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).

Sunday, February 8, 2015

February 7, 2015 by Brian Patteson

Our boat trip on February 7 from Hatteras was a great success.  We had excellent weather and a well attended trip with many first timers.  In contrast to our trip last month, we did not have to go as far to find some good seabirding.  There were a couple of nice temperature breaks that held hundreds of birds.  We found a conditions with a brown / green color change just six miles southeast of the inlet early in the trip.  The water temperature was in the mid 40s on one side and mid 50s on the other.  We found dozens of dozens of Bonaparte's Gulls
and several Dovekies along this change (photo by Kate Sutherland - you can see a Dovekie in the upper left corner...!).  Farther out there was a green to blue color change going from the mid 50s to mid 60s.  The blue / green change had hundreds of birds, mostly Bonaparte's Gulls and Red Phalaropes (photo by Kate Sutherland).  
There were also many Dovekies (photos by Brian Patteson) along this change as well as a few Northern Fulmars.  
We chummed hard and attracted a good following of gulls, but we could not turn up a Great Skua this time.  There was a modest number of gannets near Diamond Shoals.  The wind picked up by mid afternoon and we realized how lucky we had been with the timing of this trip.  We also saw a large flock of Brant in Pamlico Sound on the way back in.  

I would like to thank Kate Sutherland and Will Whitley for their help with spotting, leading, and chumming.

List of Target Seabirds:
Northern Fulmar  6
Red Phalarope  350+ (hard to count, constantly moving ahead!)
Razorbill  41
Dovekie  101 (great count here!)

Non Avian Marine Life:
Humpback Whale  1
Bottlenose Dolphin  dozens
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin  10 - 15
Loggerhead Turtle  19
unidentified small sea turtle  2
Hammerhead Shark (likely Scalloped)  3

We saw several Common Loons over the course of the day (photo by Brian Patteson)
Northern Gannet by Brian Patteson
Red Phalaropes by Brian Patteson
Lesser Black-backed Gulls were around in good numbers all day (photo by Brian Patteson)
Dovekie & Bonaparte's Gull (Kate Sutherland)
 Diving Dovekie!  We had so many of these close to the boat, you could see them "flying" underwater (Brian Patteson)
 Dovekie moving over the surface (Brian Patteson)
 Dovekie flying (Kate Sutherland)
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (Kate Sutherland)
 Loggerhead Turtle (Kate Sutherland)


Wednesday, January 21, 2015

January 17, 2015 by Brian Patteson

We ran our first winter seabirding trip for 2015 on Saturday aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  It was a private charter for Foysyth County Audubon and for several participants it was their first "pelagic" birding trip.  To call it a pelagic trip is a bit of a stretch because we spent most of the day in shelf waters, but this is often the case in winter, as we find the target birds in cooler water, which is often inshore.  It was a nice day for the trip.  It dawned clear, but it was a bit breezy early in the morning.  There was a little swell, but crossing Diamond Shoals was not a problem.  The coldest water we found - high 40s - was on the north side of the shoals.  This is where we found most of our Razorbills.  We had several small flocks buzzing around and we also enjoyed some close looks at Razorbills on the water.  We had two encounters with the highly sought after Great Skua.  Our first sighting was just four miles off the beach between Buxton and Avon (photo by Jeff Lemons)
and the second one was about eight miles out, where we found a blended change to warmer water with better clarity.  We also saw a couple of Dovekies and an adult Little Gull near this change (photo by Jeff Lemons).
As we worked farther south, the water warmed to the high 60s.  There were many Bonaparte's Gulls but no kittiwakes, phalaropes, or tubenoses of any kind.  We did, however, see several Hammerhead Sharks and Loggerhead Turtles in this water (photo by Jeff Lemons). 
We reached our farthest point out - about ten miles - near Diamond Tower and from there we steamed back to Hatteras Inlet.  The water temps held above 60 for most of the ride back, which was uneventful except for a "Nelson's" Gull (Glaucous x Herring hybrid) feeding on the chum (photo Jeff Lemons).
Thanks to Kate Sutherland, Jeff Lemons, and Nathan Gatto for leading the trip and thanks also to Cynthia Donalson, Nathan, and the Forsyth Audubon group for the charter.  Thanks also to Jeff for letting us use his photos for this post.  Our next trip is also a charter, but regularly scheduled open trips begin in February.  We still have plenty of space on February 7(8) and 21(22). 

For more info about these and other upcoming trips visit our website http://www.seabirding.com . Winter trips are hard to predict because the water temperature can change quickly on account of the Gulf Stream, but we have had good luck with Great Skua on both warm and cold water events.  We have done very well with alcids when the water was cold, but for what it's worth, we have seen two albatrosses on warm water days!!  That's two out of three EVER, just to put things into perspective, but we can always hope!

Razorbills are difficult to get close to, so we were very lucky to have a few surface nearby!  Everyone aboard had good views of these birds (photo by Jeff Lemons).
 Bonaparte's Gulls are often seen around Razorbills and will sometimes harass them for food (photo by Jeff Lemons).
 And they are nearshore!  Excellent photo by Jeff Lemons of a small flock of Razorbills flying with the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse in the background.
 Here is another shot of the Little Gull which was in a fairly small flock of Bonaparte's Gulls making it much easier to pick out for participants!  (photo by Jeff Lemons)
 Another shot of the first Great Skua we encountered (by Jeff Lemons) that was spotted by Theresa Schwinghammer.
Photos from the stern...  We had a nice flock with us for the entire day.  (photo by Kate Sutherland)
Two more photos of Northern Gannets (by Kate Sutherland)
"Nelson's" Gull spotted by Jeff Lemons in the stern!  (photo by Jeff Lemons)
 "Nelson's" Gull with a Herring Gull (photo by Jeff Lemons)
One of many adult Lesser Black-backed Gulls we had behind us over the course of the day Saturday (photo by Kate Sutherland).