Thursday, 30 January 2014

A stom-petrel at arms length

We awoke to a stunning looking day, with a light breeze (perhaps too light!), and sunny clear conditions.  We headed off, grabbed some lunch and then headed for the Sandspit Boat Ramp, stopping quickly for a rather showy buff-banded rail that was feeding right out on the open lawn beside the mangroves.  A nice start!  We met Brett our fantastic skipper on the ‘Assassin’, and with bags stowed, cameras and bins out, and anticipation in the air we headed out the Kawau Channel towards the open ocean.

Barely had we left the channel out of Sandspit and the first target appeared – little blue penguin.  We got great views of a number of them rafting on the water, sitting quite high in the water, preening and lolling about.  We then saw some feeding, with white-fronted terns feeding over them, and even several Arctic skuas (Parasitic jaegers) on the chase, harassing the terns to steal their food.  Fluttering shearwaters were around in reasonable numbers as well, dotted here and there in small rafts and we got nice opportunities to see them taking off and flying past.

We carried on out into the open water and to the eastern side of Little Barrier Island, encountering our first Buller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters, Cook’s petrels, and white-faced storm-petrels.  But we kept moving, wanting to get to our first chumming location instead of stopping and starting.  A few diving gannets and fish boiling on the surface did bring a temporary stall in our progress, but we carried on shortly after.

Reaching our first chumming location, we put out the burley and within a few minutes had white-faced storm-petrels, Cook’s petrels, and Buller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters in feeding on the slick.  Brett was doing a great job of chumming, and before long we had a good assemblage of birds.  And it wasn’t long before the first New Zealand storm-petrel appeared!  Whoops of joy went up – always a bird that people want to see, and it never fails to bring out some whoops when it does!  With light breezes and the current holding us in just the right way, we had stunning views of all the birds, with particularly close and good views of both of the storm-petrels, both species down to less than 2m from the stern of the boat!  All the other species gave great views as well and the cameras were certainly clicking!
We had several, at least three, NZ storm-petrels around at one point, so excellent views, and we then decided to head on further to see what we could find, plus some time steaming to delete and clear some space on the memory cards!  As we headed out the sea was almost glassy calm, with just a slight breeze and almost no swell, so stunning views of Little Barrier and the Mokohinau Islands.

On the way to the Mokohinau Islands Brett spotted a Manta ray feeding right on the surface, an animal probaby at leat 3m across.  Then we arrived at Maori Rocks where there is a pretty decent gannet colony, but we also found at least 80+ grey ternlet, a species that roosts here from late November through to March-April.  We had great views of these really pretty little noddies, with excellent flight views as well, and then decided to head on out further towards deeper water.  On the way we spotted another manta ray, and we pulled up at about 180m.  Brett started chumming again, but with only a light breeze there were not a lot of birds around to start with.  However, things picked up, and before long we had a good assemblage of birds, and then several NZ storm-petrels arrived.  Again we had them litterally arms length from the boat, and again the shutters on the cameras were almost smoking!  It was really special to have them so close!  Several grey-faced petrels also made an appearance, but there was nothing else new.  After several hours of surreal seabirding, we had to say good bye to our little flock of storm-petrels and started to head back in.

On the way in we had several half playful common dolphins that came in rather half-heartedly and bow-rode a little, but absolutely stunning sea conditions and a beautiful evening as we headed back past the Mokohinau Islands and Little Barrier and back up the Kawau Channel.  Coming alongside the wharf took a little longer than usual (with a trainee skipper!!), but we then headed off to another awesome dinner before a well earned sleep!

Day total – Seen = 38; new for the trip = 13; total for the trip to date = 78

Little blue penguin preening on the surface

Fluttering shearwater about to take off

The chase - Arctic skua chasing a white-fronted tern

Cook's petrel up close

White-faced storm-petrel bouncing off the water

White-faced storm-petrel dipping under to get food from below the surface

Beautiful Buller's shearwater making a pass

White-faced storm-petrels dancing on the water

New Zealand storm-petrel coming in for a look

New Zealand storm-petrel feeding on the surface

More dancing

New Zealand storm-petrel about to dip down

New Zealand storm-petrel in flight

Grey tern let roosting on Maori rocks

Grey tern let in flight

Grey tern let coming in to land

Buller's shearwater again

Cook's petrel in close to the back of the boat about to dip down to the slick

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