Birding Down Under- Part 2
Invercargill through Macquarie island
Day 1-Nov.1/11- departure from Bluff
We departed the Port of Bluff on the “Spirit of Enderby’ at 1600 hrs on Nov. 1st/2011. I met up with my roommate John Hobson a experienced world birder from Britain. The accomodations seemed quite good for an “expedition” vessel quite a bit better than I had expected. As soon as we left Bluff I was out on deck. It wasn’t long before the Southern Buller’s Albatross that liked following the ferry was behind us giving decent views.
Southern Buller’s Albatross - Foveaux Strait
Fairy Prions were present in decent numbers. Shy and Salvin’s Albatosses and of course Sooty Shearwaters were seen. It wasn’t to exciting as I had anticipated so I was happy to go have a nice dinner and settle in for the overnight cruise to the Snares.
Day 2 - Nov.2/11- The Snares
The Snares are the closest of the Subantarctic islands to New Zealand being about 100km. southwest of Stewart Island. The Snares are well forested and completely free of introduced mammals. It is heavily protected and access is very restricted. Millions of Sooty Shearwaters breed on the Snares along with a host of other seabirds notably the Snare’s Penguin and the Southern Buller’s Albatross.
The Snares - NZ DOC map
We awoke off the Snares and it was reasonably calm. This traditionally is a location that is very unreliable weather-wise often with severe gusting winds whipping around the south “cape” of New Zealand. It looked like the sea gods were with us and a zodiac cruise to the North East island was going to be possible.
Broughton and North East Island, The Snares
We set off on our first cruise with high expectations. The key species here was Snares Crested Penguin an endemic to these islands and there are close to 100 small colonies scattered about the larger islands of the chain. This species can be readily distinguished from other crested penguins by its broad pink gape at the base of its very heavy orange bill. Differences in the crest which is “bushy and drooping” also help distinguish this species.
It wasn’t long until we started observing a few penguins. Then we pulled into a large bay with a good size colony.
Snares Crested Penguins, North East Island, The Snares
We were able to approach the colony reasonably closely in the zodiac with seemingly no real notice from the penguins.
Snares Crested Penguin, North East Island, The Snares - showing their distinctive pink gape and crest
Lots of other birds were present in the sheltered bay including Antarctic Tern and along the rocky vegetated cliffs we had views of Fernbird and the unique appearing Snares Tomtit.
New Zealand Sea Lions were everywhere and some younger individuals came out to check us out.
Antarctic Tern, North East Island, The Snares
Snares Tomtit, North East Island, The Snares
New Zealand Sea Lion, North East Island, The Snares
The “Snares”Tomtit is currently considered a subspecies of Tomtit found throughout New Zealand but is quite distinct with its all black plumage.
The next stop was the famous penguin slide. This is a spectacular site with groups of Snares Crested Penguins hanging out all along the slope.
Occasionally a bird can be seen tumbling down the slope after a nudge from a competitor.
Snares Crested Penguins -The Penguin Slide , North East Island, The Snares
The penguin slide was most entertaining and to soon we had to head back to the ship. It was a great initial foray and everybody was ready for lunch.
We cruised south from the Snares enroute to the Auckland Islands. The pelagic birding was excellent with quite warn temperatures and a brisk breeze.
Loads of Albatrosses started following the boat including Shy, Salvin’s and a number of Southern Royal Albatrosses.
Southern Royal Albatrosses of various ages showing the typical black “dusting” on the forewing and white “elbow patch”, south of The Snares
Cape Petrels were abundant which is not surprising given the Snares is a major nesting site for this species. And this subspecies is often referred to as the “Snares” Cape Petrel.
These Cape Petrels are of the australe ssp. that nests primarily on the Snares. Restricted amounts of white on the wings a darker back and more spotting on the rump makes this subspecies readily differentiated
from the nominate subsp. in the field when in fresh plumage.
“Snares” Cape Petrels- south of The Snares
Prions were present in large numbers initially mostly Fairy Prions then numbers of Broad-billed Prions and later in the day a few Antarctic Prions.
These small seabirds are initially very puzzling but with practice it becomes possible to at least assign them to a group. Fairy and Fulmar Prions are very similar as are Salvin’s and Antarctic Prions and many birds will defy exact designation even with good photographs. Assumptions are often necessary based on range.
Fairy Prion- small, pale blue, broad black tipped tail, small bluish bill, south of The Snares
Fairy Prion and Common Diving Petrel, south of The Snares
Fairy Prions are small and pale blue with broad tips to the tail and a small bluish bill. Broad-billed Prions are stockier have a large all black bill and are considerably darker with a narrow dark tip to the tail. These are the extremes of the Prion continuum and with a decent look not to be confused. All the other species are intermediate and this is were it becomes quite a bit more difficult.
Broad-billed Prion is a bizarre bird and quite aggressive. On Chatham Island they have been know to kill adult pterodromas in their burrows to acquire the nesting site.
Broad-billed Prions, south of The Snares
The Antarctic Prion falls into the “narrow tail band group”. It is darker with a prominent facial markings and a gray collar. Its bill is quite a bit smaller than the Broad-billed and a bluish colour rather than black.
It is readily separable from Fairy and Broad-billed in the field providing a decent view is obtained. This of course is much easier said than done. In practice I found photographing the birds and reviewing them in the field was very helpful.
I would strongly recommend Hadoram Shirihai’s book The Complete Guide to Antarctic Wildlife -2nd edition for its great section on Prions (as well as crested penguins and all the other Southern Ocean seabirds and mammals and more). This is an essential book for anyone with an interest in seabirds or the Southern Ocean. If I could only take one book on any trip to the Southern Ocean this would be it.
Soon we started seeing a few Campbell’s Albatrosses. This handsome species has a unique honey coloured eye and they became a regular site as they seem to enjoy following the ship and would come in quite close for excellent photographic opportunities. The light eye and heavier underwing markings especially at the base distiguish adults of this species from its sister species the Black-browed Albatross.
Campbell’s Albatross. south of The Snares
We had several Gibson’s (New Zealand) Albatrosses (who’s only breeding site is south of here in the Auckland Islands) as well and a single Snowy Albatross to round off what was a awesome first full day in the Southern Ocean. We steamed on towards the Auckland Islands enjoying the rather temperate weather and calm seas. Things would change.
Day 3- Nov.3/11- Enderby Island
We woke up to another nice morning off Enderby Island, a small island off the north end of Auckland Island. This is a magical place and the plan for the day was along hike around the eastern perimeter of Enderby Island. This is a very special privilege and Heritage Expeditions is the only tour company to have permits that allows you off the boardwalk that transects the island.
Auckland Islands-NZ DOC Map
We woke early and I went out to find a beautiful morning unfolding. A Common Diving Petrel was moribund on the deck. I took the opportunity to take a close look at this species which so far I had seen only at a distance and in brief glimpses.
Sunrise over the Auckland Islands
Enderby Island cliffs with Auckland Island in the background
Common Diving Petrel on the deck of the “Spirit of Enderby”
After an early breakfast we to a brief zodiac ride in to Sandy Bay. It was loaded with New Zealand Sea Lions which tend to be a bit over friendly. A lone Yellow-eyed Penguin was standing a ways back form the beach and several Brown Skua were resting on the dunes.
Rodney Russ and crew member discouraging overly friendly New Zealand Sea Lions from fraternizing with the tourists
Brown Skua - Enderby Island
After we all got our gear together we hiked inland from the beach then up some steep stairs to a well maintained boardwalk that transects the island across its flat tussock strewn plateau.
Not far along we came across a Northern Giant Petrel on the nest with a chick. This was followed closely by a Yellow-eyed Penguin on a nest.
Northern Giant Petrel and chick - Enderby Island
Yellow-eyed Penguin on nest - Enderby Island
The endemic megaherb Bulbinella rossii was just starting to bloom but the real show from a botanical perspective takes place a month or so later.
Bulbinella rossii - Enderby Island
Southern Royal Albatross breed on Enderby Island in small numbers and several were looking for nesting locations and several more were cruising over head.
Southern Royal Albatrosses - Enderby Island
We reached the north side of the island and the first thing on the agenda was to locate a Subantarctic Snipe. This Auckland Island endemic species rarely fly but skulks around in the deep vegetation. We spread out and worked a large flat area eventually getting reasonable looks at a bird sneaking away. I had given up on getting any pictures and had started off on the next leg of the journey when someone pointed out a snipe sitting motionless about 10 feet in front of us.
Subantarctic Snipe - Enderby Island
The Banded Dotterel on Enderby Island is an endemic subspecies. Unlike its mainland siblings it seems to like hanging out in the tussock meadows. They are very tame and will chase you out of their territory if you trespass.
Banded Dotterel - Enderby Island
Things kept getting better as the next stop was a small breeding colony of Light-mantled Albatross. Several birds were flying off the high cliffs and a number of birds were resting and sitting on nests.
Light-mantled Albatrosses - Enderby Island
It was a beautiful sunny day as we continued the hike in a clockwise direction around the western side of Enderby Island. Auckland Island Tomtits and Red-crowned Parakeets provided entertainment for the photographers.
Auckand Island Tomtit - Enderby Island
I arrived on a rocky promontory and a pair of Brown Skua were putting on a great show.
Brown Skua - Enderby Island
The Auckland Islands are infamous for the many ship wrecks that have occurred on their reefs and shoals. We came across this memorial to the individuals lost when the “Derry Castle” was wrecked in 1887.
On a more upbeat note we came across a Northern Giant Petrel chick alone on the nest. It attracted a bit of a crowd and eventually a parent returned seemingly unfazed by the attention junior was receiving ( at a distance of course).
Northern Giant-Petrel chick- Enderby Island
We subsequently arrived in a large bay which has been known to harbour the occasional shorebirds. We did run into a large flock of Pacific Black Ducks, the usual New Zealand Sea Lions and after some searching a pair of Auckland Island Teal. Further along we found a couple more birds on a little stream and on on the beach. This flightless endemic is a demure species with a subtle charm.
New Zealand Sea Lion- Enderby Island
Auckland Island Teal - male, Enderby Island
Auckland Island Teal - female, note rudimentary wings in this flightless species - Enderby Island
I had lunch while watching an Auckland Island Pipit have a prolonged dust bath.
Auckland Island Pipit, about to take a duat bath-Enderby Island
As we rounded the north west corner of the island it was fascinating to see how all the grass was sculptured by the prevailing wind.
Wind swept headlands of Enderby Island with sculptured tussock grass
As I was approaching the headland I noted an odd phenomena. There appeared to be thousands of small seabirds flying around chaotically off shore. After some study I noted that most of them were Common Diving Petrels. They were all flying around frantically in huge numbers for whatever reason I could not comprehend but later it became clear.
The next stop on the tour was the Auckland Island Shag (7/12) colony. We had seen quite a few of these beautiful birds already but this spot held out the opportunity for good close-up photographs. I found a nice spot and started to take some pictures. Hannu Jannes joined me about 15 minutes later with the bulk of the serious photographers several minutes behind him.
The other photographers arrived about the same time i noted that it had gone from being sunny with blue skies to being very dark and ominous looking and it felt like the temperature and dropped precipitously. Then it started snowing...... and snowing.... and blowing....
Auckland Island Shags in snowstorm - Enderby Island
Well it started to blow so hard that you couldn’t really see much and the wind was howling. What had started out as a nice day had quickly morphed into a raging blizzard. Rodney Russ came up behind us and felt we shouldn’t linger and that we should proceed back to Sandy Bay immediately. The only downside of that is we had to walk directly into the howling gale. On does on what needs to do and we put are heads down and got going. It was quite uncomfortable with millions of tiny ice crystals being driven into your face by a 40 knot wind. i was glad I was from Northern Ontario were this sort of thing isn’t much out of the norm.
We reached the Rata forest in about 20 minutes and took a few minutes to regroup. If you look at the above map you will see it is about 3 km from the Pebble Bay Shag colony back to Sandy Bay. There were likely people scattered all along this stretch and Rodney clearly felt the need to ensure all were ok. We thus continued on through the slippery, muddy tussock grassland finding small coveys of people in sheltered locations waiting out the storm. I think all of us hade at least one major wipe-out on the way back and thankfully no one was injured or lost.
As I arrived back at Sandy Bay soaked,frozen and exhausted the sun came out, the clouds cleared and life was good again.
Brown Skua-enjoying the sun after the storm- Enderby Island
New Zealand Sea Lion with The Spirit of Enderby in the background- Enderby Island
It wasn’t long before the wind picked back up and the sky looked threatening again so we all were shuttled back to the ship. We were all looking very forward to warm clothes and a hot meal. I mentioned to Adam Walleyn the mass chaos I noted with 1000s of Common Diving Petrels flying around offshore. It seemed clear that this was some type of reaction to the impending gale. I witnessed a similar phenomena at the Salton Sea involving 1000s of pelican, gulls and shorebirds moments before the remnants of Hurricane Jimena swept through.
We anchored in the shelter of Carnley Harbour for the night. This sheltered and intricate waterway is made up of bays and coast line of southern Auckland Island and northern Adams Island - illustrated nicely on the map below. It has undoubtedly saved many a seaman from the ravages of the southern ocean.
Day 4, Nov 4/11- Auckland Islands and points south-west
It was blowing and snowing overnight as we slept in the relatively sheltered harbour. When we awoke it was clear that we were not the only creatures seeking shelter. Thousands of seabirds were taking refuge as well. It was decided that a zodiac trip was going to land on Auckland Island but we would not be able to hike to the Salvin’s Albatross colony given the conditions. Given the very promising conditions in the harbour I opted to stay on the ship to do some “pelagic” birding.
I wasn’t disappointed and it wasn’t long before I had a new seabird- White-headed Petrel.
White-headed Petrel, Carnley Harbour
This large bulky pterodroma is unmistakable and proved to be the most common gadfly petrel we encountered south of Auckland Island. Several Light-mantled Albatrosses gracefully glided around the bay making occasional inquisitive forays by the ship. Numerous Northern Giant Petrels were about as well.
Light-mantled Albatross, Carnley Harbour
Northern Giant Petrel, Carnley Harbour
The real show was the Sooty Shearwaters literally thousands were streaming into the harbour all morning settling into large rafts.
Sooty Shearwater, Carnley Harbour
Raft of thousands of Sooty Shearwaters, Carnley Harbour
The intrepid expeditioners returned to the ship and we prepared to set off on the 400 or so mile voyage to Macquarie Island. As we approached the mouth of the harbour a spectacular display of seabirds was revealed with 1000s of birds milling around the entrance to the harbour with the background of the roaring sea.
Light-mantled Albatross and hordes of Sooty Shearwaters at the mouth of Carnley Harbour
We battened down the hatches and set off for Macquarie Island. The sea was very rough but I found a sheltered spot behind a bulkhead which was relatively safe. Most people opted for observation from the bridge and many were not feeling so great and retired to their cabins. The seabirding was actually excellent and the birds seemed to revel in the high seas and gusty conditions.
I finally managed a couple half decent shots of a Mottled Petrel.
Mottled Petrel, south of Auckland Islands
I was surprised at how squat, chunky and inelegant this species appears with a fat body and short tail - quite distinctive.
The common prion south of the Aucklands was the Antarctic Prion. Despite being relatively common the rough sea conditions combine with its erratic flight style made it devilishly hard to photograph.
Antarctic Prion, south of Auckland Islands
Light-mantled Albatosses and Northern Giant Petrels were a common site around the boat along with Shy and Salvin’s Albatrosses.
Light-mantled Albatross, south of Auckland Islands
Northern Giant Petrel, , south of Auckland Islands
As we pounded are way south the common mollymalk became the Campbell Albatross with a lone adult Grey-headed Albatross making an appearance much to my delight.
Campbell Albatross showing distinctive underwing pattern, south of Auckland Islands
Grey-headed Albatross, south of Auckland Islands
Southern Royal and Gibson’s Albatrosses, White-chinned Petrel and Black-bellied and Grey-backed Storm-petrels rounded off the seabirds for the day.
Southern Royal Albatross, south of Auckland Islands
It got progressively rougher as the day progressed. Dinner was very poorly attended and Risotto was served as it was the only thing you could keep on your plate. After dinner I loaded up on scopolamine and hit the sack. it was a very rough night with everything not stowed tightly way being scattered about the cabin. Early morning light did not bring about any noticeable improvement.
Day 5, Nov.5/11- Southern Ocean enroute to Macquarie Island, Australia
Breakfast was sparsely attended and only a few people were on the bridge. It was difficult walking around inside the ship and the deck was treacherous at best. We weren’t prohibited from being on deck but only one door was open the rest being secured. I tested out numerous places in the morning to see if I could find a protected spot to do some photography.
The first spot I checked was the stern which is the only part of the ships deck relatively close to sea level. After gingerly making it down the multiple flights of stairs I found a protected spot among the zodiacs. The huge walls of water rolling and breaking by soon made me realize that if one of these broke onto the stern I would be swept overboard never to be heard from again. Very shortly after this thought crossed my mind I scuttled up to higher ground arriving with a big sigh of relief (but not before getting a few Black-bellied Storm-Petrel pictures).
Black-bellied Storm Petrel dwarfed by a wall of water 40 feet tall - north of Macquarie Island
Black-bellied Storm Petrel - north of Macquarie Island
Next I tried a spot I had used the day before on the 3rd floor deck behind a bulkhead. This seemed good for a while and I managed a few decent pictures.
Cape Petrel riding the surf, north of Macquarie Island
Gibson’s Albatross, north of Macquarie Island
Light-mantled Albatross, north of Macquarie Island
The seabirding was great despite the very challenging conditions and as we headed south we started seeing some new species. A Southern Fulmar dropped by for a visit and I was surprised at how different this bird seemed in flight from the Northern Fulmar
Southern Fulmar, north of Macquarie Island
Even more exciting a “White Nellie” - (a white morph Southern Giant Petrel) swept in providing some great views before disappearing into the endless ocean.
White morph, Southern Giant Petrel, north of Macquarie Island
After a couple of close calls with major breaking waves and narrowly missing seawater saturation on several occasions I gave up my spot on the third floor deck realizing it was only a matter of time before I got soaked with substantial risk to my camera. I thus moved to higher ground and found a couple of hardy Scandinavians sheltered behind the bridge and cabins under the overhang on the 4th level.
Campbell Albatross, north of Macquarie Island
Southern Royal Albatross, north of Macquarie Island
The only problem with this spot is it is to high and distant for any hope of good pictures so i put the camera way for a while and concentrated on birding. Kim from Sweden and Hannu Jannes from Finland joined me for much of the afternoon and the birding was fine. I got several decent looks at Blue Petrels and the bird of the day for me was a Kerguelen Petrel. This dark petrel showed its unique flight as it crossed the stern in very high wide arcs at least 75 feet above the sea. As it angled into the sun I could clearly make out its silvery flashes to the primaries and coverts. All to quickly it was gone.
Later in the afternoon it settled down for a brief period and the sun even came out briefly I took the opportunity to get a few more pictures. I also found my first Subantactic Little Shearwater managing diagnostic but hardly aesthetic photographs.
White-headed Petrel, north of Macquarie Island
Light-mantled Albatross, north of Macquarie Island
Subantarctic Little Shearwater, note extensive dark facial markings, north of Macquarie Island
It had been a great day of pelagic birding for those of us that were able to weather the storm. I felt for those who were very seasick as I am very prone to this myself. It is all a matter of finding the medication that works for you and using it appropriately. It took a while to perfect my strategy using a combination of Scopolamine patches and tablets but now that I have I really look forward to the extra blustery days as it usually is when the seabirding is the most exciting. Losing a day in the Southern Ocean is a steep price to pay for not being prepared for the inevitable rough days at sea.
We steamed south towards Macquarie Island as we did the wind shifted and was coming from the north east which is most unusual as the prevailing winds are from the west. This was to have a significant impact on us the next day.
Macquarie Island, Australia
Day 6, Nov 6/11- Macquarie Island, Australia
We awoke off Macquarie Island to what seemed like much calmer weather. Unfortunately we were soon mad aware that the fairly stiff breeze out of the east was really not good as the Sandy Bay, Royal Penguin colony usually sheltered from the prevailing west winds was at this point quite inaccessible due to big breakers and landing would be impossible. There was a hope that the winds would shift and conditions might improve by afternoon.
Buckles Bay the usual landing spot for the ANARE (Austaralian National Antarctic Research Expedition) Station was also very rough and not safe for landing. After much contemplation it was decided we would land at Hasselborough Bay which is usually unsuitable but today given the odd winds was relatively sheltered.
Katya Ovsyanikova (AKA-the crazy Russian zodiac driver) and Rodney Russ landing at Hasselborough Bay, Macquarie Island
ANARE Station, Hasselborough Bay, Macquarie Island
A petite male Elephant Seal, Hasselborough Bay, Macquarie Island
As we landed i noted 100s of Elephant Seals scattered along the beach and large numbers of both Northern & Southern Giant Petrels. We met with our guides and divided into smaller groups.
It wasn’t long before we encountered our first Gentoo Penguin scampering down the beach.
Gentoo Penguin Hasselborough Bay, Macquarie Island
The Gentoo Penguins nested right in and around the station. They could often be seen scurrying around and seemed altogether busier and more industrious than the King Penguins. Several had young of various ages.
Gentoo Penguins and young at colony, ANARE Station, Macquarie Island
continue to Part 3