Wednesday, 3 November 2010

Spoilt rotten...a day on the Hauraki Gulf

WOW!  I have to say these guys are just being spoilt!  Today was an absolutely unforgettable pelagic on the Hauraki Gulf...and I have spent a lot of time on it with the NZ storm-petrel research, pelagics, and other assorted trips.  It never ceases to amaze and no two days are ever the same...

We headed out at 8am with first class skipper Brett Rathe on the ‘Assassin’ – if you ever need a skipper for the Hauraki Gulf for birding or fishing he is the man!  Relatively cloudy to start with this soon cleared to blue skies as we got out further, and the wind was a light, less than 10 knot, easterly all day.  Sea conditions were also pretty good with probably less than 1m most of the day.  As we headed out towards Little Barrier we started encountering fluttering and flesh-footed shearwaters, and a lot of fairy prions.  A quick stop to get good looks at these birds and common diving petrels, before heading onwards to stop briefly for a couple of confiding little penguins.  As we reached a point several nautical miles NW of Little Barrier Island we crossed a really productive current line which had literally hundreds of white-faced storm-petrels feeding on it, with large numbers of fluttering shearwaters and fairy prions also present.  Brett slowed and scanning up the current line I spotted the distinctive white rump of a New Zealand storm-petrel (read about the rediscovery of this supposedly ‘extinct’ species unrecorded for around 150 years on Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ website).  I yelled and Brett stopped, but further scanning didn’t find it and so we motored a few hundred metres upwind and then put the anchor down and began to chum (throw fish bits and burley out to attract the birds).  Before too long we had hundreds of white-faced storm-petrels, flesh-footed shearwaters, and fairy prions within metres of us...a good start!  Cook’s petrels and Buller’s shearwaters drifted past in low numbers, with the odd sooty shearwater, but it took what seemed like an eternity for the first NZ storm-petrel to arrive.  Whoops of joy went up of course as the bird made several close passes to the boat giving everyone excellent views.  Hard to believe that before our first sighting in 2003 this bird was almost unknown.  A single black (Parkinson’s) petrel made an appearance, and so by lunchtime we had seen almost all of what had been expected.

We decided to pull anchor and head to the Mokohinau Islands to check for grey ternlet, but it was clearly a little early in the season, with no birds present on the rocks.  On the way however we did get good views (or as good as they get) of a little shearwater.  The Australasian gannet colony was in full swing and white-fronted terns and red-billed gulls were also nesting nearby.  Taking our lunch in a sheltered spot we were able to listen to the bellbirds and tui calling on the surrounding rock stacks, and saw several red-crowned parakeet flying around...but the best was yet to come.

Heading out past the continental shelf drop, we got into water around 135m deep.  Here Brett rigged the sea-anchor and then set about industriously chumming as only he can.  Within minutes a good flock of birds, mostly flesh-footed shearwater, with the odd Buller’s shearwater and Cook’s petrel drifting past.  But within a few minutes the first NZ storm-petrel came past and started feeding in the slick.  Over the course of the next few hours we had at least four different birds come in and circle the boat, feeding on the slick.  We again had small numbers of sooty shearwater come past, and numbers of Cook’s petrels seemed to slowly increase.  But the next surprise was a little larger, with an albatross approaching.  This of course met with more whoops, but the diagnosis was a little slow in coming.  This bird essentially looked like a subadult Salvin’s albatross, but with a rather bright bill, especially considering its age.  Dark marks to the upper and lower mandible were puzzling and I really wondered about the possibility of Chatham albatross.  However, taking stock of the photos when back at the accommodation I think it probably was a Salvin’s (certainly more likely).  A little while later the call went up for ‘Pterodroma petrel’ just as I got on to a large dark ‘cookilaria’ type bird approaching the boat which could only be one thing...MOTTLED PETREL!  The bird flew past giving good but relatively brief views...and I was gob-smacked, a little late for migration I would have thought.  Seems it wasn’t though, as over the next hour we had another EIGHT birds go past, all heading south-east, and several sightings were of two birds at once.  Several of them passed very close to the boat and gave outstanding views of this awesome petrel.  We also had two Buller’s albatross around us for quite a bit of the afternoon, as well as all of the other common species seen earlier, with several passes by little shearwater also.  Two blue sharks also put on a good show around the boat, and it got to the point where people were almost ignoring the calls of ‘NZ stormie coming in’, ‘Buller’s albatross at the back of the boat’, etc.  We were spoilt, with the only species not seen being grey-faced petrel.

We decided to start heading back in about 4:30pm, and as we passed the Mokohinau Islands again had a Cape petrel (Antarctic race) come in to the boat, so we stopped for a bit to admire this Southern Ocean specialty.  A little while later amid the cloud of flesh-footed shearwaters following the boat a Northern giant petrel was spotted and again stopping, the bird came right in for excellent views.

I guess the icing on the cake (as if it wasn’t already iced!) was a small pod of short-beaked common dolphins that came right in and surfed for a little while as we got closer to land.  Icing on the icing were a couple of weka on Kawau Island.  Smiles, sunburnt cheeks, and wobbly legs met land and then had another excellent dinner.  I think it is going to rain tomorrow.

If you want to be spoilt like this, get in touch with us at Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ now!

White-faced storm-petrel dancing on the water.

New Zealand storm-petrel - bird of the day!

Bright billed...but still a Salvin's albatross.

Surprise surprise, one of the nine mottled petrels

Buller's albatross, one of two seen during the afternoon.

Short-beaked common dolphin surfing beside the boat.

The troops keeping a watching on the way back in...just in case there was something still left to see!

Bird of the day – New Zealand storm-petrel x5 (I made them vote for it!), mottled petrel x1

Day total – Seen = 38; new for the trip = 19; total for the trip to date = 90

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