Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Albany Pelagic Trip Report - 23 May 2015

Summary: This was a good trip, with a good variety of seabirds seen (including 13 tubenose species). However, we didn't see anything different as a result of travelling further offshore to deeper water. The highlights were at least one South Polar Skua, an intermediate-type Soft-plumaged Petrel, better-than-usual views of a number of Little Shearwater, several Wandering-type Albatross, and a pair of Sperm Whales.

South Polar Skua off Albany. Recent observations indicate the species is a regular, moderately common passage visitor along the southern WA coast through April and May, and this was the fifth consecutive May pelagic off Albany where they have been recorded. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt

Participants: Alan Collins (Organiser), John Graff (Organiser), Plaxy Barratt, Damian Baxter, Richard Baxter, Bill Betts, Martin Cake, Stewart Ford, Geoff Glare, William Gye, Neil Macumber, Dan Mantle, Ian Mayer, Bernard O’Keefe, Claire Payne, Peter Taylor.

Conditions: The wind was forecast N/NW at 15-20knts in the morning, swinging W then SW through the day and increasing to 25knts in the afternoon with the passage of a small front. Seas were forecast at 1m, increasing to 1.5-2m during the day, with the swell forecast SW’ly at 1.5m increasing to 2-2.5m. Conditions were very comfortable on the outbound journey with only a modest swell and little spray. The cold front passed through after lunch, bringing a heavy shower and an increase in the wind. The W'ly wind and rougher seas made the return trip less comfortable and necessitated the use of the spray sheet on the port side.

In order to give us more time to travel further offshore, we departed earlier than on usual trips, leaving Emu Point Boat Harbour a little behind schedule at 0515. We crossed King George Sound and cleared the heads in darkness, and were well offshore before the first dark shapes started appearing against the dawn light. A Black-browed Albatross was the first identifiable bird seen, and was followed by several more, along with Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross and Great-winged Petrel. These three species proved to be the most regular sightings throughout the outbound journey, but we soon added the first Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, along with brief views of a Cape Petrel and a pair of Little Shearwaters. A Tree Martin crossing the stern about 20km offshore was also a surprise. The first Wandering-type Albatross (a suspected Snowy exulans) made a pass as we reached deeper water, a sure sign we’d crossed the shelf break, but we continued deeper before finally stopping in approximately 3,000m of water.

Pre-dawn departure! Photo courtesy Stewart Ford.

We deployed the chum and were immediately joined by several Black-browed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, with Great-winged Petrels making regular passes. A few Wilson's Storm-Petrel also arrived to feed in the slick. However, although there was a reasonable level of activity, it took a while for anything different to arrive. A couple of Flesh-footed Shearwaters arrived at the boat; surprisingly these were the only confirmed records for the weekend, and it appears the bulk of the population has left by mid-late May. A few Little Shearwaters were seen in the mid-distance, with several providing relatively good views for this species, which is notoriously difficult to see well on pelagics! Another WA special arrived shortly afterwards with the first Soft-plumaged Petrel making an appearance. This was made more interesting as it was an intermediate-plumaged individual; such individuals are reportedly rare, but several have been seen off the south west in recent years. More excitement came when a skua approached the boat, bringing hopes of a South Polar Skua. The bird came in and landed by the boat, but the general consensus on board was that it was a Brown Skua. However, subsequent discussion based on photos obtained raised some questions about this identification, with a dark South Polar being considered. Photos show a relatively cold-toned body, contrasting with the wings, while a pale collar is also evident. Conversely, the bill looks quite heavy in some photos, and there is noticeable foot projection. Despite further discussion, it has so far been identified only as a skua sp.

Intermediate-morph Soft-plumaged Petrel. Such birds make up a relatively tiny proportion of the overall population, but are regularly recorded in south-western WA waters.

The first skua of the day, called for a Brown on board but subsequently considered a possible dark South Polar. This photo gives the impression of a relatively small head and bill, and somewhat cold-toned body colouration that may suggest South Polar. However, its identity remains unresolved. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt.

Second photo of the first skua – the bill looks somewhat larger in this photo, but it does show a pale hind collar, with a suggestion of contrast with the mantle.

As things continued to remain relatively quiet overall, a concentration of birds in the distance eventually proved too interesting to resist and we abandoned the slick and motored over. The majority of birds turned out to be Great-winged Petrels, with a few Soft-plumaged Petrels scattered amongst them. A few people also saw a skua in the throng, but once again identification has proven problematic. The overall structure, small head, and suggestions of both a pale collar and pale bill blaze hint at a possible South Polar, but the overall plumage tone is still quite brown. Once again, the identification has been left at a skua sp. With activity in the area, we deployed a new slick. Most of the common species from the first stop remained present, and we were treated to a few more brief Little Shearwater fly-bys. The first White-faced Storm-Petrel made an appearance amongst the Wilson's Storm-Petrels, then the call went out for a Wandering-type Albatross. Pleasingly, this bird came in and landed near the boat which few Wanderers have done in recent years. The large size, long and heavy bill, and extensively white plumage indicated that this bird was almost certainly a Snowy Albatross (Diomedea [exulans] exulans). Also of interest was a second intermediate-type Soft-plumaged Petrel, this one showing a broader dusky collar and grey streaking on the flanks. A fourth skua made a brief appearance, but consensus on the specific identification was not reached on the brief views and the few photos obtained.

The second skua of the day. Its identity remains undetermined

A second angle on the second skua of the day

With a cold front looming, we decided to move inshore a little to compare the results with our foray deeper. We motored back towards the shelf break and stopped at a more typical stopping depth, in around 1,000m of water. A handful of Black-browed and Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross arrived immediately, and were joined by the Snowy Albatross from the previous stop. The move started paying dividends quickly, as a second Wandering-type Albatross circled and landed at the back of the boat. This bird showed extensive mottled brown plumage, but comparisons of both bill size and overall size with the Snowy Albatross at the back of the boat suggested that this was also likely a Snowy Albatross, albeit a much younger individual. These were also joined at the back of the boat by a Northern Giant-Petrel, while Wilson's and occasional White-faced Storm-Petrels remained around the slick. A third Wandering-type Albatross (possibly another Snowy) made a pass in the mid-distance but did not approach the boat. A Cape Petrel also made an appearance, but more excitement was caused by yet another skua approaching the boat. This bird proved to be a clear South Polar Skua, which landed on the water near the boat to allow most people good views. Shortly after this, a whale blow off the starboard side attracted attention. The combination of a relatively low and bushy blow, and the location off the shelf edge suggested a Sperm Whale, and further observations confirmed the identification and indicated two animals were present. We drifted towards one of the whales and were able to make out the back of the animal, before it blew one final time and fluked as it dived for the depths.

Two Wandering-type Albatross and a Northern Giant-Petrel at the back of the boat. The white Wanderer is most likely a Snowy (exulans), based on the heavy bill, overall size, and extensively white plumage. Similarities in size and structure suggest the darker bird is also likely a younger Snowy. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt

Sperm Whale fluking prior to a deep dive. The species is quite well-known from the Albany Canyon but this is the first confirmed record for an Albany pelagic. Photo courtesy Plaxy Barratt

The approaching weak cold front hit us not long after lunch, bringing a brief but heavy shower and an increase in the wind and seas. The dark cloud also brought a change in the light, and an albatross with a very dark grey hood and dark underwing caused some excitement; unfortunately it proved to be a dark hooded juvenile Black-browed Albatross made to appear darker in the poor light. The first (and only) Shy Albatross of the day made a pass of the boat, but with choppy seas threatening a longer-than-usual return trip, we headed for home at around 1330.

The rougher seas and strong wind in the wake of the cold front made the inbound journey a little rough, with enough spray to necessitate the use of a spray sheet on the exposed side of the boat. Several Soft-plumaged Petrels gave excellent fly-by views as we travelled, but there was little else of note until we reached the heads. A single distant skua was seen but few details could be made out. A few people also saw a small pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphin off the stern just after we entered the heads, a first confirmed record for Albany trips. A loafing flock of Australasian Gannets provided some interest in the sound, and a single Wilson's Storm-Petrel feeding amongst the lines of fisherman at the entrance to Oyster Harbour was a major surprise. We docked shortly afterwards at 1635. 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)]
Wandering Albatross 4 (3) - 2+ Snowy, 1 Antipodean (gibsoni)
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross 15 (7)
Black-browed Albatross 15 (6)
Shy Albatross 1 (1)
Northern Giant-Petrel 1 (1)
Cape Petrel 2 (1)
Great-winged Petrel 150 (26)
Soft-plumaged Petrel 12 (3) - 2 intermediate birds
Flesh-footed Shearwater 3 (2)
Little Shearwater 20 (2)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 70 (43)
White-faced Storm-Petrel 10 (3)
Brown Skua 1 (1)
South Polar Skua 1 (1)
Skua sp. 3 (1)
Silver Gull 5 (5)
Crested Tern 2 (1)
Australasian Gannet 35 (25)

Sperm Whale 2 (2)
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 6+ (6)

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