Sunday, 26 March 2017


Just about anyone else who saw a South Polar Skua, a Kermadec Petrel and a Gould's Petrel on the same boat trip, would be very pleased with themselves.  Me, I just can't help thinking it's unfair!  I liked these birds of course, and the close-up and personal views of Grey-faced Petrels and one magnificent Gibson's Albatross were fantastic, but I came home feeling cheated.
Gould's Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

This was my thirteenth attempt at seeing a White-necked Petrel and I did not see one.  What am I doing wrong?  [For those of you of a pedantic nature, my previous thirteen attempts included four trips which were cancelled and nine that went out, being:  from Wollongong:  February 2008, March 2009, March 2010, February 2011, March 2012, and January 2015; from Port Stephens:  April 2012 and April 2016; and from Kiama February 2016.]  White-necked Petrels can be seen (so they say!) from Wollongong, Kiama or Sydney in January, February and March and from Port Stephens you can catch them as late as April.

Roger has (understandably) become tired of driving me interstate to chase a bird I never see.  So, on my twelfth attempt I arranged to drive to Port Stephens in February with my birding mate, Philip Jackson.  Alas! we did not get past 'Go!'  Before we left Melbourne, Mick Roderick (who organizes the Port Stephens trips) rang to say the weather forecast was abysmal and he did not believe the boat would get out.  So we never actually left home.

The January 2017 Southport pelagic saw a White-necked Petrel and the February 2017 Kiama pelagic had unprecedented views of them - several birds, close to the boat.  At one stage, I'm told those present thought one bird might land on the deck.  There's also been some seawatch sightings.  2017 seemed to be the year of the White-necked Petrel.  And I was missing out.

So I turned up for the Kiama pelagic on 25 March 2017 full of expectation.  The weather forecast was pretty good - smooth seas, light rain developing in the afternoon.  All the ducks were lining up in a row.  If only the White-necked Petrels would do the same.

The boat left on the dot of 7.30, full of optimistic, expectant birders.  There were three other Victorians present, all of whom had travelled up to New South Wales, in the hope of seeing a White-necked Petrel.  I couldn't help wondering if they, too, had made twelve previous attempts.  I thought I really had earned that bird.

We started off with lots of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and a sprinkling of Australasian Gannets.  Then some eagle-eyed participant spied a storm petrel in the distance.  It turned out to be Wilson's - the first of several we saw during the day, and the only storm petrel species we saw.

Then a Shy Albatross defied its name and flew close to the boat.  I guess we saw half a dozen or more throughout the day.  Next was a Pomarine Jaeger.  Either the one bird stayed loyal to the boat or we saw six or seven individual birds.  I never saw more than one bird at a time.

There was a buzz of excitement as a skua flew over.  I looked up, viewed the bird in my binoculars and wrote in my notebook 'Brown Skua.'  The bird flew past the boat and all the expert seabirders on board paid it more attention than I did.  Very quickly the call went up 'South Polar Skua!'
South Poloar Skua, photo by Brook Whylie

I've only seen one South Polar Skua before.  That was off Wollongong in February 2008 (when I was actually looking for a White-necked Petrel).  That skua was a delicious iced coffee colour, and, in my ignorance, I thought, if I ever see one of them again, I'll know it.  Now I know that the Wollongong bird was a light phase bird.  Today's bird was an intermediate phase.  If I ever happen to see a dark phase, I'll certainly write it down as Brown Skua.  Traps for beginners.  I recall all the skuas I saw in the Antarctic, and how difficult they were to identify.

We saw hundreds of Wedge-tailed and Flesh-footed Shearwaters and scores of Grey-faced Petrels - they seemed to take it in turns to predominate.  Lindsay banded 21 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters and captured four that had been banded previously.  He also banded several Grey-faced Petrels and, for the first time, I had eye to eye contact with these beautiful birds.  They certainly look different up close.  They are handsome flying overhead, but they are exceptionally becoming in the hand.

We saw several Providence Petrels that the New South Wales boys insisted on calling Solander's - although I note that the official SOSSA checklist we were given lists them as Providence, with Solander's as an alternative name.

One lone White-faced Heron flew very high and very determinedly out to sea.  Where could he be going?

A couple of Short-tailed Shearwaters flew past at a distance, not hanging around to enjoy our company or our burleigh.

I still hadn't given up on my White-necked Petrel when a magnificent Gibson's Albatross flew in.  She sat on the water so we could all admire her appropriately.  Then Lindsay netted her and we all had the chance of admiring her again, much closer.  Truly, a breathtakingly beautiful bird.

We saw (I think) four Hutton's Shearwaters, but no Fluttering, which was surprising, as they have been seen on every March pelagic until today.  The other surprising omissions from our list were Kelp Gull and Arctic Jaeger.
Kermadec Petrel, photo by Brook Whylie

A Kermadec Petrel flew around the boat, giving everyone a view, and a Gould's Petrel did likewise.  If I hadn't had my heart set on a White-necked Petrel, this would have made a very good day at sea.  They were handsome birds.  Birds I don't see every day.  But they weren't White-necked Petrels!