Sunday, 28 February 2016

Dodging the raindrops on Stewart Island

Well it sure did rain during the night!  We were up bright and early, and it was still drizzling  We breakfasted and then headed down to the main wharf and met our skipper Ian and deck-hand/chum-master Matt Jones, and jumped aboard Aurora and headed off out towards the entrance of the bay.  We had hardly even settled in when several Fiordland crested penguins were spotted.  We angled the boat in towards them and discovered there were at least seven penguins in very nice new plumage!  They came and went in and out of a cave, and several of them jumped into the water and splashed around.  Clearly these birds had finished moulting, but were still coming in to shore – excellent to get these tricky birds at this time of the year.

We carried on out towards the Muttonbird Islands and had a look along the coastline of several of them.  There were a lot of NZ fur seals about, and we found a few weka running around on the beaches turning over kelp, but no yellow-eyed penguins.  We carried on a little and had an adult and freshly fledged juvenile brown skua come out to visit, and Matt threw them a few scraps.  They gave a great show and came around quite a few times with the youngster calling loudly to be fed.  We called in to look at the back of an island and spotted two almost fledged juvenile yellow-eyed penguins up on the hillside out in the open, so had a good look at them, before heading on.  Ian all of a sudden stopped the boat and came running back, pointing out the tip of a great white shark dorsal fin as it slipped beneath the waves.  It looked like a pretty big animal, but hadn’t showed itself off too well.

We then decided it was time to head on out to deeper water, and so made a bee-line for Wreck Reef.  The weather was pretty good, with the odd spit of rain, but the sea conditions were gentle, with less than a metre swell most of the time, and a 10-15 knot wind.  So pretty good for seabird watching.  As we steamed out clouds of white-capped albatross started to follow us, with the odd Buller’s and Salvin’s albatross mixed in amongst them.  Sooty shearwaters were flashing past and as we got closer to Wreck Reef the numbers increased.

We pulled up near the reef and started chumming with cod frames and skins and some salmon to get a good slick going.  Before long we had a lot of albatross around us, fighting and squabbling for scraps.  A few sooty shears swept past, and we had a white-chinned petrel as well.  But after over an hour we still hadn’t managed to pull in anything different.  So we decided to head on out into deeper water.  We carried on for another 40 minutes or so, and then started chumming again.  Many of the albatross had followed us, but within a few minutes several Southern Royal albatross arrived, despite the fact we had had none in by the reef.  This was a good sign.  There seemed to be more sooty shears about, and it didn’t take long for the first mottled petrel to come past.  Over the next few hours we had incredible views of mottled petrel, with many of them coming very close to the boat, giving extended views as some went up and cruised over the slick.  Not something they do very often.  We also had several Northern giant petrels turn up, and a single white-faced storm-petrel, followed shortly after by at least 2-3 grey-backed storm-petrels.  The grey-backed gave excellent views also, coming in very close and feeding near the back of the boat.  A single fairy prion caused a heart palpitation, as it cruised slowly past, but other than it we saw no other prions during the course of the day.

After a good few hours we decided to head back to off of Wreck Reef, but out a little deeper, where we chummed for a third time.  Again we had much the same assemblage of albatross, but nothing new.  And before too long it was time to head back in towards the bay.  We slowly chugged back in, keeping an eye out for anything different.  But after a pretty excellent day there were a few weary heads.  Several Stewart Island shags (or now the newly split Foveaux shag) were roosting on the rock in the bay, showing both pied and bronze forms.

We docked at the wharf, thanked Ian and Matt, and headed back up to the accommodation for a bit before another excellent dinner and then a well deserved early night.  It was still raining in Oban and apparently had been all day, so we had done well on the water with limited spots of rain!

Day total – Seen = 38; new for the trip = 5; total for the trip to date = 159

Bird of the day – Fiordland crested penguin x4, wandering albatross x1

Several of the Fiordland crested penguins standing for us outside their little cave

Matt feeding his pets

Up close mottled petrel - one of many for the day

Cracking little grey-backed storm-petrel putting on a show

Pied and bronze form of the newly described Foveaux shag - formerly Stewart Island shag

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