Sunday, 18 November 2018

Wanderer at 6 o'clock!

Snowy albatross
"Wanderer at 6 o'clock!", the cry went up and sent shivers down my spine. This was the moment I had been dreaming of for years, the appearance of a great albatross during a southern ocean pelagic. We'd been at sea for six hours, we were 35 miles offshore from Port Fairy, Victoria, over the edge of the continental shelf and the sea bed was nearly a kilometer below us. We'd seen many albatrosses already, but they were all of the smaller type, in this region often referred to as molyhawks. Four species in fact, shy, black-browed, Indian yellow-nosed and Campbell albatross, all with wingspans of 2.5m or less.

The new arrival was considerably bigger, a wandering albatross with a wingspan of up to 3.5m, the longest of any living bird. This awesome and majestic bird glided past the boat without a single flap of the wings, dwarfing the nearby molyhawks and taking my breath away. Over the next hour or so the bird stayed with us and was joined by an immature bird, as well as two other species of great albatross.

Snowy albatross and Grey-faced petrel
The name wandering albatross refers to a group of up to four very similar species. This bird is Diomedea exulans or snowy albatross. Note especially the almost grotesque size of the bill on this bird and then compare with the New Zealand wandering albatross in the photo further down.

Snowy albatross exulans.

Juvenile snowy albatross exulans.

Juvenile snowy albatross.

New Zealand wandering albatross ssp. gibsonii
I'm told by the seabird experts on the boat, of which there were clearly several (one guy was on his 100th pelagic), that this bird most closely resembles New Zealand wandering albatross of the race gibsonii. This is another of the great albatrosses in the wandering albatross group. The key differences between this species and snowy exulans is the relative size of the bill and also the slightly more compact appearance. I'm clearly no albatross expert, but perhaps I can see that the bill on this bird is not quite so grotesquely large as that of snowy albatross above. Perhaps this bird also has a shorter more compact neck. Or maybe I'm just trying to make it fit. New Zealand wandering albatross is actually the commonest of the great albatrosses in south Australian waters.

New Zealand wandering albatross

The third and final great albatross of today's pelagic was this magnificent Northern royal albatross with a similar sized wingspan or slightly smaller than wandering albatross.

Northern royal albatross.

Northern royal albatross. What a fantastic bird. Imagine that, a 3.5m wingspan! That's twice my height!

At the other end of the scale, Indian yellow-nosed albatross is the smallest of the molyhawks with a wingspan of 2m. Still with a wingspan greater than my height though!

Indian yellow-nosed albatross.

Indian yellow-nosed albatross with shy albatross.

Indian yellow-nosed albatross. What a beautiful looking bird!

Look at the size difference! Shy albatross (which is itself only a molyhawk) and Indian yellow-nosed albatross. Wandering albatross can be up to twice the weight of shy albatross!

Shy albatross, the commonest albatross in the area. At times there were probably up to 50 of these birds around the boat and in total we saw about 90.

Shy albatross

Shy albatross fending off a brown skua.

Shy albatross

Shy albatross

Black-browed albatross, presumably a juvenile bird going off the very dark underwing.

Black-browed albatross

Black-browed albatross

This Campbell Albatross came into the boat in the early afternoon. It's almost inseparable  from juvenile black-browed except that it has a diagnostic pale iris. Thank goodness Kevin Bartram was able to get such a great photo, and a big thanks to him for letting me use it here.

Northern giant petrel.

Apparently this was a late date for brown skua, which was good news for me! We also saw two Arctic skuas which were of interest because potentially they could be Scottish breeders.

Brown skua

Gannet feeding frenzy.

White-chinned petrel

White-chinned petrel

Grey-faced petrel, we saw about 70 of these.

White-headed petrel, one of the stars of the day. We saw about three.

White-faced storm petrel are fantastic birds, pattering and bouncing across the water leaving barely a ripple. We saw about 30 today.

White-faced storm petrel.

Fairy prion, of which there were about 30 today.

We saw about 150 short-tailed shearwaters.

Wilson's storm petrel.

Wilson's storm petrel.

Finally the boat turned and we started to head back at speed. I was sitting below deck looking through a guide book and drifting in and out of sleep and two other birders were looking at photographs from the day and filling in a recording form. It had been the perfect day but a long day, and it was time for quiet refl..... the engine stopped suddenly and we were drifting! In half a second the three of us were on deck and looking around. Why had we stopped?

Suddenly a huge arching back broke the surface of the water right alongside the boat and a huge spray of water was expelled from a whale blowhole! And then there was another and another. Seven in total, humpback whales.

Over the next 15 minutes we watched as these magnificent animals gave us a wonderful show, tail slapping, pectoral fin slapping and swimming back and forth under the boat. Eventually we saw them breach on several occasions. An amazing finale to a fantastic day.

These impressive animals came right alongside the boat, in fact we could see them under water they were so close. I should add that we didn't approach them, they came right up alongside us.

The humpbacks weren't the only whales, we saw two pods of up to 20 pilot whales. I'm told that they were long-finned pilot whales. This certainly looks like long-finned going off the amount of white behind the dorsal fin, but see below.

Pilot whale.

Pilot whale sky hopping.

We did see two pods of pilot whales and in my opinion these could easily be short-finned looking at the grey area below the dorsal fin, but I don't know enough about variation in the species to be sure. Long-finned are far more likely in south Australian waters.

Common dolphins

Australian fur seals. There were up to 30 jumping out of the water together in the area where the gannets were plunge diving.

Australian fur seals.

Port Fairy pelagics are run by Birdswing Birding and Wildlife Tours. It was a wonderful trip, far exceeding my expectations, largely due to the very knowledgeable and helpful people on the boat. I certainly didn't expect to see seven species of albatross and two species of whale on what was a truly unforgettable day and the highlight of my trip to Australia. I can't recommend this pelagic highly enough.

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