Sunday, April 17, 2011

Port Stephens Pelagic

Flesh-footed Shearwater
Wilson's Storm-petrel
Since I'd taken up bird photography I had read with interest the reports of the various sightings recorded on the Port Stephen's Pelagic. During this time I've been on a number of Sydney pelagics and it struck me that even though the two pelagics are only a couple of hundred kilometres apart the birds recorded appeared to be significantly different. When the opportunity came up to go on the Port Stephens Pelagic it just so happened that it coincided with the recent sightings of the Great Shearwater on every other pelagic running out of the east coast. Unfortunately we were out of luck and didn't get to see this species. I've heard theories as to why they are visiting in relatively large numbers ranging from  changes to the magnetic field to climate change. It would probably shock my fellow passengers, but I didn't care that much as long as there were birds to shoot and preferably new ones.
Originally we were booked on the Saturday trip, but due to predicted bad weather and the number of enthusiastic participants, the trip was brought forward to the Friday.
Shy Albatross
We left the Nelson Bay wharf at approx. 7.00am and passed the heads with a few clouds in the sky and a band of storm clouds on the eastern horizon. As we neared the southern heads a sea eagle flew to a perch high in one of the fringing gum trees.
The boat must have been near capacity with about 14 people on board. It was a good mix of keen photographers and birders. A novice like me could be positioned to take photographs yet still be close enough to one of the experts to hear them call out and identify any new birds that arrived on the scene.  Once out of the heads it was soon apparent that it was not going to be a smooth trip with a decent swell and white caps visible.  Even though the weather looked threatening at times, we managed to avoid rain for the whole trip.
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross

The first part of the ride out to the edge of the continental shelf was very quiet with only a couple of gannets flying overhead. A distant trawler drew us in like a magnet. Even at a distance you could see a mass of swirling birds around it. As soon as we got near the burly was used to draw the shearwaters away from the trawler and have them follow us. There were so many shearwaters about that it was often difficult to focus on one target. At this stage there were none of the rarer species about, but my previous images of the Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed shearwater were so bad that I was happy to have the opportunity to improve my images. Besides if we didn't have these birds for company it would have been a pretty boring 3 hour trip to the shelf.
Black Petrel
Enough burly was dispensed to keep the shearwaters interested all the way to the shelf. Once we were drifting off the continental shelf a rag soaked in cod liver oil was tied off and dragged behind the boat. The slick created  proved to be very attractive to large numbers of Wilson's Storm Petrels. I'd not seen these delightful birds before and it was a pleasure to see them dance across the water surface picking up the tiny bits of burly left by the other bigger birds. Photographing these birds would be difficult at the best of times as they zipped about, however the direction of the slick meant unless you were into bum shots the light angle was never favourable. Of course if I hadn't forgotten to take my flash I could have used it for fill light and come away with more than just record shots.

Pomarine Jaeger
It wasn't too long before we had a visit from a Black Petrel that liked our company so much that it decided to stay. It proved to be rather timid as it was swamped by the smaller shearwaters when burly was thrown in its direction. Its preference for sitting on the water made getting a flight shot rather difficult. 
During our time drifting we also had a visit from a Great-winged Petrel and a couple of Pomarine Jaeger. Unfortunately neither of these species hung round long or close enough to be photographed well.

The return trip again had the shearwaters following behind in big numbers. They were joined at various stages by three species of albatross, including Shy, Indian Yellow-nosed and Black-browed. By this time the light was starting to fade due to high cloud, which explains the lack of punch in my albatross shots.
Wedge-tailed Shearwater
As we got closer to the heads a few Crested Terns and gulls joined the flock and a couple of kilometres from the heads a Sea Eagle made an unexpected but brief appearance. The last sighting for the day was a little penguin playing chicken with a game boat in the harbour.
I thoroughly enjoyed the trip as I saw and got to photograph some great birds in the company of some really friendly and helpful people. In particular Mick Roderick who did a wonderful job organising the trip and his brother Steve,  Allan Richardson and Rod Warnock for their expert knowledge and help.

Birds recorded on the trip were: 
Flesh-footed Shearwater, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Short-tailed Shearwater,  Hutton's Shearwater (not seen by me), Fluttering Shearwater, Black Petrel, Great-winged Petrel, Wilson's Storm-petrel, Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Shy Albatross, Pomarine Jaegar, Australasian Gannet and White-bellied Sea-eagle. In all I managed to photograph three new birds.


  1. G'day Gerard,
    Great shots, interesting read. Wow - that wingspan on the Shy Albatross!
    Two questions - How did you avoid sea sickness, (I would have been totally incapacitated). Do you know the origin/derivation of 'pelagic'?

  2. @Gouldiae
    Hi Gouldiae,
    Thanks for the comment.
    I took sea sickness tablets (travacalm)before the trip. I think staying out in the fresh air and keeping busy is the real secret,
    I think "Pelagic" comes from the Greek language, meaning 'ocean', or 'of the sea'.
    Cheers Gerard