We usually do a winter boat trip for the Carolina Bird Club when they have their winter meeting in Nags Head, which has been every two or three years, but we couldn’t do it in 2017 because we were installing new engines in the boat, and in 2015, we had a trip planned but we got weathered out. As such we were very keen to run this trip, and as luck would have it the weather turned out to be beautiful (sunrise by Kate Sutherland).
We also had an incursion of cold water south of Cape Hatteras, the likes of which is uncommon in mid January. This meant we did not have to start out north of the Cape, which is sometimes the case. A high tide in the morning also meant we were able to bypass the regular channel and slip out the east side of Hatteras Inlet, saving us about 20 minutes.
We found good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls and Razorbills not far outside the inlet, and between 7:30 and 8:30 AM we counted over 400 Razorbills! Razorbills have been here in force since late December, which is a bit earlier than usual. Cape Hatteras has been a wintering site for thousands of Razorbills for at least 25 years now, and this winter is no exception (photo of a young Razorbill by Kyle Kittelberger).
The water inshore was cold- in the mid to high 40s- but it was ugly looking. Nevertheless, it was teaming with life and we also found good numbers of gannets and a huge concentration of over 200 Bottlenose Dolphin feeding heavily (photo by Kate Sutherland).
We steamed offshore looking for better water clarity, but did not find it until we got about 20 miles out. There we found a temperature break and water up to 60 degrees, but it was not a sharp change. There were quite a few Bonaparte’s Gulls there, but not the phalaropes, Dovekies, or puffins we had hoped to find. We did see a few Ocean Sunfish, including one that was cell phone close, and we also found a couple of Loggerhead Turtles. We followed the change out to the east into 50 fathoms, but there was nothing much to see there, so we headed northward. Working back into the cold water, we began to see more Razorbills again, and we stopped to look at a distant breaching Humpback Whale and a reported Razorbill on the water. The Razorbill turned out to be a Common Murre and most of the people aboard added a new species to their North Carolina life list (photo by Ed Corey).
Continuing northward an immature Black-legged Kittiwake decided to join our flock of feeding birds and spent a long time with us, occasionally feeding on the chum. I had hoped for more kittiwakes, after a big showing on the Cape Hatteras Christmas Bird Count, but those birds must have moved on. Fortunately it only takes one, like the Great Shearwater, that joined us earlier in the morning and followed us for many miles. Unfortunately, that turned out be the only tubenose of the day. Usually we see Manx Shearwater and frequently Northern Fulmar but not on this trip. I expect an onshore wind might have sent those species our way, but instead we had light westerlies and a flock of Brown Pelicans that followed us over 20 miles out (photo by Ed Corey)!
Fair weather is good for landlubbers though and we had a pleasant trip and a boat full of happy people. We have several more trips to run and I expect we will see some more species as we go along. Last winter we saw Great Skuas on all of our winter boat trips, so I guess we were overdue to miss it on this one. They can be tough when it’s calm because they are less likely to be airborne, and they are always a low-density winter visitor here. I would like to thank everyone who came along to make this trip possible and also Christine Stoughton-Root of the Carolina Bird Club for helping us with the booking and promotion. Our experienced team of guides worked like a well-oiled machine: Kate Sutherland, Kyle Kittelberger, Ed Corey, and Jeff Lemons did an excellent job as usual.
Species List January 18, 2019
Common Murre 1
Black-legged Kittiwake 1 immature
Bonaparte's Gull 1272
Laughing Gull 3
Ring-billed Gull 3
Herring Gull 185
Great Black-backed Gull 135
Lesser Black-backed Gull 32
Forster's Tern 23
Red-throated Loon 8
Common Loon 4
Great Shearwater 1
Northern Gannet 3860
Humpback Whale 1
Bottlenose Dolphin 305
Loggerhead Turtle 3
Ocean Sunfish (Mola) 6
A few more photos!
Another image of the Common Murre! (Ed Corey)
A couple of adult Razorbills on the water (Kate Sutherland) and one of the first cooperative birds we had in the morning (Ed Corey)
A couple photos of the Black-legged Kittiwake (Kyle Kittelberger)
We had a handful of Bonaparte's Gulls that still had varying degrees of black on the head like this individual (Kate Sutherland)
This Great Shearwater stayed with us, feeding in the chum with the gulls, for awhile! (Ed Corey)
The gannets were around in good numbers almost all day! In the afternoon we got to watch them raining down over a pod of feeding Bottlenose Dolphins, all in view of the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse! (Kate Sutherland)
We were treated to all age classes of gannets! It seemed like there were more first winter birds that we typically see, though this first trip is a bit earlier than our usual winter trips so who knows? (First winter bird by Kate Sutherland - top / adult by Kyle Kittelberger - bottom)
A few of the gulls that showed well in the chum (all photos by Ed Corey)! Top Great Black-backed Gull, middle Lesser Black-backed Gull, and bottom Laughing Gull
A closer image of some of the Bottlenose Dolphin dorsal fins with mesoparasitic copepods (likely of the genus Penella) attached (Ed Corey)
And finally, a photo of one of the Loggerhead Turtles we saw! (Kyle Kittelberger)