Sunday, January 3, 2016

Saturday January 2, 2016 - Virginia

The early morning hours at Dockside were surprisingly calm considering the wind that was forecast!  As we headed out from Lynnhaven Inlet, it was obvious there was still some wind blowing from the north west, but we had expected worse, so it was perfect!  The skies were clear and Red-throated Loons were moving as we headed past Fort Story and offshore.  Scoters were finally on the horizon for this trip after seeing very few on our December trips from Virginia Beach, and we even had a flock of 7 Common Eider fly across the bow nearshore!  A single Great Shearwater was the only tubenose representative on the way out and we had just a few gulls interested in our chum, the gannets never even gave us a glance!  The water was pretty messy looking inshore, and as we headed to the east, it looked, progressively, a little clearer - finally around 1100 there were some birds ahead!
Northern Fulmars (photo above by Kate Sutherland) gave us some excellent views in the deeper water and when we made the turn back inshore, we gathered a nice flock of mostly Great Black-backed Gulls with a handful of Herring Gulls, visited occasionally by Bonaparte's Gulls and fulmars.  Brian snapped a photo of a Great Black-backed Gull with an American Eel in its bill (photo below)!
We were wondering what had them out there...!

We finally found some Razorbills as we headed back inshore.  Just a few, and most were flying by at a distance, but as we approached Cape Henry a couple of Humpback Whales surfaced with a single Razorbill on the water nearby!  Everyone had nice views of this bird before it flew and we were treated to the best views of a Razorbill in flight of the day!  Bonaparte's Gulls were notably fewer in number than our December trips found and we did not turn up a single kittiwake, but by the end of the day we had Northern Gannets, Great & Lesser Black-backed, Herring, and Ring-billed Gulls following us hungrily!  We even had a Laughing Gull fly in to feed (photo by Kate Sutherland).
Overall it was a great day offshore from Virginia and hopefully our next trip on January 16(17) will find some colder water and alcids!!  While space is still open on the 16th(17th), we just have one space open for the trip on January 23(24).

Thanks to Ned Brinkley for helping us lead the trip and to Nick Newberry & Matt Anthony for helping spot birds and keep a tally for the eBird list!  Below are the pelagic species of note for the day, & here is a link to the eBird checklist compiled for the trip

Northern Fulmar  14
Great Shearwater  1
Razorbill  8

Humpback Whale  4
Bottlenose Dolphin  seen
Loggerhead Turtle  1

Northern Fulmar (Kate Sutherland)
A couple shots of subadult Northern Gannets (top by Brian Patteson, bottom by Kate Sutherland)
And a hungry looking adult from the end of the day (Kate Sutherland)
A victorious Herring Gull with a piece of fish (Kate Sutherland)
Another individual in the late afternoon light (Kate Sutherland)
One of the Humpback Whales fluking at the end of the day with a Northern Gannet flying over (Kate Sutherland)

Monday, December 14, 2015

A Beautiful Day off the Virginia Capes (12/12/15) by Brian Patteson

We headed out to sea off Virginia Beach this Saturday on smooth seas under fair skies. (sunrise by Kate Sutherland)
It was a nice dry ride and a great morning to scan the horizon for birds. As we passed Cape Henry, we encountered a breaching Humpback Whale.  There were good numbers of gulls, gannets, and loons on the move. Before 0800 we had seen seven flyby Razorbills, which was more than we saw all day a week ago.

As we continued offshore, the water warmed slightly from the mid to high 50s. We began to see several flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls- mostly resting on the water.  A couple of Manx Shearwaters passed by as we headed out. We did not see any Manx last week, so this was a nice change. A little after 0800, I headed a little off course to check out some flocks of Boneys, hoping to find some more shearwaters or auks among them. We did not find those, but we did get an adult Little Gull that stayed in view long enough for most people to see.

We had a lot of folks who were keen to see some of the pelagic birds that we had found a week ago, so we pressed onward and I set a course for the warmer water where we had some luck on that trip, which was about 50 miles off the Cape. A single Red Phalarope passed us as we moved along, but it generally got pretty quiet the farther we got offshore.

The slight seas were good for scanning the ocean, but instead of alcids or phalaropes, we were spotting Common Loons and Loggerhead Sea Turtles (photo below by Brian Patteson).
It was nice to get a good look at a Loggerhead this week. We seem them frequently on winter trips off Hatteras, where we have 50 to 70 degree water even in February, but if they stay too long off VA they risk getting stunned by the cold water.

50 miles out the water was even warmer. Like last week, it was in the low 60s, which is plenty for turtles but not good for alcids.  Birds were sparse. There were a few gulls and gannets, but they seemed well fed and it was hard to coax them to the chum. We dispensed some menhaden oil as we cruised around, but there were no tubenoses to be found.

Knowing there was more life inshore, it was hard to stay out in the warm water desert. We did see an American Coot about 45 miles out, and this was probably a sign that the real pelagic birds would be much farther out to sea. A Great Black-backed Gull was sticking close by the coot.

Kate was eventually able to lure a few gulls and gannets to the stern with her tireless chumming, but no kittiwakes showed this time. As we got back inshore, we did find a few flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls (photo by Kate Sutherland) working for bait over feeding schools of Little Tunny.
It seemed like most of the birds had moved even father inshore though and a single Manx Shearwater crossed the bow when we were less than 11 miles off the Cape. For the county listers, it was actually a little closer to Fisherman’s Island, so you know.

There was a good bit of activity at the mouth of the bay as we approached Cape Henry, and there was a nice movement of Red-throated Loons, and a few diving gannets. Laughing Gulls were still much in evidence, so it didn’t seem much like winter. We also had a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and a quick look at a Humpback Whale very close to Fort Story.  We got back to the dock around 1730, just as it was getting dark.

I would like to thank everyone who came out on the trip. We had a full boat. I would also like to thank the leaders- Kate Sutherland, Ned Brinkley, and Ellison Orcutt. I wish there had been some more seabirds, but we had a remarkable period of fair weather preceding the trip, and abnormally warm temperatures. It looks like temps will be getting closer to normal in the days to come, and our next trip is not until January 2, so there is plenty of time for a change. We have three more trips in VA- all in January- and space is available.

Manx Shearwater- 4
Red Phalarope- 1
Little Gull - 1
Razorbill- 9

Also seen offshore- Common Loon, Northern Gannet, Great Blue Heron (1), American Coot (1), Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Bonaparte’s Gull

Marine Life

Humpback Whale- 1 or 2
Loggerhead Turtle- 7

One more sunrise picture!  (Kate Sutherland)
Bonaparte's Gulls (Kate Sutherland)
 young Bonaparte's Gull (Brian Patteson)
 Great Black-backed Gull over the stern (Kate Sutherland)
 Northern Gannet in the afternoon light (Kate Sutherland)
 & a gorgeous sunset to end the day

Monday, December 7, 2015

Saturday December 5, 2015 - Virginia

Participants started showing up at Dockside at 0530, excited by the opportunity to get offshore from Virginia in December and see what we could find out there.  The weather held off and while it was breezy on Friday, the wind fell out enough for us to head out at 0622 Saturday morning.  The sunrise was spectacular and was just the beginning of a very mild, sunny day offshore (photo by Kate Sutherland).
Just over an hour later we had a Parasitic Jaeger put on a nice show chasing a gull, nice start to the day!  While we were unable to entice many birds to follow us, we did see some Northern Gannets (photo below by Kate Sutherland) & gulls on the way out to deeper water.
The wind was blowing about 10-15 from the north making the ride to deeper water a little choppy, but we did see some nice flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls on the way out, a good sign!  We passed some very obliging Common Loons on the water and even saw a Great Blue Heron on the way out as well.  Brian had seen a nice temperature change offshore about 50 miles out, so we continued that way.  Around 1045, in a little over 120 feet of water, there was some activity ahead and the water looked a little different, it was warmer and we even found a few pieces of sargassum out there.  The first tubenose of the day was a Northern Fulmar, followed by a Great Shearwater (photo by Brian Patteson)!
We had excellent views of each of these species as they followed us feeding on chum with the gulls and gannets that comprised our flock.  Northern Fulmar with Herring Gulls (photo by Kate Sutherland)
It was after 1130 before we had our first good view of a Black-legged Kittiwake, but just a few hours later we had multiple individuals following the boat flying right up behind us!  At one point we had a young kittiwake (photo below by Brian Patteson)
sitting on the water with a Northern Fulmar!  Red Phalaropes were out there too, but we just had some individuals quickly fly by, none were cooperative enough to land on the water for approach.  As we headed back inshore, the wind breezed up, but it was much easier birding with the waves behind us and we approached several flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls for perusal (no Little Gulls were discovered!).  One such flock was over some feeding Little Tunnys and were calling as they constantly shifted position over their moveable feast.
These small gulls were definitely the dominant species offshore on Saturday with numbers nearing 12,000!  The water off of Virginia is still quite warm, in the high 50s, so it was not too surprising to not see good numbers of alcids on this trip, but we were lucky to have two Razorbills fly by close enough for everyone to get nice views!

Thank you so much to everyone who joined us for this first trip of five from Virginia Beach!  A big thank you also to Ned Brinkley & Todd Day who helped us lead this trip.  Next weekend is full, but we still have space on all of our January trips.

We saw Northern Gannets, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Laughing Gull, Bonaparte's Gull (several thousand), and Lesser Black-backed Gull (nearshore).  We also encountered Red-throated & Common Loons plus one Great Blue Heron.  -Kate Sutherland

Northern Fulmar  10
Great Shearwater  3
Red Phalarope  10
Black-legged Kittiwake  14
Parasitic Jaeger  1
Razorbill  2
alcid sp  1
sea turtle sp  1

 Northern Fulmar (all photos below by Kate Sutherland)
Northern Gannet
Herring Gull (first winter)

A few photos of Black-legged Kittiwakes, all young birds
As we neared Cape Henry, we were treated to a spectacular sunset!!

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Bermuda 1993 - by Brian Patteson

Kate Sutherland, myself, and several others spent a week and a half in Bermuda earlier this month for the purpose of observing and photographing their endemic seabird, Pterodroma cahow the Bermuda Petrel as we know it, or the Cahow as it is called by Bermudians. We had a very successful trip and saw a great many Cahows, both at sea and ashore at their colonies. We saw more Cahows in an afternoon than we have seen at sea off North Carolina in the last decade, and far more than I saw on my first trip to Bermuda in 1993.

The 1993 expedition to study Cahows was the result of two sightings of Bermuda Petrels off the U.S. southeast coast on July 31, 1993. Ned Brinkley and I saw one off Oregon Inlet that day and Todd Hass and Joe Poston saw one over 200 miles off Charleston the same day. Ned and Todd and I spent a lot of time at sea together in those days. Todd was working on a PhD at UNC and he was on almost all of the pelagic bird watching trips in NC at the time, gathering data for his dissertation. We all wanted to know how better to identify these petrels at sea, and at the time, information was scant. In stark contrast to today, there were almost no photos or good illustrations of live Cahows. Comparative morphometric data was also lacking. We had an idea how the species differed from Black-capped Petrel, but just how much smaller it was and how much darker was not something you could find in print, which was the media of bird identification at the time.

Ned began corresponding with David Wingate in Bermuda and before long, we had plans to visit Bermuda and study Cahows. Things were a bit different back then. There were only 40 or so pairs and Wingate, who had brought them back from near extinction, did not band or regularly handle the birds. We did get to see an adult in a burrow during a nest check with him, but he did not extract it. We also made history with the first daytime sighting of a Cahow in recent history during a boat trip off the east end of Bermuda on Nov. 13, 1993. It was much harder to get photos of flying seabirds back then (manual focus and film days) and we did not get a record shot. For our ID studies, we photographed all of the specimens at the museum.  We also made a nighttime trip to Horn Rock where we had birds whizzing overhead and we recorded their calls. Upon return to the States, we began working on an ID article for Birding magazine. Wingate supplied a few recent photos of live birds in hand and as luck would have it, we found another Bermuda Petrel off Hatteras in May 1996 and I got some photos of that one good enough to publish (they suck by today’s standards, but they were the first of the species at sea.) The article was finally published in the Feb. 1998 issue of Birding, and naturally in spring 1998, I got better photos.

Things have changed a lot since that first trip. There are now over 100 pairs of Cahows and they now nest on Nonsuch Island where we stayed with Wingate in 1993. Jeremy Madeiros, who took over Wingate’s work after his retirement several years ago, now bands the birds and has also done tracking studies, which explain why they are seldom seen here with the Black-capped Petrels off Hatteras. But it is easier than ever to see Cahows in Bermudian waters as a large troop of sub adults spend weeks courting and prospecting for nests during fall and winter. They can be seen from Cooper’s Point, which was formerly a restricted area, but they are better seen from a boat just a few miles offshore.

Our 1993 trip was important for number of reasons. It helped us work out the field ID of the species and disseminate that information. It got Wingate and other Bermudians out looking for Cahows at sea during the breeding season. It inspired Brinkley to return several times with birding tour groups, thus getting more birders interested in the petrel and the place. And most importantly, it was on that trip that got to know and spend a lot of time with David Wingate, and then that we first met Jeremy Madeiros, who has taken charge of the Cahow program in the 21st century and is not only continuing Wingate's work, but helping us learn more about the secret life of these special seabirds.

by, Brian Patteson - 22 November 2015 (all photos copyright Brian Patteson)

On the porch at Nonsuch: David Wingate (left), Todd Hass (right)

Ned Brinkley & David Wingate

Boat trip on November 13, 1993: David Wingate explains the game plan

Ned contemplates the trip ahead of us.

Todd looks like he is ready for some water to cross the deck

No pics of the Cahow we saw, but a late tropicbird came by within camera range

Wingate moors his Boston Whaler at Nonsuch

Checking Cahow nests for activity on Horn Rock

Not enough light to see the adult Cahow inside

Cahow nests on Horn Rock

Entrances to Cahow burrows

Looking over to Cooper's Point, which was off limits at the time.  It is now a great vantage point for seeing Cahows in late afternoon during the breeding season.

Adult and young Cahow specimens

Studying the dorsal aspect of the Cahow and its gray-tipped upper tail coverts (white in Black-capped Petrel)

Studying the ventral aspect of the Cahow and its cowled appearance

No place now for live Cahows on mainland Bermuda

Carnage from the Snowy Owl that visited in 1987

Pelagic trip!  Setting out in a leaky Boston Whaler

Leach's Storm-Petrel as seen from Wingate's Boston Whaler.  We also saw Cuvier's Beaked Whales!

Birding ashore: I think these flamingos were at Spittle Pond

Sandhill Crane at the dairy

Looking out from the porch at Nonsuch