Sunday, February 23, 2014

Yellow-nosed Albatross ~ February 22, 2014

I must admit I was a little worried about what we might see on Saturday's pelagic trip.  The water has been warmer than usual south of Cape Hatteras this winter because of a close Gulf Stream.  But in recent days, the Gulf Stream water shoved in close to the beach to the north of Cape Hatteras as well!  Alcids don't typically favor 65 to 68 degree water.  We find them there when there is cold water close beside it and the warmer water has better clarity, especially near the shelf break.  But warm turbid water inshore is usually the death knell for seeing alcids, and it was on Saturday.  But...we can often find some other seabirds the people are keen to see in this warm water such as Manx Shearwater, Northern Fulmar, Red Phalarope, maybe even a Black-capped Petrel.

Our first stop on Saturday was just south of Diamond Shoals Tower.  We promised the turtle people at the NC Aquarium that we would return some cold-stunned turtles to the wild.  I figured we would do our good deed and see some "warm water" seabirds in the process.  Well, the turtles (one Loggerhead, two Greens, and two Kemp's Ridleys) swam away happily but the birding was definitely subpar.  And to add insult to injury, the ocean was just choppy enough to make for a long, dull ride to cooler more productive waters several miles north of Diamond Shoals.

Link here to passenger Karen Roberts releasing the smaller Kemp's Ridley

We had a decent gull flock chummed up, but where there had been some fulmars less than a week ago, there were none.  We saw occasional Razorbills and Red Phalaropes and a token Manx Shearwater.  Around 1130 we got up to where a Great Skua had teased us six days earlier.  There were a few gannets but it was comparatively quiet.  We steamed northward.  Finally, a little bit past noon, I hear "SKUA!".  Just as a week before, the bird disappears as quickly as it had appeared.  We crisscrossed this area for the next hour and got a few more quick but closer looks at this Great Skua, and a few more Manx Shearwaters and Red Phalaropes.  Around 1400 we were at the point where we needed to head homeward, so I decided to work southward about four or five miles off the beach, running along a color change.  At 1415, there is some screaming, but I don't hear "Skua!" this time.  It takes a moment to compute "A-L-B-A-T-R-O-S-S!!!"  Not something I hear much around here.  Sure enough, a Yellow-nosed Albatross comes sailing by on the port side and lands on the water.  It's a lifer for many aboard and a new bird for the boat.  It's the second species of albatross in NC for my co-leaders Kate Sutherland and Jeff Pippen!  And my long-awaited second Yellow-nosed Albatross in these waters.  What a bird!  It's not as big as a Black-browed, but it's so sleek, and it still dwarfs the competition at the stern.  It's just windy enough for our giant bird to take off with little effort, but calm enough seas to get close for participants to take cell phone photos and videos (and send them out within seconds!).  It's a younger albatross than the one we saw just a few miles north of here in 2000.  That was back in the film days.  If we were still in the film days now, some people would have run out of film on this bird.  We watched it closely for about half an hour before we had to head home, and then the bird was accommodating enough to follow us.  We last saw it off the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse - 10 miles south of where we found it (or where it found us!).  We didn't see much else on the way back, but no one seemed to mind.  It had been a generally slow day compared to most, but it was proof positive that persistence pays off.  We dogged the skua until we got some better looks and our hopes for another skua had kept us in "albatross alley".  We did not see another skua, but as I told our group, "You can always come back and try for a better look at a skua, but an albatross?  It could be years".
-Brian Patteson

*This is the fourth Yellow-nosed Albatross seen in this vicinity since 2000.  Two from our trips in February 2000 and 2014.  Two from shore at Cape Hatteras in April 2004 and 2006.  Maybe we should run more trips in March and April.

Thanks to everyone who joined us on Saturday!  It was spectacular!  Thanks Jeff Pippen for helping us lead the trip!

Some final numbers:
Yellow-nosed Albatross  1
Manx Shearwater  6
Red Phalarope  66
Great Skua  1
Razorbill  32

Loggerhead Turtle  2
Spotted Dolphin  1-2
Bottlenose Dolphin  many seen

Photo of the smaller Kemp's Ridley Turtle released by Karen Roberts (photo by Brian Patteson)

Two photos of the Yellow-nosed Albatross by participant Irvin Pitts -
 look at that face!
 Following photos by Brian Patteson

And a few more Kate Sutherland

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