Tuesday 25 February 2014

Another magnificent Stewart Island pelagic

We were up and looking lively as we headed down to the main wharf to headed out for our all day pelagic with Aurora Charters.  Our skipper Ty gave us a quick safety briefing and overview of the vessel, before we then started to head out of Half Moon Bay.  We skirted along the shoreline, looking hopefully into the areas where a Fiordland crested penguin may have been, but even the spot we saw one yesterday was empty.  We’ll try again later.

We headed of and across towards some of the Muttonbird Islands, skirting along the shoreline looking for yellow-eyed penguin, and managed to spot one that was lying down up in amongst the bushes.  Not the Worlds best view of a yellow-eyed penguin, but a start.  We carried on along the shore trying to spot a better exposed bird, but no luck amongst the hundreds of fur seals lining the shore.  We headed to another small island, where we found several brown skua, including several young ones, and the adults came out to investigate us, taking scraps back to the chicks to feed them.

We then decided to head out towards Wreck Reef, and with the weather the way it was and a not so nice forecast decided it probably wasn’t worth hammering it for several hours to get down to the southern part of the island and the Traps.  We had about 2m of swell rolling through every now and then a good bit of chop with 20+ knots of wind, so it seemed better to maximise our time at Wreck Reef.

As we headed across towards Wreck Reef we saw large flocks of sooty shearwaters feeding, and quite a few prions as well, and of course we had large clouds of white-capped and Salvin’s albatross, with the odd Buller’s amongst them, following us as we headed out.  Nearing the reef it was obvious there was a lot of bird activity and all of a sudden Ty yelled ‘Storm-petrel’!  He slowed the boat and we glimpsed a small white-rumped storm-petrel bouncing over the waves and disappearing for prolonged periods, but it was visible enough for Brent to suggest it was probably a black-bellied.  With a bit of chum in the water, the bird swung back into view long enough to determine it was indeed a black-bellied storm-petrel!  What a cracking bird for the list!  It was joined by several white-faced storm-petrels, and every now and then would swing by the boat quickly, giving pretty darn good views.  Nice one!

We continued to chum at the same location for quite some time, with a steady stream of birds coming past, including some really nice views of mottled petrel, several Cook’s petrels, lots of fairy prions, sooty shearwaters, and of course good numbers of albatross.  We even had a Southern Royal albatross throttling a white-capped albatross for several minutes, holding its head under the water, and literally strangling the bird in an attempt to make it regurgitate the cod frame it had just swallowed…all whilst Ty threw out more cod frames!  We expected something different to fly past at some stage, but nothing too out of the ordinary, so we decided to move a little closer to the reef in a slightly different position.  At this second chumming spot we had similar birds coming by, although later in the afternoon we did pick up a distant broad-billed prion.  But other than that, there wasn’t anything new to the list.

As we started to run low on chum and the afternoon drew on, we decided to head back in towards the islands to take a look for penguins again.  On the way we passed through huge flocks of sooty shearwaters rafting up, and in amongst them all we spotted an aberrant bird with white feathers around the head.  A very unusual looking sooty shearwater, but that is exactly what it was.  At the islands we managed to find a couple more yellow-eyed penguins, including one standing proudly up on a boulder just up from the waters edge.  The last of the chum was fed out as we steamed into the bay, almost hand-feeding albatross!

Back across nearer to Half Moon Bay we again scoured the shoreline and again persistence paid off with Ty spotting a Fiordland crested penguin up in a small cave just up from the water.  We had great views of the bird hiding away in the cave, and very thankful to have been able to find one.  We slowly motored back in to the wharf, thanking Ty for an excellent day.  Even an hour or so to rest up before dinner – unheard of!

Day total – Seen = 46; new for the trip = 5; total for the trip to date = 156

Brown skua comes in to pick up scraps
The hunter becomes the hunted, a kelp gull takes on a brown skua

Black-bellied storm-petrel with very little in the way of a black belly stripe

The same bird from a different angle

Buller's albatross comes in to land

Salvin's albatross comes past looking for food

A white-capped albatross bravely attempts to take food from a Southern Royal

Complaining white-capped albatross

Southern Royal albatross throttling a white-capped to make it regurgitate its last meal

Mottled petrel whips past the boat in characteristic style

Aberrant sooty shearwater with white markings on the head

White-capped albatross floating

Coming in for a close look

Feed me!

Hand feeding a flying albatross - you have to see it to believe it!

Coming to to be fed

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