Jeff Clarke Ecology

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In Pursuit of Prions part 4

In Pursuit of Prions (part4) 2 days on the Tasman Sea

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Saturday 24th November dawned bright with a moderate breeze on the Tasman Sea south west of Tasmania. Perfect for photographing seabirds. Would I finally see my first Prion? A circuit of the promenade deck soon demonstrated the days potential as several albatrosses could be seen trailing in the wake.

A succession of Gibson's Wandering Albatrosses weaved across the ship's foamy footprint, occasionally making a closer approach and enabling me to take a few images.

Periodically other seabirds would whip by and some like the Cookilaria petrels would remain unidentified to species. Thankfully most would be visible for long enough to put a name to them, in particular the Mottled Petrels, with their contrasting ash grey bellies, that would arc high above the waves in a characteristic fashion, whilst the occasional Black-bellied Storm Petrel would flutter-walk among the waves.

Cetaceans were largely noticeable by their absence until the arching body and dorsal fin of a small whale close to the starboard side set the pulse racing. It resurfaced. A prominent white beak breaking the surface long before the rest of the whale emerged. Its body was marked by tooth rakes and Cookie-cutter Shark bites. It surfaced with a slow roll several times before being lost to view. My camera shutter whirred away and I was later able to confirm the whales identity as Gray's Beaked Whale. Though not rare this is anything but a commonly seen marine mammal so I feel privileged to have been lucky enough to see it and more so to capture it on camera. Later that day I had a pod of 20 plus Pilot Whales but as both Short-finned and Long-finned occur in the region they remained unidentified to species.

Suddenly a small pale petrel-like bird was intermittently fluttering and gliding through the waves. Could it be? At last, a Prion! It had a beak that reminded me of a Shoebill Stork in miniature and a close scrutiny of my 'record' shots confirmed it as my first ever Broad billed Prion. Over the next hour I saw several more.

The Albatrosses had kept company with us all day and now they had been joined by a Northern Giant Petrel, fresh from winning the regional 'something only a mother could love' competition. It's malevolent appearance contrasted with the elegant albatrosses but even these were put in the shade when they were joined by the ultimate albatross. A dream bird, something you read about and yearn to see. Now it was a reality as the majestic Snowy Wandering Albatross skimmed across the ship's wake before making a making a magical eye-ball to eye-ball approach on the ship. It made repeated passes and my camera shutter was a blur of ecstasy. This was the reason for travelling half way around the globe. A lifelong ambition finally realised and a grin like a Cheshire Cat!

We continued streaming SE overnight and by dawn on the 25th the we were approaching the southern tip of South Island. There were some subtle changes in the cast of seabirds. There were still Snowy Wandering Albatross trailing the ship and once in a while a White capped Albatross would pass by. Sooty Shearwaters became more frequent and as we approached the Foveaux strait there were birds everywhere, White-faced and Black-bellied Petrels and the first Cape Petrels of the tour. However the dominant species were Prions. to be precise three different species. A few more broad billed were overshadowed by masses of Fairy Prions and careful searching asmongst the fairy prions also revealed the subtly different Fulmar Prion. Several thousand prions later, as dusk approached, we made our first sighting of New Zealand, or at least some of the islands off Stewart Island. tomorrow we would be in Otago in pursuit of Penguins.

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