Saturday 21 November 2015

Island of prions

I’m sure we all did the same thing this morning…got out of bed and quickly looked out the window!  Today was a pelagic with a lot of potential, so close to the Southern Ocean that almost anything could turn up, yet so close to the Southern Ocean that it might be the stomachs turning.  But we were in luck, the weather looked perfect, with a northerly forecast to be moderate, and a sea state that would provide a feeling of being at sea, rather than being in a washing machine.

We had breakfast and headed down to the boat, Aurora Charters, skippered by Ty, and with Matt Jones onboard as well.  We went through safety stuff quickly, and then cast off and made our way out into the bay.  Our first stop was for Fiordland crested penguins, which we had already seen, but could do with better views.  And that is exactly what we got.  To start with there were four bird poking out of a crack just above the water line, but in short order we had at least six birds, including a juvenile that was pretty close to fledging.  It was obvious to see with dark face and overall pale blue grey colour, and much smaller less defined crest.  The youngster was bullied into the sea by one of the adults, but made its way back out onto the rocks and into the crack again.  Clearly there was quite some cave in there to hold all those penguins!

We spent a little time with them, as several birds hauled out onto a rock closer to us, and Ty got the boat right in nice and close for awesome views.  Then we decided to carry on, heading to the Muttonbird Islands and having a look there.  But on the way Matt started to throw some of the blue cod frames used as chum overboard, and before long a cloud of 30+ albatross had gathered and were following us, something that was to be with us almost the whole day.  Most were white-capped albatross, but we also had a few Southern Royals start to appear, and a smattering of Salvin’s albatross.

We searched for yellow-eyed penguins around the islands, but weren’t able to find any.  There were lots of New Zealand fur seals around, and plenty else to watch, including a pair of brown skua that came in to the boat for a look.  We then carried on our way out, aiming for Wreck Reef, and with the sea being pretty nice, and the wind being perfect we were hoping for good things.  The number of albatross slowly increased as we got closer, with more Southern Royals, and then as we got to the reef the number of sooty shearwaters wheeling and feeding around the reef was impressive.  So too were the big swells crashing onto and breaking over the reef itself.

We started to chum, and pretty soon a large group of albatross had gathered, and other bits and pieces started to come in.  There were lots of common diving-petrels flying past, but several Northern giant petrels made an appearance, and then the first of probably 5+ Campbell albatross made an appearance, a stonking adult with bright honey-coloured eye and orange bill.  It came in pretty close and wheeled around a few times and then settled for a little while, but several of the birds later in the day were voracious, snatching chum from other birds and really being a lot more aggressive than their smaller size should allow.

After a while we seemed to stop seeing new birds, and so decided to head out a little further.  We steamed on, chumming as we went to keep our albatross horde.  We basically steamed, then chummed, steamed then chummed right out into deeper water, getting a good distance off the island.  Each time we did so, we seemed to pick up something new.  Our next stop we got a broad-billed prion, which showed really well, and then several minutes later another prion, that ostensibly looked like a broad-billed and behaved more like it than a fairy, but the bill was too small.  I called it as something different and everybody got onto the bird as it circled just off the boat for at least 2-3 minutes, giving great views.  It had a prominent collar, flew strongly and swiftly, and had a slightly narrower black tail band, with a well patterned face, having a dark stripe through the eye and broad bold supercilium.  At the time we thought it could well be an Antarctic prion and subsequent reviews of images show what has to be an Antarctic prion – an absolutely spectacular bird for the main part of New Zealand!  What a cracking bird.  The next prion came in ten minutes later or so, being much paler and more buoyant in flight, at the time we called fairy, but on subsequent review of those images they show something that just can’t be a fairy prion, and surely show a fulmar prion!  Another spectacular bird – but we need to do some more research on this one before being conclusive.

We picked up several more Campbell albatross, then several white-chinned petrels showed up.  A single black-browed albatross came a little later, and then a smattering of fairy prions and a few more broad-billed.  As we got out further the call went up for mottled petrel, and we had our first of probably 15+ birds, the first showing reasonably well, with some of the later birds showing really well, and some actually circling the boat.  Then we had the first of at least 4-5 grey-backed storm-petrels, at times feeding very close to the boat, although often out in the sun, and lastly a single black-bellied storm-petrel whipped past the boat, giving a single flyby that most managed to get on to.

We carried on chumming, till about 4:30pm, as every time we thought we might move something good would appear, but finally it was time to start heading back.  We chummed as we went, seeing another 5+ mottled petrels in the first bit, and then at least one more very showy broad-billed prion, that followed us and came right into the back of the boat as we steamed!  The sea had flattened off a little and we eventually got back into the islands, having another search for yellow-eyed penguin, but unsuccessful.  So it was time to head in for port, slowing and having a look at the shags on a rock just in the bay, and then coming alongside.  What an incredible pelagic!  We had seen everything we hoped for and more!

We headed ashore, having dinner and then going for a walk and spotting several long-tailed bats, and hearing a male kiwi call.  A superb end to another fantastic day!

Day total – Seen = 46; new for the trip = 7; total for the trip to date = 164

Campbell albatross in a stall

Broad-billed prion

Antarctic prion

Antarctic prion

Antarctic prion

Antarctic prion

Mystery prion

Mystery prion

Mystery prion

Fairy prion, one of the number that we saw during the day

Black-bellied storm-petrel making a brief pass

Mottled petrel flying past the boat

Broad-billed prion following the boat


  1. Dude! Awesome birds! Nice shots of the Broad-billed and Albatross. I want to go b1rding with you some day, oh wait I have. Well we should do it again. Cheers! Doug

    1. Thanks man! Yeah we do need to get it together and work out scheds, hoping to catch you at some stage next year. Sounds like you have been busy as well. Look forward to catching up on a ship somewhere!

  2. No wonder the Campbell albatross looks awkward when in a stall - his winglets are upside down! Seriously, what awesome action shots, Brent. Loved the Fiordland crested penguins, too Dot :)

  3. amazing shots Brent - what a day.

  4. Hello,

    I want to do a pelagic out of Stewart Island, would you be able to tell me, how long this one was for? I'd like to do a full or half day one, did you have to specially requst it? and do you think september would be a good time to do one? I'd like to see the Fiordland Cresteds

    Thanks, wicked photos