Sunday, November 9, 2014

A Morning with The Devil (by Brian Patteson)

The Devil, you ask?  Well, several months ago we were contacted by Adam Brown and Aaron Straight who are narrator and producer/director, respectively, of a film in the works called "Save The Devil".  The "devil" in their film is the "Diablotin" which most birders know as the Black-capped Petrel.  Black-caps get the name from the scary sounds they make at night around their nesting sites.  Many of these sites are in Haiti, and the degradation of the natural environment with its catastrophic consequences for the people there and the Black-capped Petrel will be addressed in the film.  Because the "Diablotin" actually spends most of its life on the open ocean, Adam and Aaron have been keen to get some quality at sea footage of Black-capped Petrels in the Gulf Stream.  I suggested a fall trip because we would have better looking birds that had completed wing molt.  Also, the odds of getting some northeasterly winds for front-lit morning birds, I figured would be best in September or early October.  Well, various circumstances prevented going then, so for the last few weeks, we have been waiting for the perfect morning to do the shoot.  Fortunately, we have a highly skilled and enthusiastic film maker, Nic McLean, living just up the beach in Kitty Hawk.
Nic and I have been in touch for weeks, looking for the ideal conditions and when he would be available to drive down and jump on the boat.  Finally it looked as though Saturday November 8th would be just right.  It was windy on Friday from the northwest, which is a good direction for Black-caps in waters south of Hatteras, but too rough to shoot the footage.  Saturday, it seemed, would be sunny with just a light north wind going to the east and just enough swell for the birds to fly on if the wind fell out altogether.  And...the weather forecast was right on!!

So we left Hatteras at the crack of dawn and we were looking at our first Black-capped Petrel before 8:30am.  It took a while to get a number of them to the chum, but for over two hours, we were surrounded by a modest number of sharp-looking Diablotins that made many close passes to our trusty little vessel, the Skua.  We opted to take the smaller boat because - day in and day out - we get closer looks at the more skittish seabirds from a lower profile boat.  And when it comes to videography, close birds are definitely a necessity.

I must admit, during the time between our first sighting and the first close "shootable" Black-cap, I was a bit worried that I had made a mistake by going out following a bright moonlit night.  But as soon as we got the first feeding Black-capped, a Pomarine Jaeger, a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels, and a few gulls, it was good steady action in the slick, drawing Black-caps from all around.  We were lucky to have some shark liver provided by the fishermen on the Little Clam just a few days ago, and that, along with our fish oil and frozen chum, was just the right recipe for the birds.

Then show was over by 1100 and we worked back in closer to the shelf break, but there was not much to see bird-wise.  We did see a single Audubon's Shearwater, but no Cory's.  There are usually a number of Cory's around in November, so this was a little surprising.  Since we had done what we set out to do, there was no need to stay out all day, so we headed back to shore.  There were good numbers of gannets around the inlet, which is a reminder that the winter seabirds should be on their way soon.  We have several trips planned for Winter 2015 (please click for a link to our website page with the dates!).

We have also been talking about doing some "extra" winter trips on the smaller boat when the conditions are right for it.  We call these "make-up" trips because the plan is to make up a group with people from a pool of interested parties when the weather is good to go.  These trips are an especially good fit for birders who want to photograph the birds extensively.

I have been photographing seabirds for many, many years and what used to be a very difficult, frustrating and expensive endeavor is now much more rewarding because of the vast improvements in the equipment over the last couple of decades.  The advent of high quality digital SLRs has changed everything and now you can blaze away and shoot many thousands of photos for a one time investment.  During the winter, we have lots of big birds close to the boat, so a super-telephoto lens is not necessary for great results.  And other wildlife, such as dolphins, sea turtles, and Manta Rays also make interesting subjects.

Most days I don't take very many photos, but I love to do it when the light is good and the birds are close.  I was pleased to get some nice images of Black-caps and the Pomarine Jaeger on Saturday.  I was using a Canon 7D and a 400/4.0 lens, which is new to me.  In the past we have had very good success with the Canon 400/5.6 prime and the 300/4.0.  The key to good flight shots, of course, is accurate focus and a high shutter speed.  Back in the film days, 1/1000 was my minimum but I think 1/2000 is a better standard these days with the digital "crop bodies".  Image stabilization cannot freeze the motion of the subject, so a high shutter speed is needed if you want to stop action.  Of course, with seabirds it is helpful to see the bird in motion, so now that has us thinking about what we need to get good video of all the birds we see, especially after having Nic on the boat, shooting Diablotins - in slow motion!  We'll see what happens.

Following are photos that Brian took Saturday of Black-capped Petrels and our attentive Pomarine Jaeger!

Sunday, October 19, 2014

October 11 - Pelagic Trip #39 for 2014 - Brian Patteson

It has always been a struggle to promote fall pelagic trips here;  seabird diversity dwindles past September and fall migration ashore is at a peak for so many other bird species.  But fall is a pleasant time to be out and Black-capped Petrels are looking sharp and generally dependable in good numbers.  Such was the case on the trip last Saturday.  Here is an excellent example by Jeff Lemons.
Although they were slightly outnumbered by Cory's Shearwater (one flock skewed the daily total), it is safe to say that Black-capped Petrels ruled the day, even taking charge when a Pomarine Jaeger invaded "their" chum slick.  Poms have been notably scarce this year so it was good to see one well on this trip.  We also had some nice looks at Cory's and Audubon's Shearwaters, but our only Sooty Terns of the day stayed distant.  Wilson's Storm-Petrel was almost missed.  We had one single in the slick.  We did not see any marine mammals, which was disappointing after finding a couple of pods of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins during a charter the previous day, but seas were choppy and while this can be good for birding, it makes it difficult to spot cetaceans and sea turtles.  Flyingfish put on a good show, though and it is always a kick to show people these amazing fish for the first time.  Our friend Steve Howell has put out a small book about them called "The Amazing World of Flyingfish".  Nice shot of an Odd Spot Midget by Jeff Lemons:
We did have many newcomers on this trip and I would like to thank Dr. Fred Alsop of ETSU for bringing his coastal ecology class out with us again, thus making this fall trip happen.  I would also like to thank Jeff Lemons and Kyle Kittelberger for helping lead the trip and Will Whitley for help with the chumming.

Black-capped Petrel  39
Cory's Shearwater  54
Audubon's Shearwater  22
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  1
Pomarine Jaeger  1
Sooty Tern  3

Another excellent shot of a Black-capped Petrel by Jeff Lemons
 Cory's Shearwater by Jeff Lemons
A couple of Audubon's Shearwaters by Jeff Lemons
 young Pomarine Jaeger by Jeff Lemons
& the gorgeous sunrise on October 11, wish I could have been there (Kate)!  Also taken by Jeff Lemons - big thank you to him for keeping up with the photos for the day!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

September 13, 2014 by Brian Patteson

We had another nice day for pelagic birding off Hatteras on Sept. 13. A stalled cold front resulted in light winds and slight seas, but surprisingly there were no thunderstorms out over the deep Gulf Stream! The lack of wind had the birds flaked out on the water most of the day (often the case after some bright moonlit nights), but we saw a bit of activity during the early afternoon with birds coming to our chum slick and also feeding in natural conditions. Black-capped Petrels were the dominant tubenose of the day (photo below by Bob Fogg).
It's getting late for large numbers of Wilson's Storm-Petrels and there just have not been many shearwaters around lately. Sooty Terns made a good showing, with several pairs of adults and young seen throughout the day (young Sooty Tern below by Bob Fogg).
We had a good tern show near the shelf break on our inshore tack, with both Bridled and Sooty Terns calling and feeding right beside the boat. This is, of course, a seasonal highlight: you don't get juvenile tropical terns here during the spring or early summer. It starts in late August and September is the peak time for it. September can also be a good time for young Long-tailed Jaegers, but a southerly flow for several days is not a good set up and we did not see any jaegers, nor did we see any Great Shearwaters which are seen more frequently south of the Cape when the wind blows from the north. The cold front arrived here Saturday evening, so had we been out on Sunday, we might have seen some of these birds, but we would have gotten tossed around a lot more on the process. Warm calm days are great for nice looks at terns, phalaropes, and Audubon's Shearwaters (photo by Mike Lanzone),
and they are also good for first time seabirders- which we had quite a few of on this trip. With the exception of Great Shearwater and jaegers, we saw all of the seabirds that we usually expect in mid September. A late Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was somewhat of a surprise, and it was the only seabird that left us wanting a better view. Probably the rarest bird of the trip was a Connecticut Warbler that flew by the boat during the afternoon. It was identified from photos, and it was the first one we have seen offshore in many years. There was a little sign of warblers throughout the day, with at least five or six species seen, a sure sign we had some westerly wind the previous night. All in all, it was a good trip. It was good to be back out on Stormy Petrel II ("El Grande" as my friend Bruce Armstrong says after we ran several trips on our smaller boat in recent weeks.) We would like to thank Bob Fogg and Scott Winton for helping to lead the trip and Scott for bringing a crowd of new participants from Duke. We would also like to thank Bob and Mike Lanzone for contributing some of their photos to this report.

Black-capped Petrel 59-61
Cory's Shearwater 34
Audubon's Shearwater 17
Wilson's Storm-Petrel 48
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel 1
Red-necked Phalarope 10
Sooty Tern 34
Bridled Tern 5
Black Tern 96 counted - likely more! Amazing flight!
Common Tern (offshore) 14

shorebird sp. 2
Ovenbird 1
Black-and-white Warbler 1
Connecticut Warbler 1
American Redstart 3
Magnolia Warbler 1
Bay/Poll 1
unidentified warbler 3

Loggerhead Turtle 1

Black-capped Petrel - Bob Fogg
 One of the few white-faced birds we have seen this summer - Mike Lanzone
This individual was with us for over an hour feeding in the slick and making close passes in good light!  A good candidate for the nominate Cory's Shearwater, known as Scopoli's Shearwater.  Two photos below by Mike Lanzone.
 & two more photos by Bob Fogg
We had a perched Bridled Tern in the morning then an adult and young individual on some bamboo in the afternoon - they are always a favorite to photograph!  So here are a few...
by Kate Sutherland
 by Bob Fogg
& three takes on the bamboo...first - Mike Lanzone
 The young Bridled Tern is on the left - Brian Patteson
 Kate Sutherland
Thanks again to everyone who joined us out there!  It was a beautiful day offshore!  Here is a photo of our data buoy off of Cape Hatteras #41025 (Kate Sutherland):

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Discovery Series - September 6, 2014 by Brian Patteson

It was good to get out again after a few days ashore, we don't usually run many trips in September.  There are too many other birds migrating south to make a late summer pelagic trip draw lots of interest. But fortunately for us, we only need a few people to run a trip on the F/V Skua, so away we went on September 6 with a full boat.  The weather had been hot and stagnant for days leading up to the trip, but the current had picked up so we were optimistic that some birds would be moving through with the Gulf Stream.  Cloudy and choppy conditions during the morning made it tough to see erratically flying terns, but we did have some nice Bridled Terns along a weedline inshore of the shelf break.  Heading out to the deep, we were pushed back by a thunderstorm, but the accompanying winds brought some Black-capped Petrels.  Overall the birding was a bit slow but we saw all of the expected species ending up with eight pelagic seabirds for the day.  The wind picked up during the afternoon and evening, and on Sunday morning, seas were a bit rough.  There were also many powerful thunderstorms in our way for getting out to the deep, so we decided it was best to cancel the Sunday trip.  We still have space on this weekend's trip aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  It looks like we might get one or two cold fronts pushing through before then too, so maybe some Long-tailed Jaegers and a Sabine's Gull are on the way...

Black-capped Petrel  16
Cory's Shearwater  34
Audubon's Shearwater  4
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  60-65
Red-necked Phalarope  5
Sooty Tern  10
Bridled Tern  8
Onychoprion sp.  6
Pomarine Jaeger  1
white egret sp - prob. Snowy
Ruddy Turnstone  3
shorebird sp  3
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin  8-11

Looking to the east in the morning (Kate Sutherland)
 The view ahead as we motored offshore aboard the F/V Skua (Kate Sutherland)
Excellent Black-capped Petrel photo by Kyle Kittelberger
 Cory's Shearwater by Brian Patteson
 One of our loyal Wilson's Storm-Petrels by Kate Sutherland
A very cooperative, perched Bridled Tern - photo by Brian Patteson
 In the afternoon we found three Ruddy Turnstones with a couple of Red-necked Phalaropes flying along a grassline!!  photo by Brian Patteson
(updated to add trip list 9/10/14 updated to add J. Ferdinand's photo link 9/24/14)
photos from Johannes Ferdinand's visit to the Gulf Stream (from Germany) can be seen here 

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Discovery Series August 30 & 31 by Brian Patteson

After a few days of brisk northerly winds last week, we had light southerly winds for our two pelagic trips over the weekend. This made for calm seas and warm days. As has been the case for most of the summer be saw generally few birds in the shelf waters, although a nice flock of Red-necked Phalaropes
and a couple of BridledTerns on Saturday got us off to a good start. The weedline where we found the Bridled Terns was also where we released a couple of juvenile Loggerhead Sea Turtles for a lab at UNC Chapel Hill.
Both of these turtles were outfitted w/ satellite transmitters (Mushu, pictured here was released by participant Linda Bell), so it will be interesting to see where they go from here. Out past the shelf break we were also pleased to find a few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels Saturday morning.
These can be hard to find at this latitude in late August. Shearwaters were scarce, but we did find three species, and Black-capped Petrels put on a good show in the wake, making close passes for our two keen photographers, who took thousands of photos. We've been saying it all along. The smaller boat is a great platform for photography, but so far few people have come along for that. At one point we had several Black-capped Petrels trailing in the wake, some of these a few hundred yards out. During this peak of activity, a smaller somewhat similar, but darker looking petrel joined the chum flock. Eventually it came by fairly close before moving on- Bermuda Petrel! We got a couple of quick photos to document the record.
This was out first August Cahow in a few years, and it was the fourth gadfly petrel for the Discovery trips aboard the F/V Skua, which just began this summer! It was also a new bird for our guest leader Kyle Kittelberger. My first Bermuda Petrel was one we saw off Oregon Inlet on July 31, 1993, which Kyle says was less than a year before he was born!
On Sunday we traveled a bit farther south in hopes of finding more shearwaters. Charter boats had reported good numbers just past the shelf break about 10 to 15 miles south of where we started on Saturday. We found a few Cory's, mostly resting birds, 
along w/ more Black-capped Petrels than we had seen the previous day, but it was not what we had hoped for. We also got very close to some roosting Black-capped Petrels, which is usually very hard to do, as they are famously skittish.  This photo is of a dark faced individual.
It seemed like the birds were pretty scattered and there was not much feeding going on except for what we had in our chum slick- again quite good for the Black-caps. We covered a lot of water, more than we did on Saturday. Finally, in the last hour we found what we were after. Kate Sutherland spotted dozens of shearwaters out on the horizon. I estimated it at two miles and we took off in pursuit. When we arrived on the scene, we found many Cory's Shearwaters and several Great Shearwaters. We also had great looks at Sooty Terns and a Pomarine Jaeger. The birds were moving quickly and feeding on bait fish driven to the surface by some larger fish, probably Skipjack Tuna. Ironically, all of this action is right where we had been the day before, which is how it usually goes around here. It was a great sight to see and working back toward the shelf break we saw a good number of Black-capped Petrels, but no new species. All in all, a great two days on the water.

Thanks to everyone who made these trips possible by joining us to head offshore, especially our photographers: Johannes Ferdinand ( from Germany & Jacob Spendelow of Virginia.  Photos by Kate Sutherland & Brian Patteson, trip lists on our website here.

A couple more shots of Black-capped Petrels from the weekend:
Cory's Shearwater
The light is tough in this photo, but it looks like there could be extensive white in the under primaries of this individual - possibly a nominate Cory's.  We had a few over the weekend that were good candidates!
Red-necked Phalaropes working in the sargassum.
Sooty Tern
A few shots of Bridled Terns from Saturday's trip, we did not turn any up on Sunday!
A Common Tern who came in to investigate our slick on Saturday.
 One of the juvenile Loggerheads after the release!
(site updated 9/7/2014)