Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Albany Pelagic Trip Report - 24 May 2015

Summary: A second good trip for the weekend, again with 13 tubenose species recorded, though the species mix varied a little from the Saturday trip. The highlights included an Arctic Tern, several Black-bellied Storm-Petrels, and a brief visit by a small group of Orcas.

Arctic Tern. Photo courtesy Dan Mantle.

Participants: Alan Collins (Organiser), John Graff (Organiser), Plaxy Barratt, Damian Baxter, Richard Baxter, Bill Betts, Bob Dawson, Ben Dicker, Stewart Ford, Geoff Glare, Neil Macumber, Dan Mantle, Ian Mayer, Wayne Merritt, James Mustafa, Sean Tomlinson, Chris Tate, Gavin White

Conditions: Wind was forecast SW’ly at 10-15 knots, dropping to variable below 10 knots during the morning then swinging NW’ly and increasing to 10 knots in the afternoon. Seas were forecast at 1m, decreasing to 0.5m before increasing again, with swell forecast SW’ly at 2-2.5m. Conditions were approximately as forecast, which made for a relatively comfortable trip, though the swell was more noticeable than the previous day.

We again departed early at 0510, and made our way across King George Sound and through the heads in darkness. Some extra cloud cover to the east meant that we were even further offshore before the light was sufficient to identify birds with confidence. Indian Yellow-nosed and Black-browed Albatross, and Great-winged Petrels all appeared fairly quickly, though Black-browed numbers were lower than the previous day. We were also surprised to see a Tree Martin pass behind the boat again in a similar location to the previous day's sighting. A Shy Albatross was also seen, and the first Wilson's Storm-Petrel also made an appearance. As we approached the shelf break, two Little Shearwaters were seen briefly crossing the bow, and a few people briefly saw a Cape Petrel. We headed for two seamounts to the south-east of our usual stopping point, approximately half way between the 1000m and 2000m contours. However, on stopping to the south-west of the seamount, the depth readout was only 1100m, though we may have been over the outer parts of the seamount at this point. 

We deployed the chum shortly after stopping. The winds were light, so the build-up of birds was slower than the previous day. The numbers of Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross around the boat grew steadily to fifteen, and were joined by a Black-browed Albatross, while Great-winged Petrels made regular passes. The first Wilson's Storm-Petrels also arrived, and a Soft-plumaged Petrel made a couple of passes. Although activity was generally lower than the previous day, the species list continued to grow steadily with the addition of the first White-faced Storm-Petrel. The first major sighting of interest came when an Arctic Tern made its way up the slick and approached the boat. It fed in the slick close to boat, and made several passes around (and over) the boat, allowing good views. This was followed shortly afterwards by the first Wandering-type Albatross, a relatively dark bird with quite a dark cap, suggestive of nominate antipodensis. However, taxon identification was not possible with any certainty. This was followed shortly afterwards by a juvenile Northern Giant-Petrel, which landed at the back of the boat.

The first Wandering-type Albatross of the day. Specific identification in this plumage is tricky – the dark cap and upperwing are promising for nominate Antipodean (antipodensis) but young birds from most taxa can show similar plumage. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.

We drifted more slowly than the previous day and as a result, the storm-petrels were feeding in the slick closer to the boat, and a Black-bellied Storm-Petrel was seen in the slick. We moved back up the slick to try to approach it, and located a second individual. Shortly after repositioning, a second Wandering-type Albatross of the day made several passes. The large bill and overall size, and extensively white plumage suggested a Snowy Albatross (exulans). After another quiet period, a dark intermediate Soft-plumaged Petrel made a brief pass, and the first Cape Petrel arrived. Shortly afterwards, an unusual small albatross made a brief pass and disappeared to the west. Unfortunately it didn’t return – photos show a small albatross with a relatively white underwing, dark bill and a greyish face and upper throat. Both Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross were considered, along with Buller’s Albatross, but the available evidence shows inconsistencies with all three species and it remains unidentified. The number of Cape Petrels around the boat had increased to three, and the Wilson's Storm-Petrels continued to provide entertainment feeding close to the boat. We were also briefly distracted by a Man-of-war Fish (Nomeus gronovii) associating with a man o’ war. We had also drifted across both seamounts and into just 700m of water so the decision was made to move to the location of our last stop the previous day, not far from our usual stopping location, though we were briefly delayed by the appearance of a Brown Skua.

Black-bellied Storm-Petrel. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel feeding in the slick. The species is common on passage off the southern WA coast from April to June, and large numbers are a feature of May pelagics off Albany. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.

Man-of-war Fish (Nomeus gronovii). Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.
We motored west for about 20 minutes and stopped in about 1000m of water and began a new slick. Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel appeared around the boat almost immediately, and Great-winged Petrels continued to make passes. An adult Black-browed Albatross also arrived at the boat, and a few Little Shearwaters passed in the mid-distance. A Shy Albatross was also seen. After about an hour, the call went up for whales, and a small, loose group of Orcas (Killer Whales) were seen; unfortunately, they didn’t remain in the area for long. The final new species for the weekend came when an adult Campbell Albatross joined the Black-browed Albatross at the boat.

Male Orca, with a slightly deformed dorsal fin. Dorsal fin characteristics like this can be used to identify individual whales within a population. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.

Adult Black-browed (front) and Campbell Albatross (back) at the boat; the most obvious difference is the Campbell’s pale eye. In flight, Campbell also shows more extensive dark streaking on the inner underwing (‘armpit’). Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.

The return journey was relatively comfortable, though there was some spray from the port side. A Cape Petrel followed us for a large part of the return journey, but nothing new was seen for the return journey. After entering the heads, we noted a number of skuas sitting on the water. There were at least six individuals present, but all appeared to be Brown Skuas. A few people also saw a Little Penguin briefly on the surface. We docked at about 1635 to finish another weekend of trips. As always, thanks go to all trip participants for making these trips possible, and the boat crew Tony and Fred from Spinners Charters for their usual patience and friendly assistance

Species List
[Total count (Max. seen at one time)]

Little Penguin 1 (1)
Wandering Albatross 2 (1) – 1+ Snowy
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 30 (16)
Black-browed Albatross 5 (1)
Campbell Albatross 1 (1)
Shy Albatross 3 (1)
Northern Giant-Petrel 1 (1)
Cape Petrel 5 (3)
Great-winged Petrel 50 (8)
Soft-plumaged Petrel 7 (1) – 1 intermediate/dark intermediate
Little Shearwater 8 (1)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 100 (55)
White-faced Storm-Petrel 13 (3)
Black-bellied Storm-Petrel 3 (2)
Brown Skua 8 (5)
Arctic Tern 1 (1)
Australasian Gannet 18 (6)

Orca 5+ (5)

The mystery albatross. Bottom two photographs courtesy Plaxy Barratt

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