Elephant Seal – a sometimes visitor to Victoria

Last weekend much to my surprise the monthly BirdLife Portland Pelagic managed to get out despite rather grim weather predictions earlier in the week. We saw a few nice things on the way down including Grey (white) Goshawk and Restless Flycatcher at the Cobden STW. After a very good steak at Macs and a few beers at Rob’s we decided the signs were good for the trip. The trip started very well with a pre-dawn Wilson’s Storm-petrel in the harbour itself! Things were pretty quiet on the way out with a few small pods of Common Dolphin and good numbers of Fairy Prion being the highlight. At the first stop on the shelf we quickly had a couple of whalebirds – Antarctic and Slender-billed Prion which probably remained the birds of the day. At each of the stops there were plenty of birds and it was one of those days your felt anything could turn up. A late highlight was a Brown Skua which after cruising around the bat for a bit chased and killed a Fairy Prion which was a rather savage reminder of where these birds fit in the food chain. Two NZ and a true Wanderer were other obvious highlights – LIST A couple of the White-fronted Terns provided some excitement with one bird in particular showing a strong trailing edge.

Young exulans Wanderer

Young exulans Wanderer

On the way back in we checked Lawrence Rocks as usual without any real thought of seeing more than the impressive gannet colony and the usual loafing fur-seals. As I was scanning the seals I was rather stoked/surprised to see the somewhat chubby face of a young Southern Elephant Seal staring right back at me. I had joked to Rohan on Friday night that we would pick up an Elephant Seal on Lawrence Rocks and here it was. A very unexpected mammal tick and certainly the “real” bird of the day! These days the Southern Elephant Seal is an occasional visitor to Victorian shores with at best annual records. I had to run and get my camera so missed the best angles but still picked up some nice shots. This was a young male with his tiny little “trunk” visible in side on shots – a mere shadow of what he will become. This is now the 4th species of pinniped we have recorded on these rocks in the past 12 months following an Australian Sea-lion last year as well as the usual NZ and Aus Fur-seals. All in all a good day at sea!

Southern Elephant Seal

Southern Elephant Seal

Southern Elephant Seal

Southern Elephant Seal

Soon.....

Soon…..

Some July pelagic and Sooty Owl action

This is mostly to share a few pics and experiences from a couple of outings through July which didn’t quite translate into their own posts. I started with my second trip down to Tasmania for another pelagic weekend with an extra night tacked on for some spotlighting and then followed up with a few nights out in Bunyip State Park (for a change). I headed down to Tasmania early in July a day early with intention of exploring around Mt Field for quolls and perhaps the outside chance of a devil. As we flew into Hobart I started to question my decision as it was one of the more rough flights I have had in a while and as we came in I could see the tops of the sea being blown away in the high winds. Still upon landing I picked up a car and headed out to Mt Field and my nearby AirBnB accommodation choice. I stopped in and bought a 24 hour pass only to be told after the purchase that the park was closed past the entrance area due to weather conditions – pretty typical Tassie tourist experience really…. Still my first AirBnB experience was great as I dumped my stuff in a real traditional BnB before heading out for a long nights spotlighting. As I headed out on dusk I saw my first Eastern-barred Bandicoot which I thought was a good sign but then the rain started to set in. The area around the entrance to Mt Field is generally considered good for Eastern Quoll but I had no luck despite a number of hours searching at various times of the night. There were lots of large standing areas of water which I began to notice had started to move – the river had broken its banks so I had to retreat. I spent another couple of hours driving out towards Lake Pedder and again back the other way but after my second encounter with the local constabulary I was advised to go to bed due to various landslides and water over the road events. During the couple of hours of driving around I saw nothing more exciting than numerous pademelons and Bennett’s wallabies.

A bit of water at Mt Field

A bit of water at Mt Field



The next morning Mt Field was now completely closed so I drove out to Lake Pedder for a bit of tourist action at the dam wall. I was quite shocked to see how extensively areas of swamp and buttongrass had been burnt in recent fires. Eventually I headed back to Hobart to pick up Dean and Rohan for the weekend pelagic action. On the way down to Eaglehawk Neck we did a bit of spotlighting along some side roads before dropping off bags and heading down to Fortescue Bay. On this occasion we saw little aside from the usual pademelons and brushtails and heard only a distant Morepork or two. Still we were back at a decent hour for the pelagic the next day. Unfortunately I had not had the requisite steak and beer before the pelagic so the auguries were not good for the following day.

Kelp Gull

Kelp Gull

We headed out from Eaglehawk Neck on the Pauletta heading past the Hippolytes where both Fur-seals were seen. It was a pretty good day really with highlights including a young Salvin’s Albatross, Grey Petrel, Soft-plumaged, Grey and White-headed Petrels and both Antarctic and Slender-billed Prions. Great albatrosses were only a few Southern Royals and a single Gibson’s type Wanderer. A good haul but nothing compared to the excellent pelagics of the proceeding few months out of Eaglehawk Neck. Still it was a very good day at sea and a couple of Humpback Whales rounded out the list – I think we are sometimes spoilt from this port.

Grey Petrel

Grey Petrel

Gibson's Albatross

Gibson’s Albatross

Salvin's Albatross

Salvin’s Albatross

After the pelagic we had a quick wind down and a pot of Cascade and headed to the famous tree at Port Arthur to see if the Masked Owls were around but tonight they were either having a lie-in or residing elsewhere. After a local pub meal Rohan and I headed out to Lime Bay Conservation area where we rumbled a couple of Long-nosed Potoroo. The target here was Masked Owl and we had an immediate strong call response then nothing…. seems to be quite typical behaviour in Tasmania in our limited experience. We added a nice Southern Brown Bandicoot to the trip list before again heading into bed at a reasonable hour – we must be getting old. Still we were back down at the dock early for another pelagic on the Pauletta with the conditions quite benign as we headed out followed by a horde of hungry gulls. This day was much quieter than the previous with highlights being the good numbers of White-headed Petrel and a nominate Great-winged Petrel among the recently split Grey-faced Petrels. Tried not to be too disappointed as we headed back in as there will always be next time!

Cape Petrel

Cape Petrel

Northern Giant-petrel

Northern Giant-petrel

White-headed Petrel

White-headed Petrel

Rohan and I are having a very non-competitive mammal year so we decided to head out to Gravelly Ridge Conservation Area to look for Eastern Bettongs before our flights home. This looks quite a good block of dry type woodland as we arrived on dusk into a horde of pademelons and wallabies. As we setup camera gear on dusk I waddled away from the car while scoffing dinner and almost immediately rumbled a bettong which I figured was a good sign. This was not quite the case as over the next hour or two we had only average views of a couple of further animals as we drive around. Still this area needs further investigation with more time! Alas around this time a tragic event occurred….. a European Hare skipped majestically across the road slaying Rohan’s bogey for the year – I was looking forward to him having to go spotlighting around the WTP to catch it up. A quick zip back to the airport only to be told our flights were inevitably delayed. While the weekend was slightly disappointing we still had a great time and saw plenty of good things.

Southern Royal Albatross

Southern Royal Albatross

Following the return from Tassie I headed out to Bunyip State Park for a change. The first visit was with Jonathan Newman, a British birder who is north of 7500 world species. After a couple of hours of silence and worsening weather conditions we managed to nail a nice Sooty Owl which flew in for a few photos and ended up giving walk away views. The following weekend I headed back on my own to an area I suspected Sooty Owls might be nesting and kicked back with a beer and a burger in the half hour leading up to dusk. Well before dusk two owls screamed and then bombed from what I think were separate hollows in an area of tall manna gums. On dark they popped out of the hollows and then spent the next hour in a trill duet which rivals any electronic synth pop band – some one should sample that shit! At one stage a male Powerful Owl called reasonably nearby which shut them up for a minute or so until they started up again. I eventually drove away with them still trilling and found another couple of owls including one in a completely new area. Clearly a good time of year to be out and listening!

Sooty Owl - Bunyip State Park

Sooty Owl – Bunyip State Park

A good ordinary Portland Pelagic

“A good, ordinary Portland pelagic” – fateful words and one that all too often describes a pelagic over the Summer months out of Portland in SW Victoria – a pelagic with good numbers of ordinary birds but lacking that special one. After a week of favourable looking forecasts the trip was confirmed on the Friday night and I headed down with Scott Baker who gripped me continually with tales of his recent 6 week birding exploits in India. We had a bit of time before dinner so had a walk around Point Danger looking for vagrant penguins and had a quick glance at the Cape Gannet whose chick was coming along quite nicely. Was actually quite birdy with Blue-winged Parrots being chased by a nice Collared Sparrowhawk while Rufous Bristlebirds called in the background. On the way out a hunting White Goshawk was a nice bonus. The usual half a cow for dinner was not washed down with the usual beers as I am trying to do Febfast – something felt wrong and after casting the bones and examining the auguries it was clear that the signs for tomorrow were not good.

Great-winged Petrel coming in

Great-winged Petrel coming in

At 7am we jumped aboard the Timaru of South West Charters and headed out to the shelf. As we past Lawrence Rocks we had a brief fly by of a jaeger but it was too far to get a positive ID. There were small numbers of common shearwaters offshore but almost no albatross were encountered until we hit the shelf. A small pod of Offshore Bottle-nosed Dolphins just before the shelf provided some interest and was a new one for my mammal year list. Conditions were very benign and remained so for the whole day – I wore shorts and had no regrets. As we hit the shelf we encountered a good sized pod of pilot whales for the third month running with some impressive bulls passing very close to the boat! Of course my camera was still in its bag inside the cabin…. after getting some cracking views of the whales I raced in and got the camera out only for the pod to be disappearing into the distance…. what could have been!

I could have had awesome pilot whale shots.....

I could have had awesome pilot whale shots…..

We started berleying and soon gathered good numbers of birds behind the boat. A highlight was watching the Short-tailed Shearwaters diving deep chasing fish and liver scraps – sometimes remaining under the water for near a minute. There were good numbers of Great-winged Petrels with gouldii outnumbering macroptera about 10 to 1. We had a good amount of shark liver and the shark off-cuts were particularly fought over by albatross and petrel alike. Considering the summery conditions it was surprising that we only had a couple of White-chinned Petrels and Flesh-footed Shearwaters across the day.

Just a Shy

Just a Shy

We are getting Nick from SW Charters quite well trained in the art of berleying now and he was keeping large numbers of birds interested. It was the sort of day where something rare could just fly through but if it did we missed it. Still there continued to be very good numbers of Great-winged petrel behind the boat at all times as well as shearwaters and Shy and Yellow-nosed Albatross. A late Buller’s Albatross was probably the bird of the day. There was some excitement when a large whale spouted beside the boat but it sunk beneath the water without showing any features and could not be relocated. The time of year would make a Blue Whale most likely but the spout didn’t seem right – sighting of the day gone begging!

Shy Albatross hooking in

Shy Albatross hooking in

I spent the whole way back in looking and hoping for a Blue Whale as they had been regularly seen over the proceeding few weeks but with no luck. A stop at Lawrence Rocks produced the usual fur-seals as well as views of the impressive gannet colony. Gannets now cover every possible nesting spot including some in some very precarious positions. I think there was an air of some slight disappointment as we docked – but still it was “a good ordinary Portland Pelagic” with birds many birders around the world would love to see.

Curious young seal

Curious young seal

Ebird Species list – http://ebird.org/ebird/australia/view/checklist?subID=S27365843

The littlest possum

On Thursday I flew down with Rohan Clarke – http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/ for back to back Eaglehawk Neck pelagic boat trips on the Friday and Saturday. We had flown in earlier than usual as we had originally intended to chase Tasmanian Tree Frog (Litoria burrowsae) but apparently they had not been calling due to dry conditions – as it turns out we did not have to worry about dry conditions as it rained much of the weekend with the East coast in particular receiving some serious drenching. Instead of frog hunting we headed to Eaglehawk Neck and checked into the trusty Lufra Hotel. Despite the sketchy looking weather the pelagic was confirmed for the following day so we dropped bag and headed out for a bit of recce followed by some serious spotlighting. We dropped into Fortescue Bay, scoping out some likely looking places before heading down to Remarkable Cave which lived up to its name. Dropped into the Port Arthur Caravan park as soon as it was dark and eventually picked up a nice Long-nosed Potoroo among the numerous Pademelons.

Shitty phone pic inside the Remarkable Cave

Shitty phone pic inside the Remarkable Cave

Headed back to the Fortescue Bay entrance road which was the target site for the evening. Unfortunately the weather was setting in with rain squalls and an serious level of wind. As we headed down we were very lucky to see a small mammal on the road which turned out to to be a Little Pygmy Possum! This happens to be the smallest member of the possum family and an adult weighs between a 1/4 and and 1/8th of the Mountain Pygmy Possums we found earlier in the month. The possum was rescued from the road and placed in a shrub where we managed to get a couple of quick photos before it slipped away. It has to be a candidate for the cutest animal in Australia. This was a completely unexpected mammal tick for me and already made the weekend worthwhile! Despite recent reports of Tassie Devils in the area we didn’t see or hear much else of note that night but it was still a very successful evening!

Little Pygmy Possum - Fortescue Bay

Little Pygmy Possum – Fortescue Bay

Little Pygmy Possum - Fortescue Bay

Little Pygmy Possum – Fortescue Bay

12 of us jumped on the trusty Pauletta – http://www.paulettacharters.com/tours.html – at 7 am and headed out into lumpy seas. There was a fair bit of spray on the way out which made standing at the back a bit uncomfortable but excellent views of a Buller’s Shearwater more than made up for that. It was a bit of a strange day with the disappointment of not being able to get onto a couple of small Pterodromas being more than compensated by a South Polar Skua!!, several Great Albatrosses of various taxa and then a fantastic White-necked Petrel which was a lifer for me! This bird looped around the boat giving fantastic views for all on board. Paul Brooks, the doyen of all things Tasmanian Birding has indicated it is only the 5th Tasmanian record. Unfortunately due to the wet conditions I left my camera inside all day so have bugger all to show from these close approaches. As we were about to leave the final berley point a flyby of a Cook’s Petrel gave a nice but brief view. The trip back in was largely unpleasant with heavy rain and a bit of swell making it a rather damp experience. Still – running at 1 mammal and 1 bird tick and some cracking loose change it was already an awesome trip!

White-necked Petrel courtesy of Rohan Clarke - http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/

White-necked Petrel courtesy of Rohan Clarke – http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/

White-necked Petrel courtesy of Rohan Clarke - http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/

White-necked Petrel courtesy of Rohan Clarke – http://www.wildlifeimages.com.au/

After a slab of cow and a couple of beers at the Lufra, Rohan and I headed out again to the Fortescue Bay road to again search for Devils and other mammalian targets. Rohan had a FLIR which pics up heat signatures so we had a crack in the floristically diverse areas along the entrance road and down near the Fortescue Bay campground. Aside from a few Brushtails and some roosting birds the highlights were a few frogs brought out by the damp conditions. Of interest we both heard a White-striped Freetail Bat on the Fortescue Bay Road calling and then doing a feeding sequence which does not seem to be known from Tasmania – inquiries with bat experts in Tasmania are continuing. As we headed back intending to do a quick loop around the peninsula disaster struck with a large wattle tree across the only exit road!! We tried to move it but with 10 meters of trunk back into the scrub we were well stuck. Back 10km to the campground and Rohan spoke to a few drunk campground denizens before having to wake up the awesome ranger Matt who drove out and chopped up the tree in 2 minutes with his chainsaw. We were lucky to get back to the hotel by 12:30am when it looked for a while that two not small gentlemen would have to overnight in a tiny Barina! 8 trips up and down the Fortescue bay road over 2 nights = 0 Devils.

Litoria ewingii - Tasmanian animals sound slightly higher

Litoria ewingii – Tasmanian animals sound slightly higher

Crinia tasmaniensis

Crinia tasmaniensis

Was a bit dusty when the alarm went off but again we were back at the dock at 7am for another trip on the Pauletta – http://www.paulettacharters.com/tours.html Conditions today were much better and it wasn’t long on the way out until again we had great views of a Buller’s Shearwater behind the boat which looped a bit giving everyone a good look. Soon after a small pale shearwater flew past the back of the boat which I had excellent views of – was very pale underneath with no triangle in the armpit typical of Fluttons types but had a very solid cap at eye level or lower which threw me a bit as I was used to extra white on the face from Aussie birds. It was a Little Shearwater and independent descriptions from others on the boat confirmed as likely from the Sub-antarctic elegans population. great start to the trip!

Across the rest of the day we had other excellent sightings including three Long-tailed Jaegers giving close approaches, a lovely adult Salvin’s Albatross, 3 Wandering types and best of all 2 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters which are a Mega off Tassie! although most of the boat were not impressed. Given the warmer water and birds like White-necked Petrel across the weekend I guess it was not unexpected to get Wedge-tailed Shearwater although there are actually very few records off Tassie! Jack Moorhead again proved to be an awesome Cookalaria spotter calling a Gould’s Petrel very early giving everyone the chance to get great views. Had a very relaxing trip back in interrupted by disappointing views of another Little Shearwater type. On the way back to the airport we checked out a few wader spots around Orielton Lagoon although didn’t see much wader action aside from 60 odd Pacific Golden Plovers before checking in for the flight home and a well earned beer. Thanks to Rohan for organising an awesome weekend and Simone and Lucas for letting me go! Was also very good to catch up with my Tassie pelagic friends and meet a pile of new ones. And yes – the highlight was the littlest possum….

Exulans

Exulans

Young Exulans

Young Exulans

A record of Australian Sea Lion in Victoria

On the 10th of January on a monthly BirdLife Australia pelagic trip we found an adult female Australian Sea Lion hauled out on Lawrence Rocks near Portland. Australian Sea Lions are Australia’s only endemic pinniped and are considered rare visitors to Victoria with only rare stragglers occasionally seen on beaches and at fur seal colonies in the SW of the state. Their nearest breeding sites are on Kangaroo Island with other sites around Port Lincoln and in southwest WA. We previously had another female Sea Lion on Lawrence Rocks on October 7th 2012. Lawrence Rocks also had its usual crew of Australian (Cape) Fur Seals as well as at least one New Zealand Fur Seal which together with a number of Short-beaked Common Dolphins and a small pod of Long-finned Pilot Whale made for a good mammal day at sea. Unfortunately birds were of low diversity across the day with 6 Wandering type albatross being the main interest.

Australian Seal Lion - Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Australian Seal Lion – Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Australian Seal Lion - Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Australian Seal Lion – Lawrence Rocks, Vic

Probable adult female antipodensis Wandering type albatross

Probable adult female antipodensis Wandering type albatross

Pilot Whales off Portland

Well here it is – first post on a new blog – lets see how we go.

Last Sunday 13/12/2015 a group of 10 birders were out on the “Timaru” from Portland in South-west Victoria. This is a new boat for us so we are still training the crew on what is required for a successful pelagic birding trip and they are learning fast. Unfortunately on this trip we had no shark liver and only fish frames for berley which may have affected our ability to attract and hold birds around the boat. However conditions were very calm, with very little swell or wind and on such days birds are often reluctant to feed anyway. After an uneventful trip out (aside from good numbers of Great-winged Petrel well inside the shelf) and first stop beyond the shelf it was decided to move out deeper looking for birds.

Great-winged Petrel

Great-winged Petrel

We were motoring to a second spot when the call went out for “Whales!” The boat quickly stopped and through binoculars I immediately saw the curved dorsal fin and bulbous black head of what I was sure were pilot whales. Over the next 15 minutes we observed many animals around the boat but all kept at least 100 meters away at all times. It was hard to estimate numbers but there was at least 20 animals but probably more. There was clearly a variety of sizes ranging from very small where the dorsal fin barely came above the water to very large with big hook backed fins. Many bad photos were taken due to the distance but zooming in we could see the distinctive white saddle behind the dorsal fin on some animals which combined with the bulbous head confirmed them as pilot whales. The next question was “what kind of pilot whale?”, as the two species, long-finned and short-finned are notoriously difficult to split in the field. it would seem that short-finned pilot whale has never been recorded in Victoria, being a largely sub-tropical and tropical species while there are many records of long-finned pilot whale, particularly in the Bonney Upwelling where we were. In addition experts who have looked at the photos agree they are long-finned, so long-finned they are! A new mammal for me and suddenly the pelagic was looking right up. The animals lingered for perhaps 15 minutes, mainly logging on the surface before quietly slipping from sight. Cetaceans aside from Common Dolphin are a special event on Portland pelagics and these pilot whales joined a list of others I have seen in recent years including Blue, Fin, Southern Right, Humpback and Killer whales.

Pilot whale Pod

Pilot whale Pod

Pilot whale

Pilot whale showing saddle

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Long-finned Pilot Whale

Once the pilot whales disappeared things did improve on the birding front. Across the whole day a highlight was the large numbers of Great-winged Petrels – conservatively we would have seen at least 250 including disturbing some large rafts but the number could easily be higher than that. Other highlights included three White-headed Petrels, only the second time I have seen these on a Victorian pelagic and a very nice Wandering Albatross with a nearly white tail. On the boat we decided this was an “exulans” or true Wanderer and was a very nice bird that made several passes. A good bit of time at Lawrence Rocks and we made it back to Portland. With the promise of shark liver on the next pelagic I am looking forward to January.

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross

Wandering Albatross + sea lice

Wandering Albatross + sea lice

Wandering Albatross cruising by

Wandering Albatross cruising by