Sea Birds of New Zealand
It is very quiet on the beach at the moment with a couple of godwit and a single red knot over wintering. So I took the opportunity to venture on to the Cook Strait. The Ornithological Society of NZ organises occasional charters from Wellington out to a deep trench that attracts a range of sea birds including the holy grail - albatross.
We leave from the north of the harbour at Petone and sail along the eastern side towards the straight. It takes about an hour to get out into open water and on this particular day, we knew the swells were a couple of metres high. I don't like water particularly but love pelagics because of the amazing access to the birds. I took my sea sickness pills and got the best position on the boat, set up my camera and was all set.
As we sail through the harbour we see normal coastal birds and begin to see some sea birds like fluttering shearwater. The sun was rising, the skies were clear and I was in bouyant mood (excuse the pun). However, once we reached open water the waves increased in size and the boat began to rise and fall. Nonplussed, I continued to watch the horizon. This is the most exciting part of the pelagic.
As we sail further out, the deck hand throws chum into the water behind the boat and we accumulate a flock of gulls, screeching and diving for it. After 10-15 minutes (and it is always the same timing) you catch a glimpse of a big, big bird wheeling across the water in the far distance. Too far away to photograph, you strain your eyes to keep it in sight as the boat dips and rises. It's gone.
Then, there's another. Slightly closer this time. And then another. Before you realise it, there are a dozen albatross circling the boat. They are mesmerizing, beautiful and elegant. The most common species we see are the white-capped and Salvin's mollymawks. They will land behind the boat and all grace is gone. They cackle and squabble like geese and are hugely entertaining.
The mollymawks are small albatross, agile and fast. A little larger are the giant petrel, which are very distinctive birds. They are scavengers and will also fight over food and their posturing with those huge bills looks positively dangerous. Unfortunately, with the big waves, the birds were not keen on landing so I had to be satisfied with photographing them in flight. This particular bird seemed to be having a good stretch.
Northern Giant Petrel
After about half an hour of taking photos, the rough sea started to bother me so my attention was split between keeping my balance, taking photos and keeping my breakfast down. It became a race to see as much as I could before I succumbed!
My next sightings were of the royal albatross. Bigger than the mollymawks, the royals are aloof and keep their distance. The seem to watch the less delicate fighting with some disdain.
Northern Royal Albatross (note the dark edge on the wing)
Southern Royal Albatross (note the white edge on the wing)
The one we wait for though, is the wandering albatross. These birds are in a league of their own. You can identify them from a mile off. Their wing span is nearly as big as the boat and when one cruises by, it is stunning.
Gibson's Wandering Albatross
Job done, I'm off to the back of the boat to crawl into a ball until we reach the calm of Wellington harbour again!