Monday, July 6, 2015

An unexpected “tern” of events

Shy Albatross

Conditions looked good in the lead up to the monthly Portland Pelagic in June so it was no surprise when the boat was confirmed on Friday evening. Jagged a lift down with Paul and Ruth who were back in the saddle after a few months off. As we pulled into Portland, the bay looked eerily flat which we hoped wouldn’t put the birds off. Thought about the parma but ended up sticking with the usual porterhouse and a few beers which was a good choice.
Up early for the usual Macca’s breakfast – really the only thing it is good for is a pre pelagic muffin and a coffee then down to the Southern Pride for a 7am kick off in the darkness. As we headed out beyond Lawrence Rocks there was a truly spectacular sunrise with all shades of pink and orange. Bird numbers were quite low on the way out with a few Shy and Black-browed Albatross and the odd Fairy Prion. A loose raft of about 10 Fairy Penguins provided some brief excitement. Conditions were very gentle with just a slight swell and almost no wind which meant a lot of birds were just sitting on the water.

Sunrise over Lawrence Rocks

Sooty Shearwater

Things weren’t boding well when we arrived at the shelf and there was hardly a bird to be seen. The first few Shy’s hardly even looked at us as they cruised on by. Eventually a few birds settled and things began to build with reasonable numbers of Fairy Prions having us all looking for something more interesting. A couple of Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwaters joined in the feeding briefly and Great-winged petrels of both races flying through and around but not really feeding. Of interest a flight of around 4 terns flew through and circled the boat a couple of times. The two closest to the boat were clearly juvenile and their slight bill had me thinking Arctic but I decided being the Northern Summer it could not possibly be in this plumage so it must be a juvenile White-fronted tern which I am not particularly familiar with. Still I took plenty of pics of the close terns to examine later. Again some 20 minutes later another similar flight of terns came through and throughout the day we had single obvious adult White-fronted terns doing fly bys. It wasn’t til I posted some pictures on Facebook a couple of days later which I had speculatively titled “juvenile White-fronted Tern” than Rohan Clarke and Kevin Bartram both independently and rather urgently said Antarctic Tern which is a mega bird for a mainland pelagic in Australia. The ID was confirmed by the doyens and the subsequent discussion showed I have a hell of a lot to learn on the topic of “commic” terns which is something I had been avoiding for a long time. One issue we had on the boat is we did not have a field guide with any terns in it which is clearly an oversight although it may not have helped in this case. It looks like these birds – we seem to have had at least three and possibly as many as six birds are the 5th mainland record with punters usually having to go to Macquarie Island. There were a number of very excited phone calls and text messages the night the ID was confirmed.

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern

Antarctic Tern
We had two further stops and species numbers built slowly with Cape Petrel and Yellow-nosed Albatross paying us visits. There continued to be good numbers of prions and the odd storm-petrel in the slick but nothing rarer eventuated despite a lot of scanning. We had Antarctic, Salvin’s and Slender-billed Prion on the last trip but this time there was not a whalebird to be found.

Fairy Prion

Great-winged Petrel
We were getting close to leaving thinking at best this would be a pleasant but below average pelagic when Scott spotted a lovely adult Salvin’s Albatross sailing in which landed right behind the boat and began to feed. I can hardly remember my last Salvin’s Albatross so it was great to get plenty of good photos. It then even took off and followed the boat giving us some nice chances to get pics of the underwing. Adult Salvin’s have not been recorded often in recent years on SE Australian pelagics and many birds that were previously identified as juvenile Salvin’s have probably been misidentified so it was certainly thought to be the bird of the day at the time and put smiles on faces.
The trip back in was largely uneventful although things did pick up around Lawrence Rocks with a Brown Skua smashing a couple of gannets and the first Northern Giant-petrel sailing past as well as the usual Fur-seals, Kelp Gulls and Black-faced Cormorants. Despite the flat conditions and reports of Southern Right-whales and Humpbacks around we did not see any whales on the day and only a couple of Common Dolphins.

Salvin's Albatross

Salvin's Albatross

The Port Fairy pelagic went out the same day so there was a few anxious moments as we found out what birds they had – Soft-plumaged Petrel being their bird of the day which was probably shaded by our Salvin’s Albatross but ended up being blown out of the water by the Antarctic Terns! Unfortunately it turns out that the Southern Pride has been sold with the September trip being the last however the good news is that a new boat in Portland has been found so a new chapter of these trips can begin. Check out the BirdLife Victoria Activities Page on the BirdLife Australia website if you are interested in getting on one of these trips.

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