Monday, December 30, 2013

Crunch Time Off Cape Hatteras

We hatched the plan back in October.  Kate and I were out in California to do some pelagic trips from Bodega Bay.  On the first day we were out with Debi Shearwater on the New Sea Angler, and we saw many familiar faces.  Among them were Neil Hayward and Jay Lehman.  They were both doing ABA Big Years and were trying to score a new year bird that day.  Over the course of the day, it came up that they needed a Great Skua for their year lists and wondered if it might be possible to see one in December.  I told them "maybe" and that later was better.  I thought our best bet would be to try the last week of December off Hatteras.  This had worked for John Vanderpoel in 2011 when he needed a Great Skua, so why not give it a shot?  Only difference was that we would have to scale things down and use a smaller boat because the Stormy Petrel II would be in Virginia all of December.  Fortunately for us, we had a smaller boat ready to go: the aptly named F/V Skua.

It had been our plan for a while to run some birding trips on this smaller boat.  In fact that is what we had mostly come to Bodega Bay for: birding on a smaller boat with less people.  We had already been out a couple of times with Capt. Vince Orsini on his charter boat Miss Anita and it had been great for seeing and photographing birds at close range, as well as little albacore fishing.  It had taken a while to get our own "little boat" ready for birding.  She was a hard used commercial boat when I bought her in 2009.  I extended the cabin and installed a toilet a couple of years ago, but the engine was tired and needed replacement.  Numerous commitments with the big boat also kept us pretty busy, so we did not get done re-powering the little boat until this year.  With fresh power, I felt good about taking people to sea on this small but capable vessel.  Built in Maine, the 31' BHM was advertised as "the biggest little boat on the bay" and it has earned a reputation as one of the most sea-going boats around.  Downeast boats are sea kindly by nature and the BHM is no exception.

Back to birding: it's mid December and Neil Hayward, who did not really begin in earnest on his Big Year until spring, is one bird away from setting a new ABA record.  Jay also has a very respectable list and both still want to try for a skua.  So the date is set and we also book the first three callers who want to go along for the ride.  We are happy that Neil has enough faith in us to gamble on the Great Skua, which is regular here but by no means guaranteed.

Amazingly enough, the weather forecast is near perfect for the first day we picked for this trip, so we head out to sea on December 28.  The water is a little choppy at first, but not really rough.  We head east toward Diamond Shoals, not seeing too many birds along the way.  Approaching the shoals, I slow down and Kate starts chumming.  Some gulls and gannets begin to feed in our wake and up on the shoals a young kittiwake joins the flock.  There are some more gannets out in the distance.  Our flock grows and another kittiwake comes in.  Then we go through a patch with fewer birds.  I speed up and head toward the "Tower" out past the Outer Diamond.  Almost immediately a Manx Shearwater comes sailing in and I slow down for better looks.  The Manx puts on a nice show and I jog out toward the tower.  The water starts to warm up and there is 70 degree water inshore of the tower.  I slow down and a Northern Fulmar finds us.  We enjoy good looks at the fulmar and head northeastward along the ragged change for a couple of miles.  There is a hammerhead shark and some Loggerhead Turtles, two of them close enough for phone photos.  Inshore of the change a trio of Red Phalaropes buzzes by.  There are some Bonaparte's Gulls and scattered gulls and gannets.  Our flock is growing, but the weather is getting prettier and they are getting lazy and strung out way behind.  I tell everyone that this is where we have seen many skuas and we'll work north for a few miles, then back south.

10:52.  I hear some shouting in the stern.  "What have you got?"  "A skua!"  "Coming into the flock."  There he is!  I can see the skua without binoculars.  It's about as close as most of them we see, and I expect it to disappear at any moment.  But to our relief, this one decides to stick around and beat up some gulls.  I run the boat around a little to keep up with it, but it keeps coming back and lands on the water periodically.  Great looks are had and there is no doubt that we have seen a Great Skua.  On its final pass, the bird flew right over the boat!  Many photos are taken and thanks and congratulations given.  We have done it, and the rest of the world knows about it within minutes.

After that it was a nice, slow ride back south to Hatteras.  We took the inshore route hoping for the longest of long shots, an albatross, but had to settle for some Razorbills and a very hungry Sooty Shearwater.  We see no more skuas, so I feel that much luckier in the end.  The F/V Skua had earned her keep and now has a hard act to follow for next year, when we begin offering some special trips and charters for birding with her.  Thanks to everyone aboard: Kate Sutherland for all the hard work, Neil and Jay for keeping the faith, and Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, and Nate Swick (you can see his blog post about the trip here) for all being part of it.

Captain Brian Patteson

Some photos of the Great Skua courtesy of our participants!  Thanks everyone!

by Neil Hayward
 Jay Lehman
 Bruce Richardson
 Nate Swick
 & Bruce also got a shot of it sitting on the water!
Here is a photo of the F/V Skua by Brian Patteson
& a group photo at the end of the day!  Nate Swick, Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, Jay Lehman, Brian Patteson, and Neil Hayward - since Kate took the photo, she is not pictured!

A few more images from the day by Kate Sutherland
Our very hungry Sooty Shearwater was not intimidated by the gulls in our flock!  This individual stayed with us for a while, circling the boat and diving with the gulls behind us again and again (to our delight!).
 Sooty Shearwater
We saw more Lesser Black-backed Gulls on this trip than I can remember seeing in the past, perhaps because we were out in December vs later in the winter?  Who knows!  At one point there were over 100 following the boat as we passed offshore of Cape Point.  Here are two young individuals:
 We had excellent looks at Bonaparte's Gulls over the course of the day.
 Loggerhead Turtle

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

October 12, 2013 - by Brian Patteson

We've been running a pelagic trip annually on Columbus Day Weekend for almost 20 years now.  The main reason for having the trips is Fred Alsop's Coastal Ecology class from East Tennessee State University.  Fred has been bringing his class to the Outer Banks for many years and they used to go out on pelagic trips with Bob Ake and the late Paul Dumont back in the 80s.  Of course many of these kids have never been to sea, so it can be an interesting time if conditions are less than ideal, which is sometimes the case.  This year, however, conditions actually were ideal and we had a beautiful cool day with light winds and slight seas.  This was quite the contrast to our previous two trips, but it was a welcome change.

Seabirds can be hit or miss here in the fall and it turns out we missed the big shearwater flocks, which had moved a bit to the south, but we did have an excellent showing of Black-capped Petrels, which were active throughout the day.  We ventured pretty far out in hopes of seeing another gadfly petrel or some deep water cetaceans, but it was just about all Black-caps, with the occasional shearwater and a lone Pomarine Jaeger.  We turned around at 37 miles and as such had over ten miles of Black-caps out and back.  I was hoping to find some tuna schools and attendant shearwaters out there, but apparently we were just a little too far north.  We did find a school of Mahi Mahi about 33 miles out and the ETSU students had a blast catching a few for dinner while Black-caps made close passes over our chum slick.

It was a little surprising not to see a single Wilson's Storm-Petrel all day, but it was not for lack of chumming.  Although seabird diversity was rather low, we did put together a more diverse list of non-pelagic birds.  Light northwest winds are usually good for a few landbirds and by listening it was evident that a big push of birds had made it to the island before dawn.  There were not as many "twit birds" offshore, but we did see a few warblers, as well as two Northern Flickers, two Peregrines, an Osprey, and a Belted Kingfisher, all of these ten to thirty miles out.

We also saw a nice pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins in shelf waters on the way home and an enormous Leatherback Turtle just six miles from the inlet.  I would like to thank Fred for bringing his class again, despite the logistical hassles caused by the closure of the Seashore.  I would also like to thank Jeff Lemons for helping spot birds and providing photos for this report.  -Brian Patteson

American Wigeon  1
Black-capped Petrel  86
Cory's Shearwater  21
Audubon's Shearwater  9
Osprey  1
Pomarine Jaeger  1
Belted Kingfisher  1
Northern Flicker  2
Peregrine Falcon  2
American Redstart  1
Blackpoll Warbler  1

Also a few distant warblers and other passerines and three spp. of gulls offshore - Laughing, Herring, and Great Black-backed.

Spotted Dolphin  35
Leatherback Turtle  1

And we caught a wahoo and 15 mahi.

American Wigeon
 Three photos of Black-capped Petrels
 Cory's Shearwater
Pomarine Jaeger
 Peregrine Falcon
 American Redstart
 Two images of the Blackpoll Warbler
& the Spotted Dolphins...!

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

One That Got Away? Brian Patteson - Sept. 29, 2013

I had been itching to get out to the deep off Hatteras since our last trip here on August 25.  A series of other obligations stood in the way of running any birding trips in early to mid September, however.  Despite announcing trips for September 28 & 29 without much lead time, we got a good response and we were poised to run two trips.  Unfortunately the weather, which had been remarkably tranquil for most of September, stood in the way, and we cancelled the trip on Saturday because of 25 knot northeast winds.  Northeasterly winds generally make for some good birding in the blue water, but 25 knots is no fun when those waves stand up against three or four knots of current in the Gulf Stream.  Sunday was supposed to be a little better than Saturday, so we stuck with that date.  Sure enough, the wind fell out a bit Saturday night and we had a pretty nice run out on Sunday morning.  There was not much to see inshore.  The water was cool and green until we got to the shelf break where the water warmed up and got a bit bluer.  It wasn't a sharp change like you dream about, but we started to see some shearwaters, mostly Cory's, and it wasn't long before we had also seen a few Audubon's Shearwaters and a couple of Great Shearwaters quite well.  The birds were very active, thankfully.  It would have been hard to find them in the chop and swell if they were just riding it out.  There were some small tunas chasing baitfish to the surface and the shearwaters were on the job.  Flying into the northeasterly wind, they were mostly front-lit, and stalled by the wind, making for great photo-ops.  The clear air and bright sun brought them into sharp focus.  We proceeded slowly out past the shelf break.  The water got a bit greener and cooled off slightly and we saw fewer birds for awhile.  Then out around 150 fathoms we came into some current and warmer blue water.  There we began seeing a number of Black-capped Petrels and the shearwater show continued.

We spent most of the day with a number of birds in view.  The Black-capped Petrels were amazing.  They flew circles around the shearwaters as usual and they seemed to mock the trio of young Herring Gulls that had found us and were steadily picking at scraps of chum in our wake.  The Black-caps were beginning to look sharp, having gotten past the rattiness of their summer molt.  I was a bit surprised that we didn't see a few jaegers out there with all the shearwaters, but one Pomarine was all we found.  Wilson's Storm-Petrels were remarkably scarce and it took awhile to chum one in close to the boat.  There were also a few phalaropes seen fleetingly.  The combination of big seas and widely scattered Sargasso weed is not a good recipe for seeing phalaropes well.  Likewise such days are not usually so good for terns and we saw no Bridled or Sooty Terns.  There was plenty of Sargasso weed but I saw little flotsam and when that's missing, so are the Bridleds.

After such a good showing last month, I had high hopes for seeing a Trindade Petrel, but it was not to be on Sunday.  Likewise, no Sabine's Gull.  That is mostly a September bird here, but we certainly don't see them on all of the trips.  It was a day without a stand-out bird, or at least one we could be sure of.  During the morning, just past the shelf break, our leader, Nick Bonomo, spotted a slim looking Calonectris shearwater, which he called in.  There were a lot of Cory's Shearwaters buzzing around in the glare and I did not see it.  Nick snapped a couple of photos of the bird that looked notably slimmer and slightly smaller than the numerous Cory's.  These are characters of "Scopoli's" Shearwater, but the underwing of the bird in question was wrong for that - it had dark looking under primaries.  Looking at his photo the bird has rather narrow wings in comparison to a nearby (Atlantic) Cory's (C.d. borealis).  The bill also looks both thinner and shorter.  Cape Verde Shearwater?  Maybe.  If so, it just goes to show that it might be worth spending some more time in the Gulf Stream during the late summer and fall.  Cape Verde Shearwater is a stealth vagrant, the sort of bird that can easily slip by in less than calm conditions.  The only one we ever nailed down was a bird we saw on August 15, 2004.  I spotted that one on the water with a few Cory's and we got to study it closely before it flew off at close range.  We've been scouring flock after flock of Cory's Shearwaters for nine years since.  It's always disappointing when a potential mega-rarity gets by, but when you think about it, how many Cory's Shearwaters do you see closely and how many are specks on the horizon?  Likewise with Black-capped Petrels.  Fortunately Black-capped Petrels are identifiable at nearly infinite distance in good light.  What I'm trying to say is the odds are against you when it comes to getting a good, close, long look at an exceptionally rare seabird, especially on a breezy day.  But just knowing it might be out there drives us to keep going.

-Brian Patteson

The trip list is on our website, thank you to everyone who stood by to come on Sunday's trip!  And thank you to Nick Bonomo for helping us out as a leader and contributing some of his photos.  Thanks to participant Doug Koch for allowing us to use some of his photos as well!

Two images of dark-faced Black-capped Petrels (photos by Nick Bonomo)
 Only a couple distinctly white-faced individuals were seen (photo by Nick Bonomo)
 Atlantic Cory's Shearwater C. d. borealis (photo Nick Bonomo)
 Nominate Cory's (Scopoli's) Shearwater C. d. diomedea (photo Nick Bonomo)
Black-capped Petrels (photos by Doug Koch)
Cory's Shearwaters (photos by Doug Koch)
Nominate Cory's (Scopoli's) Shearwaters (photos by Doug Koch)
Audubon's Shearwaters (photos by Doug Koch)

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Unsung September: Trips Added Sept. 28 & 29

It's been a few years since we've had a trip in late September, but not because it is a subpar time for birding in the Gulf Stream here.  It just seems hard to round up a crowd to come down here after August, with all the other birding going on - warblers, shorebirds, hawk migration...  And there has been the occasional hurricane to mess up the whole fall every once in a while.  But so far things look good for this month.  It's been a tough spring and summer for us with so much rainfall and aberrant green water conditions offshore but things are starting to look up.  We've had better water with good numbers of birds starting last month and a good showing of Trindade Petrels, which also began in August.  We have not run a trip here since August 25 because of other commitments with the boat, and we are itching to get back out there.  Therefore we have added a trip from Hatteras on Saturday, September 28*, with either a weather date or a second trip following, depending on interest.

Five years have passed since we've had a mid or late September trip and the last few we ran were quite productive.  Notable sightings from those three trips alone included Trindade Petrel, Fea's Petrel, Bermuda Petrel, and Sabine's Gull.  Over the years (and less than ten trips!) we've tallied a list of twenty pelagic species here in mid to late September.  That includes all five shearwaters and all of the jaegers.  We've seen the occasional tropicbird and the occasional booby.  Black-capped Petrels are expected and should be looking less scruffy than last month as their molt progresses.  Of course the real excitement is just not knowing what might show up.  Maybe a White-faced Storm-Petrel or better yet a Barolo Shearwater, a species we've yet to see here, but occurs annually in the Gulf Stream off New England in late summer.  Maybe another Cape Verde Shearwater among the Cory's.  And there is the fifth Pterodroma - Zino's Petrel.  Zino's should be dispersing from the breeding grounds and it seems quite likely we had one here on September 16, 1995 on a trip from Hatteras.  At the time it seemed too far fetched, but recent at sea observations of Zino's off Madeira has resulted in progress on the field identification of the species.  Eighteen years ago, most of us were hand-focusing with grainy slide film and third party lenses.
The bird appears to have a fine bill and the paler underwing and molt are consistent with Zino's.  Anyhow, Zino's is a long shot mega-rarity in the western North Atlantic, but we won't find it if we don't get out there looking.  Hope some of you can join us this September.  

Brian Patteson
(Information about signing up for the trip is on our website )
All three photos were taken on the September 16, 1995 pelagic trip from Hatteras.
Photos copyright Brian Patteson, please do not use without permission.
*update 9/20/2013 - we will be running trips on September 28 & 29!

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

August 23 & 25

The Stormy Petrel II headed up to Wanchese, NC for our final trips of the summer on Thursday August 22.  Typically, the prevailing winds in the summer are from the SW, making Oregon Inlet the perfect place to run late summer trips since there is cooler green water right offshore, and the warm Gulf Stream waters are not too far out of reach for a day trip.  Friday the 23rd was the first of three days we planned to run from Wanchese, and the day began with some breeze but the winds were never more than 10 or 15 kts from the WSW.  There were reports of large groups of shearwaters east of the inlet in the green water, so the decision was made to head out there and maybe a White-faced Storm-Petrel would show up!  We passed two Leatherback Turtles on the way out in the morning, but we did not encounter much to suggest good concentrations of birds.  The three expected shearwaters were present, Cory's, Great, & Audubon's, plus a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels, but not really in the numbers we had hoped for.

A map of the sea surface temperature off of Cape Hatteras showed a nice edge south of where we were and Brian decided to go for it.  We picked up speed and headed toward the Gulf Stream hoping to find some additional species and more life.  By 1030 we were in a small pod of Pilot Whales and things were looking up!  While we did not get into the hot Gulf Stream water until midday, we added Red-necked Phalarope and Bridled Tern to the list before noon.  The phalaropes were found along a line of sargassum, and we slowly cruised by flock after flock on the water.  Soon after 1200, in the warmer water, we finally had a glimpse of a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, shortly followed by a Black-capped Petrel!  Wilson's Storm-Petrel numbers were fair all day and we ended up seeing nine Band-rumpeds over the course of the afternoon!  Pilot Whales were popping up around us most of the day and we even encountered some Bottlenose Dolphins in the afternoon.  The time to head for home came earlier than we're used to in Hatteras because we were such a long way from the inlet, but the seas were quite calm by the end of the day and we spotted several Leatherbacks on the way in.  At one point we had a couple surrounded by a small pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins - very cool to see.  We had never before seen 10 Leatherbacks in a day on one of our trips, so while we did not encounter any rare seabirds, we still had a record breaking day!

Saturday morning it was much windier than anticipated, the wind had shifted overnight to ENE and picked up.  Although we knew a front was moving through, the forecast was for the wind to really pick up Saturday night into Sunday morning.  Brian made the decision before we even reached the marina to cancel the trip on Saturday and try for an alternate plan.  He would run the boat back to Hatteras Saturday and we would run Sunday's trip down there, weather permitting.  The weather would not permit us to run either day from Oregon Inlet which faces east - the ever freshening winds from the northeast meant the inlet could possibly be closed out by breakers.  Hatteras Inlet, however, faces south and we have the cape to the north protecting the nearshore waters from northerly wind and swell.  Our participants were adaptable and we even had a few join us at the last minute for the alternate trip, so 13 were at Hatteras Landing Marina ready to go on Sunday morning.

The seas were righteous by the time we reached the hot water, which was close in just 120 feet of water!  When the wind is against the current like it was on Sunday, it can cause the waves to really stand up - it was good that we did not hit any really fast current where we were on Sunday!  The birds were there, as expected!  Right off the bat we were in feeding flocks of mostly Cory's Shearwaters with some Great & Audubon's flying around as well!  It was spectacular!  While numbers of Wilson's were not very high, shearwaters and Black-capped Petrels made up for it - just the sheer spectacle was worth the trip out there!  Conditions were not the easiest for spotting and staying on birds since the waves were high and the birds were moving at high rates of speed in the troughs, but they were flying high and pretty close to the boat, so it was all relative.  Just before one o'clock, we had Black-capped Petrels flying like storm-petrels in the chum; Tom Johnson spotted the bird of the day: a Trindade Petrel!  It flew up the slick and then away.  Most people who were outside had a pretty good look at the bird before it became a distant dark gadfly behind some Black-cappeds and disappeared.  We also had at least one Pomarine Jaeger make a close pass and a young Long-tailed Jaeger, fresh from the tundra, flew right into the stern for everyone to see!  So, while it may have been a little bumpy, it was worth it to be out there in the elements - and to see the birds behave so naturally in the wind, while we humans are so grounded...

Thanks to everyone who joined us over the last long weekend of the summer, and thanks also to everyone who was flexible enough to make it possible for us to run on Sunday from Hatteras!  Lev Frid (The Spruce Blog) joined us to help lead both trips this weekend, and we finally saw longtime friend & our most enthusiastic leader, Jamie Cameron, for Sunday's trip.  Tom Johnson helped us out on Sunday as well.  Thank you to Lev, Tom, and Jeff Lemons for letting us use some of their photos here!  (9/3/2013) Here is a link to Lev's post about the trips on August 23 & 25

Friday morning's sunrise on the way to Bonner Bridge (over Oregon Inlet) (photo by Lev Frid)
 Sunday's Trindade Petrel - an intermediate individual
 Black-capped Petrel with some chum
 Black-capped Petrel - 2 photos
Audubon's Shearwater
 one of the feeding flocks seen on Sunday's trip
probable Scopoli's Shearwater (photo by Lev Frid)
 Wilson's Storm-Petrels
Red-necked Phalaropes (photo by Lev Frid)
Juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger
 Atlantic Short-finned Pilot Whale (photo by Lev Frid)
 Leatherback Turtle (photo by Lev Frid)
We had some breathtaking views out there this weekend! (photo by Lev Frid)