Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Stormy Petrel II - July 25 & 26, 2014 by Brian Patteson

The welcome arrival of a cold front here last Thursday night brought pleasant conditions and a cool breeze on Friday morning when we headed out to sea in search of pelagic birds.  Sunrise Friday morning (Jeff Lemons):
There was not much to see in the shelf waters, so we headed out to the deep, where there were large numbers of Wilson's Storm-Petrels that quickly gathered behind the boat (photo by Doug Gochfeld).  
A few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels found our chum slick as well and by back-tracking we got some good looks at them (photo below by Nick Bonomo).
Most days, Band-rumps don't stay in the slick as long as the Wilson's and this was one of those days.  We saw a good number of Black-capped Petrels, with many showing interest in the chum and passing by at close range.  As the morning went on, the activity waned and I slowly continued heading offshore, hoping for a tropicbird, different gadfly petrel, or maybe some Leach's Storm-Petrels.  It paid off for us when a light morph Trindade Petrel came right in to the chum (photo below by Doug Gochfeld).

Otherwise birds were very scarce 34 miles out, so we headed back toward the shelf break.  We saw a few more birds over the slope waters but not much inshore.  There was a lot of Sargasso weed but it was scattered badly - not a good situation for Bridled Terns - which we did not see on Friday.  We did, however, see a lot of flyingfish in the afternoon and these presented a good challenge for photographers (photos below by Tom Johnson & Doug Gochfeld of Sargassum Midgett & Atlantic Patchwing).

There is still a lot to work out when it comes to flyingfish identification, but more and better photos should help.

Saturday July 26 was more typical of a summer trip here.  It was sunny and hot but the Sargasso weed was better organized with some huge patches out past the shelf break.  As one might expect, there were Bridled Terns (photo by Nick Bonomo)
and Audubon's Shearwaters around the weedlines and an abundance of bait fish and invertebrates in the water below.  We found several rafts of Black-capped Petrels, sometimes mixed with Cory's and Audubon's Shearwaters, by carefully scanning with binoculars.  We only saw one Red-necked Phalarope, but we had great looks.  Band-rumped Storm-Petrels put on a better show during the early afternoon and we had good looks at one Leach's Storm-Petrel (photo by Jeff Lemons).  
Calm conditions always improve chances for seeing cetaceans and we got lucky with two beaked whale encounters.  Our first sighting was at a moderate distance but the animals surfaces several times.  The second sighting, just twenty minutes later, was much closer.  Photos and the dark scarring indicated these were Gervais' Beaked Whales, which is a regular but hard to see inhabitant of the deep water here off Cape Hatteras (photo below by Tom Johnson).
Later we saw several Bottlenose Dolphins, which are much easier to see well than the furtive beaked whales.  Again, most of the action was out past the shelf break and the inshore tack was not as interesting as it sometimes is during summer.  Of course all of that can change in a matter of days and it will be interesting to see what is going on after three consecutive days of northeast winds, which should begin this Tuesday.

I would like to thank our leaders, Kate Sutherland, Nick Bonomo, and Tom Johnson for making it an excellent two days on the boat.  We still have space on all of the upcoming trips aboard the Stormy Petrel II:  Aug 2, 8, 9, & 10 plus Sept 13(14).  

(Trip Lists are posted on our website, a huge thank you to everyone who joined us and to Nick Bonomo, Tom Johnson, Jeff Lemons, and Doug Gochfeld for letting us use some of their photos from the set!!)
Two images of the Trindade Petrel by Tom Johnson
An awesome angle on a Black-capped Petrel by Nick Bonomo
 One of the few whiter-faced individuals we saw over the two day set by Doug Gochfeld
 & the darkest Black-capped over the two day set by Jeff Lemons
This bird is a candidate for Scopoli's Shearwater (Cory's typically will not show this much white in the underside of p10) but the light makes it tough to see how well marked the underwing is - by Doug Gochfeld
 One of the only four (!) Great Shearwaters seen on this set by Jeff Lemons
A sharp looking Audubon's Shearwater by Tom Johnson, we had close encounters with them each day.
Many were sitting on the water in or near Sargassum like this one photographed by Nick Bonomo.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel in the slick by Doug Gochfeld
 A pair of Bridled Terns by Doug Gochfeld
Another shot of one of the closer Gervais' Beaked Whales by Nick Bonomo
& a couple more flyingfish photos!  This one looks to be another Atlantic Patchwing...tough, but very cool angle by Doug Gochfeld.
 And another Sargassum Midgett by Tom Johnson

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Discovery Series July 11 & 12, 2014

Five eager participants were at the dock before 0530 Friday July 11th to kick off our second trip set in the Discovery Series.  Believe it or not, this is a full boat for these trips aboard the F/V Skua!  These were the first trips scheduled since Hurricane Arthur passed over us a week previously and with the storms that had moved through Thursday night and Friday morning we were not sure what to expect.  When the cloud cover is dense, it is tough to get a good satellite shot of the water temperatures offshore, but we found the hot water and swift Gulf Stream current (up to 4kts on Friday!) just a little farther out than usual.  Friday was a bit breezy from the southwest, but that evening more storms moved through and while it was not in the forecast for the day on Saturday, we experienced some amazing weather offshore in the morning!  Waterspouts were seen in squall lines just offshore and we were hearing reports from fishing boats just hundreds of yards away from them.  The storm line that threatened to overtake us as we headed offshore was 24 miles long and full of lightning!  This, plus a shift to more northerly winds, helped keep the temperature cool on Saturday.
Black-capped Petrels were just not as hungry this weekend as they were on our previous outing, and perhaps there were not as many around.  Moon phases seem to have an effect on how well birds respond to the chum and we had a full moon that peaked on the 12th of July, so it could be that many of these birds were sitting around on the water, full, unwilling to expend the energy to fly to our slick.  Regardless we had some individuals make close passes by the stern and a couple even followed closely while we fed them chum!  Saturday morning just ahead of the storm line we saw many individuals flying around, as happens when there is wind - they find it!  Most Black-cappeds seen were intermediate, like the one pictured below, and dark-faced individuals.
Typically the summer sees an increase in numbers of shearwaters but we barely got out of the single digits on Saturday and we stayed there on Friday!  Cory's, Great, and Audubon's were seen each day with marginally higher numbers seen on Saturday's trip when there was more Sargassum around and we had some wind to get them flying.  Nonetheless we had close looks at all three species and each joined us in the slick over the two day set!  As with the Black-cappeds, the birds were really flying ahead of the squall lines.
Great Shearwaters were our best customers, Brian got this photo with a 200mm zoom lens.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels were our most numerous tubenose over the weekend.  We had good views of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels both days, and while a few Leach's were seen, we had better views on Friday!  As expected, the Band-rumpeds made nice, close passes by the stern so that everyone aboard was able to study this larger, warm water specialty.  While the light was not the best this weekend for photos, Brian captured this nice image of some of our Wilson's:
And I was able to get at least one sharp photo of a Band-rumped, in a position that makes for a tough id...the tail looks forked, but it is just the way the bird was holding it!
Tropical terns were in short supply but we did have two perched Bridled Terns on Friday and one that came in to the slick on Saturday.  The first one spotted on Friday was our first adult of the season!  It sat on its perch and allowed us to approach closely.
The other two individuals, younger birds, were more typical of what we see this time of year.  

While conditions were fairly good for spotting cetaceans, we only saw some offshore Bottlenose Dolphins and a handful of Spotted Dolphins.  Each day we were lucky to encounter enough Sargassum to dip some and examine it closely.  Friday we were rewarded with a young Sargassum Fish (Histrio histrio) who was just as big as a fingernail on your pinky finger!  It was a beautiful orange color and the frilly pectoral fins they use to grip the sargassum were visible when held in a bit of gulf stream water!

We would like to thank everyone who came out with us on this set.  We covered a good portion of the globe with birders from Australia, England, Canada, the west coast, and a few east coasters thrown in for good measure!  Our next trips are July 25, 26, & 27 aboard the Stormy Petrel II with leaders Nick Bonomo & Tom Johnson.  We hope to see you out there!  Trip lists from this set are posted on our website here.

A few more photos...Great Shearwater (Brian Patteson)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel showing the long legs and yellow webbing (Brian Patteson)
Another shot of the adult Bridled Tern from Friday morning (Brian Patteson)
& a Black Skimmer on the way back to the dock Saturday afternoon (Kate Sutherland)

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Discovery Series June 27 & 28, 2014 - by Brian Patteson

On the list of frequently asked questions we get, the most common one has to be "when is the best time to go on a pelagic trip from Hatteras?".  My usual response is "when you have a chance to do it".  The thing is that Hatteras is not a convenient place to get to.  There is no big airport an hour away and it's a fairly long drive from about anywhere.  For most people, it's going to be at least a three to six hour drive to get here, even if they are at a relatively "close" starting point.  A lot of birders who live far away, however, might find themselves in the NC Triangle area or somewhere in Virginia at some point and if it coincides with some of our boat trips, we get a chance to show them some seabirds.  Of course we need enough people to make it worthwhile and this limits the number of trips we can offer.  Late June and early July have always been tough times for us to fill boats, despite the fact that we have enjoyed some excellent birding here in early summer over the years.  With this in mind we decided to offer some trips on a smaller boat this year.  With lower overhead costs, we can go out with just a few people and in the process run a more focused trip with really close up looks at the birds.  We dubbed these new small boat trips the "Discovery Series" with the idea that we would be free to try new things and be able to get out more often, thus giving us a better handle on what goes on from week to week.  And with less people on the boat, there is a better chance for trip participants to discover more about the Gulf Stream and the marine life here.

The itinerary is similar to a regular Gulf Stream pelagic trip.  We go to where we expect to see the most birds and as far as we need to go to see the deepwater specialties.  Kate Sutherland and I ran two trips aboard our 31' downeast boat, the Skua, on June 27 & 28.  Although we did not have any participants who attended both trips, the days were quite different and each trip included two species not seen on the other day.  The first day was quite calm and started out fairly hot.  It felt like tropicbird weather and sure enough one of the first birds we saw after slowing down was a young Red-billed Tropicbird.  Unfortunately, it was not really interested in the boat and soon left us.  It took awhile to gather some birds with the chum but Wilson's & Band-rumped Storm-Petrels did eventually find us and fed for hours at arms length.  We also had some very close looks at Black-capped Petrels.  A 200mm lens was plenty for close photos of one Black-cap that fed in the slick for several minutes.
While we were drifting and watching storm-petrels and Black-caps during the morning, a group of at least eight Cuvier's Beaked Whales surfaced in the distance.  Later in the day we were surprised to see a near adult Long-tailed Jaeger
that found our slick just minutes after a Leach's Storm-Petrel arrived for what turned out to be a long visit.  Clouds and rain made for a cool afternoon on the ride in.

Day Two started out cooler than Day One with a little breeze.  It was still a pleasant ride out.  Again it took a while to get some birds around, but when they found us, it was up close and personal.  A Trindade Petrel was a bit more distant, but we had pretty good looks in great light before it headed for the horizon.  There were numerous squalls scattered around, but we managed to keep dry for most of the day.  When they did get closer, they brought us many shearwaters and Black-capped Petrels, as well as another Trindade Petrel
that made a nice close circle over the chum slick.  Although we didn't see many Audubon's Shearwaters, we had one close around the boat for several minutes.
Around midday a squall finally caught up to us and the light on the birds as it approached was amazing.
Ironically we did not have a boat full of photographers.  We then ran across it to the other side and, coming out about 15 minutes later, it did not take long to chum up a new flock.  These birds followed us right up to the shelf break before we headed home.  The wind picked up for the ride in but it was mostly a following sea.

We think these trips are the beginning of what can be a new dimension in pelagic birding here - a chance to get out more often and a chance to get closer to the birds.  If you have only been out to sea on fairly large boats, you will be amazed at the experience we can offer on our 31 footer.  The Skua is a very comfortable, seaworthy boat.  Many of the birds we saw could be seen well without binoculars.  It was probably the best viewing of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels that we have ever had.  And Kate's photos even revealed that one of them was banded.  We are looking forward to our next trips in July (11, 12, & 13th).  In the meantime, we are also open for charters.  The Skua will accommodate five birders for $975 per day.  -Brian Patteson

Thanks again to everyone who joined us for these trips!  Below are some more photos by Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland - the trip lists are on our website!
A couple more photos of the Trindade Petrel from Saturday:
The Black-cappeds could not have been more cooperative!
Two shots of Cory's Shearwaters
 & a couple Greats
Our cooperative Leach's Storm Petrel from Friday's trip.  This individual stayed with us in the slick feeding for hours!
Images of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels
This ratty looking individual pictured below was banded upon inspection of the photos (not a color band)!  Contact us if you are interested in the photos that show the band or have any information on anyone banding Oceanodroma castro.
Hope to see some of you out there soon!  Beautiful shot of the Graceful Leader with a squall line behind her!