Sunday, June 26, 2011

The Sea, The Sea

Winter is finally upon us here in SW Western Australia, and all right-minded birders turn their thoughts to the arrival of hordes of petrels and albatross from more southerly climes. So it was on Friday that I drove down to Point Peron to indulge in a little seawatching. A cold front was passing over and the winds were forecast to be in the region of 20-25 knots.

For those people who don’t know, seawatching is just that - spending hours just staring at the waves, imagining what fantastic species might fly past (but never do!). Sean Dooley in his book “Anoraks to Zitting Cisticola” defines seawatching as “trekking out to an exposed spot on the coast… and sitting for hours as you scan the oceans for any birds that fly past; the worse the weather the better, as deep ocean species are more likely to be blown towards the shore”.

So what did I see on my seawatch?  First I have to explain to you that the south-western Indian Ocean must surely be the worst seawatching spot there is (if you know better, then please tell me, not that I’ll believe you).  This is made worse because just around the corner (literally) is the Southern Ocean, which has albatross and petrels galore. But given that it’s a five hour drive to get down there, that is not a viable option, so I’m stuck with Perth.

Those were the days.........

The acknowledged best site for seawatching around Perth has historically been the North Mole at Fremantle Docks, and it has yielded some great records including Blue Petrels and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, but “improvements” to the docks a couple of years ago have meant that there is now a gate across the access road to the mole and this gate is shut if the weather is forecast to be very rough. You can see the paradox - if it’s windy enough to go seawatching then the gate is shut and you can’t, but if the gate is open the chances are that it’s not windy enough to be worth seawatching!!!!!  So Point Peron it was, and after finding the ideal position to view the ocean, I started to scan, with only the occasional obstruction from families taking holiday snaps of the Indian Ocean.

Australasian Gannet - plenty of these!

The ocean looked rough enough with plenty of “white horses” and a number of Australasian Gannets both plunge diving and loafing on the ocean, but as with virtually all Perth-based seawatching, the great bubble of expectation was burst by the pin of realism as I scanned the waves with the binoculars and those Gannets turned out to be just about the only birds on the ocean. Over the next 45 minutes I grimly stuck to my task and although the count of Gannets increased, there wasn’t even a hint of a shearwater, albatross or petrel. Then, just as I was drifting off into a boredom induced slumber, a small grey-blue bird came into view, just visible in the wave trough, a prion! A scramble for the telescope ensued, as the bird disappeared behind the waves only to reappear for a fraction of a second until, probably a minute after I had first spotted it, the bird was gone. I could pretend I had good enough views to confidently claim that it was a Slender-billed Prion, but to be honest I can’t. It probably was this species but that’s not good enough in the world of seabird identification. I carried on seawatching for another 15 minutes but my heart just wasn’t in it. So I left the windy headland to the tourists and set off home again.
The one that got away - a more cooperative Slender-billed Prion

Bill Oddie in his “Little Black Bird Book” has this to say about seawatching: “Seawatching is, I’m sure, excellent character training. If you can truly learn to deal with disappointments, deceits and disciplines, you will have achieved a philosophical fatalism that Sophocles would have envied.” Clearly I haven’t reached that level of dedication quite yet.

A pair of Crested Terns - a commonly seen species during seawatching off Perth, but not really the main target!

Point Peron Seawatch - 24th June
Australasian Gannet (50+): all adults apart from a 1st year bird and two 2nd year birds
Crested Tern (4)
Roseate Tern (3)
Welcome Swallow (1)  flying well out at sea, did an excellent impression of a dark-rumped Storm-Petrel
Pied Cormorant (25+)
Prion sp. (1) probably Slender-billed grrrrrrr…


  1. Well John here am I stuck in Broome just wishing I could have been with you. Cheers Robin

  2. Thanks Robin, but I should point out that credit for this article goes to Alan - we've got quite a few people writing articles for us to try and keep it updated regularly. I visited in the arvo after Alan had left - saw;
    Giant Petrel sp. (1)
    Arctic Jaeger (1)
    Australasian Gannet (100+)
    Plus Crested and Caspian Tern, Silver Gull, and loads of Pied Cormorants