Sunday, March 22, 2015

Winter 2015 - Thanks, Thoughts, & More Pics

Kate and I would like to thank everyone who helped us to have a successful run of winter boat trips.  We ran five trips altogether, including one charter in mid January.  We missed one trip because of wind and sea conditions.  All of the trips were well attended, and we continue to appreciate the enthusiasm our participants have for these trips.  We are also fortunate to have a dedicated crew of trip leaders and deckhands.  Returning crew this winter included Jeff Lemons (4 trips), Todd McGrath, Dave Pereksta, Dave Shoch, young Chloe Walker, and Capt. Will Whitley.  Nathan Gatto helped us on the Forsyth Audubon charter in January and Ellison Orcutt helped out on one of our February trips.

It was a good winter for seabirds here, and although what we saw varied a bit from trip to trip, there were several highlights.  After a modest sign in January, it turned out to be a good Dovekie year here.  Colder water temps in February were good for both Dovekies and Razorbills.  We also found large numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls on most of the trips and we had some great looks at Little Gulls on three trips.  We also found a few Iceland Gulls and one Thayer's Gull offshore this winter.  Generally speaking, there was plenty to see on all of the trips we ran, and there were some great opportunities for photography as usual.  Here are some more photos from February that we did not get a chance to share in the previous reports.

Atlantic Puffin (Dave Pereksta)
I was a bit surprised that we only saw one puffin this winter, but it was a good look.  Puffins are regular in numbers off the Virginia Capes most winters, but sporadic here.

Color Change (Todd McGrath)
We found some sharp temperature breaks on a few of the trips.  In most cases, these were loaded with birds.

Dovekie (Todd McGrath)
We had about as many close looks at Dovekies as I can remember this February.

Great Skua (Dave Pereksta)
We saw them on two trips.  This one was just three miles from shore.  In 2012 we saw them on all of our trips but the water was warmer and we only saw two Dovekies that winter!

Iceland Gull (Jeff Lemons)
This is the most likely "white-winged" gull for us and we had good looks.

Lesser Black-backed Gull (Chloe Walker)
Now a common species on the winter trips here.

Little Gull (Jeff Lemons)
When Bonaparte's Gulls are numerous, Little Gull is a reasonable possibility here.

Little Gull (Dave Pereksta)
We had great looks at Little Gulls feeding along temperature breaks on February 14 and 16;  at least five per day!

Manx Shearwater (Todd McGrath)
I was surprised that Manx Shearwaters were absent on February 7, numerous on February 14, and scarce on February 16...but that's how it goes.

Northern Fulmar (Chloe Walker)
There were a few fulmars around but they were generally scarce this winter.

Northern Gannet (Chloe Walker)
No winter pelagic trip is complete without some close, squawking gannets in the wake.

Northern Gannet (Todd McGrath)
Most of the younger gannets - especially first year birds - head farther south for winter.

Northern Gannet (Todd McGrath)
Looking very intent, as usual.

Northern Gannet (Dave Pereksta)
Nice close up

Razorbill & Dovekie (Jeff Lemons)
A nice size comparison.  February was great for both species.

Razorbill (Jeff Lemons)
On February 14, we saw nearly 2000 Razorbills west of Diamond Shoals!

Razorbill (Todd McGrath)
Many of the Razorbills we see here are younger birds, so it is always nice to see some adults.

Red-necked Grebe (Dave Pereksta)
We had a big influx of Horned Grebes, but just a few Red-necked Grebes when the cold temps hit in mid-February.

Red Phalarope (Brian Patteson)
Actually a crop from a picture we showed a few weeks ago, but I like how it shows the feet.  We had large numbers of phalaropes on February 7, but they thinned out when it got cold.

Thayer's Gull (Todd McGrath)
We don't see Thayer's Gull every winter, but we do get this "species" from time to time.  We also see California Gulls on these trips occasionally.

Great Black-backed Gull & Horned Grebe (Todd McGrath)
Horned Grebes made a big showing in the ocean off Cape Hatteras when the cold air arrived in February.  Some of these stressed birds fell prey to gulls.

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

February 21, 2015 by Brian Patteson

I've been running winter pelagic trips from Hatteras for over 20 years now and on February 21 we had a first for these trips - pancake ice in the marina!  With calm conditions and a low in the teens Friday night after a couple of subfreezing days, the appearance of this ice was not a big surprise, but to see it down here is very rare, and we haven't had it for many years.  Fortunately for us, the lack of wind meant we didn't make much spray when we headed to sea because the little bit we had froze on the boat.  Out on the ocean the water was a bit warmer with mid 50s south of the Cape.  We found good numbers of Dovekies and Razorbills in this water (photo by Ellison Orcutt),
and I thought we might do even better in some cooler water so I headed to Diamond Shoals.  There were hundreds of gannets up there - the most we had seen for a while.  I decided to cross the shoals as there wasn't much swell.  It was our first time on the north side since mid-January.  We eventually found some 45 degree water and many more Razorbills and Dovekies, but unlike Monday's trip, there was no hard temperature break to be found.  The water gradually warmed up to the low 60s well inshore of Diamond Tower, but there were no phalaropes or tubenoses around this blended water, so we concentrated our efforts back inshore.  Our chumming attracted a first winter Iceland Gull (photo by Jeff Lemons) 
and what appeared to be a Glaucous x Herring hybrid much like one seen in the area previously (photo by David Shoch).
We did not turn up any skuas after seeing them in this area on our two previous visits.  A warm front brought a shift to brisk southerly winds and by the time we got back to the west side of the shoals, seas were building.  We decided to head back a little early, so as to make the inlet before it got really rough in the ebb current.  Back in Pamlico Sound, we continued chumming and saw another Iceland Gull (photo by David Shoch) just east of Ocracoke Island.
There were also a couple of flyby Red-necked Grebes - a reminder of how cold things have been lately.  We rarely see these birds during milder winters.  I would like to thank Kate Sutherland, David Shoch, Jeff Lemons, and Ellison Orcutt for their help with spotting, chumming, and supplying photos for the report.  Thanks also to Kenneth Kelly for allowing us to use another of his photos!

Common Loon (Jeff Lemons)
Dovekie (Jeff Lemons)
Razorbill (Ellison Orcutt)
Northern Gannet (David Shoch)
"Nelson's" Gull on the water with Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Herring Gulls (Jeff Lemons)
 Another shot of the Glaucous x Herring "Nelson's" Gull by Kenneth Kelly
 This young male Surf Scoter gave us excellent views (Jeff Lemons)!

Thursday, February 19, 2015

February 14 & 16, 2015 by Brian Patteson

Considering all the windy and frigid weather of late, we got lucky with a couple of brief lulls and were able to run two boat trips over the long weekend.  We had very pleasant conditions on Saturday morning and an abundance of birds close to shore (the calm conditions can be seen in the photo below by Kenneth Kelly).
Razorbill numbers were most impressive.  We saw hundreds within half an hour of clearing Hatteras Inlet.  A little farther out we began to see Dovekies, and when we found a sharp temperature break (19 degrees F!) less than ten miles out, we had a steady procession of sought after target species.  In addition to the plentiful Razorbills and Dovekies, there were Manx Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars, Red Phalaropes, and Little Gulls in numbers.  Our chumming attracted large gulls and gannets for close looks and great photo opportunities.  Careful inspection of the trailing flock got us an adult Thayer's Gull,
a first winter Iceland Gull,
and one Glaucous x Herring hybrid (above photos by Kate Sutherland).  Brisk southwesterly winds cut our trip a bit short, but the birding was so good we saw more diversity than we sometimes encounter over the course of a long day at sea.
The puffin we saw right beside the boat is the only one so far for 2015!  (photo by Brian Patteson)

Gale force winds from the northwest snuffed out any chance to run a trip on Sunday and these winds brought us some very cold arctic air and subfreezing temperatures, which are rare here, even in February.  It was only 23 degrees F when we left the dock on Monday morning, but there was intermittent sunshine and the wind had fallen out somewhat from overnight.  I picked a course that kept us in fairly calm water as much as possible.  We headed east from the inlet and traveled for several miles through some fairly quiet water, which was in the low 50s.  Just a little bit west of Diamond Shoals, we found a sharp color change where this relatively clear, green water (55 degrees) collided with dirty water from the shoals, which was in the mid 40s.  This turned out to be a great area and we saw many Razorbills along the change (photograph by Brian Patteson).
The air was full of Red-throated Loons and we also saw a number of Horned Grebes, mostly on the water along the color change.  Our junior superstar, Chloe Walker, spotted a Red-necked Grebe here and everyone got to see it (photo by Brian Patteson).
We were also lucky to find a Great Skua resting on the water, but it soon took flight and headed toward the shoreline.  We were only three and a half miles off the beach, so one of the landmarks I used to point it out was the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.  I wish it had been interested in our chum, but everyone had a good look nonetheless.  We followed the color change for several miles to the south and turned up many Razorbills, Dovekies, hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls, and at least five Little Gulls (photo of one from Cape Point on Sunday by Brian Patteson).
There was some warmer water that butted up almost perpendicularly to what I will call the shoals change when we got out around 20 fathoms.  There were many Bonaparte's Gulls feeding along this edge, along with a few Red Phalaropes and one Manx Shearwater.  Surprisingly, we did not see a single fulmar.  With the extreme cold, the warmer 60 some degree water was smoking (photo by Brian Patteson).
It was the first time we had seen this "sea smoke" for a number of years.  The ride back from about 15 miles out, was chilly, but pleasant.  The white caps had gone away and it would be a few hours before the next gale would commence.  Back in Pamlico Sound, a flyby Harlequin Duck was a first for our winter boat trips here.

Thanks to Kate Sutherland, Todd McGrath, Dave Pereksta, Jeff Lemons, and Chloe Walker for leading, spotting, chumming, and keeping track of numbers, which was a challenge with so many birds.  Thanks also to Kenneth Kelly for allowing us to use a couple of his photos for our blog post!

We saw 161 Dovekies on Saturday & 107 on Monday (Brian Patteson).
Another photo from Saturday morning showing how calm it was!  Razorbill with reflection by Kenneth Kelly.
A couple of Razorbills in flight (Kate Sutherland).  We saw about 1,430 on Saturday & 550 on Monday!
We had many Lesser Black-backed Gulls in our flock each day, though there seemed to be more with us on Monday (Kate Sutherland).
Whenever we have a nice flock of gulls behind us, there is always a chance of seeing scenes like the one below (Brian Patteson).  We saw at least three Dovekies get eaten each trip (sure there were more), and we came upon some young Great Black-backed Gulls arguing over this Horned Grebe on Monday.
The Northern Gannets are always exciting to watch and photograph (Kate Sutherland).
There were quite a few younger birds on these trips (Kate Sutherland).
A couple shots of one of Monday's Little Gulls (Kate Sutherland).
Another shot of the Iceland (Kumlien's) Gull - looking up! (Kate Sutherland)
Another shot of the sea smoke along the change on Monday with Red Phalaropes and Bonaparte's Gulls (Kate Sutherland).