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 plunging!
...and by the various gull species tagging along in the stern.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
1st-cycle Great Black-backed 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.
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!
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: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21847942
Checklists from the second pelagic: http://ebird.org/ebird/view/checklist?subID=S21952225