Seabirds in a Storm

Winter Bird-watching from Point Lonsdale Lighthouse

by Marilyn Hewish


What kind of bird-watching experience requires the 6-layer approach to clothing: thermal singlet, thermal spencer and leggings, shirt, fleecy sweater and trousers, woollen jumper, rain jacket and pants, thermal hat, gloves and two pairs of socks, one pair thermal and one wool.

The answer is: standing at a telescope for two hours at Point Lonsdale lighthouse in mid-Winter, facing into a fierce and freezing south-westerly gale and being assaulted every now and then by horizontal rain squalls.

And why would we subject ourselves to this onslaught? The answer is: to see albatrosses.

Around our part of the south coast, albatrosses are autumn-Winter birds. Point Lonsdale is a particularly good place to watch for them, as it has a high and unobstructed view out to sea. The birds seem to be attracted inshore by the turbulence of the Rip and by the frequent ship traffic, sometimes following vessels for a short distance inside the Heads. The best conditions are unfortunately in mid-winter, whenever a strong onshore wind drives the birds closer inshore and big seas give them the updraft off the waves that they need for soaring.

Conditions on 21 June .1998 were perfect (in other words, terrible), so Bill Stent and I donned our layers of clothing and headed down to the Point. It was an awesome scene in shades of grey: mountainous seas topped with foam, crashing breakers, the horizon lost in a mist of dark clouds, flying spray and rain squalls, and the gale driving it all and buffeting the cliff like an almost solid force. And cold!!!

We tucked ourselves into the lee of a small building beside the lighthouse, and began our sea-watch. The trick is to continually scan the horizon with the telescope, slowly east-to-west then back again west-to-east, over and over again. Keep the horizon in the top part of the field, because most of the interesting seabirds will be fairly far offshore, beyond midway out to the horizon. It is easy to miss birds if they are down behind the waves as you scan past. If you lose a bird behind a wave, move the telescope well ahead of it in the direction it is moving, and scan back slowly trying to intercept it. Scan over the Rip too. If a vessel is coming towards the Heads, check all around it and far back along the wake for following birds. Every now and then scan with your naked eye or binoculars, just in cast some birds have slipped close inshore without you noticing. Patience is the key. There may be long periods Men you see nothing. I always seem to start every sea-watch with a blank 15 minutes, and just as I start to despair, birds appear.

Over two and a half hours, Bill and I had more than 50 separate sightings of albatrosses, involving at least 15 individual birds (allowing that we may have seen the same birds several times). At first (2.30-3.30 p.m.), our sightings were only sporadic and the birds were far out. Then over the next hour, a Coast Guard vessel entered the Heads (tilting alarmingly), followed by a large ship. During this time, we were seeing birds constantly, and several came close inshore off the Point and over the Rip. At one stage I had three close albatrosses in my telescope's field of view. Every bird which gave us a view of its underwing pattern was a Black-browed Albatross. Identification is not always easy with distant fast-moving birds flying in rain and spray, and with the telescope vibrating in the wind. Most albatrosses seen from Point Lonsdale are in the 'mollymawk' group - the smaller species with whitish bodies, dark upper wings joined by a black band across the back, and black tails. The most common species are the Black-browed (Diomedea melanophrys)and Shy (D. cauta). They can be differentiated in flight by their underwing patterns: Black-browed have broad black leading and trailing edges on the underwing, with only a narrow band of white down the centre.

here is no way to capture in words the flight of an albatross in a storm. The impression is of a flying wing. The enormously long, narrow, pointed wings are held flat and stiff, straight out, like a black ribbon against the sea, dwarfing the small body. In strong winds, the birds fly without flapping, sliding down the wind towards the water, then angling to catch an updraft off a wave, soaring up steeply, towering for a moment, then gliding' down again, in an undulating flight that is a picture of grace, power and control in the maelstrom of waves and wind. The stronger the wind, the higher they tower. For a bird with a wing-span of more than two metres, they are remarkably agile. They can bank steeply and turn on a wingtip. You think the wingtip must clip the top of the wave and the bird will come tumbling into the sea, but it never does.

Bill and I had a wonderful time with the albatrosses in the storm. Between the 'old hand' bird-watcher and the beginner, there was little to judge who put the most excitement into the call of "Albatross!" with each sighting, or who uttered "Wow!" most often as a bird soared up over the horizon. I was just glad I had my 6 layers of clothing and a warm car nearby.


A short bird list: most birds were very sensibly hiding.

Giant Petrel Macronectes sp. 
One flying low over the waves. Not known if Southern (M. giganteus)or Northern (M. halli)species, but Southern more common in our area.

Fluttering Shearwater Puffinus gavia 

A few sightings of 1-2 birds 'shearwatering' far out during the afternoon. For a short time at about 5 p.m., a stream of birds travelling east to west, including a few groups of about 10. Maybe 100 birds in total. Because of distance and failing light, pale underparts seen on only a few birds, and Hutton's Shearwater (P. huttoni)a possibility.

storm2Black-browed Albatross. Diomedea melanophrys 
More than 50 sightings of at least 15 individuals. A few came close inshore (200-300 metres) off the Point and over the Rip, in the wake of ships.

Australasian Gannet Morus serrator

Seen more frequently than Albatrosses; flying past in both directions throughout the afternoon in 1s and 2s; from close inshore to far offshore and over the Rip. Difficult to keep track of individuals, but probably at least 20 birds present. A few observed diving and one sitting on the water in huge seas.

Pied Cormorant Phalacrocorax varius 
One bird beating its way into the wind from the Bay around the Point, just below the cliff edge.

Arctic Jaeger Stercorarius parasiticusSeveral sightings of single birds, but possibly only one or a few individuals, throughout the afternoon. Most sightings far offshore, but a few times seen closer in wake of a ship. Jaegers are spring-summer migrants to southern Australia, but winter records occur occasionally, mainly of Arctic rather, than Pomarine Jaegers (Mike Carter, pers. comm.).

Description:About size of Pacific Gull. Robust body; comparatively small head; long broad tail; long wings, broad from base to carpal joint, swept back at sharp angle from joint, and then tapering sharply to very pointed tip. Distant birds showed completely black upper parts, dark underwings and pale bellies, dusky whitish, not bright white. In one sighting closer inshore, bird showed black cap, separated from dark upper body by pale grey collar around nape. Most sightings of bird/s flying high and direct above sea, a few in fast, agile, twisting flight lower over waves. Flight action strong, with deep, continuous, rapid wing beats.

Pacific Gull Larus pacificus1 or 2 over ocean inshore, making heavy weather of flight and being tossed around by the wind. One flew out of Bay and around Point off the cliff, beating into the wind and flying more backwards and sideways than forwards; last seen offshore trying to fly west with mixed success.

Silver Gull Larus novaehollandiaeSeveral groups of 10-20 birds rounded the Point close to cliff. A few single birds, maybe 4-5 in total, battling the wind over the ocean, apparently with little control.

Crested Tern Stema bergii 
1 immature bird carried with the wind at great speed offshore past the Point. Seemed to have little control, tilting and rocking in flight, and at times being rushed along almost sideways.

I stand in awe of these birds who live their lives in the world where the wild sea and winds meet.

Photos: Peter and Barbara Barham, Tony Paliser