Saturday, March 8, 2014

February 27 & March 2, 2014 by Brian Patteson

On Thursday February 27, we ran a last minute trip that was basically a "chase trip" for the Yellow-nosed Albatross that we saw on February 22.  It seemed like our best chance would be to work inshore among the gulls and gannets, so we did not get to see what was flying around a hard temperature break out near the edge of the continental shelf.  The water was markedly colder in the areas where we had seen the albatross a few days before.  There were good numbers of gulls and gannets, including some nece feeding flocks, but no sign of an albatross.  We did not see any skuas either - our first miss north of Diamond Shoals in four trips.  We did , however, see the first Dovekies of the season, a California Gull, and Little Gull (each time we crossed the shoals!).  It was good to see Ned Brinkley and Paul Sykes among others who made it possible to run this extra trip.

We ran our last winter trip of the season on Sunday March 2.  It was a beautiful day with sunshine, calm seas, and warm temperatures.  The water, however, was cold, so it made for some very good birding.  Conditions had changed quite a bit from Thursday, so we did not have to go to the shelf break to find a hard temperature break.  Instead we found this condition right on the edge of Diamond Shoals.  We had a good 10 degree break from the low 50s to low 60s and it was teaming with life.  There were hundreds of Red Phalaropes
along the change as well as lesser numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls.  We had close looks at a number of Manx Shearwaters.
A Sooty Shearwater, rare here in winter, joined our gull flock for a while feeding and diving in the chum line.
We stayed on the change for over three hours and nearly 20 miles.  Toward the north end of this journey we found a large number of Manta Rays, several Loggerhead Turtles, and our first and only Dovekie of the trip.
Working inshore and into cooler water, we found many Razorbills.  Kate spotted an adult Thayer's Gull behind the boat and it followed us for miles.
A Long-tailed Duck made a close fly-by and a California Gull zipped down the port side in pursuit of a Bonaparte's Gull.
A few miles off Avon we found hundreds of Razorbills and had distant looks at a large Basking Shark.  There were several Loggerhead Turtles here even though the water was in the high 40s.  We could not turn up a skua, despite a good showing of gulls and gannets.  Crossing Diamond Shoals in the afternoon there were some nice feeding aggregations of gannets and Bottlenose Dolphin and a California Gull joined our chum flock and gave looks to all this time.  This was possibly the bird seen a few miles north, but a different individual from the one we saw on Thursday.  Working back towards Hatteras Inlet, there were good numbers of birds and dolphins but no new additions to the day's list.  Special thanks to Jeff Lemons for helping lead the trip and to Scott Winton for bringing the "Nic Nat's" group from Duke for their annual winter boat trip.  It was a great trip to finish the season with.

(photos above by Brian Patteson - Manx Shearwater, Jeff Lemons - Dovekie & Long-tailed Duck, and Kate Sutherland - Red Phalaropes, Sooty Shearwater, and Thayer's Gull)

Red-throated Loon (Jeff Lemons)

Sooty Shearwater (Kate Sutherland)
Manx Shearwater (Brian Patteson) - note the compact body and short tail!
 Manx Shearwater (Jeff Lemons) - note dark face, long, slender bill, and white undertail coverts
Second year Northern Gannet (Kate Sutherland)
California Gull (two photos by Jeff Lemons)
Thayer's Gull (Kate Sutherland)
Razorbills (Kate Sutherland)
 Adult Razorbill (Jeff Lemons)
Manta Rays & Remoras next three photos (Kate Sutherland)

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Yellow-nosed Albatross ~ February 22, 2014

I must admit I was a little worried about what we might see on Saturday's pelagic trip.  The water has been warmer than usual south of Cape Hatteras this winter because of a close Gulf Stream.  But in recent days, the Gulf Stream water shoved in close to the beach to the north of Cape Hatteras as well!  Alcids don't typically favor 65 to 68 degree water.  We find them there when there is cold water close beside it and the warmer water has better clarity, especially near the shelf break.  But warm turbid water inshore is usually the death knell for seeing alcids, and it was on Saturday.  But...we can often find some other seabirds the people are keen to see in this warm water such as Manx Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, Red Phalarope, maybe even a Black-capped Petrel.

Our first stop on Saturday was just south of Diamond Shoals Tower.  We promised the turtle people at the NC Aquarium that we would return some cold-stunned turtles to the wild.  I figured we would do our good deed and see some "warm water" seabirds in the process.  Well, the turtles (one Loggerhead, two Greens, and two Kemp's Ridleys) swam away happily but the birding was definitely subpar.  And to add insult to injury, the ocean was just choppy enough to make for a long, dull ride to cooler more productive waters several miles north of Diamond Shoals.

Link here to passenger Karen Roberts releasing the smaller Kemp's Ridley

We had a decent gull flock chummed up, but where there had been some fulmars less than a week ago, there were none.  We saw occasional Razorbills and Red Phalaropes and a token Manx Shearwater.  Around 1130 we got up to where a Great Skua had teased us six days earlier.  There were a few gannets but it was comparatively quiet.  We steamed northward.  Finally, a little bit past noon, I hear "SKUA!".  Just as a week before, the bird disappears as quickly as it had appeared.  We crisscrossed this area for the next hour and got a few more quick but closer looks at this Great Skua, and a few more Manx Shearwaters and Red Phalaropes.  Around 1400 we were at the point where we needed to head homeward, so I decided to work southward about four or five miles off the beach, running along a color change.  At 1415, there is some screaming, but I don't hear "Skua!" this time.  It takes a moment to compute "A-L-B-A-T-R-O-S-S!!!"  Not something I hear much around here.  Sure enough, a Yellow-nosed Albatross comes sailing by on the port side and lands on the water.  It's a lifer for many aboard and a new bird for the boat.  It's the second species of albatross in NC for my co-leaders Kate Sutherland and Jeff Pippen!  And my long-awaited second Yellow-nosed Albatross in these waters.  What a bird!  It's not as big as a Black-browed, but it's so sleek, and it still dwarfs the competition at the stern.  It's just windy enough for our giant bird to take off with little effort, but calm enough seas to get close for participants to take cell phone photos and videos (and send them out within seconds!).  It's a younger albatross than the one we saw just a few miles north of here in 2000.  That was back in the film days.  If we were still in the film days now, some people would have run out of film on this bird.  We watched it closely for about half an hour before we had to head home, and then the bird was accommodating enough to follow us.  We last saw it off the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - 10 miles south of where we found it (or where it found us!).  We didn't see much else on the way back, but no one seemed to mind.  It had been a generally slow day compared to most, but it was proof positive that persistence pays off.  We dogged the skua until we got some better looks and our hopes for another skua had kept us in "albatross alley".  We did not see another skua, but as I told our group, "You can always come back and try for a better look at a skua, but an albatross?  It could be years".
-Brian Patteson

*This is the fourth Yellow-nosed Albatross seen in this vicinity since 2000.  Two from our trips in February 2000 and 2014.  Two from shore at Cape Hatteras in April 2004 and 2006.  Maybe we should run more trips in March and April.

Thanks to everyone who joined us on Saturday!  It was spectacular!  Thanks Jeff Pippen for helping us lead the trip!

Some final numbers:
Yellow-nosed Albatross  1
Manx Shearwater  6
Red Phalarope  66
Great Skua  1
Razorbill  32

Loggerhead Turtle  2
Spotted Dolphin  1-2
Bottlenose Dolphin  many seen

Photo of the smaller Kemp's Ridley Turtle released by Karen Roberts (photo by Brian Patteson)

Two photos of the Yellow-nosed Albatross by participant Irvin Pitts -
 look at that face!
 Following photos by Brian Patteson

And a few more Kate Sutherland

Thursday, February 20, 2014

February 16 & 17, 2014

After a long hiatus, we made it back out to sea with some birders aboard the Stormy Petrel II for a couple of trips over Presidents' Day weekend.  Strong winds kept us at the dock on Saturday, but conditions were quite pleasant on Sunday.  Despite some blasts of cold air in recent weeks, the water temperatures in the ocean off Cape Hatteras have been fairly mild, owing to a close Gulf Stream this winter.  On Sunday we crossed Diamond Shoals and worked northward looking for colder water and we only found it fairly close to shore.  We had high 40s about three miles off the beach, but mid 50s another three miles out.  There was no shortage of Razorbills, but the best of it was definitely near shore.  This is where we also had our only encounter with Great Skua.  The skua was seen briefly about three miles out just north of Avon, where there was a large gathering of feeding gannets and Bottlenose Dolphin.  A few miles farther out to sea, there were a few Northern Fulmars, and out near Diamond Shoals Tower we found warmer water (60s) and a couple of Manx Shearwaters.  We also found some Red Phalaropes in this area, but the highlight for many was an enormous Manta Ray that was feeding along the temperature break/color change.  It was fairly quiet to the west of the shoals on Sunday.

Monday was much different.  We awoke to strong winds following the passage of a cold front.  Sea conditions were workable south of Cape Hatteras and west of Diamond Shoals, but it was obvious that we would not be seeing the north side that day.  I picked a route to minimize spray and maximize comfort, with hopes the wind would abate somewhat by midday, which it did.  We worked southward from the cape out past 20 fathoms and that was pretty good for Northern Fulmars.  The numbers were modest but we had great looks close to the boat.  Manx Shearwater and Red Phalarope were also seen, but not as well as on Sunday.  Two different "Nelson's" Gulls followed the boat for some time.  This is a hybrid resulting from pairing of Glaucous and Herring Gulls.  There were plenty of Lesser Black-backed Gulls.  This is now a common species here.  We also saw several Loggerhead Turtles, despite the choppy conditions, so it makes you wonder how many were really out there.  Razorbills were seen in good numbers, but most were on the move.  There were not as many gannets as we had seen on the north side on Sunday, but there were some feeding flocks off Hatteras Inlet.  Probably the most impressive sight were the hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls, which were feeding along a tide line to the west of Diamond Shoals along a stretch of several miles.  Scrutiny of these flocks turned up two adult Little Gulls, which were seen repeatedly and quite well at close range.  A distant jaeger was seen near Hatteras Inlet before we crossed the bar.

I would like to thank Kate Sutherland, Lev Frid, and Jeff Lemons for helping lead the trips both days, and of course all of our participants, many of whom traveled long distances in adverse weather to get here.

Birds and Wildlife of Note February 16/17
Manx Shearwater  3/1
Northern Fulmar  13/10
Red Phalarope  11/7
Great Skua  1/0
jaeger sp.  0/1
Little Gull  0/2
Razorbill  270/157
Manta Ray  1/0
Loggerhead Turtle  6/14

There were also hundreds of the common gulls, gannets, and good numbers of Bottlenose Dolphins, along with a few loons in the offshore waters.

Northern Fulmar - photo Lev Frid
Northern Fulmar
 Northern Gannets
Red Phalaropes
Little Gull (above) and Bonaparte's Gull (below) - photo Lev Frid
"Nelson's" Gull - third cycle individual
Banded Herring Gull!
 Let us know if you know anything about this color band!
Lesser Black-backed Gull - photo Lev Frid
Razorbills - photo Lev Frid
 Loggerhead Turtle - photo Lev Frid
Manta Ray - photo Lev Frid
Double-crested Cormorants and a Northern Gannet on an inshore sand island

Monday, December 30, 2013

Crunch Time Off Cape Hatteras

We hatched the plan back in October.  Kate and I were out in California to do some pelagic trips from Bodega Bay.  On the first day we were out with Debi Shearwater on the New Sea Angler, and we saw many familiar faces.  Among them were Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman.  They were both doing ABA Big Years and were trying to score a new year bird that day.  Over the course of the day, it came up that they needed a Great Skua for their year lists and wondered if it might be possible to see one in December.  I told them "maybe" and that later was better.  I thought our best bet would be to try the last week of December off Hatteras.  This had worked for John Vanderpoel in 2011 when he needed a Great Skua, so why not give it a shot?  Only difference was that we would have to scale things down and use a smaller boat because the Stormy Petrel II would be in Virginia all of December.  Fortunately for us, we had a smaller boat ready to go: the aptly named F/V Skua.

It had been our plan for a while to run some birding trips on this smaller boat.  In fact that is what we had mostly come to Bodega Bay for: birding on a smaller boat with less people.  We had already been out a couple of times with Capt. Vince Orsini on his charter boat Miss Anita and it had been great for seeing and photographing birds at close range, as well as little albacore fishing.  It had taken a while to get our own "little boat" ready for birding.  She was a hard used commercial boat when I bought her in 2009.  I extended the cabin and installed a toilet a couple of years ago, but the engine was tired and needed replacement.  Numerous commitments with the big boat also kept us pretty busy, so we did not get done re-powering the little boat until this year.  With fresh power, I felt good about taking people to sea on this small but capable vessel.  Built in Maine, the 31' BHM was advertised as "the biggest little boat on the bay" and it has earned a reputation as one of the most sea-going boats around.  Downeast boats are sea kindly by nature and the BHM is no exception.

Back to birding: it's mid December and Neil Hayward, who did not really begin in earnest on his Big Year until spring, is one bird away from setting a new ABA record.  Jay also has a very respectable list and both still want to try for a skua.  So the date is set and we also book the first three callers who want to go along for the ride.  We are happy that Neil has enough faith in us to gamble on the Great Skua, which is regular here but by no means guaranteed.

Amazingly enough, the weather forecast is near perfect for the first day we picked for this trip, so we head out to sea on December 28.  The water is a little choppy at first, but not really rough.  We head east toward Diamond Shoals, not seeing too many birds along the way.  Approaching the shoals, I slow down and Kate starts chumming.  Some gulls and gannets begin to feed in our wake and up on the shoals a young kittiwake joins the flock.  There are some more gannets out in the distance.  Our flock grows and another kittiwake comes in.  Then we go through a patch with fewer birds.  I speed up and head toward the "Tower" out past the Outer Diamond.  Almost immediately a Manx Shearwater comes sailing in and I slow down for better looks.  The Manx puts on a nice show and I jog out toward the tower.  The water starts to warm up and there is 70 degree water inshore of the tower.  I slow down and a Northern Fulmar finds us.  We enjoy good looks at the fulmar and head northeastward along the ragged change for a couple of miles.  There is a hammerhead shark and some Loggerhead Turtles, two of them close enough for phone photos.  Inshore of the change a trio of Red Phalaropes buzzes by.  There are some Bonaparte's Gulls and scattered gulls and gannets.  Our flock is growing, but the weather is getting prettier and they are getting lazy and strung out way behind.  I tell everyone that this is where we have seen many skuas and we'll work north for a few miles, then back south.

10:52.  I hear some shouting in the stern.  "What have you got?"  "A skua!"  "Coming into the flock."  There he is!  I can see the skua without binoculars.  It's about as close as most of them we see, and I expect it to disappear at any moment.  But to our relief, this one decides to stick around and beat up some gulls.  I run the boat around a little to keep up with it, but it keeps coming back and lands on the water periodically.  Great looks are had and there is no doubt that we have seen a Great Skua.  On its final pass, the bird flew right over the boat!  Many photos are taken and thanks and congratulations given.  We have done it, and the rest of the world knows about it within minutes.

After that it was a nice, slow ride back south to Hatteras.  We took the inshore route hoping for the longest of long shots, an albatross, but had to settle for some Razorbills and a very hungry Sooty Shearwater.  We see no more skuas, so I feel that much luckier in the end.  The F/V Skua had earned her keep and now has a hard act to follow for next year, when we begin offering some special trips and charters for birding with her.  Thanks to everyone aboard: Kate Sutherland for all the hard work, Neil and Jay for keeping the faith, and Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, and Nate Swick (you can see his blog post about the trip here) for all being part of it.

Captain Brian Patteson

Some photos of the Great Skua courtesy of our participants!  Thanks everyone!

by Neil Hayward
 Jay Lehman
 Bruce Richardson
 Nate Swick
 & Bruce also got a shot of it sitting on the water!
Here is a photo of the F/V Skua by Brian Patteson
& a group photo at the end of the day!  Nate Swick, Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, Jay Lehman, Brian Patteson, and Neil Hayward - since Kate took the photo, she is not pictured!

A few more images from the day by Kate Sutherland
Our very hungry Sooty Shearwater was not intimidated by the gulls in our flock!  This individual stayed with us for a while, circling the boat and diving with the gulls behind us again and again (to our delight!).
 Sooty Shearwater
We saw more Lesser Black-backed Gulls on this trip than I can remember seeing in the past, perhaps because we were out in December vs later in the winter?  Who knows!  At one point there were over 100 following the boat as we passed offshore of Cape Point.  Here are two young individuals:
 We had excellent looks at Bonaparte's Gulls over the course of the day.
 Loggerhead Turtle