Friday, 31 January 2014


Sooty Oystercatchers, photo by Brook Whylie
I have just returned from a very pleasant (if totally unsuccessful) trip to Wollongong, hoping (but failing) to see a White-necked Petrel.

Last July I wrote on these pages that I had five bogey birds.  These were:  the Rufous Scrub-bird (that I searched for again last October in Lamington National Park - again without success); the Short-tailed Grasswren (that I finally saw last September on Stokes Hill in the Flinders Ranges, thanks to Peter Waanders); the Black-winged Monarch (that I finally saw in November on McIvor River in far north Queensland, thanks to Martin Cachard); and two reprobate seabirds, the White-necked Petrel and the Slender-billed Prion, both of which still elude me.  So, notwithstanding concerted efforts on my behalf, I still have three bogey birds.

This was my sixth trip to Wollongong attempting to see a White-necked Petrel.  You can see by the beautiful photo on my masthead that this bird is well worth seeing.  This photo was taken by Brook Whylie, the President of SOSSA.  It was Brook who suggested that January would be a good month for me to look for the White-necked Petrel.  (I had looked before in Wollongong twice in February and three times in March, and twice in Port Stephens in April, but never in January.) 

On Tuesday, when Rog and I set off for Wollongong, full of optimism, the weather forecast for the following Saturday was promising.  It wasn't until Friday that things changed.  Rog and I had visited Barren Grounds (where we failed to see Eastern Bristlebirds) and had just driven down the escarpment towards Wollongong when my phone rang.  It was Brook, informing me that Saturday's weather forecast had changed:  waves were now predicted to be 5 metres and winds 40 knots.  The trip had been cancelled.  I think I was quite restrained in the circumstances.  I didn't swear.  Much.

Of course the obvious thing to do was to keep driving.  To go directly to Hexham Swamp (near Newcastle) where a Buff-breasted Sandpiper had been seen recently.  However, Roger is not a birder.  He could not quite grasp the excitement of such an opportunity.  He had undertaken to drive me to Wollongong, and this he had done.  So Wollongong it was, without the pelagic trip that had lured me there.

Now the President of SOSSA came to my rescue, bless him.  He offered to take me to Bass Point (in Shellharbour, just south of Wollongong) to try seabird watching from onshore.  That suited Roger fine:  I'd get my seabird fix and he wouldn't have to do anything.  That is where Brook took this fantastic photo of Sooty Oystercatchers, one of the very few birds I could identify on the day.

I haven't done much seabird watching from onshore before.  In fact, I have never set out to do it at all.  It just happens that from time to time I've spotted an albatross at sea and spent some time trying to identify it, then greedily wanting more.  It is always a most frustrating past-time, and never more than on this particular Saturday.  Remember that conditions were too rough for us to go to sea.  On land, it was extremely windy.  Some people might call it invigorating. Sitting in our deck chairs, scanning the horizon, raising our voices to be heard over the wind, we did not regret that we were on terra firma.  I can only imagine what it would have been like in a small boat on those enormous seas.  Our scope blew over a couple of times, and if we were careless enough to stand up and not keep a hold of our chairs, they were very quickly off on their way to New Zealand. 

Then there is the small problem of identifcation in these less than ideal conditions.  I have always believed that it is quite impossible to identify a dark shearwater from land.  They all look the same to me.  (Let's be honest, they all look the same to me from a small boat at sea.)  I just say 'shearwater,' while Brook confidently proclaims 'Wedge-tailed' or 'Short-tailed.'  We saw a few albatrosses - one Black-browed and a couple of Shy.  And there were several Australasian Gannets.  And of course there were gulls and Crested Terns and the odd cormorant or two. Once, just to get my heart pumping, we saw a bird with white underparts.  It was, we decided, a Fluttering Shearwater.  And some noisy Yellow-tailed Black-Cockatoos landed in the banksias behind us, just as the Sooty Shearwaters arrived on the rocks in front of us. Both very beautiful birds.  And easily identified!

So, thanks to Brook, my trip to Wollongong was not wasted at all.  I enjoyed a pleasant afternoon attempting to identify shearwaters.  And, of course, hoping that, out of the blue, some special bird would fly inshore close enough for me to identify it.  It is this cockeyed optimism that keeps birders birding.

I am planning another trip to Port Stephens in April.  After all, Richard Baxter did tell me that White-necked Petrels were 'guaranteed' in Port Stephens in April.

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