South Indian Ocean-Part 1

Freemantle to Heard Island

South Indian Ocean Expedition -Part 1

Before I begin I would like to dedicate this trip report to John Brodie-Good, Chris Collins, Rodney Russ & Adam Walleyn - 4 individuals who are willing to take a chance and who have through their personal enthusiasm so greatly enhanced the obsession of seabirding for us common folk. May a Mascarene Petrel be in all your futures.

On Nov. 8th a small group of rugged individualists gathered at the Port of Freemantle, Western Australia prepared to set sail for one of the most obscure, remote and unsettled parts of our planet.
Famous for its monstrous seas ( the ocean around Kerguelen Island having the greatest average wave height in the world) the far South Indian Ocean is a mythical seabirding location almost completely inaccessible to birders except on exceedingly rare occasion.

First Image South Indian Ocean Islands

Millions of seabirds nest on the extremely remote French islands-the Crozets, Kerguelen, St. Paul’s and Amsterdam and further south the Australian island-Heard.

First Image Subantarctic Islands including those of the South Indian Ocean- Kerguelen, Crozet, St. Paul, Amsterdam & Heard

Ten years ago Heritage Expeditions led by Rodney Russ made a successful foray through this area and in 2004 Hadoram Shirihai and his party studied the seabirds of this remote outpost in preparation of his monumental work “The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife”.

First Image The Sprit of Enderby awaits its epic journey at Freemantle Harbour the night prior to departure-courtesy Peter Jones

The plan for the current journey with Heritage Expeditions and led by Rodney Russ was to steam west from Australia and explore the waters around Amsterdam Island. Then head south by St. Paul and Kerguelen and then if possible land on Heard Island before returning to Australia.

First Image South Indian Ocean/ Heard Island Expedition 2012- Heritage Expeditions

The expedition included a wide variety of individuals- world travellers, documentary film makers, professional photographers, explores and of course birders.
Grahame Budd the the legendary Australian explorer who made the first successful summit of Mawson Peak in 1965 was clearly the most illustrious and inspiring member of the team.

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Dr. Grahame Budd, Heard Island Pioneer & Explorer accompanied the expedition

For many of the birders on this expedition it was all about seeing the
Amsterdam Island Albatross - the ultimate prize in seabirding.

This species the most distinct of the “Great Albatrosses” has an entire population of only 140 birds.

French scientists are present on Kerguelen and Amsterdam Islands and they has provided some very interesting information from geotracking studies on the offshore movements of the critically endangered Amsterdam Island Albatross.

They forage over a massive area of the Indian Ocean ranging from Africa to Australia between the latitudes of 30-40 degrees south equivalent to about 4,400,000 square kilometers.

If one does the math one can expect about 1 Amsterdam Island Albatross per 35,000 square kilometers.

Encounters at sea are close to unknown and may be limited to the sighting off St. Paul Island in 2002 by the Heritage Expedition and a good candidate for this taxon photographed off Sydney, Australia in 1999 by Tony Palliser.

The Albatrosses breed in very low ( 40 pairs this year) numbers atop an inaccessible high plateau on Amsterdam Island and most of the researchers who stay on the island never experience a live sighting of this species.

First Image The Critically Endangered Amsterdam Albatross (Diomedea amsterdamensis). source: Vincent Legendre./Wikipedia

We pushed off from Freemantle in the early afternoon and as the cityscape of Perth slowly disappeared we observed many of the common local seabirds including Wedge-tailed Shearwaters, Great-winged Petrels, Bridled, Sooty & Caspian Terns as well as Hump-backed Whales which migrate along the coast of Western Australia.

First Image First Image Humpback Whales off Freemantle, Western Austaralia

The Journey Westward

First Image Pied Cormorant, seeing us off at Freemantle Harbour, Western Australia

The expedition departed westward from Freemantle which is at about 32°S. We gradually eased southward by a degree every day or two while maintaining a primarily westward course. A speed of between 8-12 knots/hr brought us to within striking distance of Amsterdam Island on Day 8.

First Image First Image Equally bad pictures of Little Shearwater showing typical facial features that differentiate from Subantarctic Little Shearwater

The weather and seas were initially calm and the birding improved daily as we headed west.
Wedge-tailed, Flesh-footed & Little (P.assimilis) Shearwaters were common on the first couple of days with only Flesh-footed Shearwaters persisting past Day 3.

First Image First Image Flesh-footed Shearwaters, South Indian Ocean

The common pterodroma off Western Australia was
Great-winged Petrel. This species was seen in small to moderate numbers daily with the birds all being in heavy wing molt.
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Great-winged Petrels, South Indian Ocean, off Western Australia-all in heavy wing molt

An unidentified pteredroma darted past on Day2 precluding our first
Barau’s Petrel which materialized on Day 4 about half way between Western Australia and Amsterdam Island. Brief encounters with this species occurred daily on Days 5 through 8.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Barau’s Petrel ,approx 34°13’S, 100°37’E -South Indian Ocean

Soft-Plumaged Petrels
were common on on the westward trip as well as on the return journey. The big surprise was the number of “dark morphs” seen. Conservative estimates from the group suggested they made up as high as 5-10% of the local population.

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Soft-plumaged Petrels, South Indian Ocean

Other pterodromas included White-headed & Kerguelen Petrels. We were a bit surprised that White-headed Petrels were relatively common at this relatively northern latitude.

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White-headed Petrels, South Indian Ocean

The dominant species throughout the entire trip was undoubtedly White-chinned Petrel. (A role usually reserved for Cape Petrels which were present but in low numbers.) Chris Collins christened these “Greater” White-chinned Petrels as many of the birds had extensive irregular white-chins as well as the occasional bird with white on the under parts.

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“Greater” White-chinned Petrels, South Indian Ocean

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“Greater” White-chinned Petrel, close-up showing large ,irregular white chin, South Indian Ocean

Grey Petrels in small numbers were the only other Procellaria seen on the trip westward.

To our surprise
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses didn’t show up until Day 4 and then increased in number daily as we approached Amsterdam Island one of their main breeding islands.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, showing distinctive underwing pattern with broad black leading edge, South Indian Ocean

Smaller numbers of
Grey-headed, Black-browed, Shy & Sooty Albatrosses were seen daily in larger numbers as we approached Amsterdam Island. A single Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatross a big surprise was seen by some and well documented.

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Sooty Albatross, South Indian Ocean

A couple of “
Greater” Albatosses were seen as we proceeded westward but they were quite scarce and nothing resembling and Amsterdam Island Albatross appeared.

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Adult male Snowy Albatross, South Indian Ocean

Storm-petrels were sparse but we saw Wilson’s, Black-bellied and most commonly White-faced along the way.

One of the most interesting observations of the westward trip was the number of
Long-tailed Jaegers which are seldom reported from these waters. Up to 20 a day were seen. All were flying high & very purposefully in a southward direction ostensibly to some unknown wintering ground.
On the last two days of the westward trip a strong northwester moved in making it very rough. Despite the rough conditions Adam Whalen with help from John Ryan and others chummed the entire day approaching Amsterdam Island.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses & White-chinned Petrels, South Indian Ocean

The birding was great with 100s of seabirds. Anticipation was very high but alas not a single Amsterdam Island Albatross was seen.
Disappointment was palpable as many of us felt that the approach to Amsterdam Island was going to be our best shot at see the Albatross.
We settled in for the third consecutive night of rough seas and marginal sleep . I felt lucky to be able to sleep under virtually any conditions. Many are not so lucky and exhaustion was noted in lots of the faces aboard the Spirit of Enderby.

Amsterdam Island
I awoke groggily on Nov.16th to the announcement that we were approaching Amsterdam Island to seek some temporary respite from the rough seas. It had been a very rough night with major sleep disruption so I forced myself out of bed and half asleep headed for the bridge in bare feet.

First Image First look at Amsterdam Island from the bridge of the Spirit of Enderby

First Image Most members of the expedition were on the bridge for the arrival at Amsterdam Island- most had had little sleep for 48 hours

Initially it was dark and ominous appearing but as we approached closer like by some miracle the seas calmed and the skis cleared.

First Image Amsterdam Island

Suddenly Alan Howatson yelled out “possible Amsterdam Albatross !!!”. Chaos ensued as everyone tried to pile out port side onto the deck. I briefly glimpsed a dark albatross flying away. Alan quickly confirmed the birds identity as an Amsterdam Island Albatross by noting the diagnostic “black cutting edge” to the bill in his pictures.

First Image First look at the Amsterdam Island Albatross- for me it was brief and distant

I raced back to my room put on some socks & boots, grabbed my camera and headed back out on deck – time elapsed about 30 seconds. We set anchor off shore and breakfast was announced. I passed.

First Image Hor’dourves anyone? Megan Kelly always the gracious hostess supplied vital sustenance to some of as we impatiently awaited the return of The Albatross

It wasn’t long before I spotted a likely candidate for the Amsterdam Island Albatross flying high over the island. I followed it intently as it wheeled around the island.

First Image Amsterdam Island Albatross over Amsterdam Island

Using my telekinetic powers I willed it gradually closer and closer and at last it made a reasonably close pass by the ship allowing a bit better pictures

First Image Amsterdam Island Albatross cruising by a flock of loafing Northern Giant Petrels, Amsterdam Island

It disappeared for about 15 minutes and then reappeared eventually making a closer pass by the ship. It repeated this routine about four times each time getting closer -finally it seened like it was going to come right in but much to my frustration veered off at the last moment.

First Image First Image Amsterdam Island Albatross with close-up showing diagnostic black cutting edge and dark-tipped bill, Amsterdam Island

It seemed to get tired of this routine and faded off into the distance.
Since were on the leeward side of the island it was relatively calm and large numbers of seabirds were mulling around, Shy Albatosses were abundant easily outnumbering Indian Yellow-nosed Albatrosses, Grey-headed, Salvin’s & Sooty Albatrosses, Brown Skua, White-chinned and a few Cape Petrels were also noted.

First Image Shy Albatross, immature-Amsterdam Island

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Shy Albatross, adult -Amsterdam Island

We were surprised by the number of Shy Albatrosses both adults and older immature birds. This would appear to be a important feeding area for the Tasmanian subspecies Thallasarche cauta cauta.

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Brown Skuas in molt like many of the other seabirds at Amsterdam Island

First Image Southern Giant Petrel, juvenile -Amsterdam Island

It was time to move on from Amsterdam Island. The albatross had put on a good show although I would have really liked to get a few more decent pictures.

First Image Awaiting the return of the Albatross- L to R, Adam Walleyn,Mark Beaman, Chris Collins, Gunther Riehle, Allan Howatsion, Matt Curnock & Rob Tizzard

Miraculously just as we started steaming away from Amsterdam Island the Amsterdam Island Albatross returns and glides right up the starboard side of the ship causing a major stir.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Amsterdam Island Albatross-finally after 2 hours of teasing allowing us some decent photograghs

What a thrill. For the next half an hour the albatross made repeated passes at the boat coming right up the starboard side on at least eight occasions.

First Image First Image First Image First Image Amsterdam Island Albatross, Amsterdam Island

Along with the Amsterdam Island Albatross a young Snowy Albatross followed the ship away from Amsterdam Island

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Young Snowy Albatross, Amsterdam Island

A Royal Albatross which I initially thought was a Northern zipped by allowing a few pictures. Later it was suggested it was a young Southern. I did have one white spot on the mid right wing but I think this is related to a displaced covert . The leading edge seems entirely dark and the scapulars are quite blotchy rather than vermiculated suggesting to me this was an adult Northern.

First Image Northern Royal Albatross, Amsterdam Island

Just as we passed by the south tip of Amsterdam Island the albatross came in for one last farewell -he glided straight towards me make a sweeping turn about 30 feet of the starboard deck and then heading off into the distance never to be seen again.

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The last pass of the spectacular Amsterdam Island Albatross

Virtually all Amsterdam Albatrosses are banded and luckily we were able to identify this bird’s band number (#347)from the photographs.
Samuel Blanc a French guide with Heritage Expeditions forwarded the band number to the French research team and we were rewarded with the following data.

Amsterdam Albatross #347
Male, banded- Dec. 9, 2002 as a chick at the nest.
Returned to Amsterdam Island for first time in 2007 at 5 years
First breeding attempt, 2011 at 9 years- failed
Returned again 2012 and attempting to breed with young female.

First Image First Image Farewell Amsterdam Island

As we bid farewell to Amsterdam Island I revelled in the knowledge that we had defied the odds and had just experienced the ultimate thrill in seabirding a glorious two hours with the royalty of the seabird world-the
Amsterdam Island Albatross.

It can’t get much better than that-or could it?

Stay tuned for Part 2 coming soon.