Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Sydney Pelagic

Antipodean Wandering Albatross
Before I get too far into this let it be known that this was one of if not the best days birding. I saw some of the most iconic species out there, met new people and it was sunny and pleasant. There are superior write-ups (and far better photographs) for the day in the links below:

I booked onto a pelagic out of Sydney for 10th March way before my trip. It excited me a lot. This was the highlight to the entire trip as far as I was concerned. I adore being offshore and have very sturdy sea legs so don't suffer from mal de mer. Nick Addey very kindly put me in touch with Steve Hey, a Scarborough birder who has decamped to Sydney and equally kindly Steve offered to put me up for a night and show me some birds after the pelagic and the following day. Steve went above and beyond and I cant thank him or his lovely wife Vicky enough.

Tawny Frogmouth
After a night out on the razz in Sydney with my brother he gave me a lift pre-dawn to Rose Bay where I met Steve and he introduced me to a few of the stalwarts of the pelagics including Roger McGovern, Frank Antram, and Greg Mclachlan. These were a cracking bunch of folks and in total 23 were aboard for the trip.

Several Crested Terns and many Silver Gulls were foraging about the harbour but we couldn't pick out any Little Blue Penguins as we left. It took a while to get clear of the Heads but once a mile or two off the first Wedge-tailed Shearwaters were seen crossing the bow. A little chum and a swarm of these cracking birds was present off the back. As we ventured further it was pointed out that a handful of Flesh-footed Shearwaters had joined the throng. Immature Pomarine Skuas came and went, largely disinterested in the shearwaters but hoping that the oily slick may contain a choice morsel. A nudge in the ribs from Steve helped me to see a distant Short-tailed Shearwater that flitted in and out of the flock like a compact Sooty. By this stage several hundred wedgies were off the boat, all dark phase, and I was picking the Flesh-footed out with a little more ease. Hutton's Shearwaters were seen passing in small numbers, rarely interested in what was going on and very reminiscent of Manxies in behaviour.

Flesh-footed and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters
Pomarine Skua

Pomarine Skua
Not too long out and a single Bottlenose Dolphin briefly came into the boat. Soon afterward a pod of Risso's Dolphins came past ignoring the lore that they dislike boats by showing well for a couple of minutes. Unlike other dolphins they were hard to photograph due to their brevity at the surface and I came away with nothing. The latter is a species that has avoided me in British waters and one that I was hopeful of seeing on this trip. The make-up of the swarm of birds at the back of the boat remained somewhat static with occasional shouts for Hutton's and Short-tailed Shears and skuas coming and going. A single Australasian Flying Fish was a delight skipping over the surface and perhaps indicating that there was more going on underneath the water than was evident. Plenty more were seen as the day progressed.

Black Petrel
Black Petrel
After a couple of hours we got close to Brown's Mountain, an underwater seamount near the shelf edge. This is a noted hotspot and almost immediately the shout went up 'White-necked Petrel'. This caused absolute mayhem as the stocky Pteradroma did a fly past. This is a hard bird to connect with in Australian waters and whilst breeding not far away was a lifer for many on-board including some with over 700 species on their Aussie lists. My photo doesn't do it justice but it was superb. Soon after we came to a stop and all hell broke loose. A Black Petrel was seen amongst the numerous Flesh-footed Shearwaters and sat immediately off the back of the boat. A smaller Pteradroma, Gould's Petrel, an absolute gem, circled the boat. This is a 'cookaleria' petrel and very slight in comparison to the earlier white-necked. It is unusual for them to show well so two close fly pasts were near unprecedented. This was the first of seven sightings for the trip of which I saw six and none half as well. A Wilson's Petrel fluttered just off the boat and was a lifer to my chagrin after I missed loads last year in the South-west.

White-necked Petrel

Gould's Petrel
Interrupting my reverie was the shout of 'albatross', nay 'ALBATROSS'. A hulking mollymawk scooted over the ocean. I knew from my research I was a month early for albatross but I had a 50/50 chance of seeing one. I was delighted - this was what I really wanted. Initially identified as a Shy Albatross, it became evident it was White-capped Albatross, currently a subspecies of Shy but split by some authorities. It flew round for a good while and settled at the back of the boat amongst the thronging shearwaters. At this point a third species of Pteradroma joined us although this was by far the most expected. Formerly part of Great-winged Petrel, Grey-faced Petrel is the eastern Australian equivalent and appears suitably different. One became two and later twenty as they materialised out of nowhere. We moved off towards the shelf edge soon after losing only the albatross.

White-capped Albatross

White-capped Albatross

Grey-faced Petrel
At the shelf edge there was little added until I spotted two more White-capped Albatross and then we were joined by a monster - an Antipodean Wandering Albatross. This leviathan of the air cruised in and smashed into a throng of shearwaters sending them in all directions. They bounced off it in flight and its shear size was mesmeric. This was a peak experience. It was the avian spruce goose. Incredibly we had one of the White-capped Albatross and the wanderer with us for much of the remainder of the trip as we turned and headed in.

Further Short-tailed Shearwaters were seen and a candidate Fluttering Shearwater but sadly it was not to be. I missed a Sooty Shearwater and a couple of Wilson's Petrels but frankly I didn't care. The Wandering Albatross remained until just a couple of miles offshore. A small pod of Risso's Dolphin's showed briefly and just off the heads as we returned a large dolphin was nearly run over and I got decent views of the fin and back. A False Killer Whale! Amazing.

As we passed the nudist beach a couple of the Aussies tried to convince me there was a colony of brown boobies on the rocks before collapsing into fits of giggles about willie wagtails. It takes all sorts I guess! Still no penguins. It was quite late in the afternoon and Steve suggested trying Centenary Park for a few species. A handful of specials were on the cards and we bumped into local raptor expert and the dude impersonator Biggles of Solander. Biggles is avant garde, Biggles definitely smokes large quantities of cannabinoids and has done since the late 60s however Biggles knows birds of prey in the Sydney area. Unfortunately before I even know what we are looking for he says they aren't there. The Powerful Owls, the aren't there. They have an alternate unviewable roost and sadly we won't be seeing them today. Ah, Biggles you bugger. Thankfully he had lots of gen on where to find Tawny Frogmouth and before you know it I found one near the regular roosting areas. Not bad considering how busy the park is. A classic Australian bird and full of character even if it didn't actually move. The final part of the parks charismatic triumvirate is Buff-banded Rail and some patience sees excellent views of an adult briefly before a juvenile gives us a little more of a show. Elsewhere in the park we see my first Hardhead, which is a Fudge duck sort of thing and a Little Black Cormorant We thank Biggles and push on to a golf course to make hay in the final hour of sun.

Juvenile Buff-banded Rail

A Grey Butcherbird on the wires is a superb start at the golf course. This is a micro-currawong or Australian Magpie and has a shrike like niche and a heavy bill, perfect for dismembering lizards, small birds and mammals. On the course itself an Australian Black-shouldered Kite hovered. Having not seen its European counterpart this was an excellent sighting. The introduced Spotted Dove was singing from the scrub as dusk approached and we found none of the crakes or rails that we hoped for. If Spotted Dove was reminiscent of Laughing and Collared Doves and felt a bit plastic the delightful Bar-shouldered Dove was quite opposite. A delicate bird in markings and build it looked resplendent as we peered into its hiding place amongst the thorns. The sun finally started to drop and whilst we found no quail on the fairways we did find some roosting Red-whiskered Bulbuls to round the day off with yet another lifer. A couple of well deserved beers were imbibed ahead of a brief sleep prior to another jam-packed day.

Australian Black-shouldered Kite

Bar-shouldered Dover

Eastern Water Dragon

Grey Butcherbird

Red-whiskered Bulbul

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