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Oct 12: The eternal optimism of the seawatcher

The weather forecast for Friday was for strong southeasterly winds, gusting to 35 knots, accompanied by showers. The temptation was too much to bear, and as Louis Backstrom and I waited at the Holt Street Jetty at Pinkenba this morning we were hoping for great things as the breeze whipped up the surface of the Brisbane River. As the boat got onto the river, it was clear a decent wind was blowing, and once we were on the Bay the ride was pretty bumpy, which combined with the fast speed of the boat, made the birding really tricky. Consequently we didn’t see much at all of interest on the way over.

Arriving at Tangalooma, we headed toward to the tour desk to pick up the rental car, amazed by the extreme tameness of the Bush Stone-curlews at the resort – just loafing about waiting for handouts from tourists! This time we had been allocated a seven-seater Landcruiser, and we were relieved we didn’t get the older and weaker vehicle we had last time, when we managed to spectacularly blow up the radiator! In fact (spoiler alert), we were to get around the island today without any vehicular mishaps.

The tide was already high on the ocean beach, and we had to move fast to get up the western beach before it too was covered (high tide on the western beach is 1.5 hours after the ocean beach side). We drove north along the beach, checking the Tangalooma wreck in vain for Sooty Oystercatcher, skirting Cowan Cowan and then, after scoring a nice Australian Hobby perched in a beachside tree (only the fourth eBird record for Moreton Island), turned onto the track from Bulwer that winds through the beautiful heathland that dominates the north of the island. We didn’t have much time, as we needed to get across the sand bar at North Point before the tide covered it, but we managed to stop for 10 minutes in heath habitat to try and get Louis a year tick. And we succeeded in seconds as a couple of cracking White-cheeked Honeyeaters appeared. Moving quickly on, we arrived at North Point; the first waves had begun breaching the sand bar, but we made it safely across and turned onto the track to Cape Moreton. A couple of minutes later we arrived at the lighthouse car park, loaded up our backpacks and marched up the track toward the cliffs. We scrambled a little way down the rocks and found the vantage point we had used on 8th June, which seems to be well suited to seawatching at the Cape.

Immediately on setting up my telescope I got onto a Short-tailed Shearwater, which at the time I thought was a year tick, but later realised I had seen on 3rd Feb! Following the shearwater, I noticed a couple of storm petrels flitting about. Almost as soon as I’d seen them I lost them – I’d noticed a flash of white, but wasn’t sure if it was rump or belly. After a minute or so, they re-appeared and we could see they were all dark below and white-rumped, a pair of Wilson’s Storm-petrels, still a great bird to see from land, and the first land-based eBird record of this species in Brisbane. This early success filled me with hope. But as is so often the case with seawatching, that hope gradually began to dissipate over the next hour. It wasn’t that we weren’t seeing birds. There was a nice steady stream of Short-tailed Shearwaters. It was that the diversity was very low, with Short-tails vastly outnumbering anything else. We got onto a distant seabird which might have been a cookillaria, but it didn’t really show well enough to get anything meaningful on it, and we left it as completely unidentified.

The wind was raging straight onshore at 30-35 knots, but although it was cloudy, the forecast rain hadn’t materialised. At length, around 1pm, a few showers fell, but it wasn’t really squally enough to do much to the seabird passage. A continuous trickle of Short-tailed Shearwaters had been passing all morning, with 10 Wedge-tailed Shearwaters mixed in. The monotony was interrupted when a Common Noddy flew north fairly close in. A year tick at last!! About 2.30pm, the passage picked up considerably though, and all told we had about 500 Short-tailed Shearwaters, almost all of which flew south. A decent passage, and the biggest count in eBird so far from the Brisbane LGA. During the main passage of Short-tailed Shearwaters, Louis picked up a smaller, pale-bellied shearwater, which turned out to be a Hutton’s, with smudgy axillaries and no “saddlebags”. About 3.30 the rain became very heavy and we needed to get going.

We drove south along the ocean beach, and reached the resort via Middle Road only a couple of minutes after 5pm, when the car was due back. Scoping from the jetty we were lucky enough to pick out a distant Beach Stone-curlew to round off the day. Despite the fact I’d only got a single year tick, and we hadn’t really seen any spectacular seabirds, I had really enjoyed the day. It was especially nice really getting to know Short-tailed Shearwater, and watching the variation in their flight styles in different wind conditions, as well as how different their underparts and underwings can look as the light changes. And there was enough passage of birds to keep up the hope that something mega might fly past. The eternal optimism of the seawatcher.

With one year tick today, my year list edged up to a tantalising 299 species. I spent 6 hours 49 minutes birding, walked 0.53 km and drove 50.4 km, plus c. 75 km on Moreton Island. My chronological year list is here.

Bush Stone-curlew at Tangalooma Resort, where this species is abundant and very tame.