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The West Pacific Odyssey part 1: Aukland, New Zealand to Norfolk Island – 14th-19th March 2019.   Leave a comment

The West Pacific Odyssey (often abbreviated to WPO) is a classic birding journey. Just like its ‘sister voyage’ the Atlantic Odyssey, this comes about every (northern) spring as Heritage Expedition vessel Professor Khromov (aka Spirit of Enderby) is relocated from the Antarctic at the end of the southern summer to the Arctic for the start of the northern summer.

This gives birders and other interested travellers a chance to see the diverse seabirds of the western Pacific as well as a number of seldom-visited islands on-route.

Due to earlier problems in visiting sites in Japanese waters this trip had been truncated to the South-west Pacific Odyssey but these issues were resolved and the full trip was offered for 2018. However there were ‘operational problems’ (timing of the annual refit etc) which prevented the trip from going ahead and it was deferred to 2019 – and fortunately those who transferred, kept the 2018 price.

This the first of a number of posts about the voyage, I don’t know at this stage how many there will be, but there will be a mix of pelagic seabirds and cetaceans along with photos taken on land. Not all of the planned landings took place, this was the only downside to an otherwise excellent trip.

Most of the photos are mine, the few that aren’t or were taken from another pelagic trip are cleared marked.

 

We travelled on the Professor Khromov, which the New Zealand company Heritage Expeditions likes to call ‘The Spirit of Enderby’. I’ve been on two other expeditions in this vessel; to the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand in 2004 and to Russia’s Kuril and Commander Islands, Kamchatka and Sakhalin in 2017. I’ve also been to the Falklands, South Georgia and Antarctica on the sister ship Akademik  Shuleykin in 1998. There were nine ships of this class built in the 80s as Russian ‘research’ vessels (a euphemism for American submarine detection) and were ice strengthened and had the capacity to remain at sea without re-provisioning for extended periods of time. As soon as they were in service the Cold War was over and many were converted for ‘adventure tourism’ in high latitudes. They have given good service but are now looking rather dated. The electronics on the bridge and communication room looks 1940s vintage but they are tough and can withstand anything the polar seas can throw at them. The Professor Khromov is seen here moored off Norfolk Island.

 

The cruise from Tauranga in New Zealand to Yokohama in Japan took 31 days, add to that three days to get there and one to get back and I was away from home for almost five weeks. We disembarked at Norfolk Island, New Caledonia, four places in the Solomon Islands and Chuuk in Micronesia. Unfortunately due to mixture of bad weather and official intransigence we made no landfalls in Japan except at Yokohama. The cruise covered 5650 nautical miles (10500km), we collectively saw 248 bird species including 48 ‘tubenoses’ and 21 species of cetacean. We visited eleven islands in six countries.

 

I left home on the 12th March 2019 and took a flight from Heathrow to Hong Kong. With the time difference it was mid morning on the 14th before I landed at Auckland in New Zealand. After two very long flights I was glad to get off the plane. My friend Steve, who had gone to NZ a few days earlier to attempt to see a Kiwi met me at Auckland airport. I’m glad he was driving as I was far too tired to be behind the wheel.

 

We stopped at the wader spot spot of Miranda. The waders were some distance away as the tide had dropped but we were able to identify Wrybills and Double-banded Plovers among the many Bar-tailed Godwits. More approachable birds included this White-faced Heron …

 

… and the inevitable Pied Stilts …

 

… and Grey Teal.

 

We stayed overnight in Tauranga …

 

… where we saw a few more birds like Silver Gull (formerly split as Red-billed Gull but now lumped with the Australian species) …

 

… the introduced Black Swan …

 

… and the only endemic New Zealand passerine I was to see on the tour – the Tui (one of four extant bird species that have the honour of having the shortest English name of all – I’ll let you puzzle over the other three).

 

The clients met up at a hotel, there were 48 of us. At least a dozen I knew from UK birding or previous foreign trips. There was time to wander around before the bus came to take us to the docks. People in the shops kept asking if we were from the big cruise liner that was already docked. Certainly not – our ship was much, much smaller.

 

Along the shore at Tauranga there were good numbers of Variable Oystercatchers …

 

… and a bird that is very widespread in the Southern Hemisphere – Kelp Gull. This is an adult …

 

… and this is a first year bird.

 

In the late afternoon with the cabins all allocated, luggage stowed, customs cleared etc we cast off and the voyage began. Our starting location was 37 39’S 176 01’E.

 

We made our way out of Tauranga bay and into the open ocean …

 

… we passes a number of islands to port as we headed north.  The rest of the day was taken up with introductions, orientation lectures and the inevitable lifeboat drill.

 

We woke the next day at the northern end of the Hauraki Gulf. We approached the Mokohinau Islands …

 

… the site of a Australasian Gannet colony.

 

Australasian Gannet breeds, as the name suggests, in New Zealand and Australia and is very similar to our Northern Gannet except for having black in the secondaries and a long black gular stripe. We saw several hundred today, a single one the next day, then none.

 

We came across this dense flock of Silver Gulls feeding on what was presumably a huge bait ball. A few Buller’s Shearwaters (Top right) joined the flock …

 

… also seen were a number of the small Fluttering Shearwaters and a couple of the tiny Grey Ternlets (or Grey Noddy).

 

Grey Ternlet was the first life bird of the trip for me!

 

In 2009 I did a comprehensive birding tour of New Zealand which included a pelagic trip into the Haukaki Gulf. We did well, but missed one species, the Black (or Parkinson’s) Petrel. There were no such problems here as we were to see around 30 today and similar numbers the next day.

 

The northern most tip of New Zealand is a group of islands known as the Three Kings. We were 13 miles off there at dawn at 33 57’S 172 24’E and approached closer during the morning, sea birding was superb but our number one target was storm-petrels.

 

In this one photo there are three species of storm-petrel, White-faced on the left, Wilson’s lower centre and above it the enigmatic New Zealand Storm-petrel.

 

This photo wasn’t taken on the trip but from a small boat off the coast of North Carolina but it shows a number of birds we saw on the WPO. The large bird is an Arctic Skua (or Parasitic Jaeger) a bird that breeds in the arctic and subarctic (as far south as northern Scotland) and winters as far south as NZ. The two storm-petrels close to it are, as far as I can tell, Band-rumped. This complex probably consists of multiple species. We were only to see a few on the WPO and all were to the north of here and included one of a larger form that could be as yet undescribed. The lower left bird and the three on the right are Wilson’s Storm-petrels, the most numerous seabird and one of the most numerous of all birds in the world. Breeding in the Antarctic they are found in most oceans of the world at some time of the year. I saw a number off the Three Kings and others saw the odd one further north. Bizarrely it has been shown that the so called ‘northern storm-petrels’ are not closely related to ‘southern storm-petrels and they are found before and after the albatrosses in world bird lists. So the top two stormies on the left are not even in the same family as the top two on the right!

 

But the stormy we all wanted to see was the New Zealand Storm-petrel. This bird has a most interesting history. First collected in 1827, it was later claimed, without any justification, that Wilson’s Storm-petrels have paler streakier bellies the nearer they bred to the equator. So after this it was forgotten about and lost to history until it was rediscovered by a group of British and New Zealand birders in 2003 and given back its rightful specific status. It is likely that it persisted in tiny numbers all those years, breeding on a rat-infested island in the Hauraki Gulf. When the rats were removed, as they have been from many of these islands, the population started to bounce back. On my pelagic in 2009 I saw just one, here we saw 25 …

 

… including three together along with a White-faced Storm-petrel.

 

White-faced Storm-petrel breeds in the North Atlantic, South Atlantic, off South Australia, around Kermadec Islands and New Zealand and according to the book ‘Oceanic Birds of the World’ by Steve Howell et al they could comprise between 4 and 6 different species!

 

Here L-R is a Wilson’s Stormie, a New Zealand Stormie and a Black Petrel.

 

Black Petrels were seen regularly in these waters, like NZ Stormie they only breed around the Hauraki Gulf and have been heavily impacted by introduced rats and cats. With these aliens being slowly removed their numbers are increasing from being close to extinction to perhaps 10,000 birds today. On upper mandible, close to the base, you can see the salt excreting tubes that give tubenoses (members of the Order Procelliformes) their name.

 

Black Petrels are in the genus Procellaria (along with White-chinned, which has recently occurred in the UK and two other species). They have a very different jizz and flight action to the Pterodroma petrels and certainly are an impressive sight, especially when seen head on.

 

Another species that we only saw in the southern leg of the trip was this Fairy Prion. Prions are a group of six fast moving and hard to separate tubenoses that occur mainly in subantarctic/antarctic water. This Fairy Prion was photographed by Pete Morris on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise in 2004.

 

The waters around New Zealand are probably the best in the world for albatrosses, however we saw few on this trip. Most move to the south to feed and this year the water was particularly warm so wouldn’t have been suitable for these subantarctic birds. This is a Antipodean Albatross, a split from Wandering Albatross, of the race gibsoni which breeds on islands to the south of NZ.

 

Another albatross seen was this Northern Royal Albatross, which breeds in the Chatham Islands and at Dunedin in South Island of NZ. The solid black wings (with some specking as in here on older males), lack of black tip to the tail and a fine black cutting edge to the bill distinguishes it from the ‘wandering’ group. Photo taken by Pete Morris on the Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand cruise in 2004.

 

Of the several species of shearwater, Bullwer’s was the most numerous …

 

… easily identified by its striking upperwing pattern, these birds wander as far as California in the non-breeding season.

 

Two petrels in the genus Pterodroma – Cook’s Petrel …

 

… and White-necked Petrel. With their fast, high arcing flight and elegant appearance Pterodroma petrels are among the most sought after of all seabirds.

 

There were a number of other excellent sightings none of which I got photos of; the first was ‘Magnificent Petrel’ currently described as a race of Cook’s Petrel but probably deserving species status in it’s own right, see here for an account of its recent discovery, Grey-faced Petrel (the first time I’ve seen it since the split from Great-winged), the local form of Little Shearwater (which like most of the Little Shearwater complex is probably a species in its own right), the rarely observed Pycroft’s Petrel, Kermadec Petrel which we’ll see in the next post …

 

 

… and what appeared to be the incredibly rare Fiji Petrel. I was slow getting on to this bird when it was first found and struggled to pick it up. The situation was made worse as ace Japanese seawatcher Hero Tanoi called ‘it’s got a black body’ unfortunately in the commotion all I heard was ‘it’s a Black Noddy’ which isn’t rare at all! Fortunately the ship was turned round, a chum slick was laid and the bird was encountered again. The known breeding population near Fiji is only about 50 pairs but as there have been other sightings in the Western Pacific it may be that there is an undiscovered population there, alternatively these birds may be a different species. This photo of an undoubted Fiji Petrel is by Dr. Jorg Kretzschmar/NatureFiji-Mareqeti Viti Fiji.

 

I haven’t mentioned cetaceans yet, we certainly saw a good variety throughout the trip. Here a number of Long-finned Pilot Whales are seen with Bottle-nosed Dolphins. The photo looks a little confusing. On the left a Pilot Whale is spy-hopping showing the characteristic mark on the throat, a smaller individual has risen out of the water beside it, whilst a dolphin swims in front and another dolphin is seen just left of centre.. Further back two more Pilot Whales swim towards the camera

 

The characteristic dorsal fin of an adult Pilot whale can be seen, the other fin belong to dolphins. The birds are Black Petrels.

 

The bulbous head of a Pilot Whale and the white patch on the back of an adult male can be seen in this photo, with a Black Petrel for company of course.

 

One further seabird is worth mentioning in these southern waters the ‘Tasman Booby’ a race of Masked Booby that breeds on Lord Howe, Norfolk Island and the Kermadecs. Unlike the other races of Masked Booby it has a dark eye.

 

This must have been the most seabird rich section of the entire trip, certainly so for the Southern Hemisphere. On the morning of the third day we anchored off the Australian administered Norfolk Island (at 29 04’N 167 57’E) which will be the subject of the next post.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

23rd – 30th August 2014 – The Azores part 2   Leave a comment

This post deals solely with the seabirds we saw on the pelagic trips. If anyone is interested in these seabirds then I would highly recommend reading Magnus Robb and Killian Mullarney’s ‘Petrels night and day (Sound Approach)

 

IMG_5672 Cory's Shearwater

The commonest pelagic seabird was the Cory’s Shearwater which breeds in large numbers in the islands.

IMG_5670 Cory's

The species has recently been split into three; the smaller Cape Verde Shearwater Calonectris edwardsii, Scopoli’s Shearwater C diomeda whose breeding is almost confined to the Mediterranean (but winters off South Africa so must traverse the Atlantic) and Cory’s Shearwater C borealis which breeds only in the Azores, Madeira, Canary and related islands.

IMG_5269 Cory's Shearwater

One of the largest of shearwaters, Cory’s is easy to separate from Great, but telling it from a Scopoli’s on the pattern of white in the outer underwing would require a photo.

IMG_5352 Great Shears

The further out to sea we got the scarcer Cory’s and the commoner Great Shearwaters became.

IMG_5649 Great Shear

Great Shearwaters breed in the Tristan da Cunha group in the south Atlantic. After breeding they undergo a tremendous loop migration that takes them north to the Grand Banks off America and then south through the eastern Atlantic in our autumn.

IMG_4733 Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwaters also breed in the Southern Atlantic and around Australia and New Zealand. Atlantic populations undergo a loop migration like Great Shearwaters although they peak in the eastern Atlantic a bit later in the autumn. The other tw shearwaters, Manx and Barolo’s were too distant or briefly seen to be photographed.

 

IMG_5581 LT Skua

We saw all four species of North Atlantic skua/jaeger; three Long-taileds (all adults) 3 Arctic/Parasitic, one Pom ……

IMG_5503 Bonxie

… and this bird which we assumed was a 2nd cy Great Skua (or Bonxie) from its moult pattern. South Polar Skua is another possibility, as like the large shearwaters it undergoes an Atlantic loop migration. If you can identify this bird conclusively either way then please leave a message. Postscript:  Dani Lopez-Velasco, who wrote a paper on the identification of South Polar Skua has conclusively identified it as a South Polar.

IMG_5484 Bulwer's Petrel

Far smaller than the shearwaters but larger than storm petrels, the little Bulwer’s Petrel was a wonderful sight. I saw seven during the trip.

IMG_5609 Monteiro's SP

The highlight the trip was the great views we got of four species of storm petrel. Our friend, Magnus Robb, wrote a wonderful book on the seabirds of the north Atlantic (Petrels Night and Day – The Sound Approach) and based mainly on vocalisations split ‘band-rumped storm petrel’ into four species. The form breeding on two islets off Graciosa, was already being described as Monteiro’s SP (photo above), it breeds in the summer whilst the other population, called Grant’s Storm Petrel (after the late and much missed birding guru Peter Grant) breeds in the winter. Grant’s is not confined to the Azores but also breeds (in winter) in the Canaries and Madeira and associated islands where it occurs with a third form, Madeiran Storm Petrel (that breeds in the summer). The fourth form breeds only in the Cape Verde Islands. Monteiro’s is treated as a full species by the world’s checklists but Grant’s is not recognised at all. All forms are vocally distinct and to some extent, genetically distinct. Thus we have a summer and winter breeding population in the Azores that are treated as two species and a summer and winter breeding population in the Canaries and Madeira that are treated as the same species. Something needs to change!

IMG_5389 Monteiro's SP

At this time of year Monteiro’s is ending its breeding cycle and is starting to moult and this can be clearly seen as a notch in the wing where the new, still growing inner primaries abut the old faded outer primaries. On some it was striking and could even be seen with naked eye. Another advantage of visiting in August is that this year’s juveniles will still be in the nest, so there is no confusion with recently fledged individuals with fresh flight feathers. Also Monteiro’s shows a clear notch in the tail, whereas Grant’s does not.

IMG_5633 Grant's SP

I am confident this is a Grant’s Storm Petrel with fresh flight feathers with no evidence of moult and a square ended tail.

IMG_5433 Grant's or Monteiro's SP

But some birds seem intermediate – the secondaries on this bird look fresh and contrast with the primaries, but there is no evidence of moult. Do Grant’s look like this post moult? There is a small tail fork but not as obvious as on the Monteiro’s. Is this another Grant’s?

IMG_5432 Monteiro's SP

The same can be said about this bird, is the apparent tail fork caused by the feet showing below the tail and is that a notch in the wing caused by moult or just the way the wing is bent? I think it’s a Grant’s but I’d appreciate informed comments.

IMG_5518 Swinhoe's SP

The best bird of the trip, was another species of storm petrel, the legendary Swinhoe’s. Breeding off Japan and Korea and wintering in the Indian Ocean, hardly surprisingly the only historic WP record was from Eilat, but in the 80s there was as series of captures by ringers at storm petrel colonies in Madeira, the Canaries, France and even the UK. They must be breeding somewhere in the north Atlantic! Since then there have been several more captures in the UK (including the last two years on Fair Isle) but the bird remains extremely hard to catch up with. As one of my goals is to see every bird on the British list somewhere in the world (now just four to go, Ascension Frigatebird, Aleutian Tern, Tufted Puffin and Red-throated Thrush) then seeing a Swinhoe’s had become a high priority.

IMG_5416 Wilson's SP

A third white-rumped species was Wilson’s Storm Petrel which breeds in Antarctica and also undergoes a loop migration, appearing in the eastern Atlantic in late summer. As well as being smaller with longer legs, a more curved wing shape and a more fluttery flight they can be distinguished by their moult pattern, at this time of year they have moulted all the primaries except the outer one or two.

IMG_5420 Wilson's SP

This bird seems to have replaced all its primaries in the left wing but is still growing the outermost primaries in the right wing.

IMG_5624 Common Tern

Common Terns lived up to their name but in spite of the Azores holding the WP’s largest population of Roseate Terns, they were surprisingly scarce, with the only sizable flock being seen briefly on the Teceira breakwater as we departed on the ferry.

IMG_5148 Sooty Tern best

Ilheu da Praia, a tiny islet off the NE of Graciosa not only holds almost the entire world’s population of Monteiro’s Storm Petrel but also the WP’s only breeding Sooty Terns. On the day we visited the sea was rough and we couldn’t come any closer to the island.

IMG_5201 Sooty Tern

However the single juvenile did briefly buzz the boat on a couple of occasions.

IMG_5748 AZ YL Gull head

The atlantis race of Yellow-legged Gull is a very impressive bird indeed. The heavily streaked hood and pale eye are distinctive. I have heard that a paper is in preparation which advocates its elevation to species status. Intermediate populations in the Canaries and Madeira are the problem with this approach however.

IMG_5496 BN Dolphin

I said this post was only about seabirds but I couldn’t resist including a couple of photos of Bottle-nosed Dolphins. We also saw Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, a Sperm Whale and the beaked whales that I uploaded on the last post.

IMG_5235 BN Dolphin

That concludes our Azores pelagic trip. In the words of the late great Douglas Adams ‘so long and thanks for all the fish’