200)
Short-tailed Shearwater 130 (100)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 20 (10)
Fluttering Shearwater 11 (2)
Hutton's Shearwater 14 (3)
Wilson's Storm Petrel 9 (6)
Australasian Gannet 3 (1)
Silver Gull 250 (200)
Greater Crested Tern 8 (3)
Common Tern 1 (1)
Pomarine Skua 3 (2)
Arctic Jaeger 2 (1)
Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin 10
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 25
Pantropical Spotted Dolphin 20
Southern Ocean Sunfish 1