Saturday, September 3, 2016

White-faced Storm-Petrel: Dream Becomes Reality

Gulf Stream off Hatteras, NC   

    The Stormy Petrel II rocked slightly at the dock, a sign that it was going to be somewhat choppier than the previous two days at sea. The engine rumbled, and soon we were navigating through the shoals in Hatteras Inlet, passing a tightly knit group of Little Blue Herons and a dozen Royal and Common Terns which were hardly more than silhouettes in the early morning light. As we rounded the final buoy, the sun arose and the sky was painted in a glorious array of warm-colored hues, perhaps an omen of good birding to come.

Sunrise from Hatteras Inlet

    The Atlantic Ocean welcomed us with open but largely desolate arms, and we did not see much life other than a few Black Terns still within sight of land. Even the energetic little flying fish were in low numbers. But the sea could not remain a desert, and soon we found two Sooty Terns, an adult with a juvenile, and a collection of Cory's Shearwaters as we continued our voyage into deeper waters.

Juvenile Sooty Tern

    The rock of the boat and the refreshing breeze in my face left me in a content daydream for a moment, until the peace was broken when Brian Patteson's voice sounded from the speaker, "White-faced Storm-Petrel, starboard side!" What did he say? I couldn't hear well over the engine's roar from where I was sitting, but I hurried to the starboard rail anyway. "Three o'clock, White-faced Storm-Petrel!" the captain repeated. No way, no way, no way! But I and fifteen others soon spotted the bird bouncing on the waves. I rushed into the cabin, grabbed my camera, and returned to the stern where it was more stable and therefore better for photography. As I peered through the eyepiece, I watched this cute storm-petrel skipping and skidding over the water on long legs. Blown by the strong wind, the storm-petrel would often be carried away from us, forcing Brian to have to increase our speed to keep up. We would always see him again, though, merrily hopping on the water just as a child jumps on a pogo stick. However, the mad swell of the seas eventually caused us to abandon our pursuit of the bird, and we left him to his child's play. 

White-faced Storm-Petrel in flight

White-faced Storm-Petrel skidding on the water

    You can imagine how excited we were! There were many broad smiles, high-fives, and cheering as we sped away. Sometimes rare birds like this White-faced Storm-Petrel don't give us good views because they're in bad lighting, intimidated by our boat, or simply aren't interested in the chum.  Fortunately that was not the case with this bird, and I can safely say that all of us had fantastic looks at close range! It was a lifebird for me, and for almost everyone else.

My best shot of the White-faced Storm-Petrel

    We traveled a few more miles before we finally slowed down and created an oil slick behind the boat, and like clockwork, our summering Cory's Shearwaters, Black-capped Petrels, and Wilson's Storm-Petrels soon filed in. We drifted for a couple of hours before we had our first sighting of a Great Shearwater, which came in low from the portside of the boat. Shortly thereafter, leader Chris Sloan spotted a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel among the Wilson's following us. It was wonderful to see these after missing them the day before.

Great Shearwater

Cory's and Great Shearwaters

Great Shearwater

    At about mid-morning, our first and only Manx Shearwater of the three-day set zoomed up the portside of the boat, but it was gone before I had a chance to see it. When I came back to the stern, I spotted a bird coming toward us that looked like a tern, but when I lifted my binoculars it was not a tern but a Long-tailed Jaeger! Kate Sutherland, first mate on the Stormy Petrel II, had always told me that Long-tailed Jaegers reminded her of terns because of their flight style and slender appearance, but now I was witnessing it myself. This was yet another new species for the weekend!
    The afternoon slowed down dramatically, and we did not see much other than the occasional appearance of another Black-capped Petrel or Cory's Shearwater. This gave everyone an opportunity to talk to new people. I enjoyed chatting with several birders from Canada, and it was only when talking to them that I learned that it was actually one of their group, Tim Lucas, who spotted the White-faced Storm-Petrel! We also had visitors from Colorado, New York, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and more! Before we knew it, though, it was time to return to the marina, and on the way back we saw additional Cory's, Great, and Audubon's Shearwaters, and some sort of passerine that we couldn't identify to species.
    I didn't get very many pictures and I know it wasn't the most action-filled of days, but we saw a White-faced Storm-Petrel, a White-faced Storm-Petrel! That was one of my most-wanted species ever since I saw photos in Steve Howell's Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America. To be honest, though, I never thought I'd see one since typically they are most reliably found in the northeastern part of the United States and who knew if I'd ever wander up that way.
    In conclusion, thank you, as always, Brian and Kate, for allowing me to come out and give a hand! My very favorite adventures, the ones I recall most fondly, have been on the boat with you. I wonder what we'll find the next time I'm out there....

*Click the image for a much clearer photo.


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