We headed out to sea off Virginia Beach this Saturday on smooth seas under fair skies. (sunrise by Kate Sutherland)
It was a nice dry ride and a great morning to scan the horizon for birds. As we passed Cape Henry, we encountered a breaching Humpback Whale. There were good numbers of gulls, gannets, and loons on the move. Before 0800 we had seen seven flyby Razorbills, which was more than we saw all day a week ago.
As we continued offshore, the water warmed slightly from the mid to high 50s. We began to see several flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls- mostly resting on the water. A couple of Manx Shearwaters passed by as we headed out. We did not see any Manx last week, so this was a nice change. A little after 0800, I headed a little off course to check out some flocks of Boneys, hoping to find some more shearwaters or auks among them. We did not find those, but we did get an adult Little Gull that stayed in view long enough for most people to see.
We had a lot of folks who were keen to see some of the pelagic birds that we had found a week ago, so we pressed onward and I set a course for the warmer water where we had some luck on that trip, which was about 50 miles off the Cape. A single Red Phalarope passed us as we moved along, but it generally got pretty quiet the farther we got offshore.
The slight seas were good for scanning the ocean, but instead of alcids or phalaropes, we were spotting Common Loons and Loggerhead Sea Turtles (photo below by Brian Patteson).
It was nice to get a good look at a Loggerhead this week. We seem them frequently on winter trips off Hatteras, where we have 50 to 70 degree water even in February, but if they stay too long off VA they risk getting stunned by the cold water.
50 miles out the water was even warmer. Like last week, it was in the low 60s, which is plenty for turtles but not good for alcids. Birds were sparse. There were a few gulls and gannets, but they seemed well fed and it was hard to coax them to the chum. We dispensed some menhaden oil as we cruised around, but there were no tubenoses to be found.
Knowing there was more life inshore, it was hard to stay out in the warm water desert. We did see an American Coot about 45 miles out, and this was probably a sign that the real pelagic birds would be much farther out to sea. A Great Black-backed Gull was sticking close by the coot.
Kate was eventually able to lure a few gulls and gannets to the stern with her tireless chumming, but no kittiwakes showed this time. As we got back inshore, we did find a few flocks of Bonaparte’s Gulls (photo by Kate Sutherland) working for bait over feeding schools of Little Tunny.
It seemed like most of the birds had moved even father inshore though and a single Manx Shearwater crossed the bow when we were less than 11 miles off the Cape. For the county listers, it was actually a little closer to Fisherman’s Island, so you know.
There was a good bit of activity at the mouth of the bay as we approached Cape Henry, and there was a nice movement of Red-throated Loons, and a few diving gannets. Laughing Gulls were still much in evidence, so it didn’t seem much like winter. We also had a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and a quick look at a Humpback Whale very close to Fort Story. We got back to the dock around 1730, just as it was getting dark.
I would like to thank everyone who came out on the trip. We had a full boat. I would also like to thank the leaders- Kate Sutherland, Ned Brinkley, and Ellison Orcutt. I wish there had been some more seabirds, but we had a remarkable period of fair weather preceding the trip, and abnormally warm temperatures. It looks like temps will be getting closer to normal in the days to come, and our next trip is not until January 2, so there is plenty of time for a change. We have three more trips in VA- all in January- and space is available.
Manx Shearwater- 4
Red Phalarope- 1
Little Gull - 1
Also seen offshore- Common Loon, Northern Gannet, Great Blue Heron (1), American Coot (1), Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Bonaparte’s Gull
Humpback Whale- 1 or 2
Loggerhead Turtle- 7
One more sunrise picture! (Kate Sutherland)
Bonaparte's Gulls (Kate Sutherland)
young Bonaparte's Gull (Brian Patteson)
Great Black-backed Gull over the stern (Kate Sutherland)
Northern Gannet in the afternoon light (Kate Sutherland)
Participants started showing up at Dockside at 0530, excited by the opportunity to get offshore from Virginia in December and see what we could find out there. The weather held off and while it was breezy on Friday, the wind fell out enough for us to head out at 0622 Saturday morning. The sunrise was spectacular and was just the beginning of a very mild, sunny day offshore (photo by Kate Sutherland).
Just over an hour later we had a Parasitic Jaeger put on a nice show chasing a gull, nice start to the day! While we were unable to entice many birds to follow us, we did see some Northern Gannets (photo below by Kate Sutherland) & gulls on the way out to deeper water.
The wind was blowing about 10-15 from the north making the ride to deeper water a little choppy, but we did see some nice flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls on the way out, a good sign! We passed some very obliging Common Loons on the water and even saw a Great Blue Heron on the way out as well. Brian had seen a nice temperature change offshore about 50 miles out, so we continued that way. Around 1045, in a little over 120 feet of water, there was some activity ahead and the water looked a little different, it was warmer and we even found a few pieces of sargassum out there. The first tubenose of the day was a Northern Fulmar, followed by a Great Shearwater (photo by Brian Patteson)!
We had excellent views of each of these species as they followed us feeding on chum with the gulls and gannets that comprised our flock. Northern Fulmar with Herring Gulls (photo by Kate Sutherland)
It was after 1130 before we had our first good view of a Black-legged Kittiwake, but just a few hours later we had multiple individuals following the boat flying right up behind us! At one point we had a young kittiwake (photo below by Brian Patteson)
sitting on the water with a Northern Fulmar! Red Phalaropes were out there too, but we just had some individuals quickly fly by, none were cooperative enough to land on the water for approach. As we headed back inshore, the wind breezed up, but it was much easier birding with the waves behind us and we approached several flocks of Bonaparte's Gulls for perusal (no Little Gulls were discovered!). One such flock was over some feeding Little Tunnys and were calling as they constantly shifted position over their moveable feast.
These small gulls were definitely the dominant species offshore on Saturday with numbers nearing 12,000! The water off of Virginia is still quite warm, in the high 50s, so it was not too surprising to not see good numbers of alcids on this trip, but we were lucky to have two Razorbills fly by close enough for everyone to get nice views!
Thank you so much to everyone who joined us for this first trip of five from Virginia Beach! A big thank you also to Ned Brinkley & Todd Day who helped us lead this trip. Next weekend is full, but we still have space on all of our January trips.
We saw Northern Gannets, Great Black-backed Gull, Herring Gull, Ring-billed Gull, Laughing Gull, Bonaparte's Gull (several thousand), and Lesser Black-backed Gull (nearshore). We also encountered Red-throated & Common Loons plus one Great Blue Heron. -Kate Sutherland
Kate Sutherland, myself, and several others spent a week and a half in Bermuda earlier this month for the purpose of observing and photographing their endemic seabird, Pterodroma cahow the Bermuda Petrel as we know it, or the Cahow as it is called by Bermudians. We had a very successful trip and saw a great many Cahows, both at sea and ashore at their colonies. We saw more Cahows in an afternoon than we have seen at sea off North Carolina in the last decade, and far more than I saw on my first trip to Bermuda in 1993.
The 1993 expedition to study Cahows was the result of two sightings of Bermuda Petrels off the U.S. southeast coast on July 31, 1993. Ned Brinkley and I saw one off Oregon Inlet that day and Todd Hass and Joe Poston saw one over 200 miles off Charleston the same day. Ned and Todd and I spent a lot of time at sea together in those days. Todd was working on a PhD at UNC and he was on almost all of the pelagic bird watching trips in NC at the time, gathering data for his dissertation. We all wanted to know how better to identify these petrels at sea, and at the time, information was scant. In stark contrast to today, there were almost no photos or good illustrations of live Cahows. Comparative morphometric data was also lacking. We had an idea how the species differed from Black-capped Petrel, but just how much smaller it was and how much darker was not something you could find in print, which was the media of bird identification at the time.
Ned began corresponding with David Wingate in Bermuda and before long, we had plans to visit Bermuda and study Cahows. Things were a bit different back then. There were only 40 or so pairs and Wingate, who had brought them back from near extinction, did not band or regularly handle the birds. We did get to see an adult in a burrow during a nest check with him, but he did not extract it. We also made history with the first daytime sighting of a Cahow in recent history during a boat trip off the east end of Bermuda on Nov. 13, 1993. It was much harder to get photos of flying seabirds back then (manual focus and film days) and we did not get a record shot. For our ID studies, we photographed all of the specimens at the museum. We also made a nighttime trip to Horn Rock where we had birds whizzing overhead and we recorded their calls. Upon return to the States, we began working on an ID article for Birding magazine. Wingate supplied a few recent photos of live birds in hand and as luck would have it, we found another Bermuda Petrel off Hatteras in May 1996 and I got some photos of that one good enough to publish (they suck by today’s standards, but they were the first of the species at sea.) The article was finally published in the Feb. 1998 issue of Birding, and naturally in spring 1998, I got better photos.
Things have changed a lot since that first trip. There are now over 100 pairs of Cahows and they now nest on Nonsuch Island where we stayed with Wingate in 1993. Jeremy Madeiros, who took over Wingate’s work after his retirement several years ago, now bands the birds and has also done tracking studies, which explain why they are seldom seen here with the Black-capped Petrels off Hatteras. But it is easier than ever to see Cahows in Bermudian waters as a large troop of sub adults spend weeks courting and prospecting for nests during fall and winter. They can be seen from Cooper’s Point, which was formerly a restricted area, but they are better seen from a boat just a few miles offshore.
Our 1993 trip was important for number of reasons. It helped us work out the field ID of the species and disseminate that information. It got Wingate and other Bermudians out looking for Cahows at sea during the breeding season. It inspired Brinkley to return several times with birding tour groups, thus getting more birders interested in the petrel and the place. And most importantly, it was on that trip that got to know and spend a lot of time with David Wingate, and then that we first met Jeremy Madeiros, who has taken charge of the Cahow program in the 21st century and is not only continuing Wingate's work, but helping us learn more about the secret life of these special seabirds.
by, Brian Patteson - 22 November 2015 (all photos copyright Brian Patteson)
On the porch at Nonsuch: David Wingate (left), Todd Hass (right)
Ned Brinkley & David Wingate
Boat trip on November 13, 1993: David Wingate explains the game plan
Ned contemplates the trip ahead of us.
Todd looks like he is ready for some water to cross the deck
No pics of the Cahow we saw, but a late tropicbird came by within camera range
Wingate moors his Boston Whaler at Nonsuch
Checking Cahow nests for activity on Horn Rock
Not enough light to see the adult Cahow inside
Cahow nests on Horn Rock
Entrances to Cahow burrows
Looking over to Cooper's Point, which was off limits at the time. It is now a great vantage point for seeing Cahows in late afternoon during the breeding season.
Adult and young Cahow specimens
Studying the dorsal aspect of the Cahow and its gray-tipped upper tail coverts (white in Black-capped Petrel)
Studying the ventral aspect of the Cahow and its cowled appearance
No place now for live Cahows on mainland Bermuda
Carnage from the Snowy Owl that visited in 1987
Pelagic trip! Setting out in a leaky Boston Whaler
Leach's Storm-Petrel as seen from Wingate's Boston Whaler. We also saw Cuvier's Beaked Whales!
Birding ashore: I think these flamingos were at Spittle Pond
It was good to be back offshore with a birding trip after a
rainy and windy two weeks here at Cape Hatteras. Dr. Fred Alsop brought his
Coastal Ecology Class to the Outer Banks for a field trip that has been a
tradition for 35 years. We’ve been taking Fred’s group on pelagic trips since
1994 when I started organizing trips in Hatteras. We also had a handful of
other birders along, including stalwart regulars and new participants.
The forecast called for a rainy day, but it turned out not
to be the case, as the rain came much later than predicted, beginning soon
after we returned to the dock. The morning was beautiful with light westerly
winds and smooth seas. We left the dock at first light and enjoyed an easy ride
to the Gulf Stream, which we found near the shelf break about 23 miles out.
There was a distinct color change where the clear blue water met the rather
murky inshore water. This is not always the case in October, but we’ve had so
much rain and wind that I expect it will take a while for the shelf water to
clear up. We did not find much bird activity near this color change, but we did
have a quick look at a Leatherback Turtle which we startled as we arrived at
I figured there would be at least a few Black-capped Petrels
out in the deeper water, so we eased out toward the slope waters right away.
Approaching 200 fathoms we saw a distant Black-cap and we increased our
chumming effort by melting a homemade chum block. Within minutes we had
Black-caps close at hand and a Northern Fulmar also came in and gave us good
looks (photo by Brian Patteson).
There has been a strong showing of fulmars in New England already, so it
was not a big surprise, but we usually don’t get them quite so early here. We
continued to work offshore, but all we came up with were a few Cory’s and
Audubon’s Shearwaters. There was not much Sargassum, so it’s not surprising
that Audubon’s were hard to find, but Cory’s were remarkably scarce for a fall
After a while, it seemed like most of the Black-capped
Petrels were fading behind us, so we backtracked inshore. The wind also
freshened and we soon had quite a following of Black-caps, with up to 20 in view.
They followed us in close to the edge of the Gulf Stream, which was in about 75
fathoms when we crossed in the afternoon. But before we left the blue water we
stopped to sample the Sargassum with a dip net. Compared to late summer, the
“Gulf Weed” was in short supply. We did not get any fish in our sample, but we
had the usual shrimp and crabs. The highlight, however, were some Sargassum
Nudibranchs- little gastropods that look just like the habitat they live in.
Shearwater came by for a close pass, as we were getting ready to head back to
shore. The ride back in the dirty water was uneventful as expected, but the
trip to the Gulf Stream had been well worth it and hopefully it will inspire
some of its first time visitors to return there someday.
I would like to thank all of our participants,-especially
Fred for bring his class, and our leaders- Kate Sutherland, Jeff Lemons, and
Kyle Kittelberger for making this a successful trip.
Common Loon 2
Northern Fulmar 1
Black-capped Petrel 50-70
Cory's Shearwater 16
Great Shearwater 2
Audubon's Shearwater 5
jaeger sp. 2-3
Great Blue Heron 1
Blue-winged Teal 13
American Pipit 1
Leatherback Turtle 1
Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin 30-40
marlin sp. 1
A few more images of the ever impressive Black-capped Petrel:
top photo by Brian Patteson
A Scopoli's Shearwater (nominate Cory's):
A photo of the Great Blue Heron, zoomed in!
& one more of the Sargassum Nudibrachs, such cool little creatures!
A couple of ships we crossed paths with over the course of the day...