Sunday, June 9, 2019

June 7 & 8, 2019 - What a Difference a Day Makes - by Kate Sutherland

We usually recommend that participants join us for a set of trips when they travel to Hatteras to head offshore with us, it maximizes their chance for the most species, and every day is different here in the Gulf Stream!  Friday and Saturday were a nice example of that!  While we saw our target species each day, and had nice views of most, Friday was quite slow in terms of individual numbers and activity while Saturday was more what we expect to see out there plus a few unexpected visitors!  Weather was unsettled for both trips and we had some rain, but for some reason the showers on Saturday were a bit more bearable with more birds to watch!  A Fea's Petrel flew up our slick on Saturday just after 1230, making a few close passes and coming in to check out the chum with our shearwater and storm-petrel flock.  Here you can see how small the Fea's is (foreground) compared to a Great Shearwater (background)! (Kate Sutherland)
As we were watching the Fea's Petrel, a Masked Booby flew in right overhead!  Participant Frank Mantlik captured this image with both of our rare sightings in one frame!
Black-capped Petrels were around both days, though the numbers were much lower than we saw earlier in the spring.  Cory's type shearwaters are beginning to show up in higher numbers and we had excellent views of both Cory's and Scopoli's on each trip, though Saturday we found a flock of shearwaters feeding over some skipjack tuna that gave us incredible views of the Cory's plus Great and Audubon's! (Kate Sutherland)
The flock also attracted an adult Sooty Tern that came close to the boat as it swooped over the feeding birds, calling occasionally as it did so.  Storm-petrels were more cooperative on Saturday, though we had three species on both trips!  Our Wilson's flock was more ample on Saturday and Band-rumped and Leach's Storm-Petrels responded better to the chum giving everyone aboard a chance to practice identifying these larger stormies on their own!
Thank you to everyone who joined us for these trips, especially Mark Welter for organizing a group of Indiana birders for Friday!  We also want to thank our leaders, Phil Rusch and Michael Sandoz, for helping us out on short notice!  They both did a great job to make these trips a success.  Thank you also to participant Frank Mantlik for contributing photos for the blog post!

Species List June 7 / 8
Fea's Petrel - 0 / 1
Black-capped Petrel - 13 / 10
Cory's Shearwater - 21 / 36
Scopoli's Shearwater - 3 / 3 to 4
Cory's type - 7 / 31
Great Shearwater - 3 / 9 to 12
Audubon's Shearwater - 11 to 12 / 76
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 29 / 76
Leach's Storm-Petrel - 1 / 1
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 3 / 7 to 9
Masked Booby - 0 / 1
Sooty Tern - 0 / 1
Common Tern - 3 / 3

A few images of the Fea's Petrel.  This bird had a unique looking facial pattern with a whiter cheek than we typically see.  (first three photos by Kate Sutherland, final image by Frank Mantlik)
The Cory's and Scopoli's Shearwaters were very cooperative for us on both trips!  Here are a couple images each of Cory's (top) and Scopoli's (bottom) that illustrate the difference in head and bill size in addition to the underprimary patterns for each. (Kate Sutherland)
On Friday, the Great Shearwaters followed well behind the boat, diving and feeding on the chum!  This always makes for some great photo ops!  (Kate Sutherland)
Audubon's Shearwaters are finally around!  We saw more on Saturday than on any trip so far this spring!  Here you can see the variation in facial pattern on these birds.  (Kate Sutherland)
The Leach's on Friday flew by at a high rate of speed inshore of the shelf break, but on Saturday we had time to observe one flying around in the slick! (Kate Sutherland)
Band-rumped Storm-Petrels were also much more cooperative on Saturday!  Note the clean, white rump patch compared to the larger, split one of the Leach's above.  (Kate Sutherland)
And the short legs that cause Band-rumpeds to have a different feeding technique than the Wilson's!  (Kate Sutherland)
Masked Booby as it flew over the slick and away! (Frank Manklik)
Our Sooty Tern from Saturday morning showing the facial pattern and black underprimaries. (Kate Sutherland)
 We had Common Terns offshore each day! (Kate Sutherland)
& a final image of a skipjack!  There were small flyingfishes everywhere as well, perhaps the skipjack were feeding on these!  (Kate Sutherland)

Monday, June 3, 2019

Sunday June 2, 2019 - Life & Death in the Deep Blue - by Kate Sutherland

Each day in the Gulf Stream is unlike the previous and will be unlike the following.  The 2019 Spring Blitz illustrated this point quite well, and the final day was quite unlike the previous which featured wind, large seas, and birds flying fast and arcing high!  The seas were fairly calm on our ride out to the shelf break this morning and we ran past the break before we found conditions that looked suitable to begin chumming.  Winds were light from the west, shifting around to the south and southwest over the course of the day...but they were light.  Birds were flying low, if at all, and visibility was excellent.  Audubon's Shearwaters were around in nice numbers and we approached small groups on the water first thing in the morning! (photo Kate Sutherland)
Black-capped Petrels were flying lazily along, low over the water, but were not nearly as interested in the chum as yesterday.  As we searched for a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel in the slick, a Fea's Petrel flew in from the glare!  This bird flew in low and fast and did not linger, but it came close to the boat and everyone aboard was able to see it!  For those who were with us yesterday, it was clear that Roger, the Whisky Tango Foxtrot Petrel, was larger than a Fea's Petrel!  We stopped to chum hoping that the bird would come back for another pass, but even Wilson's were tough to gather in the light winds.  As we drifted with the chum, I spotted a distant skua on the horizon.  We watched as it beat up on a couple of birds, then we picked up our chum and motored over that way.  Talking to Brian in the wheelhouse as we traveled, I looked out the port window and saw something on the water - it was dark and white - I checked it with my bins and it was a skua!  Working on something that showed white in the water which turned out to be a shearwater. (photo Kate Sutherland)
As we approached the birds, there was a Scopoli's Shearwater that flew away from the scene of the crime.  Perhaps the second of the two birds we had seen in the distance with the first falling prey to the South Polar Skua.  We were able to spend time watching the skua as it first plucked the shearwater, then began pulling its entrails from the body cavity.  As we watched, a large bull Atlantic dolphinfish, aka Mahi mahi, came and grabbed the head of the shearwater in its mouth!  Surprising us and the skua!!!  (photo Brian Patteson)
Brian quickly dispatched the fish, humans need to eat too, and the skua went back to work on its meal.  We have rarely seen a South Polar Skua with a freshly dead seabird out here in the Gulf Stream, but they are more than capable of dispatching these birds by drowning them if they are not satisfied with a regurgitated meal.  On our first trip we watched one wear out a Sooty Shearwater, camping out just above it on the water, tracking its movements, and not allowing it to surface for more than a quick breath.  They are very efficient and perfectly crafted for life as a top predator.  Death is part of life and vice versa, especially in the harsh environment of the open ocean.  What a treat to witness this tiny part of the cycle.

The rest of the day brought us incredible views of both Cory's and Scopoli's Shearwaters in the slick, Band-rumped Storm-Petrels with the Wilson's, and we even had a second summer Arctic Tern that visited us in the morning. (photo of Band-rumped Kate Sutherland)
Some pilot whales (presumably short-finned) surfaced nearby in the afternoon, and we found a nice flock of shearwaters inshore of the shelf break on our way home.  This flock was feeding over some skipjack tuna and consisted of Cory's and Audubon's Shearwaters.  We followed them for a bit before motoring for Hatteras Inlet.

Brian and I would like to thank everyone who joined us today, especially our leaders Steve (NG) Howell, Sea McKeon, Peter Flood, and Nick Newberry.  We have space on the rest of our trips this year, check out our schedule if you are interested in joining us!

Species List for June 2, 2019
Fea's Petrel - 1
Black-capped Petrel - 32 to 33
Cory's type Shearwater - 40
Atlantic Cory's - 9
Scopoli's Shearwater - 3
Audubon's Shearwater - 62 to 63
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 44
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 5 to 8
Arctic Tern - 1
Royal Tern - 1
South Polar Skua - 1
Barn Swallow - 1
shorebird sp. - 3
Pilot Whales (pres. short-finned) - 8 to 10 plus distant pods on the horizon
Portuguese man of war - 1

Black-capped Petrel that flew in to check out the South Polar Skua (Kate Sutherland)

Backlit Cory’s can suggest Scopoli’s in underwing pattern but note the bulky structure and relatively big, deep bill (Steve Howell)
With increasing experience, dorsal Scopoli’s can be picked out from Cory’s by structure, especially the small head and relatively slender, or shallow, bill (Steve Howell)
Audubon's in flight (Steve Howell)
Unlike the American Ornithological Society (formerly AOU), this South Polar Skua has no problem splitting Cory’s Shearwater (a caption only Steve Howell can write! :)
The low seas made for great viewing and photo ops with numerous flyingfishes. For more information on these remarkable critters, check out Steve Howell’s book, The Amazing World of Flyingfish (Princeton University Press, 2014;

Saturday, June 1, 2019

Saturday June 1, 2019 - Roger - the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Petrel again? - by Steve Howell

Following yesterday’s blowout (which meant all trips out of Hatteras were canceled) and then impressive lightning, thunder, and torrential rain overnight we met at a rain-soaked dock to head offshore for the penultimate day of the Spring Blitz. The wind shifted to a fresh northerly and it was breezy to blustery all day with variable cloud and sea-surface temperatures up to 81 degrees F. After a 2-hour commute we slowed down in the blue water and very quickly found an obliging Bridled Tern perched among patches of Sargassum.
Time for a chum slick, and the Black-capped Petrels appeared as if by magic, a small group of them instantly swarming around the boat and—what was that with them? Looks like a Bermuda Petrel! Excitement and cameras clicking as the “Bermuda Petrel” zipped around the stern showing well—wow, what a start. But then Kate and Brian started to question it and a check of images showed it was a, well, we don’t know what it really was... However, whatever it was it looks like the same thing that we saw out there on 28 and 30 May 2017—see Brian’s write-up on that enigma here:

The bird’s wing molt at this season indicates a winter breeder on a similar schedule to Black-capped Petrel, and one possibility is a hybrid Black-capped with something else, perhaps with a Cape Verde Petrel (the mainly winter-breeding “Fea’s Petrel” that breeds on those islands, vs. the summer-breeding Desertas Petrel). Another possibility is an as-yet-undescribed taxon with a very low population size, akin to the Bermuda Petrel on the edge of extinction but with unknown breeding grounds. For now we’ll just call it Roger, the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Petrel. Here are some shots of today’s bird, which you can compare with Brian’s write-up on the 2017 bird.
Roger, the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Petrel, first seen about 8.15 am and last seen just after 9 am, giving us ample opportunity to not identify it!

After that excitement we found both Leach’s and Band-rumped Storm-petrels in the slick among the Wilson’s, but the choppy seas made seeing them, let alone photography, difficult. A single Pomarine Jaeger made a pass at one point, and a distant Sooty Shearwater showed briefly, padding out the diversity. But it was the almost unrelenting Black-capped Petrels that stole the day, reveling in the wind and sweeping all around us for hours. At one point, a veritable blizzard of 16 or 17 birds wheeled in the slick behind the boat (about 1% of the world population!), screeching and chippering as they squabbled for food.

Black-capped Petrel variety

A Band-rumped Petrel showed well a few times amid the Black-capped feeding frenzy, and at 13.45 the cry of “booby back there!” rang out. And sure enough, an immature Masked Booby made a nice pass, dwarfing the Black-capped Petrels.

The adrenalin of the booby was wearing off as we continued our tack towards shore, but then a European Storm-petrel flew right up the slick among a few Wilson’s. It was close, short, and sweet, but sadly the choppy seas meant that only a few people got on the bird before it veered off. A handsome first-summer Arctic Tern then appeared, but was largely ignored as we set a slick and scanned for many minutes in vain for the storm-petrel. Oh well, some things get away, and it was a hell of a day, even if we don’t know what we saw ;-)

Thanks to everyone who joined us out there today, plus spotters Peter Flood, Steve (N G) Howell, Sea McKeon, and Nick Newberry—Steve also wrote the blog. See (some of) you out there again tomorrow for the last day of the Blitz!

Species List for June 1 2019:
Black-capped Petrel - 68 to 78
Pterodroma sp. - 1
Cory's Shearwater - 16 to 18
Scopoli's Shearwater - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 1
Audubon's Shearwater - 33
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 110
European Storm-Petrel - 1
Leach's Storm-Petrel - 2
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 3 to 4
Masked Booby - 1
Bridled Tern - 1
Arctic Tern - 1
Pomarine Jaeger - 1
Bottlenose Dolphin (offshore) - about 10