Sunday, February 24, 2019

Presidents' Day Weekend Double Header - Feb 17 & 18, 2019 - by Brian Patteson

We have been offering two trips on President’s Day weekend for over a decade now to give our participants the best chance to see a Great Skua off Hatteras. This was our only two-trip winter weekend, and the weather presented a bit of a challenge. Saturday was rainy with strong winds forecasted for early afternoon, so we decided to push the trips back a day. The wind did come as predicted and it blew hard from the north well into Saturday night. By Sunday morning though, the wind had mostly fallen out and we had an easy ride up to Diamond Shoals.

The water was cool- around 50 or so between the inlet and the shoals- and we saw a good number of Razorbills along the way. We also had a good following of gulls behind the boat and when we got up on the shoals there were good numbers of gannets on the horizon. There were some clouds, but the sun was coming out, such that there was some glare on the bow. It was a good set up for seeing a skua and sure enough a Great Skua appeared suddenly off the starboard bow. I saw it soon enough to alert everyone on deck and fortunately our skua kept on coming and stayed in view for a few minutes. It was a lifer for many aboard and the main reason most had come out for the trip, so success was ours when everyone had a good look. It was only 8:35 and we had reached our goal! (photo by Peter Flood)

Given that we had plenty of time on our hands, I decided to tack offshore. It seemed the best plan for adding some diversity to our bird list. The water was warmer just a few miles out, but there was no hard edge to be found. We eventually found 70 degree water out near the shelf break and a Black-capped Petrel came by close enough for a decent look (photo Lev Frid).
A few miles farther out to sea a Manx Shearwater decided to join our feeding flock for a while and put on quite a show for several minutes. Otherwise it was pretty quiet offshore, so I tacked back in toward the cooler water. Along the way we saw another Black-cap inshore of the shelf break. We also picked up and Iceland Gull after we got back in the cold water. Razorbills had mostly settled down, but we did see several on the ride back to the inlet.  The wind actually picked back up from the north in the afternoon, so we were fortunate to have a nice weather window for getting out on Sunday.

By Sunday evening the forecast looked less than ideal for Monday and I wasn’t sure if we would make it or not. It pretty much depended on how hard the wind came on from the south and the duration of it. Early on Monday morning I was pleased to find it wasn’t blowing all that hard. There was still some wind offshore and a bit of swell, but we had an easy bar crossing and a nice ride up to the east. I elected to head to Outer Diamond Shoals instead of crossing and we found a good number of gannets feeding there. It was cloudy and I had high hopes for a skua, but we had to settle for an Iceland Gull instead (photo Kate Sutherland).

With no skua to be found on the shoals, I decided to stay inshore and I worked up the coast in the zone where we have seen many skuas over the years. Unfortunately, there was not much to see, let alone a skua. We did pick up an interesting gull that we identified as a Nelson’s Gull- the relatively common hybrid between Glaucous and Herring Gulls (photo Kate Sutherland).
Working back down the beach and a few miles inshore we found good numbers of Razorbills and a few flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls. A couple of our participants had a quick look at a Dovekie, but we were in choppy seas and could not relocate it.

We found calmer conditions on the west side of Diamond Shoals. Birds were a bit sparse, but there were a few flocks of Razorbills headed east. A couple of Humpback Whales were showing briefly on the surface and I headed closer to investigate. They were spending a lot of time underwater and I stopped to wait them out. Then they appeared very close on the starboard side. We were all a bit shocked when one of them suddenly breached just 50 feet from the boat! I wasn’t ready for it, but a few folks had their cameras ready and got the images of a lifetime! (photo Kate Sutherland)
Then the whale swam right under the pulpit and surfaced on the port side, close enough to smell its breath. I’m not sure what the breaching was about, but maybe it was a territorial thing as the two whales were in very close proximity to each other. Whatever the reason, it was awesome to see it and it made up for a pretty slow day bird-wise.

I would like to thank everyone who came out for the trips this weekend, especially those who came for both days. Our crew also did a great job. This weekend it was Kate Sutherland, Peter Flood and Lev Frid, and they worked together like a well- oiled machine. These were our last winter trips for this year and we are looking forward to the spring. There are plenty of trips and all of the dates still have availability. See our schedule at

List of Target Species February 17 / 18
Common Loon  2 / 0
Black-capped Petrel  0 / 2
Manx Shearwater  1 / 2
Northern Gannet  400 / 600 *estimates
Bonaparte's Gull  175 / 274
Iceland Gull (kumlieni)  1 / 3
"Nelson's" Gull  0 / 1
Forster's Tern  21 /
Great Skua  1 / 0
Dovekie  0 / 1
Razorbill  249 / 312

A few more images from the weekend~
Manx Shearwater by Peter Flood
Image of the Iceland Gull from the trip on Sunday (Kate Sutherland)
And one from the trip on Monday (Kate Sutherland)
Another image of the "Nelson's" Gull from Monday (Kate Sutherland)
& a dorsal view of this same bird (Kate Sutherland)
A couple of Razorbill images from Monday's trip (Kate Sutherland)
We had nice numbers of Northern Gannets each day, but not quite what we saw earlier this winter!  (Peter Flood)
Lesser Black-backed Gulls were around on every trip this winter, and are excellent subjects for photography!  (Peter Flood)
& finally a few more images of the Humpack (top by participant Kenneth Kelly, other by Kate Sutherland)

Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Saturday February 2, 2019 - Lariday - by Brian Patteson

It was great to get to sea for the third winter weekend in a row with a full boat and great weather. It was a little breezy this morning, but not enough to slow us down and keep us from going where we wanted to go. We found good numbers of gulls and gannets just east of Hatteras Inlet and our chumming soon attracted a first winter Iceland (Kumlien’s) Gull. An hour later, a first winter Glaucous Gull joined us (photo by Kate Sutherland).
This was our first winter trip in a while with both white-winged gulls. There were a few Razorbills on the move early in the morning as we might expect, but the water was a bit warmer than we like for alcids, so we headed north across Diamond Shoals looking for cooler water temps. It took a while to find those conditions, and birds were decidedly sparse north of the Cape. Around 10:30 a Manx Shearwater found us and ended up following the boat for nearly half an hour! It came close and gave great photo ops working up into the wind (photo by Kate Sutherland).

When we got in the vicinity of Wimble Shoals, we did find cooler water and quite a few more gannets than we had seen off Buxton and Avon. There were also more Razorbills, but they were skittish and hard to approach.  Working back to the south, we continued to see Razorbills and we got better looks and even some photo ops. We also found a very cooperative Little Gull among a flock of Bonaparte’s (photo Ed Corey).    
Our much hoped for Great Skua was nowhere to be found, however. They can be tough to find on “bluebird days” because they don’t fly around as much, and it’s harder for them to sneak up on the gulls, so they are less likely to even try. As for the gulls, we ended up with nine species for the day, and as the rare ones were our best finds for the trip, so at Kyle's suggestion, we will call this trip a “Lariday.” I would like to thank our crew: Kate Sutherland, Kyle Kittelberger, and Ed Corey worked together like a well-oiled machine. Our next trip- coming up on Feb. 9 or 10- has plenty of room, and from what I can see of the forecast, it looks more promising for finding a skua. Check out our website for details about this and other upcoming trips:

Target Species List February 2, 2019
Common Loon  4
Red-throated Loon  2
Manx Shearwater  1
Northern Gannet  thousands seen
Little Gull  1 adult
Bonaparte's Gull  2125
Iceland Gull (kumlieni)  1 first winter
Glaucous Gull  1 first winter
Razorbill  38
the other species of gull encountered were Laughing, Ring-billed, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed!

Bottlenose Dolphin  74
Loggerhead Turtle  11
Spinner Shark  1

And a few more photos, thank you to Kyle & Ed for sharing some with us to post here!

Manx Shearwater, dorsal view (Kate Sutherland)
Another couple of photos of the Little Gull in with the flock - showing the underwings, and then the upperwings below (bird on the far R) (both photos by Kyle Kittelberger)
A couple more images of the Glaucous Gull, it stayed with us for hours!  (top Ed Corey, below Kyle Kittelberger)
A couple of Razorbill images (young bird, top - Ed Corey, adult below - Kyle Kittelberger)
Northern Gannet with a tasty morsel - Atlantic menhaden (Kate Sutherland)
And a few more gulls from the day!
Laughing Gull (Ed Corey)
A handful of Bonaparte's Gulls, including one with a dark hood (Ed Corey)
Lesser and Great Black-backed Gulls (Also by Ed Corey!)

Monday, January 28, 2019

Saturday January 26, 2019 - by Brian Patteson

January 26, 2019

We got out on our first regular winter trip of the season with a full boat of eager participants. We were again blessed with good weather, but the water had warmed up a few degrees as a result of southerly flow in recent days. Instead of water temperatures in the mid to high 40s, we had low to mid 50s. The water inshore looked about the same as last week, but there were not as many birds- especially Razorbills. 

I thought it might be worth checking out the edge of the Gulf Stream in hopes of finding some Red Phalaropes and maybe a kittiwake, but our foray offshore was pretty much a bust. We made it out a couple of miles past the shelf break and found water just over 70 degrees, but no birdlife except for what followed along with us.  Our trusty flock included a first winter Iceland Gull, which ended up spending most of the day in our wake (photo by Kyle Kittelberger).
We did see some marine life as we got into the warmer water: a pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins came in and rode our bow wave, and we saw several Hammerhead Sharks just inshore of the current edge. There was strong current where we turned around over 20 miles southeast of the Cape.

Having struck out on the south side of the Cape and offshore, I jogged back inshore toward Avon. Bird activity picked up again in the cooler water there. We had a quick look at a single Red Phalarope a couple of miles inshore of a ragged temperature break, and we finally started getting some better looks at Razorbills, which were both flying by and scattered around sitting on the sea (photo by Brian Patteson).
We also started to see a few Manx Shearwaters well inshore, and we ended up with seven for the day. We did not see any last weekend, so it was nice to find them on this trip. There were good numbers of gannets on the north side, and some were feeding. We still had a good following of gulls, and shortly before 1330, they attracted the attention of a Great Skua, which came charging in and made an attack only to soon lose interest and drift away. It seems like that’s how we see them on bright sunny days. I don’t think they waste much time flying around, and if they aren’t close, it’s hard to figure out how far away they have gone before they land on the water. Anyhow, it was one shot and it was gone: a lifer for some and a better view desired for others.

There was a lot of life all the way to Diamond Shoals- hundreds of gannets, large numbers of Bottlenose Dolphins, and good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls and Razorbills feeding. It thinned out when we crossed the shoals and did not pick up again until we got close to Hatteras Inlet. A Little Gull quickly crossed out bow on this leg of the trip, but it did not slow down enough for most people to see it. This is a species that we actually see with some frequency on these trips, but unless they are feeding they can be tough to get on.

I would like to thank everyone who joined us on this trip. It was a great showing and people came a long way to go with us. I would also like to thank Kate Sutherland for all her hard work on the deck as usual, and also our guest leaders, Kyle Kittelberger and Nick Newberry. I’m not sure what next weekend will bring, but possibly colder water again, so maybe more auks. There are currently good numbers of puffins in the shelf waters off the Virginia Capes and maybe a few will get down here in the days and weeks to come.

Target Species List January 26, 2019
Common Loon  4
Manx Shearwater  7
Northern Gannet  1125
Red Phalarope  1
Little Gull  1 adult
Bonaparte's Gull  300
Iceland Gull (kumlieni) 1 first winter
Forster's Tern  8
Great Skua  1
Razorbill  150

Bottlenose Dolphin (coastal)  88
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin  15
Loggerhead Turtle  1
Hammerhead sp.  10

Some additional photos from the trip!
We saw all age classes of gannets, first winter bird (Kyle Kittelberger) with a second winter individual below (Nick Newberry)
Some Bonaparte's Gulls with a Razorbill on the water (Kate Sutherland)
A couple more photos of the Iceland Gull (Kate Sutherland)
Razorbill in flight with a sport boat in the background (Kate Sutherland)
We saw at least 200 Lesser Black-backed Gulls over the course of the day!  Here are a couple images of adults (Nick Newberry top, Kyle Kittelberger below)
We also had some young Brown Pelicans that followed us offshore, but most of the adults were closer to the beach (Nick Newberry)

Saturday, January 19, 2019

Friday January 18, 2019 Carolina Bird Club Winter Pelagic - by Brian Patteson

We usually do a winter boat trip for the Carolina Bird Club when they have their winter meeting in Nags Head, which has been every two or three years, but we couldn’t do it in 2017 because we were installing new engines in the boat, and in 2015, we had a trip planned but we got weathered out. As such we were very keen to run this trip, and as luck would have it the weather turned out to be beautiful (sunrise by Kate Sutherland). 

We also had an incursion of cold water south of Cape Hatteras, the likes of which is uncommon in mid January. This meant we did not have to start out north of the Cape, which is sometimes the case. A high tide in the morning also meant we were able to bypass the regular channel and slip out the east side of Hatteras Inlet, saving us about 20 minutes.

We found good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls and Razorbills not far outside the inlet, and between 7:30 and 8:30 AM we counted over 400 Razorbills! Razorbills have been here in force since late December, which is a bit earlier than usual. Cape Hatteras has been a wintering site for thousands of Razorbills for at least 25 years now, and this winter is no exception (photo of a young Razorbill by Kyle Kittelberger).

The water inshore was cold- in the mid to high 40s- but it was ugly looking. Nevertheless, it was teaming with life and we also found good numbers of gannets and a huge concentration of over 200 Bottlenose Dolphin feeding heavily (photo by Kate Sutherland). 

We steamed offshore looking for better water clarity, but did not find it until we got about 20 miles out. There we found a temperature break and water up to 60 degrees, but it was not a sharp change. There were quite a few Bonaparte’s Gulls there, but not the phalaropes, Dovekies, or puffins we had hoped to find. We did see a few Ocean Sunfish, including one that was cell phone close, and we also found a couple of Loggerhead Turtles. We followed the change out to the east into 50 fathoms, but there was nothing much to see there, so we headed northward. Working back into the cold water, we began to see more Razorbills again, and we stopped to look at a distant breaching Humpback Whale and a reported Razorbill on the water. The Razorbill turned out to be a Common Murre and most of the people aboard added a new species to their North Carolina life list (photo by Ed Corey). 

Continuing northward an immature Black-legged Kittiwake decided to join our flock of feeding birds and spent a long time with us, occasionally feeding on the chum. I had hoped for more kittiwakes, after a big showing on the Cape Hatteras Christmas Bird Count, but those birds must have moved on. Fortunately it only takes one, like the Great Shearwater, that joined us earlier in the morning and followed us for many miles. Unfortunately, that turned out be the only tubenose of the day. Usually we see Manx Shearwater and frequently Northern Fulmar but not on this trip. I expect an onshore wind might have sent those species our way, but instead we had light westerlies and a flock of Brown Pelicans that followed us over 20 miles out (photo by Ed Corey)!

Fair weather is good for landlubbers though and we had a pleasant trip and a boat full of happy people. We have several more trips to run and I expect we will see some more species as we go along. Last winter we saw Great Skuas on all of our winter boat trips, so I guess we were overdue to miss it on this one. They can be tough when it’s calm because they are less likely to be airborne, and they are always a low-density winter visitor here. I would like to thank everyone who came along to make this trip possible and also Christine Stoughton-Root of the Carolina Bird Club for helping us with the booking and promotion. Our experienced team of guides worked like a well-oiled machine: Kate Sutherland, Kyle Kittelberger, Ed Corey, and Jeff Lemons did an excellent job as usual.

Species List January 18, 2019
Common Murre  1
Razorbill  1509
Black-legged Kittiwake  1 immature
Bonaparte's Gull  1272
Laughing Gull  3
Ring-billed Gull  3
Herring Gull  185
Great Black-backed Gull  135
Lesser Black-backed Gull  32
Forster's Tern  23
Red-throated Loon  8
Common Loon  4
Great Shearwater  1
Northern Gannet  3860

Humpback Whale  1
Bottlenose Dolphin  305
Loggerhead Turtle  3
Ocean Sunfish (Mola)  6

A few more photos!  
Another image of the Common Murre!  (Ed Corey)
A couple of adult Razorbills on the water (Kate Sutherland) and one of the first cooperative birds we had in the morning (Ed Corey)

A couple photos of the Black-legged Kittiwake (Kyle Kittelberger)

We had a handful of Bonaparte's Gulls that still had varying degrees of black on the head like this individual (Kate Sutherland)
This Great Shearwater stayed with us, feeding in the chum with the gulls, for awhile! (Ed Corey)

The gannets were around in good numbers almost all day!  In the afternoon we got to watch them raining down over a pod of feeding Bottlenose Dolphins, all in view of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse!  (Kate Sutherland)
We were treated to all age classes of gannets!  It seemed like there were more first winter birds that we typically see, though this first trip is a bit earlier than our usual winter trips so who knows?  (First winter bird by Kate Sutherland - top / adult by Kyle Kittelberger - bottom)
A few of the gulls that showed well in the chum (all photos by Ed Corey)!  Top Great Black-backed Gull, middle Lesser Black-backed Gull, and bottom Laughing Gull
A closer image of some of the Bottlenose Dolphin dorsal fins with mesoparasitic copepods (likely of the genus Penella) attached (Ed Corey)

And finally, a photo of one of the Loggerhead Turtles we saw!  (Kyle Kittelberger)