Thursday, February 19, 2015

Got Chum? - February 14th & 16th on the Stormy Petrel II

    As a birthday present from my parents, my mom, my sister, and I spent February 13th through 16th at the Outer Banks of North Carolina so that I could help lead a couple pelagic trips with Seabirding and do a bit of land birding. I had never done a winter pelagic, nor had I visited the OBX during the cold season, so the weekend resulted in a lot of firsts for me.
   Saturday the 14th started out cold on the Stormy Petrel II. All of us were bundled up under layers of insulated attire to battle the twenty degree lows, but by the afternoon the temperature was in the fifties. No sooner had we departed from the inlet before I got my first lifer: Razorbill! Apparently there had/has been somewhat of an alcid invasion along the Atlantic Coast. The result was a total of over 1400 of these heavy-billed birds on our first day!

Lifer #1: Razorbill

    My second lifer, Dovekie, appeared shortly after. Of the alcids we observed, these were the most uncooperative, diving at the slightest lift of a camera and popping up again forty yards away. We observed at least 100 Dovekies throughout the course of the day.

Lifer #2: Dovekie
   Attracted to the chum's aroma, several Manx Shearwaters (lifebird #3) arrived. None of the birds came close to the boat, but we were able to observe their rapid flight on long, dark, slender wings nicely.

Lifer #3: Manx Shearwater

    Soon we ran into the cold and warm water interchange, and mammal and avian life became abundant. Close Bottlenose Dolphins and a breaching Humpack Whale in the horizon were sighted. Red Phalaropes - my fourth lifer - floated among hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls just where the blue water met the dirty green. We edged along the interchange for several miles and found a few Little Gulls with the Bonies as well.

Lifer #4: Red Phalarope
    Minutes later, a fifth lifebird made a brief showing in the stern...a Northern Fulmar. I was very fortunate to capture it in photo since it did not stick around as other species had. They behave similarly to gadfly petrels but have a weaker flight and arc.

Lifer #5: Northern Fulmar

    At mid-morning, Brian Patteson, captain of the Stormy Petrel II, spotted an Atlantic Puffin! We all huddled on the portside of the boat and snapped dozens of photos of this awesome find. Hands down, this was our best bird of the day and my sixth lifer.

Lifer #6: Atlantic Puffin

     Lifebird action slowed for the next few hours, but in the mean time we added a first-cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull and a "Nelson's Gull" - a hybrid between Glaucous and Herring Gulls - to our checklist.

First-cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull
"Nelson's Gull" (Glaucous x Herring)

    I also got distracted by the noisy, photogenic Northern Gannets...

Northern Gannet
Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet plunging!

      ...and by the various gull species tagging along in the stern.

Lesser Black-backed Gull

1st-cycle Great Black-backed Gull
Herring Gull
    Just before heading back to the dock, someone pointed out an adult Thayer's Gull extremely close to the boat. This was quite an unexpected lifer for me, and I couldn't ask for a better view. Finally, on our ride back to the inlet, I tallied my eight lifer: a large group of Brant flying in a sloppy V-formation.
Lifer #7: Thayer's Gull

   The second pelagic was postponed until Monday. The weather remained bitterly cold and breezy throughout the trip, but the birding was still wonderful. My one and only lifer was a Great Skua that was found reasonably early in the trip. I wish I had my camera at hand to get at least an identifiable photo! They truly are awesome birds! Other highlights included over 500 Razorbills, another 100 or so Dovekies, several Little Gulls, and a Red-necked Grebe, which I spotted flying down the boat, then landing in the water for all to see.

Adult Little Gull
Red-necked Grebe

      I certainly slacked on photography on the second pelagic. I was too busy enjoying my time throwing the chum to our boisterous group of gulls and gannets behind the boat and counting the Razorbills!

The gannet and gull chum feast.

   As always, I greatly enjoyed my two days at sea, and I wish it had never ended! Nine pelagic lifers (and actually a Purple Sandpiper from land as well, bringing the total to ten) was more than I had ever dreamed. Most importantly, I gained more knowledge about bird identification, field marks, and sea life.

  Check out the post from our trip on the Seabirding blog.

  Checklist from the first pelagic:

 Checklists from the second pelagic:


Friday, February 6, 2015

My First (REAL) Rarity

   Simply put, the chasing-rarities thing hasn't exactly worked for me. Although I love chasing unusual birds, literally around 80% of our chases have been a complete fail! It took me a while to realize that there was no reason to depend on others to find rarities for me. If I did enough birding, I could find some myself. I know that it is every birder's dream to find a rare bird, and I am no exception. I had always wondered what it would be like to find "something good," and now, for the first time, I can say I have found a real rarity.
    The day was Tuesday, February 3rd, 2015. The hour, between 12:00 and 12:35 PM. The location, none other than our local landfill. Whenever we pull up to this mountain of stench, I typically scratch my head and think to myself, "Never thought I'd enjoy going here...." Yet I truly do. Each time I sight the regular Ring-bills on the hill, my heart skips a few beats; and when the first immature Herring Gull buzzes by, I want to leap out of the car and start scanning. (That wouldn't be a good idea, though.) Today, I was as excited as usual.
     I set up my scope beside our SUV and began glassing the thousands of birds loafing on the hillside. The majority of gulls that vacation here during the winter are Ring-bills (easily 5000 birds), but there are also a good handful of Herrings (around 50) and typically a Lesser Black-back or two. My first glance through the flock didn't look too promising, with only the two most common species, so I let my brother take a scan. He didn't find anything either. Still discouraged, we both rotated and took a couple more looks through the hoards of Ring-bills. Nothing.
    I was pretty much ready to leave, so I decided to take one last browse through the gulls. From left to right I scanned, then I saw something that made my heart stop. "Nolan, an all white gull. An all white gull." He looked doubtful, but I let him take a peek, and he was just as shocked as I was. This bird was all white, Ivory-Gull-white, as it slept under the brilliant sun. We grabbed our mom's phone and took a few digiscopes, but the bird was so distant, and on the screen it looked like a white blob. I raised the scope so I could study it again, and this time our mystery gull stood up and waddled around. Perhaps it was the bird's own shadow affecting its appearance, but it no longer looked all white. Its bill was mostly dark, its legs were pink. It had a small, nicely-rounded head and was, overall, not too drastically larger than the nearby Ring-billed Gulls. Could this be an Iceland Gull? No, it had to be an aberrant Herring Gull. Seconds later, something spooked the gulls, and all of them, including our mystery bird, took to the air. We panicked. There was no way we'd be able to re-find the gull - we thought. But incredibly, Nolan spotted it circling right over us!

Mystery Gull is the bottom bird at center. 

   I sprinted to the car, grabbed my camera, and began snapping photo after photo. (This is why you need an SLR!) We watched it circling with a few other gulls for several minutes. With the naked eye, it was clear that this bird was not only white but painted in a faint, dusty brown. In flight, it looked much closer to the size of a Herring Gull. Finally, we lost the gull and did not find it again.

 One of many flight shots.
The bird is at right.

   I was shaking anxiously the remainder of the day. In my heart, I desperately wanted it to be an Iceland Gull, but I had a horrible feeling that it was indeed just a leucistic Herring Gull. When we arrived back home, I immediately uploaded my photos to the computer and forwarded them to several experienced birders. It didn't take long to get replies - all saying it was a 1st-cycle "Kumlien's" Iceland Gull!
   Apparently this was Tennessee's sixth record of Iceland Gull, although the fourth record had multiple birds. The most recent record was in 2007! Despite the thrill of finding a quite unusual bird for our home state, I was even more excited about it being a lifer - in our own county! Also, I must add that I cannot believe I found that Iceland Gull among those thousands of Ring-bills in the first place.
    So now I know what it feels like to find a rarity.

My best photo of the Iceland Gull.

   Check back in on February 20th for a report of my first-ever winter pelagics off Hatteras, North Carolina!