Tuesday, June 14, 2016

Eight Days Offshore

    I've said it many times that my favorite type of birding is pelagic birding - traveling 30 miles or so offshore in a fishing boat where you throw out chum and fish oil to lure in the birds. Many find this a very tedious activity; I think it's absolutely awesome!
    I spent 8 out of 14 days of our vacation aboard the Stormy Petrel II cruising along the Gulf Stream off Hatteras, North Carolina. We had visitors from at least 14 states and even a small group of exceptional birders from Britain. The weather was rather sketchy, as Tropical Storms Bonnie and Colin brought excessive rainfall and strong winds to our area. Throughout all of this, though, the birding was spectacular. I could easily write a post for every day I was out in the Atlantic, but I'll just stick to a general summary of all of our trips.
    Day one, May 30, was very choppy. I was extremely tired and pretty much slept the whole day, but when the leaders spotted two Trindade Petrels and a Fea's Petrel, I did at least force myself to get up and see them before hunkering back down in my favorite corner. Just after noon, a South Polar Skua came in to investigate our boat, and I drowsily grabbed my camera and took several photos of this awesome lifer. My non-birder dad, who was also on the boat, was even impressed!

South Polar Skua

   I skipped May 31 because I needed one day to recover, but I came back out on June 1 and finally felt well enough to help lead the trip. We had several Pomarine Jaegers throughout the day, and they gave us excellent views! One bird, pictured below, had a tattered left wing, and at one time he even crashed into the poles atop the boat!




Pomarine Jaeger


    On June 2, the third day, we had two Fea's Petrels! The first Fea's, which Captain Brian Patteson spotted, actually visited for several minutes, while the second bird, which I called out, only stayed around for a short time. We also had good looks at Black-capped Petrels and Leach's Storm-Petrels before our miserable ride back to the inlet.


Fea's Petrel

Black-capped Petrel

Leach's Storm-Petrel


    We had only 2 passengers and 4 leaders on day four, June 3. We started off with a beautiful female Red-necked Phalarope not too far from the inlet, then had nice looks at Cory's Shearwaters out in the deep. By the end of the day, we were all pretty much half asleep when we noticed a white bird sitting on the water. It took us a minute to process exactly what was happening as the bird was literally slammed by an unusually aggressive Cory's Shearwater! When the victim took off fleeing, we realized that it was an immature Red-billed Tropicbird!


Red-necked Phalarope

Cory's Shearwater

    June 4, day five, was a slow and sunny day, but fortunately most of our passengers were new to the Gulf Stream. Our best bird was a Bridled Tern sitting on a piece of floating debris.

Bridled Tern

    June 5 was the last day of the Spring Blitz, and it closed nicely! Kate spotted a dark bird flying low to the water, and although the views weren't satisfying, it was seen well enough to be identified as a noddy - likely a Brown, although immature Black cannot be ruled out. Still, I believe this was only the second noddy Brian had seen off Hatteras! Minutes later, I was in the stern with Kate Sutherland while she was putting a new chum block into the cage. Two birds came in from the sun glare, and I fully expected them to be Black-capped Petrels, but the first bird I put my binoculars on was clearly a mottled brown color. My brain immediately clicked: light morph Trindade Petrel. I leaped down from my seat on the cooler and tried to point it out to Kate, who was still dangling over the railing juggling the chum. She somehow managed to radio Brian to stop, and in the mean time I tried to get the other birders who were also in the wake on the bird, which was already buzzing straight away from us. Brian did not see the petrel and was skeptical, and Kate only glimpsed it out of the corner of her eye, so I was beginning to doubt myself. However, Will Brooks from California handed me his camera with a picture of the petrel, and I ran inside to Brian and Kate in the wheelhouse and showed them the photo. It was confirmed! Although I'm obviously not the only one who has spotted a Trindade Petrel on the Stormy Petrel II, this was a big deal for me because I finally got to contribute something among these fantastic birders. I always feel like I have to work hard to keep up with their skill!
    There was a short break between the end of the Spring Blitz and the start of the next set of pelagics, but I came back on Friday, June 10, for my seventh day on the water. We drifted for a minute or two just after reaching the Gulf Stream and each of us got to release a young Loggerhead Sea Turtle! Then we got back on course and created an oil slick. Within an hour we had about 40 Wilson's Storm-Petrels following us. Kate kept seeing an "odd" storm-petrel among the Wilson's, and finally she had decent enough looks to confirm that it was a European Storm-Petrel - the first since the trip I was on in May 2014! This tiny storm-petrel eventually became the closest bird to the boat, and everyone had absolutely incredible views! It was a lifer for almost everyone, and it followed us for at least four hours! The Euro was definitely the highlight of the day, next to an incredible aerial chase between a Black-capped Petrel and an immature Long-tailed Jaeger!

European Storm-Petrel

Black-capped Petrel vs. Long-tailed Jaeger

    We did not have any rarities on June 11, which was day eight for me and the last trip of the weekend. However, the birds were extremely hungry, and we had absolutely astounding views of all of our Gulf Stream specialties, plus a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins and a few pilot whales. As you can imagine, it was great for us photographers!

Great Shearwater

Black-capped Petrel

Party in the slick!

Pilot Whale
   
    As usual, I had a wonderful time in the Gulf Stream with Seabirding. A huge thank you to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for allowing me to come out and give a hand!
    A complete album from my trip to Hatteras Island, including some photos from land, is here on Flickr: Hatteras Island, 2016.

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