Trip Report

Whitianga pelagic – 24 November 2005

Fantastic ‘In Shore’ Pelagic out of Whitianga off the Coromandel Peninsula. This was to be a very focused boat trip, with our targets clearly set on Pycroft’s petrel and Mercury Islands, their breeding stronghold. The trip was organized by two tour groups, Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ led by Sav and the other by Ross Silcock. They organized two identical boats and loaded up each with 8 pax.

Unusual for a Pelagic, we left the dock at Whitianga at 13:30 and steamed out to the Mercs. The sky was overcast and scattered showers could be seen in the distance. There was a slight chop which built throughout the day, with the roughest seas by 18:00. As expected, the first tubenoses were fluttering shearwaters and we encountered them well inside the Mercuries. Fluttering were quickly interspersed withBuller’s and flesh-footed shearwaters, fairy prions, common diving-petrels, one or two little shearwaters and a few white-faced storm-petrels. We spent the obligatory time with these species, but all on board (save me) had just been off Little Barrier on Monday and had seen these species along with a single NZ storm-petrel and a single grey ternlet (wow that is early for this bird)!

We had only passed Great Mercury by a few miles when we started encountering Cookilaria petrels. Switching from Id’ing large, distinctive, slow moving shearwaters to small, rapid, similar gadfly petrels is a bit of an art, but large quantities to sort through help…as does a bit of modern photographic equipment. Before stopping to chum, we had had a few dozen Pycroft’s at varying distances from the boat.

A few more miles out, with the Mercuries and mainland still well in view, we began to chum with burley with chopped pilchards. Our two boats hop-scotched each other, each sharing time in the other’s slick. This seamed to work well as we often had the birds in between our two boats. Shortly after starting our slick, we were joined by grey-faced petrels, many landing on the water and fighting it out with the flesh-footed shearwaters (I had never seen grey-faced do this before). As the feeding flock grew, we had two black petrels join the mix and one or two sooty shearwaters. All the while, Pycroft’s were about the boats.

As the sea continued to build, the boat captains slowly worked us back in shore. We kept the gadfly’s with us almost the entire time. As we got closer to dusk, the Pycroft’s seemed to be moving closer and closer to Great Mercury and we began encountering ‘flocks’ of 6 to 15 birds flying together or sitting on the water (Seems strange to use the word flock and Pycroft in the same sentence). By about 5:30 we also started to see our first Cook’s petrels. As the Pycroft’s were all heading east, the Cook’s seemed to all be flying North, presumably heading toward their breeding grounds on Little Barrier.

By 18:00 we were in the lee of Great Mercury and although we still had shearwaters about, we had lost the prions and petrels. The day’s surprise came at this point, in the form of a northern giant petrel. It spotted us from some distance and made a bee-line to our boats, flying right in between. Our boat decided we had not yet had enough of the good stuff and decided to head back out to the unprotected waters. The other boat remained behind, and headed in shore to look for reef heron.

We were not a mile from our protected spot when we were back into the Pterodromas, however this time they were almost all Cook’s…we seemed to have misplaced all the Pycroft’s. Interestingly, the Cook’sappeared much more interested in us. As the Pycroft’s all seemed to be heading by at varying distances, the Cook’s came in much closer, often following the slick and making a few close passes. Between 18:00 and 19:00 we also added a second northern giant petrel, a few more sooty shearwaters as well as a single short-tailed shearwater. The black petrels never returned.

The weather began to clear and a slight calming of the seas could be detected but by 19:00 the ‘let’s stay longer crowd’ lost our voice when the berley rope got tangled in the boat’s prop. We took that as a sign, and headed back into shore. All the way we were surrounded by hundreds of common diving petrels, massing around the stacks and islands, waiting for the cover of dark.

Fantastic trip, thanks to Sav and Ross for organizing it! Hopefully, I got one or two photo keepers out of the lot.

Pelagic Bird List:

Flesh-footed Shearwater
Buller’s Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater
Short-tailed Shearwater
Fluttering Shearwater
Little Shearwater
Common Diving-Petrel
Black Petrel
Northern Giant-Petrel
Fairy Prion
Pycroft’s Petrel
Cook’s Petrel
Grey-faced Petrel
White-faced Storm-Petrel
Fairy Penguin
Australasian Gannet