Friday, December 27, 2013

Esperance Pelagic Trip Report - 30 November 2013

Summary: This was the first pelagic trip we've organised off Esperance, so we were unsure exactly what to expect. Although we did not pick up any particularly unusual sightings, overall it was a successful trip, and likely to be well worth repeating. The highlights were a high counts of Wandering(-type) Albatross and White-faced Storm-Petrel, several Great-winged Petrel of the NZ race gouldi ('Grey-faced Petrel') with extensive pale faces, and a good number of Short-tailed Shearwaters – although common off Esperance, the species has only been recorded once before on WA pelagic trips (a single bird off Albany) and was a lifer for several on board. Overall, at least 11 tubenose species were recorded.

Wandering-type Albatross. The heavy build and extensive white in plumage suggests Snowy Albatross, but male Gibson's or Tristan are also possibilities. Photo courtesy Dan Mantle.

Participants: John Graff (Organiser), Deb Sullivan (Organiser), Plaxy Barratt, James Bennett, Heather Beswick, Kylie Bishop, Bart Brieffies, Pam Burgess, Martin Cake, Dave Crossley, Stewart Ford, Jen Ford, Mike Gibbs, Greg Howell, John Lillywhite, Dan Mantle, Bill McRoberts, Wayne Merritt, Josan Moss, Margot Oorebeek, Ken Read, Pam Smith, Athol Staaden, Derek Stokes, Vicki Stokes, Roy Teale, Ray Turnbull.

Conditions: Despite a gale warning for the Esperance Coast region, forecast conditions off Esperance itself were relatively moderate, with seas forecast below 1.5m, increasing to 2-3m in the afternoon, and swell forecast at 1.5-2m, increasing to 2-3m in the afternoon. Winds were forecast at 15-25knts. Actual conditions were roughly as forecast, but towards the milder end of the forecast range. A few light showers were encountered on the outbound journey, but for the most part overhead conditions were fine and sunny.

Short-tailed Shearwater - a common locally-breeding species off Esperance, but very rarely seen on other WA pelagics.

White-faced Storm-Petrel, one of the more numerous species on the trip, with the count well in excess of those recorded on Albany or Perth (Hillary's) trips.

We met bright and early just before 5am and boarded the Southern Conquest at Taylor St jetty. Unfortunately it became clear that there had been some miscommunication about the object of the trip, so some hasty negotiations were required to get us to the shelf break. Fortunately we were able to work out a solution that seemed to work for everyone without too much trouble, and started motoring out. Pacific Gulls followed the boat out, and the first shearwaters appeared not long afterwards, both Short-tailed Shearwater and Flesh-footed Shearwater. Nothing new was seen for a period, before the first albatross was seen off the port side – unfortunately it disappeared into the rising sun and couldn’t be identified, though thoughts centred on Black-browed Albatross. Shortly afterwards, the first Shy Albatross made an appearance and a Little Shearwater was seen by a few people. The first Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross then appeared, and a couple of Hutton’s Shearwaters were seen. Bridled Terns also made regular appearances, and a group of three Fairy Terns was also seen. Shy Albatross continued to be almost everpresent, along with Flesh-footed and the occasional Short-tailed Shearwater. As we passed Termination Island and approached the shelf, the first White-faced Storm-Petrel and Great-winged Petrel were also seen.

An adult Shy Albatross - the extent of yellow on the upper ridge of the bill is enough to suggest Tasmanian Shy (cauta) rather than NZ White-capped (steadi). Shy Albatross were the most common albatross species on the day.

Young Shy Albatross, cauta or steadi.

We stopped at the shelf edge in around 400m of water, and deployed the chum. Flesh-footed Shearwaters and Shy Albatross moved in immediately, along with Great-winged Petrels. At least one of these had enough white in the face to indicate the NZ race gouldi (‘Grey-faced Petrel’) which is relatively rarely reported in WA waters. Soon after, the call went out for a Wandering-type Albatross coming in from a long way off, but it made a reasonable pass – quite a white individual, most likely a Snowy Albatross (exulans), but possibly a male Gibson’s ([antipodensis] gibsoni) or Tristan (dabbenena). White-faced Storm-Petrel numbers in the slick built up, and the first Wilson’s Storm-Petrel made an appearance, along with the first few Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross joining the Shy Albatross. Then a jaeger was called just off the stern – though it didn’t remain in the area, we were able to identify it as an Arctic Jaeger. Several Wandering-type Albatross made passes, likely involving at least two taxa; Snowy, and Gibson’s and/or Tristan

Great-winged Petrel, nominate race macroptera - note the relatively restricted white on the face

Great-winged Petrel - the extent of white on the face of this individual suggests the NZ race gouldi ('Grey-faced Petrel'), though several other features are less convincing.

Wandering-type Albatross - the heavy bill and heavy overall build suggest a male Snowy.

After a while, we had drifted into shallower water and so we repositioned at our initial starting point and deployed the remaining chum. The same species mix continued to be seen, including high numbers of White-faced Storm-Petrel and regular passes from several Wandering-type Albatross. A Short-tailed Shearwater made a few close passes before sitting behind the boat. The Great-winged Petrels seen here included several more individuals of race gouldi. The first new species was a young Black-browed Albatross that made a mid-distance pass, then remained distantly off the stern but did not come in. Shortly afterwards though, another individual did come in to the back of the boat, and a third individual was seen soon afterwards. A dead shearwater (probably a Short-tailed Shearwater) floated past, and was picked at by a group of young Shy Albatross. However, nothing different was seen and eventually we had to head for home.

A younger Wandering-type Albatross - the relatively even pattern of whitening, and long, bulbous-tipped bill strongly suggest a young Snowy

A second view of the above Wanderer - the relatively light build suggests a female.

Wandering-type Albatross, the overall light build, and plumage suggests either a Gibson's or a Tristan, with the relatively small-looking head and strong breastband tantalisingly suggestive of possible Tristan

Due to the long distance to the shelf, the return journey took 4hrs (!!), and little different was seen. A few more Hutton’s Shearwaters were seen, along with a distant jaeger sp. As we moved closer to shore, some small dolphins were seen, unfortunately not well enough to establish their identity with certainty – however they weren’t Common Bottlenose Dolphins, the typical species on other WA pelagics. A Brown Skua also flew purposefully past the stern. Just before docking, we made a detour for some close views of the Black-faced Cormorants at the end of the Tanker Jetty.

Young Black-browed Albatross

Black-faced Cormorants just off the Tanker Jetty

All in all, this was a fairly successful first trip from Esperance, and hopefully will be repeated. Thanks as always to all the participants, and to the skipper and crew for their friendly assistance throughout the day. A further thanks to all on board, participants and crew, for the way the early issues were sorted out. 

Species List [Total Count (Maximum seen at one time)]
Wandering Albatross [sp.] 8+ (3) (most probably Snowy exulans, 2+ more likely Gibson’s ([antipodensis] gibsoni)/Tristan (dabbenena)
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 15 (6)
Black-browed Albatross 4 (2)
Shy Albatross 60 (12)
Great-winged Petrel 35 (7)
Great-winged Petrel (race gouldi) 5 (1)
Flesh-footed Shearwater 400 (45)
Short-tailed Shearwater 40 (14)
Hutton's Shearwater 10 (3)
Little Shearwater 1 (1)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 8 (3)
White-faced Storm-Petrel 170 (60)
Australasian Gannet 9 (1)
Brown Skua 1 (1)
Arctic Jaeger 1 (1)
Jaeger sp. 1 (1)
Crested Tern 6 (2)
Bridled Tern 18 (4)
Fairy Tern 3 (3)
Silver Gull 2 (1)
Pacific Gull 12 (4)

Dolphin sp 10+

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