Wednesday, February 27, 2013

February 24, 2013 "Aukorama"

What we find on winter boat trips off Cape Hatteras can vary greatly from one week to the next depending on the near shore water temperatures.  The warm Gulf Stream current, which brings us such rare and exotic birds during the spring and summer, can really put a damper on the winter birding when it washes some blue water up to Diamond Shoals.  This happened to us week after week last winter, and as a result, we saw few alcids on most of our trips, this just a year after seeing hundreds of Dovekies per trip for weeks.  It was not so bad for the skuas though, as we saw them on each trip, which was our best ever season average.  Prior to Sunday's trip, I must admit I did not have high hopes.  We had been skunked on skuas on both trips the weekend before, and I felt like the cold water would be limited to a thin strip on the north side of Diamond Shoals - good enough for Razorbills, but probably not much else.  Gannets had been scarce and I thought this was not a good sign for Great Skua.  Heavy cloud cover meant there had not been a satellite photo of the area water (showing the temps) for a couple of days, so there was not much to do but hope for the best.  We had settled on running the trip from Hatteras, so I hoped we would not have to run way north to find cold water.

It was slightly foggy when we left the dock around 6:26 AM, but it soon cleared up.  The pipe dredge working on clearing the channel hadn't made much progress, so we had to make about a seven mile detour through Pamlico Sound to get to the ocean.  When we got to Hatteras Inlet, we found Razorbills inside the inlet.  When we made it to the ocean, the water was in the high 40s, so things were looking up.  Not knowing how extensive this band of cold water was, I headed east to Diamond Shoals and crossed to the north.  Numbers of Razorbills increased as we went.  We had seen a hundred or so by the time we got across the shoals, as well as a couple of Manx Shearwaters.  The first hour north of the shoals, we saw over 400 more Razorbills and we were just getting into it.  Between 10:00 and 11:00 I counted 765 Razorbills and that was probably low.  We also saw 15 Manx Shearwaters that hour and we were just three or four miles off the beach.  Heading eastward, the Razorbills continued in great numbers until we got into slightly warmer water.  The water had been about 46 degrees, but when it approached 50, we started to see small flocks of Dovekies buzzing around.  We saw about a hundred in thirty minutes, as well as the first few puffins of the day.  The water was a little choppy, so we could only see the close puffins, which for the most part were not flying.  We kept heading offshore, looking for warmer water and hopefully some Red Phalaropes, and maybe a fulmar.  We found the phalaropes and had good looks at dozens on the water.  We turned around in about 50 fathoms, where the water was in the mid 60s.  There was not a hard change there;  it just got rougher.  A few minutes later a Black-capped Petrel came zipping up the wake and gave us a good, long look.  As we worked into cooler water, we saw more Dovekies, including a few on the water.  One of these diminutive birds was snatched up by a Herring Gull, which soon dropped it.  When it returned to the surface, it was plucked from the water by a Great Black-backed Gull.  Then there was a big melee behind the boat, as more Black-backs fought to get the Dovekie, but in turn lost to a gannet, which choked it down.  Sad to see, bur for some reason, I was glad it was a gannet that prevailed over the gulls.  Just before 2:30 I glanced out the port side window and something caught my eye.  It was the old brown bomber from across the sea.  People had also just seen it from the stern.  We were in about 20 fathoms, south of Diamond Tower, which I suppose are prime waters for a traveling Great Skua.  The bird rushed the gull flock, but soon disappeared.  Many saw it, but a few did not, despite a quick turnaround and some instructions.  It was just not a close encounter, and this is typical of the Bonxie when we see it here.  An hour later, we were about ten miles from the inlet and only seven miles off the beach.  Kate was on the stern and started screaming.  I figured I knew what was going on and I was right.  There was another skua back there raising hell with the gulls.  This one  also kept some distance, but stayed around a bit longer.  From there it was a nice ride back in, with more Razorbills, including a flock of 18 maybe a mile up the sound!

Thanks to everyone who came and to Kate Sutherland and Scott Winton for leading the trip with me.

List of Target / Bonus Birds for Sunday February 24, 2013

Black-capped Petrel  one
Manx Shearwater  22 (probably more)
Red Phalarope  200 or more
Iceland Gull  one adult (Kumlien's)
Great Skua  2
Razorbill  2000 (fairly close count rounded by less than one percent)
Dovekie  232
Atlantic Puffin  15

We also saw plenty of gulls and gannets, including many Lesser Black-backed Gulls and hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls. There was a Laughing Gull just inside the inlet.  They begin arriving about now.  There were many Red-throated Loons miles off the beach, but just a few Common Loons.  We saw several Loggerhead Turtles, a couple of Hammerhead Sharks, and many Bottlenose Dolphins.  The weather was nice with slight seas and light to moderate northerly winds, but not much sunshine.

Captain Brian Patteson (Photos from February 24, 2013 by Kate Sutherland)

Manx Shearwater
 Manx Shearwater
 second Great Skua!
 Dovekie and victorious Northern Gannet
 Atlantic Puffin
 Atlantic Puffin
Northern Gannet
 Northern Gannet
 adult Iceland Gull (Kumlien's Gull)
 Lesser Black-backed Gull
 Lesser Black-backed Gull
 Our faithful flock!

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

February 16 & 18, 2013

Due to some other commitments, we had to cut back our schedule of winter seabird trips from Hatteras this year, so it was good to finally get out on the water with a group over President's Day Weekend.  We ran the first trip on Saturday, which was a nice sunny day with light to moderate northerly winds.  There was a mix of participants.  some were birders who were keen to see a Great Skua, and others were students from Duke University who had come with Jeff Pippen to see whatever was out there.  On Saturday, we explored the waters north of Diamond Shoals as we often do.  Although the water  was a bit warmer than what we had hoped for (temps in the low to mid 50s), we soon found large numbers of Razorbills, the most we had seen in years.  Somewhere about three miles offshore between Buxton and Avon we tallied over 400 Razorbills in an hour.  That was pretty strong, considering we saw less than a hundred there last year in four trips!  We headed offshore when we got north of Avon.  It did not take long before we found even warmer water, but fewer birds.  These inshore waters are often inhabited by Great Skuas, but they were MIA on Saturday.  I was hoping to find some sort of temperature break on the shelf that might be suitable for Dovekies or puffins, but the water was pretty well blended.  There were quite a few Red Phalaropes buzzing around in the sixty-some degree water, but none would settle close for a good look.  It seemed as though they were looking around for a water-front (not a waterfront...) too.  A couple of Dovekies flew by as well.  We were fortunate to have a close flyby Atlantic Puffin, which many participants saw well.  When we got back into cooler water near Diamond Shoals, we saw a few more flocks of Razorbills, which were southbound.  The wind picked up as we went along, but we had a fairly easy ride back in the lee of Cape Hatteras.  I did not tally the Razorbills until the trip was over and when I did , I found that it was our highest count ever - almost a thousand auks!

Trip list of Target Species for Saturday February 16, 2013

Manx Shearwater  2
Red Phalarope  141
Razorbill  989 (mostly flying, but plenty of good looks)
Dovekie  2
Atlantic Puffin  1

We also saw Common and Red-throated Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, Brown Pelicans, many Northern Gannets at point blank range, and Bonaparte's, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed Gulls.  The birds were hungry and quite responsive to our chumming all day long.

Bottlenose Dolphins, which are often very abundant on our winter trips, were present near shore in smaller than usual numbers.  We also saw a Humpback Whale, which surfaced very close to the boat, and a couple of Loggerhead Turtles were seen farther offshore.

Strong winds and rough seas kept us ashore on Sunday, so we ran the second trip on Monday.  It was still a bit windy when we headed out Monday morning, but we found plenty of birds close to shore in the lee of the Cape.  Thirty-some hours of strong northwesterly wind had changed the water up, and we found a nice color change with 48 degree water on one side just south of Diamond Shoals.  This condition was populated by many Bonaparte's Gulls and quite a few Razorbills.  It was a great opportunity to photograph Razorbills, and they did not seem quite as skittish as they often are.  At the same time we were watching auk after auk, the gulls were going bananas, landing on the back of the boat and eating chum right out of the scoop!  I followed this color change for several miles and in doing so ended up about 14 miles southeast of Hatteras Inlet, which is not somewhere I expect to be on a winter trip.  Most times we are east or even east-northeast of the inlet by late morning.  I hoped we would see a puffin or a Dovekie on the color change inshore, but it did not happen.  We had seen a Dovekie just east of the inlet early on, so I had high hopes.  We did see some Manx Shearwaters along it though.  It seemed like our best bet to find some more life and different birds would probably be a blue water change offshore, so we jogged out to the shelf break to check it out.  We found a nice rip in about 100 fathoms and instantly added Red Phalarope to the day's list.  There were many Bonaparte's Gulls there too.  After a few minutes, we found a puffin and after several minutes of it playing hide and seek, everyone had seen it well.  There were not many Razorbills on that change, but we did find a few more puffins.  There was an adult Little Gull among the Boney's, but it soon disappeared, as the birds were moving quickly to the east.  A Manx Shearwater gave good looks, resting on the water close to the boat before moving on.  Heading back in, we had a nice ride on smoother seas and we saw a number of Razorbills, mostly within a few miles of shore.  It would have been nice to see a skua, but we have missed them before, and likewise fulmars and kittiwakes.  It's not everyday that we see puffins on the Hatteras trips, and the Razorbill show was the best ever, so it was definitely a trip to remember.

Trip List of Target Species for Monday February 18, 2013

Manx Shearwater  4
Red Phalarope  85
Razorbill  "only" 377, but mostly on the water today, few flying
Dovekie  1
Atlantic Puffin  5
Little Gull  1

We also saw the usual loons, cormorants, scoters, pelicans, gulls, and gannets.  One young Brown Pelican followed us offshore for many miles.  There was a flock of six Forster's Terns on the water 17 miles out in the afternoon.  We saw both inshore and offshore Bottlenose Dolphins and five Loggerhead Turtles.  Gulls landed on one of the turtles, which had many barnacles on its' shell.  We had a quick look at an Ocean Sunfish while underway.

I would like to thank everyone who came along.  Kate Sutherland and Bob Fogg led both trips and Jeff Pippen helped on Saturday.  I ran the boat and spotted a few birds too, but got to stay warmer than most.

Captain Brian Patteson

The feeding frenzy shot taken through a scupper! (Brian Patteson)
Manx Shearwater (Bob Fogg)
 A very cooperative Manx Shearwater! (Bob Fogg)
Northern Gannet - at times they outnumbered the gulls around the boat! (Bob Fogg)
Northern Gannet (Bob Fogg)
 Red Phalaropes (Bob Fogg)
 Bonaparte's Gull and Razorbill on the water (Brian Patteson)
Second cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull (sorry for original misid!) feeding on Loggerhead Turtle's barnacles (Brian Patteson)
 Breakfast at the Offshore Cafe...(Brian Patteson)
 Lesser Black-backed Gull - at times they outnumbered the Great Black-backed Gulls! (Bob Fogg)
Razorbills with the beach in the background (Bob Fogg)
 Razorbill (Bob Fogg)
 Razorbill (Brian Patteson)
 Incredible shot of Razorbills in flight! (Bob Fogg)
 Razorbill (Bob Fogg)
 Razorbill (Bob Fogg)
Razorbill (Brian Patteson)
The flyby Atlantic Puffin from Saturday, it was fast! (Bob Fogg)