Southport Pelagic, 2021-2022

Summary: A full day of seabird spotting on the big bad ocean

Dates of visits: Dec 18 2021 and Apr 16 2022

Pelagic boat trips are generally volunteer-organised events held once a month (depending on location) where a small group of enthusiastic birders head out to the open sea on a chartered vessel in search of seabirds. There are several active pelagics run regularly around Australia, including Port Fairy (Vic), Kiama (NSW), Bremer (WA), and possibly the most prestigious of them all, Eaglehawk Neck (Tas). Apart from the chance to see birds like albatross, petrels, tropicbirds and prions which are generally difficult or impossible to spot from land, one is typically also in the company of some seriously good birders when undertaking these trips. These pelagics are a great chance to grow your bird “lifer list” with brand new species – you never know what might turn up.

Our first Southport pelagic was Dec 18, 2021 and featured a very early start – the meeting point was Southport Marina at 5am, with the aim of leaving port at 5:15am. Sunrise at this time of year was 4:48am, so it was still pretty grey at that time. The vessel was the 46ft MV Grinner II and the organiser was Paul Walbridge.

The first part of the journey was through the Southport Broadwater and out through the heads (past “The Spit”) and into the open ocean. Along these stretches we saw a surprising number of Little Black Cormorants, plenty of Silver Gulls and a few Crested Terns. No exotic seabirds just yet!

The receding skyline of Surfers Paradise provided a photogenic backdrop as the vessel headed ever further out into the swells of the open water.

Our first seabird of interest was a Red-Tailed Tropicbird which appeared out of nowhere – an incredible-looking bird with a long streaming red tail, and a lifer for yours truly (Andy Gee and Luke S). Even better, the bird was close enough to the boat to afford excellent photos. It was an awesome start. The White-Tailed Tropicbird is usually slightly more frequently seen than the Red-Tailed on these trips.

It takes around three hours of mostly uninteresting steaming to get out to the seamounts (formally known as the “Brittania Guyots”), which are large, mainly volcanic, landforms below the water (essentially “underwater islands”) that affect currents and provide upwellings of nutrients and food to the ocean ecosystem. At about 8:20am we were rewarded with our first non-shearwater seabird in this area, a Black-Winged Petrel.

More than a dozen Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters kept us company for nearly the whole time we were out at the seamounts, and true to their name, they did a lot of shearing across the surface of the waves.

A couple of Flesh-Footed Shearwaters joined in too, their identification markings being the eponymous fleshy-coloured feet although the bills are also pinker than Wedge-Tailed Shearwaters (and have a dark tip).

A couple of Gould’s Petrel winged in as well. Like other petrels (along with the shearwaters, and albatrosses and storm-petrels) they are in the bird family Procellariiformes, or “Tubenoses”: their nostrils lie inside in one or two tubes on their straight deeply-grooved bills with hooked tips.

The larger and strongly marked Tahiti Petrel also paid us a visit, and some of the experienced birders on board remarked on how close to the boat this bird came, seemingly this was unusual. I think this became my favourite bird of the outing, and I took many photos as the bird passed by the boat.

Kermadec Petrels were also spotted.

At times the number of birds observable from the boat can be overwhelming, and most birders are actively watching with binoculars (“bins”) or cameras from the side or back of the boat, trying to ride the swell underfoot and track their favourite birds. There is perhaps a little kudos attached to being the first to spot a new bird species entering the fray, one calls that out loudly and then there is a rush for everyone else to spot and positively confirm the identity of the new entrant.

The biggest such excitement of the day was reserved for a “Coral Sea Storm-Petrel” – actually a bird that has only just been scientifically described and is now officially named the New Caledonian Storm-Petrel. This is a small bird and stayed low to the water and aloof from the boat.

A similar spot-the-miniature-bird challenge was provided by Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, another tiny seabird (it weighs just 40 grams!) that you would scarcely believe basically lives its life on these vast oceans (touching land only to breed in the Antarctic, the smallest bird to do so). Its dangling legs and habit of almost walking on the surface of the water were rather endearing, even if it stayed a ways off. Incredibly, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels are one of the most abundant birds in the entire world.

The three hour journey back to Southport commenced early afternoon and found us surrounded by many pleasure craft once back in the safe waters of the Broadwater: jetskis zipped around and rowdy party boats were gearing up for boozy sunset cruises, quite the opposite vibe to a small vessel carrying exhausted birders that had just spent a day on the big swells.

In April the following year (2022) we returned for another Southport pelagic adventure. This one featured a slightly different mix of birds: for example, there were 17 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels compared to just one seen in December; there were 16 Tahiti Petrels instead of 4; and the Wedge-Tailed Shearwater count was an astonishing 103. Generally speaking, winter and surrounding months are better for these pelagics as many seabirds are feeding in more southern waters nearer Antarctica over the Australian summer.

The most notable new bird spotted (at least by us) was a White-Faced Storm-Petrel.

A Black Noddy was another lifer bird.

And again Gould’s Petrels were super photogenic.

This time a Black Petrel (also known as Parkinson’s Petrel) came in, a very large bird (average wingspan 115cm) with a lemon-coloured bill.

A Providence Petrel, most famously the friendliest bird on Lord Howe Island, made an appearance too, though a skilled eye is needed to distinguish from other petrels (especially the Kermadec). Note that, with this trip, an eBird list was created that was shared amongst all the participants (this is usual, I believe, though not usually made explicit to newbies).

A Lesser Frigatebird was another lifer bird, with its distinctive massive long forked tail, but it was so high up that there was no hope of good photos. A White Tern was yet another lifer bird (very common on Norfolk Island), its ethereal presence gracing the skies for long enough to snap some photos.

The final lifer bird of that trip – a single Red-Footed Booby – trailed the boat for a little while as we started the long journey back into Southport, but it was a long way back and the bird’s eponymous red feet were only just distinguishable from the resulting photos.

There was one big negative from this second trip and that is when a rogue wave caught the boat on the side and spilled several of us off our seats onto the floor. One of us sustained a nasty head injury from this which was bandaged at the time, and patched up with staples at the Gold Coast hospital at the end of the day. It was a stark reminder that we were outside our normal environment, and as it happened fairly early on it did put something of a damper on things for the rest of the day.

Summary

The Southport pelagic is a decent day out if you’re looking to add some exotic seabird watching to your birding experience; you also have a chance to see other ocean-going creatures (we saw dolphins and flying fish, for example). Season and weather play a big part; winter months and southerly winds generally lead to more birds. There is a chance of various albatross species, mainly in July/August, which is also when the Shearwaters are absent; there are also various migratory movements of Storm-Petrels and Tropicbirds to consider when setting your expectations about what you might see.

Your enjoyment of any pelagic depends on how much you like boats on the open ocean. Taking seasickness pills (ginger is a favourite) is a must, and afterward you may find the solid ground feeling like it’s tipping and undulating underneath you for many hours. If you’re a glutton for punishment, a couple of times a year there are also full weekend trips where you spend a night out on the water. There’s always a safety risk with this kind of experience, and there’s no guarantees, but when you’re with a small set of determined (perhaps even quite excited) birders all watching and photographing often many dozens of (possibly unfamiliar) seabirds, it’s pretty magical.

eBird:
Hotspot: Offshore–Southport Pelagic (97 species)
Checklists for these visits: Dec 18 2021 (12 species), Apr 16 2022 (14 species)

Pluses and minuses:
+ Chance to see birds that are difficult/impossible to see elsewhere
+ Very exciting when surrounded by lots of exotic seabirds
+ High calibre birders and seabird experts on board
+ Refreshingly different experience to land-based birding
– Weather-dependent
– Costs money
– Other pelagics around Australia can offer more birds than Southport
– Long stretches of downtime
– Risk of seasickness, rogue waves, etc
+/- Depends whether you like being on boats
+/- Whole day adventure

One thought on “Southport Pelagic, 2021-2022

  1. I live Southport am familiar with birds here, I do feed them of course I love them.
    Only that we have very limited species. Thanks

    Like

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