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

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