User:JJ Harrison/2012 Pelagic Reports

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This year, I have made a five pelagic boat trips from Eaglehawk Neck, Tasmania. I had made one trip in 2011 and am very keen to increase my knowledge, and seabird photographic portfolio. I have been awarded grants from Wikimedia Australia to fund each trip mentioned here, and am grateful for the support of my efforts. There is a detailed trip report below. Such boat trips are organised by bird watchers from coastal cities around Australia, and the World. Specialist equipment isn't required to come back with some pictures and memories. After I have made more trips in 2012, I will write a bit of a guide to pelagic bird photography, if anyone is interested.

3rd of January 2011[edit]

Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) with a Short-tailed Shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) behind.
An immature Yellow-nosed Albatross (Thalassarche chlororhynchos).
Fairy Prion (Pachyptila turtur).

On the 3rd of January 2011 I awoke at 4:45 am to travel to Eaglehawk Neck, by car, in order to make a pelagic boat trip to see and photograph sea birds. The weather was warm for Tasmania, with a forcast of over 30 degrees. The swell was steady and varied from 1 to 3 meters. Unfortunately the sky was very deeply overcast. Shooting in the swell with the dim light conditions made photography particularly challenging, and I had to endure seasickness for most of this trip, probably exacerbated by 4 hours sleep the night before! As with a previous trip, I used my mobile phone to log periodic GPS points and geotag the images. For me, the Buller's Albatross was the highlight of the trip, I had been hoping to photograph that species for some time. I had also hoped for a Fairy Prion shot from the side, rather than behind, and achieved that, though the light was a little dull. I uploaded the first images of immature Yellow-nosed Albatross and Long-tailed Jaeger to commons as a result of this trip.

I car pooled with another Tasmanian bird watcher, Paul Brooks, meeting him at the Queen's Domain in Hobart. We drove to Eaglehawk neck, arriving at 6:50 am. The rest of the boat was a little late, so we left the shore at around 7:30 am. We headed east at around 20 km/h, according to my phone. At around 8:00 am we began to see Shy Albatross and flocks of Short-tailed Shearwater, two relatively common sea birds off the coast of Tasmania. I snapped a few pictures, but didn't collect anything that I deemed worth uploading. The poor light was unhelpful.

Over the next hour I had a brief, distant sighting of a Buller's Albatross, which I had not seen before. We also briefly had common dolphins surfing on the wake from the boat, I was caught fumbling to change lens in each instance! At 9 am we dropped some Burley (some rather bad smelling fish guts!) We soon had Shy Albatross, White-chinned Petrel, Wandering Albatross, Short-tailed Shearwater, White-faced Storm-petrel, Fairy Prion and so on behind the boat. At around 9:15 the first sea-bird of great interest appeared, a Jeager of some form. The final identity, an immature Long-tailed Jaeger, was later only determined from photographic evidence, and a little help from WP:BIRDS.

We also saw thousands of Short-tailed Shearwater passing by in groups of up to a few hundred birds. This experience was repeated a number of times throughout the day. I still haven't got the perfect photo. Short-tailed Shearwater are the most numerous seabird in Australian waters. They breed across coastal Australia. A few Sooty Shearwater, which breed in New Zealand and other southern ocean islands were also spotted. Shear-water chicks may be heavier than their parents when they leave the nest. They were traditionally harvested by Australian Aborigines, and are commercially harvested today. Approximately 23 million birds breed in Australia each year. One can easily see large flocks returning at night in many places in Australia.

At about 10 am I started getting quite seasick. This passed after I added some Burley of my own behind the boat, but would return later. Some time later we had travelled south along the continental shelf and dropped some (more traditional) Burley again. Here we were visited by a Salvin's Albatross, Southern Royal Albatross, Wandering Albatross and another Buller's Albatross. I'd never seen the Salvin's or the Buller's. I didn't have any luck with the Salvin's, but the Buller's followed the boat for a while, and I got quite a few good flight shots. We were also visited by a rather young Yellow-nosed Albatross, which only had a faint yellow patch on top of the jet black beak (see photos).

As we started heading back to shore via the Hippolyte Rocks, my seasickness worsened, but I think the best of the day's photo opportunities were over. I took some photos of the Black-faced Cormorant and Australasian Gannet roosts, and attempted a few Australasian Gannet flight shots during our brief visit. We then headed home via the shore line. I felt very ordinary during this time, and felt sick into the next day!

See commons:User:JJ Harrison/3rd Jan 2012 pelagic for the photographs I have uploaded from this trip.



4th of February 2011[edit]

Wandering Albatross (Diomedea exulans) in flight with a wave behind. Wandering Albatross are famous for having the longest wingspan of any living bird. Using focus distance data, and a few educated estimates, I believe that this particular individual has a wingspan of around 3 meters.
Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini).
Brown fur seals (Arctocephalus pusillus) basking in the morning sun on the Hippolyte Rocks with the cliffs of the Tasman Peninsula in the distance.
White-necked Petrel (Pterodroma cervicalis).

I again woke at 4:45 am to travel to Eaglehawk Neck, by car, with Paul Brooks and Els Wakefield, to make another pelagic boat trip to see and photograph sea birds. The day reached a maximum of 19 degrees on land, but it is always cooler on the water. The wind was light. It was mostly sunny, apart from a few bands of cloud early in the morning. The swell was light, around 1 meter. The sunshine and calmer swell made photography less challenging than the previous trip. The lack of wind that day and those previous caused a little initial pessimism among those on board initially. The trip turned out to be outstanding in several respects - we later had the first confirmed sighting of a White-necked Petrel in Tasmanian waters, and were also rewarded with clear sightings of a juvenile Sooty Albatross (misidentified at the time as a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross), and a Salvin's Albatross, which was sitting behind the boat for quite a while before I noticed it. As with a previous trip, I used my mobile phone to log periodic GPS points and geotag the images. The photos of the Grey-backed Storm Petrel and White-necked Petrel procured during this trip are the first photographs for those species on Commons. Many species now have much higher quality images available.

We left Pirate's Bay, at Eaglehawk Neck at 7:20 am. Because of the swell direction we followed a different route to last time, we initially headed south-east to Cheverton Rock. On the way we saw a Little Penguin in the water, and the usual coastal birds, Australasian Gannet, Crested Tern, Black-faced Cormorant and so on. We also spotted the first Shy Albatross of the day. As we neared Cheverton Rock, we noticed many Seals in the water with flippers in the air "waving". I'm not sure what the cause of this behaviour is - it may just be a stable way to lie without consuming energy. We circled Cheverton Rock, but didn't find anything of particular note - I attempted some Australasian Gannet flight shots, which were again somewhat unsuccessful. We then headed to the nearby Hippolyte Rocks and did a lap there as well. It was a similar story, just the usual species. Occasionally one can find something unusual at either of these islands, so it is always worth a look. After our brief lap, we headed straight for the continental shelf, leaving at 8:05 am.

We saw the occasional sea bird during this time. The first interesting sighting was a Fluttering Shear-water at 8:40 am or so. At 9:30 we spotted the White-necked Petrel far behind the boat with Tasman Island behind. I collected two photos sufficient for ID purposes at this time, but it returned later and I did better then. I took some pot shots at the Albatross, Petrels and Storm-petrels following the boat over the next hour whilst we headed out to sea. I later uploaded one shot of a White-faced Storm Petrel from this time. I find Storm-petrels very difficult to photograph - they are much smaller than Petrels, typically 15-20 cm long and often seem too small for my camera's autofocus system to pick up reliably. Because of it's denser and more numerous array of focus points, I suspect a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV could help significantly in this regard. In addition, it is very difficult to keep the camera pointed in the right direction whilst the boat is rocking around in the swell. I collected a nice photo of a Wandering Albatross (above), during this time too. The front on angle isn't so good from an identification perspective, but I think it really helps you appreciate the bird's colossal wingspan. As Wandering Albatross age, the proportion of white on their upper wing increases. The patterns are somewhat like fingerprints - I could tell that another Wandering albatross I photographed later was a different bird.

At 10:25 we dropped some Burley. We soon found equi-numerous groups of Buller's and Shy Albatross behind the boat, with maybe 15 individuals of each type. Such quantity of Buller's Albatross is quite unusual. I collected some Buller's Albatross photos whilst sitting on the water, but decided to upload a later one instead. White-chinned Petrel also began to circle the boat. I decided to focus on flight shots of those for the time being. There were many on the previous trip, but the lighting was very unfavourable - dull light with a black bird against a white sea or sky. I collected some nice flight shots during this time.

No sooner than I had relinquished a decent spot on the boat in order to have a drink, someone called out that a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross was present. Much the same thing happened to me with a Grey Petrel on a trip last year. Despite being in a poor position and rather obstructed by others who (equally fairly!) wanted a photo or a look, I did get a few rather poorly lit flight shots, and some OK ones of it on the sitting on the water fairly far away. It didn't matter at all though - the bird was soon sitting right behind the boat, but the bird had the sun behind it, making quality photography impossible. I asked the boat's captain to circle around it, and fortunately the "Light-mantled Sooty" stayed put and I was able to collect some nice photos. After later consultation with Rohan Clarke, a very experienced sea-bird watcher and photographer, we later learned it was an immature Sooty Albatross.

We decided then (10:50 am) to move on, further out to sea. A few minutes later we sighted a small group whales starboard stern about 200 meters away, it did not so feel far with binoculars and telephoto lenses! From photographs, Paul Ensor, of the Australian Marine Mammals Centre believes that the whales were most likely Shepherd's beaked whales, for which sightings, dead or alive, are extremely rarely sighted.

At 12:15 we arrived at our second Burley point. There I spent some time, mostly unsuccessfully, trying to photograph the three species of Storm-petrel present. A different, younger, Wandering albatross also showed up. We still had many White-chinned Petrels, Shy Albatross and Buller's Albatross. Looking around at the birds on the water I suddenly noticed a Salvin's Albatross, probably 20 meters behind the boat, that had gone unnoticed, despite twelve pairs of keen eyes! Salvin's Albatross was considered a subspecies of the Shy Albatross until relatively recently. Because of the grey head and neck, it could easily be dismissed for a Buller's Albatross with a casual glance whilst flying. The head and beak is similar to a Shy Albatross. I initially noticed the black spot on the tip of the lower mandible. The last bird of interest for which I was able to produce a good picture was an immature Northern Giant Petrel.

Soon after we headed towards the shore. The day ended much as it had began - fairly quietly. On the way back, I spoke with Richard Johnstone about the possibility of Creative-Commons licencing the images in the Royal Botanic Gardens, Sydney's image library, and will be contacting him in the near future about this matter. James Melville is also negotiating with the other contributors to his gallery about a Creative-Commons release.

See commons:User:JJ Harrison/4th Feb 2012 pelagic for the photographs I have uploaded from this trip.



22nd April 2012[edit]

Great Shearwater (Puffinus gravis)
Australasian Gannet (Morus serrator)
Behind the boat on a pelagic boat trip east of the Tasman Peninsula. Most visible are Buller's Albatross (Thalassarche bulleri) and Shy Albatross (Thalassarche cauta).
Campbell Albatross (Thalassarche impavida)

The day started in the usual way, an early morning drive to Eaglehawk Neck, by car with Paul Brooks, Els Wakefield and Jeremy O'Wheel. In contrast with the summer months, it was now dark for much of the drive. The day was windy, 20-30 knots. The swell was 2m or so, occasionally reaching 3 meters, but because of the wind it was very choppy, making the ride quite rough at times. The wind also kicked up a lot of spray, and I, wearing waterproof clothing, was quickly drenched. I didn't mind - windy conditions tend to bring more birds, because they rely on the wind, and techniques like dynamic soaring, which require waves, to move about without using much energy. There was heavy cloud for most of the day, necessitating high ISO speeds, and a consequent increase in image noise. Exciting and/or new, sightings included a Northern Royal Albatross, White-headed Petrel, Providence Petrel, Great Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Black-bellied Storm Petrel and Brown Skua. Great Shearwater are usually found across the Atlantic. As a consequence, the species is on the Birds Australia Rarities Committee (BARC) review list, and we had to submit a Unusual Record Report Form (URRF) for the sighting to be ratified. The photo above is now included on their website.

We left shore at 7:30am. Because of the swell direction, we started the day at 7 by heading to the Hippolytes. A year or two ago, a Brown Booby was spotted there, so it always pays to be vigilant. There we saw Australian Fur Seal, Black-faced Cormorant, various gulls and Australasian Gannet. I photographed a few of the commuting gannet as we circled the rocks. I didn't bother with any of the usual suspects on the rock, because the light was still very dim at that time.

Before long, we were heading out to sea. We were followed by small numbers Shy Albatross and Buller's Albatross. I didn't worry about pictures too much, choosing to enjoy the sight with my eyes, and keep an eye out for something new. Once we were at the edge of the Continental Shelf, we dropped a little burley in the water at 9:10 am. Most seabirds have an amazing sense of smell, and they soon started appear behind the boat in droves. I ignored the 120 or so Shy and Buller's Albatross, and chose to attempt to photograph the Campbell Albatross. This proved difficult. I would either miss the bird, the camera wouldn't focus, or someone or something on the boat would end up in the way at the wrong time. I switched to a 70-200mm lens with a teleconverter because the chop was making it very difficult to keep the subjects in the viewfinder. The video on the right is recorded at a 50mm focal length. At 500mm I was experiencing 10 times the camera shake. I did get some frame filling shots of the Campbell Albatross, some taken as wide as 70mm, with the bird only a few meters away. I was unhappy with those shots because the background was the white sky. The next time I switch to a shorter lens because of the conditions, I will stand up to improve the background. Nonetheless, I did eventually get a shot that was reasonably happy with, but it took the better part of two hours, and probably at the expense of better photos of some other things. I think it was worth it - I haven't seen a Campbell Albatross adult before or since. Everything seems to happen at once on these trips, there are often many possible subjects at any given time, and to get photos of it is necessary to prioritize, and scan the surroundings, rather than snap hundreds of shots of whatever is passing by.

At 12:05pm, we set sail again. At this time we were visited by a pod of about 20 dolphins. They soon passed us by, rather than surfing on the bow wave as they do on some occasions. We stopped again at the next burley point at 12:50pm. Not long after that, we were joined by many of the things from the previous burley point, as well as a chocolate brown, juvenile Wandering Albatross. There was a small chance that this individual was a Amsterdam Albatross, which caused a little excitement, but the beak would be bone coloured in that case. At about 1:40pm I filled the frame with a Brown Skua, but the autofocus didn't manage to lock on to this dark coloured bird, which I was a disappointed about. I later discovered that the front of my lens had copped some spray, and that was probably a contributing factor to the out of focus shots. I now check regularly for water on the front of the lens - it adversely affects image contrast and autofocus performance. Soon after the Skua, we were joined by a new addition, the Great Shearwater. Because of the chop, I attempted to photograph the shearwater with my 70-200mm, rather than the 500mm f/4. It was later, using the 500mm again, sailing to shore, that I got a frame filling shot that I was really satisfied with.

See User:JJ Harrison/22nd April 2012 pelagic for the photographs I have uploaded from this trip.



27th May 2012[edit]

Southern Fulmar (Fulmarus glacialoides) in flight
Grey-headed Albatross (Thalassarche chrysostoma)
Great-winged Petrel (Pterodroma macroptera)
Sooty Shearwater (Puffinus griseus) in flight with Cape Pillar behind

I was quite excited about this trip. I recently purchased a new camera, a Canon EOS-1D Mark IV, and was eager to put it through it's paces. I was also keen to discover what would be on the water at this time of year, and hoped that I'd continue to see exciting new things, as with previous trips. The later vindicated forecast was 8-13 degrees, 20 knot winds, some rain, and a 3 meter swell, occasionally reaching 5 meters. The trip turned out to be very successful. I think it was perhaps my most successful trip from a photographic point of view, except perhaps the first, for which most things were totally new! I successfully photographed new species, like the Soft-plumaged Petrel, Southern Fulmar and Grey-headed Albatross. I also got good images of species such as Sooty Shearwater, Great-winged Petrel and Southern Giant Petrel, which I had seen, but not managed to photograph well, or at all, in the past. On the previous trip, I discovered that there was 240v power on board the boat. I was therefore able to run my phone GPS at 15 second intervals for very accurate geocoding.

This day started with a mild disaster! Neither of my alarms went off. The power went off during the night, and my phone was set to 4:45am on the next weekday. I was intending to car pool with the same group as before, Paul Brooks, Els Wakefield and Jeremy O'Wheel. When I didn't turn up at the meeting point at 5:30 am, Paul tried to call me, but my phone was on silent. I was very lucky, and awoke naturally at 6:00am to find the time and the missed calls. I told Paul et. al. to head straight to Eaglehawk neck, and got changed and jumped in the car as quickly as I could. An empty, dry road, and spirited driving meant that I was able to make it around 10 minutes before the scheduled departure time at 7:30, just after sunrise. I only held everyone up momentarily getting my wet weather gear on. I guess I got to feel more well-rested than usual, but I wouldn't do it that way on purpose.

Within 9 minutes of departure we had a Buller's Albatross behind the boat. We headed towards the Hippolyte Rocks first. Because the swell was coming from the south-south-east, the waves were small for this part of the journey. The light was very dim at this time, needing ISO3200 on the camera. On the way there we clocked up the stuff we usually see on every trip: Australasian Gannet, Black-faced Cormorant, Australian Fur Seal, various seagulls and so on. On the way, we had a look at Cheverton rock, but it only had a few Cormorants on it. Soon after we happened on a group of gannet, albatross (Shy and Buller's) and Cape Petrels feeding on something. We did a quick circle around before heading to the Hippolyte Rocks. The rock had a few seals, a couple of White-faced Heron, and the usual Cormorants, but also seemed quite empty. I think that many birds must have moved to more sheltered waters for the winter. I'm sure that the rocks often receive a battering with the Winter weather.

As usual, we then headed out to sea. It was around this time that we started seeing Common Diving Petrels, as well as Fluttering Shearwater in the distance. We believe that we saw Hutton's Shearwater too, but the views were fleeting and distant. On the way out, we sighted around 100 of the shearwater. Before too long, we had a Southern Giant Petrel too. For the next few hours a Buller's Albatross with a broken leg followed us. I wondered how long it's leg had been broken, and how old the bird was. We were also followed by a Great-winged Petrel, which I spent some time trying to photograph, as previous attempts had been unsatisfactory.

We reached the continental shelf at 9:30am, and dropped a little burley in the water. Aside from dozens of Buller's albatross, we soon had good numbers of Cape Petrel, Fairy Prion, and a few Storm-petrels to look at. I tried to photograph the Prion and Storm-petrels. The new camera was coping a lot better with them, but I still didn't get any keepers - they were a little too distant. We were now joined by a few Great-winged Petrel, so I spent a bit more time photographing them. At 10:25, somebody spotted what turned out to be an incoming Soft-plumaged Petrel. I collected a few record shots, but didn't get much chance after that. At 10:30am another new species turned up, the Southern Fulmar. I didn't spot it for about a minute after it was spotted - I was looking in the sky and it had landed on the water. A casual look from a distance and you would dismiss it as a Silver Gull, but on closer examination, the plumage is different, an attractive pale grey with black eyes, and white patches on the wings. The Southern Fulmar breeds on the coast of Antarctica, where Els had seen them before. I spent the next while photographing the Fulmar on the water, breaking to shoot a Wandering Albatross and some other flybys that occurred. The Fulmar followed us for the rest of the day. At 10:55am we started moving again, towards the second burley point.

We arrived at the second point at 11:30am. A lot happened over the next 15 minutes or so, with two new species, and my first good opportunity to photograph another. At 11:35am we had our second exciting discovery for the day, a White-headed Petrel. I spent some time photographing this as it made a few flybys near the boat. It was usually high in the air, and never got particularly close, so the photographs are not fantastic, but I think they are an important addition to Commons nonetheless. Five minutes later a Grey-headed Albatross landed behind the boat, and I managed to get a few shots before it disappeared. I did not have any luck photographing it in flight. It could have well been near the boat for a while after that, but it was difficult to pick it out among the numerous circling Buller's Albatross. Another few minutes after that, an adult Southern Giant Petrel showed up. It followed us until third burley point, closer to shore.

We set sail again at 11:45am, in my view a little early considering the success we were having, and headed back towards the Hippolyte Rocks. I managed a nice flight photo of a Sooty Shearwater on the way back, and took pot shots the birds following the boat, particularly focusing on the Great-winged Petrel, and somewhat distant White-headed Petrel following us. We dropped burley again near the Hippolyte rocks at 1:10pm. We didn't see any new species there, but it gave me a chance to try again with the Southern Giant Petrel and the Southern Fulmar. I lost count at over 100 Buller's Albatross behind the boat, and there seemed to be many in the distance too.

Eventually we started heading to Pirates Bay again. We saw several large flocks of gannet and albatross feeding on something in the water on the way back, as well as a White-bellied Sea Eagle to round out the day's list. The day was a little lower than average in species diversity, but there were many photographic opportunities for less common species, which compensated nicely.

See commons:User:JJ Harrison/27th May 2012 pelagic for the photographs I have uploaded from this trip.