Saturday, 1 December 2012

Pelagicing good fun

What! No venison pies in the pie warmer at the Stewart Island 4 Square!? I was even told that lamb and venison is all the same when in a pie! Ha ha ha, oh well, nothing too major, and the weather was looking pretty good as we picked up lunch and headed to the wharf to get onboard our all day pelagic with Aurora Charters.

Our skipper Ty gave us a quick briefing and we then headed out of Half Moon Bay and around towards the south. Matt Jones had had a call that morning from a local who said there was a possible leopard seal on one of the local beaches, so we headed around to see if we could spot that. Sure enough as we came in closer, a large shape on the beach looked exactly like a leopard seal. But it wasn’t hanging around, and as we approached it took to the water and swam towards us, but then veered off and along the edge of the kelp. But we all got a pretty good view, and for most onboard this was a lifer mammal! Definitely a good start.

We headed out between Bench Island and the Peninsula and then off down the coast, looking for penguins and other seabirds as we cruised. Our main goal was to get down to the south coast and into the Port Pegasus area to try and find Antarctic terns, before then heading out to the ‘Traps’. As we headed south the weather was sunny and there was good breeze, but conditions were very good, and we soon spied a large penguin in the water a wee way off. Heading towards it we waited until it showed again and discovered our first yellow-eyed penguin of the day – an immature bird swimming in the water. We had reasonable views and then left it in peace continuing on our way. Checking out a couple of bays for Fiordland crested penguins, we spotted a pair up on some rocks, and Ty expertly manouvered the boat right back in so we could have almost stepped off the stern onto the same rocks! Full frame shots of the birds as they stood unconcerned looking on at these strangers.

Carrying on we saw an albatross off in the distance that looked different to the other white-capped albs following us. We stopped the boat and started to chum and watched as the bird in question turned and started to head towards us. Getting closer the call went up for Campbell albatross, and the bird circled several times before charging in to compete with the other birds for the blue cod frames. Several brown skuas headed out towards us from the mainand and gave stunning views right over our heads, and before long there were three of them chasing each other and the other birds for some of the spoils. We also realised there was a second Campbell alb with us, and so we had great views of these and the other birds right at the back of the boat.

We decided to carry on south, and as we did so the seas started to become a little rougher as we lost the shelter of the island from the SW swells that were wrapping around the land. Things definitely got a little lively and a few people discovered what it feels like to walk on the moon in a zero gravity environment…problem is there is always a bump when you come back down! We then got a little bit of cover in between Pearl Island and snuck into Port Pegasus, looking for the tern flocks we often find in this area. But not today! We struggled to find any terns, let alone Antarctic, which was rather disappointing, but that’s birding. We thought we might head down to another point that can be good for terns, but with the weather and swell the way it was we would have gotten a real pasting and not really been able to get close to any tern flocks perched on rocks anyway. So we decided to cut straight out towards the ‘Traps’. With seas running up to probably 4m swells we zipped along rolling a little as the swells were on our beam, but it was much more comfortable, and as we got closer we started to throw out chum. Matt was chum-master and soon we had 50+ white-capped albatross following us, with the odd Salvin’s amongst them. One white-chinned petrel zipped past, but no other smaller birds, which was a little strange.

We arrived at the ‘Traps’ and started to chum in earnest. With large swells still running and a good stiff breeze things were whipping past, but almost no small birds were evident – no petrels or shearwaters. Then suddenly the cry went up for storm-petrel and we got views of a tiny grey-backed storm-petrel heading across the waves towards the chum slick. It was not easy to pick in amongst the big rollers, but luckily we had another come past, but again it was pretty fast. A single broad-billed prion caming zooming right past the side of the boat and round the back with excellent views, but with no other smaller birds we decided to head north back towards Wreck Reef. The going was much easier as we headed with the swells, and we were doing a fair bit of surfing on the way. As we got closer we started to see smaller birds and the call for mottled and Cook’s petrels was finally out! We had quite a few of each go past, mostly distant to start with, but then a few closer, along with more and more sooty shearwaters. So the birds had been up here all along! At the reef we started to chum and brought in another good crowd of albatross, still mainly white-capped, but also Salvin’s and this time a few Southern Royals. A couple more broad-billed prions whipped past, and a single fairy prion as well. We even got a NZ wandering albatross and a couple of Northern giant petrels, but no Buller’s albatross. The call went up for storm-petrel again, and this time a Wilson’s storm-petrel zipped past the bow and onto the slick, pattering away as it fed. Another nice addition for the day. We had a few more mottled and Cook’s petrels zip past, and just as we were about to leave, Phil’s dream bird – a Southern giant petrel came right in to the back of the boat. This was a lifer for Phil and something he had been covetting . Excellent.

So we decided to head for home as the chum ran out and although we kept a good watch on the way back, nothing new was seen. We pulled in to the wharf just after 1830 hrs all very happy with what had been an excellent day with a lot of good birds, lifers, and the best thing was that all species had shown pretty well. Another great dinner at the South Seas Hotel before a well earned sleep!

Day total – Seen = 40; new for the trip = 9; total for the trip to date = 159

A leopard seal takes to the water, a mammal tick for most on the trip!

Silhouetted white-capped albatross against a leaden sea.

Against the sky this time.

And against the sea again.

Two Fiordland crested penguins check each other out as Ty brings us right in for a good look!

Everyone on the deck of Aurora.

Campbell albatross coming in to land with a splash at the back of the boat.

Running in to the chum.

Campbell albatross being chased by a white-capped at the back of the boat.

Campbell albatross swoops by at close range.

Brown skua coming past the back of the boat.

Brown skua just above our heads.

Nice shot showing the upper wing as a brown skua flies past the back of the boat.

Brown skua sitting on the water near the boat.

Campbell albatross gliding by showing the under wing.

Spotted shags nesting on a rocky cliff.

Yellow-eyed penguin climbing up towards its nest after coming ashore.

Yellow-eyed penguin calls as another comes past it head towards its nest.

Campbell albatross glides by.

Broad-billed prion coming past the boat giving a great view.

White-capped albatross coming in to the boat with feet down and large waves behind it.

Southern Royal albatross gliding past the boat showing its 11ft+ wingspan.

Closer shot of the Southern Royal albatross.

Cook's petrel zipping past the boat.

White-capped and a single Salvin's albatross squabble over a blue cod frame.

Salvin's albatross coming in to land nearby.

Phil's lifer - a Southern giant petrel!

Mottled petrel zipping past showing the diagnostic underwing and belly pattern.

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