Saturday, 16 July 2011

Getting to see Tahiti Petrel on a One-day Pelagic Trip – Southport, Brisbane

by Bob Flood

Southport is situated on the south coast of Queensland adjacent to the southwest Coral Sea. The waters are dominated by the warm south flowing East Australian Current which runs well to the south eventually breaking eastward as the Tasman Front. In most winters, cold water moves up along the coast from the south, pushing the warm water further offshore. This can lead to an interesting mix of tropical and cold water species. Since 1995, when the pelagic venue was switched from Brisbane to Southport about 70 species of seabirds have been identified; some regularly logged here are rarely seen elsewhere in Australian waters.

The star attraction that made Southport a must for Bryan Thomas and I in November 2003 is the Tahiti Petrel Pterodroma rostrata, which has been seen off this port in every month except July. It was one of our major target birds. We departed port at 07.00 at the start of a c.40 kilometres steam past the continental shelf. Crested Terns Sterna bergii were common in the harbour. Over the next ten kilometres we encountered Short-tailed Puffinus tenuirostris, Wedge-tailed Puffinus pacificus and Flesh-footed Puffinus carneipes Shearwaters, species that were seen throughout the day. Excitement was tangible with just 10 kilometres to go before the continental shelf and, hopefully, Tahiti Petrels. At about this point on the trip, organiser Paul Walbridge of SOSSA (Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association), who proved to be very knowledgeable and extremely helpful, called a Black-winged Petrel Pterodroma nigripennis. Shortly after this he called a Gould’s Petrel Pterodroma leucoptera. Then he called a Mottled Petrel Pterodroma inexpectata. Wow! We had scored with a hatrick of the enigmatic Pterodroma petrels, including the highly prized Mottled. A second Gould’s rounded-off a prolific half-hour.

We reached the turning point at about 11.00 and drifted with chum deployed. Shortly after this I picked-up a large, dark, long-winged Pterodroma petrel and my heart rate increased because, surely, this could be nothing other than a Tahiti Petrel. It banked and revealed a white belly allowing me the privilege of calling the first of eight or so Tahitis that put on an impressive show over the next few hours, although they did not approach very close for photographers. A Black-bellied Storm-petrel Fregetta tropica fed over the chum for about ten minutes and perhaps five Wilson’s Storm-petrels Oceanites oceanicus put in an appearance, however, I remained preoccupied with the Tahiti Petrels. Only a Black Petrel Procellaria parkinsoni, one of just five Procellaria petrels, drew my attention away from the Tahiti Petrels. Black Petrel is very rare and was a total surprise on the day, with our individual just the second ever reported from Southport. A Bridled Tern Sterna anaethetus also drifted through. We started the steam home at 13.00 and saw plenty more shearwaters to keep us occupied to the end of the trip at around 16.00.

Southport definitely was the surprise package of our venture. There may not have been the quantity of seabirds available at other locations, but the quality of the species seen is in no doubt. We went to Southport only because of the Tahiti Petrels, but discovered on the day that this port promises more Pterodroma petrel species in each season than other ports and a wealth of other seabird species. This is not yet well publicised in the literature and is worth summarising below.

September-November. A few winter birds remain such as Providence Petrel Pterodroma solandri, Fluttering Puffinus gavial and Hutton’s Puffinus huttoni Shearwaters with the occasional ‘Wandering’ Albatross. Summer birds like Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters and Tahiti Petrels start to re-appear. The period is notable for passage birds, particularly Short-tailed Shearwater. Wilson’s and Black-bellied Storm-petrels numbers increase before they head south. In recent years, however, Soft-plumaged Pterodroma mollis, Kermadec Pterodroma neglecta, Mottled, Gould’s and Black-winged Petrels have been logged. December-February. This period is dominated by breeding Wedge-tailed Shearwaters. Tahiti is the commonest Pterodroma petrel. Species often sighted include White-necked Pterodroma cervicalis and Gould’s Petrels and occasionally Lesser Frigatebirds Fregata ariel. Streaked Shearwaters Calonectris leucomelas arrive from Japan. Tropical terns such as Sooty Sterna fuscata and Bridled Terns, and Common Anous stolidus and Black Anous minutus Noddies also feature. March-May. A ‘reverse passage’ period, with March in particular turning-in some freakish results; e.g., March 2002 turned up seven Pterodroma petrels on one day – Tahiti, Great-winged Pterodroma macroptera, White-headed Pterodroma lessonii, Kermadec, White-necked, Black-winged and Gould’s Petrels! Tahiti Petrels start to congregate, White Terns Gygis alba are seen in small numbers and plenty of Wilson’s Storm-petrels move northwards. June-August. With a mix of cold and warm water, this is the period of greatest species diversity for Procellariiformes. Providence Petrels and Black-bellied Storm-petrels arrive, with Kermadec Petrels frequently sighted. Also likely are Northern Macronectes halli and Southern Macronectes giganteus Giant Petrels, Cape Petrel Daption capense, up to four species of ‘mollymawk’ (small Albatross), five species of prion, and Brown Skua Catharacta antarctica lonnbergi (Subantarctic form). Herald Petrel Pterodroma heraldica is occasional. Additional. White-tailed Tropicbird Phaethon lepturus can turn up at any time of year. Recently, Black Petrel and South Polar Skua Catharacta maccormicki have been logged in both Spring and Autumn.

A Southport pelagic trip is highly recommended and would complement an itinerary from Brisbane that in any case is a must for birders visiting Australia.

I include footage from the Brisbane trip, but it was taken on an old-style camcorder. To whet your appetite further, I have also included some of my footage from an expedition cruise in the Western Pacific in 2008.
Thanks to Paul Walbridge for assisting with background information.

Check out our new multimedia ID guide to North Atlantic Storm-petrels Click here