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.