Saturday, July 29, 2017

Friday July 28, 2017 by Kate Sutherland

The week had some nice, shifting winds leading up to our trip so we, and our participants, were eager to get out there this morning!  Crossing through Hatteras Inlet was quite smooth and the ride offshore was nice with just a little bit of chop from some southwesterly winds.  Unfortunately, we did not see many birds until we crossed a faint Sargassum line just inshore of the shelf break where we began to see some Audubon's Shearwaters and a few Cory's Shearwaters.  Once we made it over the edge of the Continental Shelf we slowed down and began chumming.  In contrast with last week's trip, the birds responded well to the chum and we had excellent views of everything we saw today.  By 0900 we had a nice feeding group that included a super cooperative Manx Shearwater feeding with an Audubon's!  It was amazing to watch how long the Manx would dive in comparison with the smaller, more delicate Audubon's, but what was really nice was the time we had to observe these two superficially similar species, both black and white shearwaters, and see how different they actually are!  The Manx (top photo by Brian Patteson) is a larger, beefy looking shearwater with a long bill, dark face, and short tail with white undertail coverts, while the Audubon's (bottom photo by Kate Sutherland) typically has a paler face and weighs half as much as the Manx showing a long tail and dark undertail coverts.
We had a good number of Wilson's Storm-Petrels come in well to the chum and they made many nice passes giving people a chance to study their swallow-like flight style and their feeding mannerisms, dropping their long legs down to the water, balancing and hovering as they fed.  This made it easier to recognize the different flight of the Band-rumped Storm-Petrels (photo by Kate Sutherland)
when they came soaring in to the slick on their long, bowed wings, flying circles around the Wilson's and dropping down to the water to feed since their legs are too short to hover like the Wilson's!  Our other Gulf Stream specialty did not disappoint and Black-capped Petrels also responded well to the chum with some nice passes by the boat and we even had a few sitting on the water!  These birds were mostly the dark faced type and were in varying stages of molt, but we did see a few white faced birds out there today too, plus one really fresh looking individual that could have been a juvenile from this year (photo by Kate Sutherland).
A really interesting note is that the majority of the Cory's Shearwaters we saw well today were the nominate type, or Scopoli's Shearwaters (photo by Kate Sutherland).
Only a few were Atlantic Cory's - it seems that sometimes we see the Atlantic Cory's more in the inshore waters and the Scopoli's in the Gulf Stream waters.  The Scopoli's also are more attentive to the chum and will readily feed behind the boat while the Atlantic Cory's will only occasionally show interest in the chum.  We luckily had at least one Great Shearwater come by for a nice view in the afternoon (photo of Great in flight, Cory's on the water by Kate Sutherland)!
Then, about 15 minutes before we needed to pick up speed and head back inshore, Todd Day spotted some terns in the distance...Ed Corey then picked them up over some Bottlenose Dolphins and Brian was able to run over to them ending the day with a pair of Bridled Terns flying right by us and then picking around in the slick for a few minutes before we had to head home!  (photo of a first summer Bridled Tern by Kate Sutherland)
What an awesome day out there!  Thank you to everyone who joined us today and a big thanks to Ed Corey for helping Brian and I lead the trip!

Trip List for July 28, 2017
Black-capped Petrel  30-31
Cory's Shearwater  40-42 (*we put at least 8 Scopoli's on the eBird list - there were likely more than that today)
Great Shearwater  3
Manx Shearwater  1
Audubon's Shearwater  22
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  90-120
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  18-24
Bridled Tern  2
Onchoprion sp  1
Barn Swallow  3

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin  2-3
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin  17-20

All photos below are by me, Kate Sutherland.
A more typical view of a Black-capped Petrel
A few more photos of some nominate type Cory's, or Scopoli's, Shearwaters
Head on shot of Manx Shearwater (above) and Audubon's (below) to give an idea of the difference in body size and shape.
A couple more images of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels from the day

Saturday, July 22, 2017

July 20 & 21 - by, Kate Sutherland

Every Day is Different in the Gulf Stream

Our back to back Gulf Stream trips this week consisted of a charter carrying a group from Duke Marine Lab in Beaufort taking a summer course focusing on marine mammals and seabirds, then a regularly scheduled Seabirding pelagic trip the following day.  It had been almost a month since we had a chance to run a seabirding trip down here as the weather has been uncooperative so far in July!  So even though Brian and I both know how different every day can be out there, it was still interesting to see how different these two days were in terms of the Gulf Steam conditions and the life we encountered, regardless of the fact that we covered some different ground over the course of the two days!  (July 20 sunrise by Kate Sutherland)
Thursday we headed more to the south than we typically would on a birding trip because there were some reports of Pilot Whales in the area down there a few days previously and this was a species the group was keen to encounter!  The shelf break is much more distant in this direction, so we covered a lot of shallow water on our way there and did find some cooperative Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (photo by Brian Patteson)!
The winds were light from the west north west in the morning making the air temperature quite comfortable and we also had some nice cloud cover, both positive notes on a summer day in the warm waters of the Gulf Stream!  Once we were past the shelf break, about 38 miles from the inlet, we started to see some birds!  We did not chum on this trip, but still ended up with an impressive list for the day - and right off the bat two Bridled Terns came in to check us out, while at the same time Brian was focused on an interesting storm-petrel flying by in the distance.  We wish we had been able to get a better look at - it looked to be a large, all dark storm-petrel...Swinhoe's??  We will never know for certain!!  As the morning continued we had excellent views of all of the seabirds we would expect to see out there and even found some Sooty Terns and shearwaters feeding over a nice school of Skipjack Tuna!  The Gulf Stream current was not too swift on Thursday, moving at about 2 knots, making it possible for us to spend some time with a playful pod of offshore Bottlenose Dolphins (photo by Brian Patteson) without worrying we would get swept too far north!
While there was not much Sargassum out there, we were able to scoop some of both species aboard for examination plus some shrimp, crabs, and filefish!  Overall a great day in the Gulf Stream, even if we did not turn up any Pilot Whales, and we even passed a cooperative, young Bridled Tern resting on a board on our way back inshore (photo by Brian Patteson)!
After seeing the shearwaters and terns on Thursday without any chum, Brian and I hoped that the conditions would be similar for the birding trip on Friday...but of course they were not!  We still had an awesome day out there and found our usual suspects, less the tropical tern show.  The winds had increased from the south west and the water had totally changed from what we had on Thursday with some greener water extending out past the shelf break and the beautiful, cobalt blue waters of the Gulf Stream about 30 miles from the inlet!  And the current was swift on Friday moving between 4 and 5 knots over the bottom!  It was nice once we got out to the blue water, the birds responded well to our chum and we had a nice group of Wilson's Storm-Petrels with close passes by Black-capped Petrels and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.  Audubon's Shearwaters were quite approachable and we found a few on the water (photo of one taking off by Brian Patteson),
but Cory's and Great Shearwaters were a bit scarce, though the latter did come in close to chase our tropicbird teaser (a squid chain with no hook!) that we had out behind the boat (photo by Kate Sutherland)!
At one point when we turned back on our slick to check out a Band-rumped, a Sooty Tern flew right by the boat!  Excellent views were had of this powerful, yet elegant dark backed tern!  For many the highlight of the day came in the morning when Brian spotted a Pomarine Jaeger on the water that allowed us to approach closely before taking off in pursuit of a Cory's Shearwater (photo by Kate Sutherland)!
The highlight of my day?  Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.  For two or three hours we had between 5 and 9 individuals in the slick, sometimes the closest storm-petrels would all be Band-rumpeds!  Pretty amazing, and while this happens every summer, we don't always see the smaller Band-rumpeds on every trip.  Friday we had both types back there and it was a treat to spend time watching the huge looking "Grant's" flying around with the smaller "Madeiran" type of Band-rumped.  We were unable to turn up a single marine mammal on Friday...but then again...every day is different in the Gulf Stream!
Thanks to Andy Read and the Marine Lab for chartering us for the trip on Thursday and thanks to everyone who joined us for Friday's trip!  The species totals are below - remember that we did not chum on Thursday!!

Trip Totals July 20 / 21
Black-capped Petrel  18 / 23
Cory's Shearwater  27 / 12
Great Shearwater  3 / 4
Audubon's Shearwater  17 / 19
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  10 / 40-50
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  4 / 15
Oceanodroma sp.  1 / 0
Red-necked Phalarope  4 / 0
Sooty Tern  6 / 3
Bridled Tern  7 / 0
Onychoprion sp.  7 / 0
Pomarine Jaeger  0 / 1

Gervais' Beaked Whale  3 / 0
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin  20-30 / 0
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin  30-40 / 0

Black-capped Petrel (Kate Sutherland)
Cory's Shearwater (Kate Sutherland)
Another shot of the Great Shearwater chasing the "squid" chain! (Kate Sutherland)
One of the Grant's type Band-rumped Storm-Petrels (Kate Sutherland)
Another shot of the Bridled Tern from Thursday just after taking off - this was a first summer individual (Kate Sutherland)
One more photo of an Atlantic Spotted Dolphin (Brian Patteson), the younger individuals do not show spotting like the adults.  

Monday, July 10, 2017

Pelagic Flashback: July 20 - by Brian Patteson

If you do enough pelagic trips over the years, one thing that becomes clear is how different things can be from one year to the next. This is pretty easy to see on dates when we run trips nearly every year, such as late May and early June. We run comparatively fewer trips in summer and I thought it would be neat to look at the archives and see what we had seen on a given date in years past. Then I figured it would make more sense to push it up 10 days so that readers might still have time to come down and join a trip on the schedule around that date this year. Today we look back at July 20. As far as I can tell we have only run a couple of trips on that date from Hatteras since we started here back in 1994. 

Our first trip was over 20 years ago on July 20, 1996. Back then, we ran fewer trips in the spring than we do now and the summer dates were often well attended. We did not have our own boat back then and the trips ran a bit differently. One of the main things was we went faster and covered more water, but we did generally did not get as close to the birds and we had not refined our chumming technique. Nevertheless, on July 20, 1996, we had a great trip and we saw over 1000 birds represented by 11 pelagic species.

Here is what we saw: Black-capped Petrel 131, Fea’s Petrel 1 or 2, Cory’s Shearwater 474, Great Shearwater 17, Audubon’s Shearwater 347, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel 63, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel 1, BR/Leach’s 5, Red-necked Phalarope 1, Parasitic Jaeger 1, Bridled Tern 2, Sooty Tern 3, Bridled/Sooty 1.

Apparently we did not run another pelagic trip on July 20 until 2013. This was a trip on our boat, the Stormy Petrel II using our current techniques in the same general area as the 1996 trip. We saw only about 120 birds of seven species in 2013. Does that mean there are far fewer birds almost two decades later? Not necessarily. We had a similar experience play out in reverse in the 20s of May this year. We had low numbers and low diversity for a few days and then we had 15 species and large numbers when environmental conditions changed. 

Anyhow, here’s what we saw on July 20, 2013: Black-capped Petrel 23, Fea’s Petrel 1, Cory’s Shearwater ZERO, Great Shearwater 1, Audubon’s Shearwater 23, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel 45, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel 25, Leach’s Storm-Petrel 2.

What an interesting pair of trips: amazingly we saw Fea’s Petrel on both of them and this is a bird that we do not see on most of our trips in July. And while it’s not unheard of to miss Band-rumped Storm-Petrel at its peak season (we squeaked by in ’96), the trip in 2013 was our first summer trip ever to dip on Cory’s Shearwater. It was an odd time. We only saw about 2 Cory’s the day before and 13 the day after this infamous trip. Anyhow, this just goes to show that “you don’t know until you go.” And it pays to go on multiple trips, although it’s usually not necessary for seeing Cory’s Shearwater. 

What else might we see around this time? There are many possibilities. We have seen Trindade Petrel many times in July over the years. We have seen Bermuda Petrel a few times in July. Manx Shearwater has been seen many times in July. Both Red-billed and White-tailed Tropicbirds have been seen on many July trips. July is peak time for both Brown and Masked Boobies. Both Pomarine and Long-tailed Jaegers, especially younger birds are seen from time to time. South Polar Skua is a reasonable possibility if there are large numbers of shearwaters present. And we can dream about more outlandish finds, such as the Black-bellied Storm-Petrel, we saw on July 16, 2006. And, of course, there are the dolphins, beaked whales, Sperm Whales, sea turtles, flyingfish and other marine life out there that makes every trip to the Gulf Stream unique.