Wednesday, February 29, 2012

February 26, 2012 - 2 More Great Skuas!

We had decided a few weeks ago that we were going to finish up the winter season with the Presidents Day Weekend trips, but after seeing the Black-browed Albatross on Feb. 18, it seemed there was some interest in another winter boat trip. So we put a trip on for the following weekend, and by mid week, it was apparent that Sunday would be our day to run it. There was plenty of wind on Friday and Saturday to stir things up, and once again we found much warmer water than we would have preferred awaiting us on both sides of Cape Hatteras.

There was still a fair breeze from the north when we went to sea Sunday morning with ten eager participants. It was good to have veteran leader Ned Brinkley back on board, and some old salts had come up for it too- Paul Sykes was there, as well as Wayne Irvin and Nate Dias among others. Aside from the thousands of cormorants that we saw on the Sound behind Hatteras Inlet, seabirds were fairly sparse on the south side of the Cape. We beat it across Diamond Shoals and worked northward a few miles off the beach. I had my mind on alcids, skuas, and, of course, the long shot albatross, the thought of which had lured some of these folks out for the short notice trip. We finally started seeing a fair number of gannets north of Avon, more as we went. By late morning we were on Wimble Shoals off the Tri-Villages. The water was cooler up there, only about 50 degrees. We had a couple of encounters with Razorbill, but mostly we saw gulls, gannets, and Red-throated Loons. I turned around 23 miles north of Diamond Shoals and worked slowly back. About eight miles down, still north of Avon, Kate Sutherland looked outside the wheelhouse port window and excitedly said, “There he is!” And sure enough, there was a fine looking Great Skua, about six miles off the beach. The skua scattered our gull flock and engaged a couple of Herring Gulls in the distance. After a minute or so, it went to rest on the water. We followed it around for a while, and had it under observation for about 15 minutes before getting back on course.

It was a very pleasant ride back, quite nice going downsea, and we had an insane number of Lesser Black-backed Gulls with us feeding on the chum, even outnumbering the Great Black-backs much of the time. Just north of Diamond Shoals, a single Dovekie crossed the bow quickly, amazingly just the second Dovekie of the season for us. West of Diamond Shoals we had another Great Skua buzz the flock, as if to say “Hey, you really didn’t need to go all the way to Wimble Shoals!” Closer to the inlet, there were hundreds of gannets and thousands of cormorants, but no afternoon albatross this time. Still it was a nice day out on Bonxie Boulevard, and it was our fourth weekend in a row with Great Skuas, making it the most successful winter we have had for seeing them. It’s impossible to know what next winter will bring, but one thing is for sure. When the time comes, we will have to go out there to truly find out. Thanks to everyone who went with us this winter and especially to Kate who kept the birds going on the stern all season.

-Captain Brian Patteson

First Great Skua of the day:

Sharp looking adult Lesser Black-backed Gull:
Afternoon Double-crested Cormorants:

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Black-browed Albatross ~ Feb. 18, 2012

One of the toughest aspects of pelagic birding is the unpredictability of it all.  But in order for it to be a viable enterprise, the trips must be scheduled in advance and on a fairly regular basis.  So when we settle on a few dates for running trips, we go ahead and put the word out a few months ahead of time and hope for the best when it comes to the weather, water temperature, and, of course, the "target birds".  Pelagic birding would be nothing nowadays without the "target birds" for a particular trip or season.  Gone are the old days when most birders jumped at the chance to go to sea and find out what might be out there. By now, we mostly know what is likely to be around and we know what probably won't show if the water is too warm or too cold.  It is nice to have that knowledge, but it also puts a damper on things when you know the odds are stacked against you.  After four consecutive years with cold water off Cape Hatteras, some people had begun to think Dovekies were an expected winter visitor to NC coastal waters.  Well, they can be if the water is cold enough.  But Dovekies don't exactly come flocking to 60 or 70 degree water if there is no really cold water just inshore of it.  Since December we have seen fairly consistently warm water here off Cape Hatteras well inshore of the shelf break.  This trend has been in sharp contrast to the fall, when water temps inshore were rather cool, consequently, there have been few alcids - even Razorbills - which are often quite common here in winter.  On the other hand, it has been a good year for Great Skuas, one of the best ever.

When we put to sea on Saturday February 18, I was not exactly sure where we would find the warm water but I knew it would be in fairly close.  I had hoped to avoid it for a while by crossing Diamond Shoals, but I found warm water there just 3 miles off the beach.  This is usually a good place to see Razorbills, but instead we saw a small flock of eastbound Red Phalaropes crossing the shoals around 0800!  We did soon find cooler water on the north side, however, and a Manx Shearwater caused excitement when it appeared among a large number of Bonaparte's Gulls.  I decided to work northward in the cooler water, which was in the low to mid 50's;  I had seeing Razorbill and Great Skua in mind.  We had not gone far when a single Dovekie crossed the wake, heading rapidly to the east.  Knowing how Dovekies sometimes favor a temperature break, I headed offshore.  We did not make it out to that break before a Great Skua crossed our wake - northbound - right back there where we had come from!  I stuck with the plan and, after another skua sighting, soon found a temperature break and color change which held several Red Phalaropes and quite a few Loggerhead Sea Turtles.  We saw Loggerheads at point blank range frolicking next to the boat.  It was quite exceptional.  After a while we gave up on the change and headed back inshore.  We saw a distant skua and a disinterested Northern Fulmar.  I had expected more fulmars based on the last couple of trips.  There was a good showing of gannets closer to shore, with many birds raining down at times.  We saw another skua on the horizon off Avon.  Working southward we found the hot water again to the NW of where it had been earlier.  We saw a few Manx Shearwaters and Razorbills, but nothing close.  We saw more turtles than I have ever seen.  We were less than two miles from Hatteras Inlet when I heard the excited cry of "ALBATROSS!" from the stern.  I stopped the boat and went out on deck.  The bird had landed in the wake, so I ran back to the wheelhouse and turned back on our course.  Coming about, I was shocked to see an adult Black-browed Albatross sitting on the water among our following of gannets and large gulls.  It was not at all worried by the boat;  I went to the stern.  We were almost out of chum, but Kate had made sure we still had enough to keep a flock to the inlet.  She threw out a couple of scoops and the albatross came charging in to the stern, where he easily dominated the gulls and gannets.  It did not take long to finish up the chum, so we spent the next half hour enjoying the bird as it rested and preened alongside.  Thousands of photos were taken and a fishing party even came by to have a look at the giant bird.  Around 5:26 the albatross took flight and headed off the to the eastward, reminding us why pelagic birding (inshore seabirding in this instance...) is not so much about the target birds, but about the opportunity for discovery.

This Black-browed Albatross is one of just a few individuals documented in the Western North Atlantic.  There is one previously accepted sight record for North Carolina from August 19, 1972.  A congener, the Yellow-nosed Albatross, has been seen three times at or near Cape Hatteras, including one of our "pelagic" trips on February 5, 2000.  It was also seen fairly close to shore.

Thanks to everyone who came along, leaders and participants (Kate, Bob Fogg, Dave Shoch, Jeff Pippen & crew).  Leader Bob Fogg gets credit for the find!  

~Captain Brian Patteson

List for the day:
Red-throated Loon - 1
Common Loon - 2
Black-browed Albatross - 1
Northern Fulmar - 1
Manx Shearwater - 4
Northern Gannet - many seen
Red Phalarope - 43
Bonaparte's Gull - many seen
Herring Gull - many seen
Iceland Gull - 1 first winter
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 30 to 35 (more than usual!)
Great Black-backed Gull - many seen
Great Skua - 2
Dovekie - 1
Razorbill - 8 to 10

Humpback Whale - 1
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 3
Atlantic Bottlenose Dolphin - many seen

Loggerhead Sea Turtle - 38 plus
Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) - 1

Yes, a few photos of the Black-browed Albatross:

Amazing gannet sequence in the stern...

Red Phalaropes
Loggerhead Sea Turtle ~

Monday, February 13, 2012

Rematch: Stormy Petrel II: 4, Bonxie: 0 (2/11/2012)

After seeing the satellite photo for Feb. 10, I was a bit more excited about our prospects for the pelagic trip on the following day. It seemed that cold water had finally washed down below the Cape and maybe it would stay for a few days. Then clouds moved in and we could not tell what was going on until we left to find out first hand on Saturday morning. Light rain was falling before we left the dock and the wind, which was predicted to freshen to gale force by early evening, was still light. Unlike the previous weekend, we had a full trip, and everyone had high hopes for a Great Skua. I thought we might get lucky and score a Dovekie or Puffin if we could find a good change east of the Cape, so I headed out toward the shelf break for starters. It did not take long to find warm water. A lot had changed in 24 hours. Where I was hoping for 55 degree water, it was 65 to 70, so we never made it past 20 fathoms there. The first couple of hours out were rather dull, and the only pelagic birds we found were a couple of uncooperative Northern Fulmars. Working to the northwest, we did come upon a rough temperature break and some more target birds by mid morning. All of a sudden we were seeing Razorbills and more fulmars in this cooler water. A young Black-legged Kittiwake also trailed distantly behind the boat. There was a good showing of Loggerhead Sea Turtles, including an amorous pair. We found a small number of Red Phalaropes where the break was sharpest, going from about 60 to 70 degrees. Moving closer inshore, there was a steady procession of gannets, mostly moving northward on a broad front. This was where I felt we might find a skua, but we traveled for miles with no luck. As a consolation prize, a second winter Iceland Gull followed us for miles. Finally at 14:33, George Armistead spotted a skua moving off the port side at medium distance. People were able to see it, as it stayed in view for a while, but never charged us. Less than 20 minutes later, possibly the same Great Skua charged our flock of gulls and gannets, making one nice pass. This was in the same area where we had seen a pair of Bonxies last Saturday. The wind started to freshen and it got cloudier. By the time we had crossed Diamond Shoals, I was about ready to pack it in and steam to Hatteras Inlet. A nice flock of Bonaparte’s Gulls was feeding nearby, so I veered a few hundred yards seaward to check them out, hoping for a Little Gull. There was no Little Gull, but a nice flock of Red-breasted Mergansers was feeding there over three miles offshore! Then it was pandemonium when the brown bomber returned to have a go at our flock. It was the best Bonxie show in at least couple of years and many photos were taken. After the skua peeled off, we did vacate the area, not wishing to be on the water when the gale came on. A few minutes later, a skua did appear behind the boat and followed for a couple of miles. A Manx Shearwater also made a close showing in the wake for Kate and the others back there watching. We got back to the dock ahead of the front, and bunch of happy people disembarked the boat.

Target Seabirds:
Northern Fulmar- 11
Manx Shearwater- 2
Red Phalarope- 5
Black-legged Kittiwake-1
Great Skua- 1 or 2
Razorbill- 35

Rare Gulls:
Iceland Gull- 1 second winter

Other seabirds-
Common Loon, Red-throated Loon, Northern Gannet, Herring, Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Red-breasted Mergansers.

Other Marine life-
Loggerhead Sea Turtle (9), Scalloped Hammerhead (default sp.) (2), and dozens of inshore Bottlenose Dolphins

(By clicking on images you can scroll through them full screen)

Images of Great Skua:
Second Winter Iceland Gull
Northern Fulmar
Subadult Northern Gannet diving amidst the flock
one half of the amorous pair...
Lesser Black-backed Gull
Northern Gannet coming in!
Northern Fulmar joins the melee (note Iceland Gull far left)
Some of the fish heads were very large...

Monday, February 6, 2012

Feb. 4, 2012 Hatteras Pelagic Trip on Stormy Petrel II

Kate Sutherland and I went to sea with a small group on Saturday for the first pelagic trip here since late December. Water temperatures have been remarkably high all winter, so I did not expect to see much in the way of alcids south of Diamond Shoals. With this in mind we decided to check out the west wall of the Gulf Stream first and then make a northwesterly tack to inshore waters a bit north of Avon. We found good numbers of gannets just a few miles offshore, but these birds were mostly heading to the southwest. I figured there would be more gannets to the north of the shoals, so I stuck with the game plan. We found a ragged edge with water temperatures up to about 70 degrees just a few miles SE of Diamond Tower. I was hoping to find a number of Bonaparte's Gulls and Red Phalaropes along this condition, but that did not pan out. We saw a couple of phalaropes where we landed on the change, but the next ten miles was, unfortunately, devoid of phalaropes. There were several Northern Fulmars working around the change, however, and we had great looks as they landed repeatedly on the water nearby and circled the boat. Kate's chumming attracted a lone Great Shearwater, which put on a show diving for bait the gulls could not reach. A single Manx Shearwater made one pass up the starboard side of the boat at medium distance. We also saw at lest half a dozen Manta Rays feeding along the change. The change became more diffuse as we traveled northward, so I gave up on looking for phalaropes and Dovekies offshore. Working back in to the beach, it was fairly quiet, but we did find a small concentration of Boneys feeding around some foamy water. Closer to the beach, within five miles or so, we found good numbers of gannets, dozens of Bottlenose Dolphin and a few Loggerhead Sea Turtles. A few of us got a look at a distant skua that was rapidly heading north. I decided to head south and I hoped for another skua sighting around Diamond Shoals. We saw a few Razorbills along the way south, all flying birds. Around the north end of the shoals, a pair of Great Skuas crossed our bow heading offshore in the same direction as most of the gannets in the area. We jogged offshore for a little while, hoping they might circle around and harass some birds, but it never happened. Across the shoals, it was fairly quiet back to Hatteras Inlet, but we did have nice looks at a swimming Razorbill. The wind was picking up from the southwest when we got back to port, and it made me think about how lucky we had been with the weather. The only whitecaps we saw were small ones at the edge of the Gulf Stream, and there had been no spray all day! It had been a great day to explore the ocean and take photos, even if the birds were a bit sparse. We found out the skuas were there, and now we'll see if they want to play on Feb. 11!

Seabirds & Marine Life ~

Red-throated Loon - I only saw one close to the boat, probably more closer to the beach
Common Loon - 17; several well offshore
Northern Fulmar - 15+; could have been a few more
Great Shearwater - one
Manx Shearwater - one
Red Phalarope - 3; one inshore
Great Skua - 3; not interested in our feeding flock today
Iceland Gull - one first winter, followed the boat
Razorbill - 26; mostly flying birds, good looks at one

Loggerhead Sea Turtle - 7; a few well inshore
Manta Ray - 6; all along "the change"
Bottlenose Dolphin - dozens of dozens; best numbers off Avon and near Hatteras Inlet
Little Tunny (False Albacore) - many seen chasing bait at surface inshore of Gulf Stream

Images from the day: Razorbill on the water, Great Shearwater after a dive, Northern Fulmar on "the change", & Iceland Gull