Saturday, 1 March 2014


Shearwaters can sometimes be seen in vast numbers off Australian coasts. Huge numbers of Short-tailed Shearwaters, aka Muttonbirds, breed on Bass Strait islands each summer.
A Short-tailed Shearwater, aka Muttonbird.
Their numbers were even greater in the past. Late in 1798 Matthew Flinders was in Bass Strait, which was then un-named and in fact it was not known at the time if Tasmania was part of the mainland or an island separated by a strait. He was with George Bass on the 25 ton sloop the Norfolk, to determine which was the case and of course they found there was a strait which was subsequently named after George Bass. Flinders’ diary entry on the 9th of December 1798 records his thorough and carefully documented estimate of the number of Muttonbirds that passed by the Norfolk, an astounding 151 million birds. Alas we will never see this unimaginable number of birds in Bass Strait.
Now and again we witness seabird wrecks when large numbers of dead or exhausted birds wash up on coastal beaches during storms, the last one occurred in spring 2013. In southeastern Australia the wrecks are mostly Muttonbirds.
A dead beach washed Muttonbird, one of 314 counted along two 2km sections of beach east of Lakes Entrance in November 2013 during a survey to assess the
2013 Spring Short-tailed Shearwater wreck.
Offshore from Lakes Entrance recently we saw no Short-tailed Shearwaters. I think they are busy feeding young elsewhere in Bass Strait. We did see and were briefly visited by a large brown shearwater, which we could not identify at the time, however later with photos and after some consultation with fellow birders and field guides it was determined the bird was a Flesh-footed Shearwater.
A shearwater approaches the back of the boat.
The bird landing behind the boat.
Sizing up some fish we have thrown overboard.
The bird lunges for a piece of fish - there was a Shy Albatross
just to the left that had the same intention.
There are two populations of Flesh-footed Shearwaters, one in the Indian Ocean and one in the Pacific Ocean (western side in both hemispheres). The Pacific Ocean birds breed on Lord Howe Island and around the north island of New Zealand between September and May so the bird we saw can’t be breeding this season.
The same bird at rest behind the boat.
Same bird again - its colour varied with the light angle.
Another group of shearwaters seen off the southeastern Australian coast include Fluttering, Hutton’s, Manx, Little and Audubon’s. They are closely related and not easy to distinguish from one another. Fluttering are the most numerous species followed by Hutton’s.
We saw good numbers of Fluttering recently, hundreds of birds altogether. There were possibly Hutton’s among them however it was impossible to tell them apart under the circumstances. As with previous trips out of Lakes Entrance the Fluttering Shearwaters flew in strings of up to 50 birds on a direct southeast coarse, flying low with bursts of rapid stiff wing beats followed by brief glides. Unlike other shearwater species, which readily follow boats, they rarely come near boats so getting photos of these fast low flying birds is difficult.
Fluttering Shearwaters breed on islands around the North Island of New Zealand between August and March so the birds we saw were non-breeders.
Here are a few photos – they may not all be Fluttering Shearwaters???
One of hundreds of fast flying Fluttering Shearwaters - this one came close enough for a photo.
Another one came by showing the the white under body
characteristic of this group of shearwaters.
Most of the birds ignored us as they continued on their direct southeasterly course - a few executed a fast circuit around the boat before resuming their journey to who knows where?
Are the first two birds above a different species from the birds in the last two shots,
or are they all Fluttering Shearwaters?

1 comment:

  1. I've been on a few pelagics but never had close views of Shearwaters, so can't help. You look to have had good light for the trip.