Friday, 19 November 2010

Day of the albatross

Yesterday was a cracker of a day on the water!  We headed out at 0830 hrs on Aurora, with Ty as skipper and Colin as deck-hand (sorry Colin!), with light winds and relatively flat conditions on the northern side of the island.  Our aim was to get around to the South to Port Pegasus, the best spot for Antarctic terns, and to chum out off the island in a couple of places to draw in albatross and petrels and anything else that might be floating around.  Before we had even left the wharf we had a Fiordland crested penguin showing itself right beside the boat...a good start!

We made our way slowly along the northern coast, seeing a few more Fiordland crested and looking out for yellow-eyed penguins.  Stewart Island shags were about the place, and we checked the white-fronted terns carefully for anything showing a red bill.  We spotted some NZ sea lions (Hooker’s sea lions) on a beach a wee way off, and we passed Ocean Beach w here we had seen kiwi so well the night before.

Several more Fiordland crested penguins were seen in the water, and seen really well, before we then spotted a couple of yellow-eyed penguins as well.  They were doing their best to make it hard for us to see them, but in the end everyone had good views.  We ripped out to Wreck Reef, a small reef not far off the island, and chummed for a little while with blue cod heads and frames (we’d probably consumed the fillets last night at the restaurant!).  With a stiff westerly wind, albatross were pretty quick to arrive and we soon had good numbers of white-capped with a few Salvin’s, before the first of the Southern Royal albatross arrived.  They squabbled and fought over the chum and we had excellent views of these birds in action.

After half an hour or so we headed back towards the island and continued around towards Port Pegasus.  A lot more Fiordland penguins were found at a couple of locations, including up on  the rocks giving nice views.  The sun was poking through every now and then and we had beaut views of the island and it’s rugged terrain and thick vegetation.  Heading past The Sisters (incorrectly named the Brothers on charts) we then headed to a spot where Colin has found Antarctic terns many times.  We had about 40-50 white-fronted terns on the rocks in front of us, with several pairs nesting up in the low vegetation.  Scanning, scanning, no red bills...hmmmm!  Then, I spotted a strange tern down low on a rock with several white-fronteds.  Everyone got onto it and the bird was definitely smaller, with long tail and wings, shorter legs, but a black bill and moulting cap.  I called Arctic tern, before we all figured something didn’t quite add up...  The legs were just too long and the bill too long also, and although it had somewhat the right shape, the jizz was wrong.  We realised it had to be a sub-adult Antarctic tern...we’d got our poles wrong!  Still searching for red bills, we came up with nothing, but another small tern was spotted by Matt Jones who was also on the trip.  This bird was a definite Arctic tern, smaller, dumpier, with darkish belly and flanks, very short red legs, and shorter deeper based bill – what a cracker!  We had three species of terns right there in front of us.  We got some photos, soaked it all up and then headed off to another spot to look for more Antarctic terns...this time hopefully an adult.  As we approached a bunch of terns on the rocks I found another Arctic tern amongst a small flock of feeding white-fronteds, and we then got close to the rocks in big swell (great driving Ty) and managed to find a stonking adult Antarctic tern in full breeding with blood red bill and legs.  It had it’s back to us most of the time due to the wind, but every now and then turned it’s head giving nice views.  Hand holding the 800mm in 25 knots of wind in big swell was no easy task (!) but I managed to get a few reasonable record shots.

We then decided to head out into the deep blue, and headed about 18 miles off to the ‘Southern Traps’.  As we got out into deeper water we threw chum overboard and shortly had a cloud of albatross behind the really was a sight to behold.  Mostly, white-capped we also had several black-browed, a good number of Southern Royals and fair percentage of Salvin’s.  Everyone was pretty chuffed with the spectacle, and as we approached our destination the first mottled petrels went past.  We also suddenly got into good numbers of common diving-petrels and fairy prions, with the odd Buller’s shearwater.  We stopped and then chummed for about 45 minutes to an hour, with probably more than 200 albatross around us – up to 12 Southern Royals at one time, and a single Wandering joined us as well.  Mottled petrels continued to pass and good numbers of sooty shearwaters as well, plus several white-chinned petrels.  It was just awesome watching these birds wheeling around the boat and dropping to the water to squabble for the fish frames.  Something not to forget!

Unfortunately, the day was getting on, and with a big run back towards home we started on our way, still throwing chum over.  Lots more mottled petrels ended up going past during the trip towards ‘North Traps’, as well as more fairy prions, and the cloud of albatross followed.  The number of birds steadily dwindled as the supply of chum did, and as we got closer to home.  An absolutely fantastic day, with no real stand-out rarities, but massive numbers of birds more than making up for it.

Fiordland crested penguin looking grumpy (and fat pre-moult)

It really is Stewart Island...honest...and the sky wasn't photo-shopped!

Arctic tern...little stunner!

Beautiful adult breeding plumage Antarctic tern with white-fronted terns

White-capped albatross in flight

Salvin's albatross coming past the boat silhouetted against Stewart Island

White-capped albatross

Salvin's albatross

Mid-air between white-capped (bottom) and Salvin's (top) albatross

Southern Royal, bird of the day, coming in for some chum

Bird of the day – Southern Royal albatross x5, Fiordland crested penguin x1

Day total –
Seen = 34 + 0 heard; new for the trip = 4; total for the trip to date = 158

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