Well the weather gods finally showed mercy on Sunday and allowed 11 brave souls to venture out on which may very well be the first winter pelagic out to deep water in Bay of Plenty history (A few asterisks in there, but you get the point). What would we find? What would the wind and swell be like? We were all hungry to find out!
We slipped away from Tauranga marina just after 7am with minimal swell in evidence as we rounded the Mount. A lone REEF HERON fly past, providing a nice start to the day, though we were unable to spot any Little Penguins that many had hoped for in the early going. The Ratahi is a lovely old boat from the 1970s with ample sitting and viewing for well over our number. She cruises at a conservative 8 knots, which meant that it would take us a long time to reach our desired depth (800-1000m, or about 20km NE of Mayor Island) however this pace allowed for pleasant observation conditions on the way out to Mayor Island, with several opting to ride the bow (along with some friendly COMMON DOLPHINS). The most abundant bird on our way out to Mayor were undoubtedly COMMON DIVING PETRELS, with over 500 estimated early on. In the 15-20 knot winds, it was interesting to see many gliding (a la shearwater) frequently rather than just the typical buzzing flight (Many also came close to 'kestreling' or stationary flying as they tried their best to fly straight into gusting headwinds). After soaking up this entertainment, a WHITE-CAPPED ALBATROSS hove in sight, providing several on board with their lifer albatross (Is there a better feeling? ... probably, but worth a squeal!).
We skirted the west flank of Mayor Island, whose extensive bands of obsidian sparkled resplendently in the morning sun. Winds had picked up to around 25 knots at this stage (from the west) so a close approach was called off. Instead of trying for any land birds (Lotto ticket Orange-fronted Parakeet anyone?) we marveled at the diverse topography and rich forest cloaking the interior.
As we rounded the island and struck out for deeper water, the sea came alive with GREY-FACED PETRELS. At any one moment it seemed 20-30 were arcing on the horizon, and more than one birder started to drool (or was that salt spray?). A juvenile WANDERING ALBATROSS came in for a pass, FAIRY PRIONS started making appearances, and at least 1 WHITE-FACED STORM PETREL was seen well as we pushed on for the 'drop off.' Around this time, I spotted a large skua (Brown/South Polar-type) preening on the water well off our port side, however by the time I convinced the skipper to attempt turning around, the swell and wind were such that a manoeuver like this might be more effort and bronco-bucking than it was worth. Sadly, I let that one slip away.
It was almost noon when we cruised passed the 800 metre depth mark and cut the engines to start chumming. The plan was to get a good berley slick going and let the swell drift us over the 1,000 m mark after an hour or so. It didn't take long for the GREY-FACED PETRELS to swarm the boat as the first bits of chum went overboard. The young WANDERING ALBATROSS from before joined the fray with a WHITE-CAPPED not far behind. With the odd FAIRY PRION scooting by we were off to a hot start (200+ GF Pets at one time was remarkable to even the seasoned ocean-runners on board.
But sadly, this is about how it stayed for close to 2 hours. Loads of Grey-faced Petrels, but not much else. By the end of our chumming we had amassed a respectable tally of 6 WANDERING ALBATROSS (of all plumage stages it seemed), 2 BLACK-BROWED ALBATROSS, 1 NORTHERN GIANT PETREL, a handful of FAIRY PRIONS, 1 WHITE-FACED STORM PETREL, and a far from home BLACK-BACKED (Kelp) GULL. A joy for many of the first-timers no doubt, though not the earth shattering CMF that several had un-secretly hoped for.
The return back to Tauranga was expected to take 4-6 hours against the swell and wind, and we had already battled some big tosses, turns, gales, and squalls. With heavy hearts, we waved goodbye to the stinky salmon bits, and began the ride home. Those that didn't sleep managed a few new trip birds including a pair of close-ish LITTLE SHEARWATERS and a few more distant BULLER'S SHEARWATER (Surprisingly Fluttering Shearwater only just scraped onto the trip list).
A lovely sunset over Slipper Island, then back into port around 630pm (Shout out to young Cynthia, who not only skippered us the last hour of the trip, but successfully guided the Ratahi into her berth without breaking anything!)--. Huge thanks to Blue Ocean Charters for taking us out, probably the most enthusiastic chumming I've witnessed, and to everyone who traveled from far and wide to take part. These trips can't happen without a bit of effort and commitment, and it's heartening to see a growing desire to get out beyond the horizon in what is after all, a seabird mecca.
I still haven't downloaded any of my photos from the day, but if anyone else wants to post some here, you're more than welcome!
Here is the trip list with rough numbers based on my collated eBird checklists. Does not include birds close to the mainland.
Wandering Albatross (All suspected gibsoni)- 6 (Range of plumages)
White-capped Albatross- 8+
Black-browed Albatross- 2 (1a, 1sub)
Northern Giant Petrel- 2 (1 adult, 1 of unconfirmed age)
Grey-faced Petrel- 400+
cookilaria petrel sp. (Probable Cook's)- 1
Fairy Prion- 60+
White-faced Storm Petrel- 3
storm petrel sp.- 2 (Probable WF)
Buller's Shearwater- 3
Fluttering Shearwater- 5+
Little Shearwater- 5+
Common Diving Petrel- 600+
Australasian Gannet- 15+
Pied Shag- 3+ (Mayor)
Little Penguin- 1
Skua sp.- 1 (Probable Brown)
Kelp Gull- 15 (Mostly around Mayor Island, but 1 out near 1km depth mark)
Red-billed Gull- 20+ (Mostly around Mayor with some in between Mayor and the Mount)
White-fronted Tern- 4
Kaka- 1 (Seen briefly over Mayor)
Tui- 1 (Mayor)
Happy seabirding everyone!
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