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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Birding On My Own
Australia &
New Zealand 2002
Emmalee Tarry
Revised 2015

Trip Reports

Table of Contents

 
Chapter 6
Wollongong,
Australian Pelagic Trips

Wollongong Pelagics
SOSSA
July Pelagic
September Pelagic
October Pelagic
Skua Nomenclature

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Yellow-nosed Albatross Wollongong July

Yellow-nosed Albatross

Wollongong Pelagics
Back in the early 1990's when the internet and electronic mail were just starting to impact our lives, I was an early participant in the E-mail birding discussion group BirdChat. The most exciting chat came from Australia about the pelagic trips out of Wollongong. I began to look forward to the reports about the large number of Albatrosses. It wasn't long before WIR (when I retire) began to include a long trip to Australia including Wollongong pelagics. Now I am here and about to take my first Wollongong pelagic trip.

Wollongong is a fairly large industrial city south of Sydney and. home to a large university. Other than a Buddhist Temple, the city has not exploited its potential for tourism. Prior to leaving home, I reserved a place on the Sydney Pelagic on the second Saturday in July and the Wollongong Pelagic on the fourth Saturday in July. I also planned to take the September and October Wollongong Pelagics. These trips tend to fill so you should definitely make advance reservations.

The southern oceans around Australia and New Zealand are rich in seabirds and birding is good all year long with the winter months of July and August being the best opportunity for Albatross species. While Wollongong is granddaddy of pelagic birding in Australia there are other trips from other cities. It is very hard to find information about some of the other locations and also hard to plan your land trip to be in the right place at the right time for both land and seabirds. If you go out of your way for the pelagics you may find the trip cancelled because not enough people signed up or at the last minute because of the sea conditions. Pelagic birding is always tough. By the time I arrived in Sydney, the Sydney pelagic in July had been cancelled because not enough people signed up. This is a shame because I understand the Sydney pelagic is run on a fairly nice boat.

SOSSA - Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association
Wollongong pelagic birding trips are sponsored by SOSSA and are the most reliable trips. Trips are rarely cancelled for weather and almost never cancelled because not enough people show up. Trips are scheduled on the fourth Saturday of every month. If the Saturday trip fills, a second trip may be scheduled on Sunday.

During the prime months of July and August trips may be scheduled on other weekends. SOSSA or the Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association uses the Wollongong pelagics to support their "at sea" studies into the local marine environment. The organization bands birds at sea and breeding birds on islands near Wollongong.

On every SOSSA trip you can count on having one or more very knowledgeable observers aboard. Unlike the Kaikoura trips, this group is out looking for rarities and compiling accurate counts of the birds seen. Participants are serious birders not just tourists interested in big birds. On most trips the boat will stop to capture and band some of the birds. Since the trips are 8 hours or more in length you will still have plenty of time to cover the area.

Time will also be spent on whales and dolphins. Almost any naturalist will be happy to see some of the rarer whales such at the Pygmy Killer Whales Feresa attenuata that has been sighted on several trips. Humpback Whales migrate off the coast of Wollongong and there are people aboard who will be excited to see them. On my first trip we spent some time waiting for 3 feeding Humpbacks to surface. It was even more frustrating because we sailed away from the first great Albatross in order to chase the whale (at 7 knots).

Update 2015

This update is taking place in the summer of 2015 some 13 years after my trip. Some information is no longer current and has been deleted. This includes my impression of the SandraK and its captain who in my opinion was reckless. I hope this is no longer the case, but the reader planning a trip may want to investigate this. One way to evaluate the situation would be to find out if the professional birding trips from the United States and Great Britain use this boat. At the time of my trip, some of them would not take clients on this boat. I guess the safest answer is to go on a professional trip, not an extended do it yourself trip like mine.

SOSSA is alive and well
The good news is that by searching the internet I find that the SOSSA is prospering and has expanded to include pelagic trips from other locations. The web page will be your best resource for planning a trip on your own. Here is the information.
Southern Oceans Seabird Study Association Inc.
P.O. Box 142, Unanderra, NSW 2526, Australia.
Lindsay E. Smith & Janice G. Jenkin-Smith
P.O. Box 142, Unanderra, NSW 2526, Australia.
Phone +61 (02) 4272 4626
Mobile 0418 603 007
Email: sossa@tpg.com.au
I am especially pleased to see that Lindsay Smith is still activity involved with the group. He was the lead man when I went on the trips and I liked him very much. The Wollongong trips are still held on a boat named the SandraK, but it may be a different boat and captain.


July Pelagic
I arrived in Wollongong a day before the pelagic. I drove down to the harbor to make sure I knew where the boat docked and where I would be able to park. It was still dark the next morning when I arrived. for the 7:30 AM departure.

The top deck was the only comfortable seating and I perched up there and stayed there for the duration of the trip. One really nice thing about the Sandra K is that you can easily see over the rail on the top deck and you can bird sitting down most of the time. Of course that is because the rail is dangerously low and the sea is rough you better be sitting down so you don’t go overboard.

It was a beautiful winter day and as the trip progressed it became warm enough to shed my heavy coat. The sea was fairly calm, but the Sandra K rocks pretty badly even on calm water.

Birds in the harbor included: Little Blue Penguin ( my life bird), Australian Pelican, Pied Cormorant. Shortly outside the harbor we had Common Dolphin, 4 Australian Wood Ducks, and the first Albatross.
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross Thalassarche bassi (right)

Wollongong Yellow-nosed Albatross

This is a new albatross for me. I have been to the Antarctic Peninsula, Midway Atoll, and Kaikoura, NZ and this is my 15th species of Albatross using the new taxonomy of 23 Albatross species. Some Australian birders are not happy about the new taxonomy and one birder on this trip was quite indignant whenever you talked about it.. The Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross appears to have no gray on the head in the field.
Our first great Albatross (probably Wandering) was seen about 500 yards away swimming toward the boat, but we were off chasing a distant Humpback Whale. Eventually we caught up with 3 deep feeding Humpbacks which we watched for some time. It is late for migrating Humpbacks and some people were on the trip especially for these whales.

We had Fairy Prions and Crested Tern before hitting a relatively quiet area. The regulars call this the Abysmal Plain. They know the birding will pick up after we get to the edge of the shelf. We are chumming with loose bait fish and always have a flock of gulls.

Birding picked up with White-capped Albatross (Shy), Gibsons Albatross (Wandering), Slender-billed Prion, Providence Petrel ( Solander's Petrel), White-headed Petrel, Southern Giant Petrel, Brown Skua( see below for skua details.), Cape Petrel, Hutton's Shearwater, Fluttering Shearwater.

According to Olson, the Brown Skua subspecies lonnbergi is the largest and most fierce of skuas. You are very likely to get good looks and to see several individuals on Wollongong pelagics at all times of the year. See below for a discussion of Skuas in the southern oceans.

Brown Skua  Wollongong

Research at Sea
The trips support the SOSSA "at sea" study program and from time to time the boat stops to capture and band some of the Albatross. Here leader Lindsay Smith examines a captured Albatross. Notice how lightly people are dressed on this warm winter day. The guy at the bottom is recording the data and band number.

Carefully and gently holding the bill closed, the bird is banded. This was not our first or only Yellow-nosed on this trip. It is always nice to see several individuals of a life bird. This banding occurred about 3 miles short of the shelf edge. The capture was accomplished using a net attached to a long pole. The banding should give information about the breeding locations of the birds seen off Wollongong. The SOSSA web page reports some of the results of this research.

Research at sea

September Pelagic
After the July pelagic, I was off see the central part of the country in August and then spent September in Queensland. I returned to Wollongong the end of September for a spring pelagic. This time my luck was not as good. The night before the winds were so high I parked Willy crosswise on the site to face into the wind. The wind tore the canvas annex from the camper next to me. I was sure the pelagic would be cancelled.I arrived at the dock at 6:30 AM to find that it was on.

This was an add on trip and it was not very full. Despite the high wind we took off. We were barely out of the harbor when we turned around and went back to the dock. One person aboard was too frightened and it just seemed reasonable to take her back. The rest of us doggedly went back out. The swells were at least 2m high and the Sandra K was rocking and rolling. Spray continually washed over the top deck and I was soon totally soaked. I wisely left my cameras ashore on this trip and didn't take my binocular out as they were of little use. I needed both hands to hold on at all times and besides they just got covered with salt spray as soon as I took them out.

The birds were good anyway. We had four albatrosses: Campbell Island (Black-browed), White-capped , Indian Yellow-nosed, Gibson's (Wandering). Brown Skua, Australasian Gannet, Whiskered Tern, Crested Tern, White-naped Tern, Fairy Prion, Antarctic Prion, Wedge-tailed Shearwater, Short-tailed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater.

The winds were so strong that the gulls instead of hanging over the wake, hung over the back of the boat. Soon everyone standing on the lower deck was covered with bird droppings. I stayed on the top deck until I had to come down to use the head. Instead of trying to climb back up the ladder I stayed below and got covered too.

We returned to the dock at 1 PM. The trip cost AU$70. We did not go very far offshore and never made the continental shelf edge.I went back to the campground and washed everything I had on including my winter coat. The wind was so strong that my clothes were dry in about an hour.

October Pelagic
After the September pelagic, I headed south to Tasmania, Phillips Island and the Wilson's Promontory returning to Wollongong for the October pelagic. This was my last week in Australia and my final Wollongong pelagic. History repeated itself and the night before there were high winds. The next morning at the dock even the captain wanted to cancel and said that he will not be able to make the shelf . There is another trip scheduled for the next day when conditions should be better. I decided to wait until the next day. Everyone else decides to go on the shortened trip and while they had a rough day they reported good birds.

The next morning was Sunday and the first day of daylight savings time in New South Wales. When you are traveling and not watching TV news you can miss the switch. I arrived at the dock about 6::00 to find people chasing a Common Koel singing from a tree above the parking lot. It was really 7AM. A group of 12 British birders was expected for this trip and they were not there yet so we waited aboard the boat . Perhaps they too had forgotten about daylight savings time or had underestimated the time it would take to drive to Wollongong from Sydney.
There was a good show on the dock to entertain us during the wait. During the night a small boat the Emily Rose had broken its mooring, drifted across the harbor and sunk next to the wharf. They attached large slings around the Emily Rose and by the time we returned a large crane had lifted her to the dock.

The Brits never did show and the trip had to run at a loss for SOSSA. What is important to visitors is that you can count on the Wollongong pelagics to run.It was a beautiful sunny day and the winds have died down, but not the sea swells. Swells are waves caused by distant winds. We were in for a day of rocking and rolling and again did not make the shelf edge. October is late spring and Albatross are not expected on the spring and summer trips.

It was a good day for jaegers and we had three: Pomarine, Arctic (Parasitic), and Long-tailed. Also several Brown Skua.We laid a slick on the water and attracted the first Storm-petrels of my trip. We had a good little flock of Wilson's Storm-petrels and at least 5 White-faced Storm-petrels. These White-faced Storm-petrels hung around bouncing over the slick. The White-faced we had off the coast of North America two summers ago paid no attention to our chum and moved quickly away from the boat. This leads to speculation that the Atlantic White-faced Storm-petrels may be very different from these birds.We also had Great-winged Petrel Pterodroma macroptera formerly a subspecies of the Westland Petrel. Also Providence Petrel, Fluttering, Sooty, Flesh-footed, Wedge-tailed, Short-Tailed Shearwaters.

The next morning a Common Koel was singing its monotonous song in the bushes outside my camper.

Great Skua Nomenclature
Not only will you have trouble with the new Albatross taxonomy, but you may find that the pelagic guide books identify the most common skua as a Great Skua. More recent taxonomy as documented by Olsen and Larson restricts the name Great Skua to the species Catharacta skua which is a northern hemispher bird breeding mainly on islands in the North Atlantic Ocean and disbursing in the North Atlantic after breeding.

The most common Skua seen off Australia is the Brown Skua which Olsen and Larson call Catharacta antarctica.

This seemed to be very controversial at least on the pelagic trips I took from Wollongong with one gentleman refusing to recognize any of the Albatross splits or mention Brown Skua. He even went so far to claim that the splits were an American conspiracy to sell more bird books.
I attended a Massachusetts Audubon meeting at which Roger Tory Peterson was honored. His publisher spoke at the meeting and I will always remember him saying that when they first decided to publish the first Peterson Guide to the Birds they greatly underestimated the number of books they would sell. Birders you see are hard on bird books. They leave them in the field, drop them in water and in genenral just read them so much they wear them out. He is right. I have certainly worn out many bird books and besides I need one in the car, another in my backpack and still another to read at home. Nuts to the conspiracy theory.

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