Thursday, May 24, 2018

Thursday May 24, 2018 - by Sea McKeon

Everyday in the Gulf Stream is different, and the chop and southwest winds of yesterday had given way to relatively smooth sailing and northeasterly breezes today.  Dropping from speed near the shelf break we started to encounter Audubon’s Shearwaters transiting the area at a good clip.  These small, fast, ‘black-and-white’, shearwaters were a challenge for some birders aboard to get on and would remain enigmatic for much of the day.  Our attention was diverted by the rapid appearance of several Black-capped Petrels, the Gulf Stream signature species, which wheeled and dove as if on an impossibly smooth and graceful rollercoaster. These birds, most in varying degrees of wing molt, made progressively closer passes to the stern of the Stormy Petrel II until all aboard were comfortable with the striking appearance of this threatened species (photo by Kate Sutherland).
As we were making friends with the Black-capped Petrels, a small squadron of Wilson’s Storm Petrels gathered to feed on oil and chum at the back of the boat.  They too worked in closer and closer (photo by Peter Flood).
Just as several Cory’s shearwaters were making their own close passes, mayhem broke loose as the first large storm petrels appeared in the mix at the same time a pod of Bottle-nosed Dolphins arrived to play at the bow.  Birds would be abundant for some time with trip participants racing to find their next target species.  Most of the larger storm petrels turned out to be Leach’s Storm Petrels, with a few individuals making close passes and providing “crippling” looks, to quote one of the trip participants (photo by Andrew Dreelin).
 As the day wore into a golden afternoon, the change in light provided photographers onboard with brilliant opportunities to study an obliging Pomarine Jaeger, and an individual Arctic tern that appeared to investigate a kite flown just above the boat.  The same angles of light provided the best looks at Audubon’s shearwaters we would have for the day, and allowed us to see a single, late, Red-Necked Phalarope that came into the slick (photo by Andrew Dreelin).
Several onboard were eager to inspect the sargassum we had been seeing all day, so Kate dipped some with a long-handled net.  Sargassum Swimming Crabs, two types of shrimp, and a diversity of other invertebrates inhabited a clump that contained not only the two species of pelagic sargassum, but also rhizomes of two seagrass species normally found much farther to the south.  As we increased speed to head home, a dark jaeger could be seen in the distance menacing a flock of mixed Arctic and Common terns.  The jaeger slowly pushed all of the terns up into the sky, and we left another successful day in the Gulf Stream.

Thank you to everyone who joined us offshore today and thank you to our leaders: Sea McKeon, Peter Flood, and Andrew Dreelin!  Thanks also to Sea for the post and to Peter and Andrew for contributing photos for the post!  -Kate

Species list for May 24
Black-capped Petrel  83-93
Cory's Shearwater  13 (at least one Scopoli's)
Sooty Shearwater  1
Audubon's Shearwater  34
Wilson's Storm Petrel  153-173
Leach's Storm Petrel  6-10
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  3
Red-necked Phalarope  1
Arctic Tern  3
Pomarine Jaeger  1
Pom/Parasitic Jaeger  1

Solitary Sandpiper  1

Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin  20

The Black-capped Petrels were very active today and many passed close by the boat, like this dark faced individual (Andrew Dreelin)
Audubon's Shearwaters can be tough to spot when they are flying by if they do not turn to flash their white underparts!  Their dark backs blend in with the sea, today many were flying high enough to pick them up as they arced - this one fed in the slick for a bit! (Kate Sutherland)
One of the Band-rumped Storm-Petrels we saw today was not molting (pictured below), while the others were more typical showing molt in the primaries.  (Peter Flood)
This curious Arctic Tern came in behind the boat just after Sea had been flying a kite!  It stayed with us and fed on the chum for a bit, giving everyone ample time to observe it!  (Andrew Dreelin)
A nice shot of the Pomarine Jaeger that fed behind the boat for awhile!  (Peter Flood)
And a couple shots of the Bottlenose Dolphins that came in to the boat this afternoon!  (Peter Flood)

Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Wednesday May 23, 2018 - The Beginning!

Clear, dark skies and a good southwest breeze greeted us when we got to the boat this morning to prepare for the first of eighteen consecutive days seabirding from Hatteras (weather permitting)!  We had close to a full boat to begin this Blitz and everyone was eager to see what we might turn up offshore...  The trip to the shelf break was uneventful with just a handful of shearwaters, then once we slowed, it took some time to get the Wilson's Storm-Petrels to gather in the slick, but by 0930 when we stopped to drift we had almost 50 Wilson's with us and had quick views of both Leach's and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels.  The Black-capped Petrels were not shy and we had some individuals fly in to check out the chum that were super close giving us spectacular views of our signature species here in the Gulf Stream!
During this hour long drift we moved about four miles over the bottom with the current.  In addition to the Black-caps we had some nice looks at Cory's, Sooty, and Audubon's Shearwaters, though the Cory's were seen a bit better in the afternoon.  While we had a bit of a lull as usual approaching noontime, a large dark bird was spotted up ahead of the boat flying toward us right around that time - South Polar Skua!
Not a bird we really expected to see today since we have not had any onshore wind to speak of lately, but a nice one.  This skua was soon joined by a Pomarine Jaeger and the two of them stayed with us, feeding for over an hour and a half despite the Black-capped Petrels’ obvious displeasure at their presence.  Needless to say, they were well photographed!  Right before we picked up to head back inshore we dipped some Sargassum to show to our participants and we were lucky to turn up a Sargassum Fish (Histrio histrio)
in addition to the usual suspects.  A nice way to end a day in the Gulf Stream...  Tomorrow the winds should be from the north east, then Friday should be light south east - so we are looking forward to seeing what else we can find!  We still have a number of species we can add to the Blitz list in the coming days...and weeks!

Thanks to everyone who joined us out there today and a big thank you to our leaders Seabird McKeon, Peter Flood, and Andrew Dreelin.  Peter Flood supplied the photos for todays post, except for the Sargassum Fish that was taken by Andrew Dreelin.  We still have space on many of the trips in the coming days, so just let us know if you want to join us!

Species List May 23, 2018
Black-capped Petrel  41-42
Cory's Shearwater  18
Sooty Shearwater  7
Audubon's Shearwater  42
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  88-93
Leach's Storm-Petrel  1-2
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  1
Common Tern  3
Sterna sp.  4
South Polar Skua  1
Pomarine Jaeger 2
Red Knot  1
shorebird sp.  4
Loggerhead Turtle  1

A couple more images of Black-capped Petrels:
One dark faced looking bird that has not really begun molt yet
 And a typical white faced individual that is showing active molt of its flight feathers
Wilson's Storm-Petrel
A quick photo of the Leach's Storm-Petrel!  This bird flew a few laps around the boat, so most everyone aboard had a nice look...
  A couple more images of the South Polar Skua

Sunday, May 20, 2018

Saturday May 19 - by Kate Sutherland

Strong southerly winds led up to our first trip of the spring and it was still blowing this morning when we left the dock!  While these winds made the ride a bit more exciting and gave us some spray, we were rewarded for our efforts - it was an awesome beginning to the spring season!  There were a few Sooty Shearwaters and a couple of Cory's that passed by on our way to the shelf break, but not much else.  Once we slowed down, we began to gather some Wilson's Storm-Petrels in our slick and a short drift around 10:00 brought incredible views of Black-capped Petrels and even a couple of Leach's Storm-Petrels! (photos by Brian Patteson & Kate Sutherland)
Not a bad start to the day...  As we picked up from the drift, Brian shouted "get on this bird - starboard side!" - a Trindade Petrel zipped by and flew away behind us as two Sooty Shearwaters joined the slick!  Needless to say, it was quite distant in a matter of seconds and did not come in to the chum.  As we were scanning for the Trindade Petrel, a pod of Cuvier's Beaked Whales popped up right beside us!  While these cetaceans used to be fairly common on our trips, we do not see them like we used to down here, so it was quite a treat to see them surfacing so close! (photo Kate Sutherland)
They must have just come up from a dive as they were surfacing often, this species holds the record for the deepest recorded dive of any mammal at about 10,000 feet, so they get down there, though where we saw them it was not nearly that deep!  Just after 1130 Brian noticed one of the participants taking photos of something over the boat...and it was a White-tailed Tropicbird!! (photo Kate Sutherland) 
This curious individual flew over and around the boat for at least 10 minutes giving us all ample opportunity to observe and photograph a species that is not typical on our early spring trips - we are more likely to find a Red-billed Tropicbird this time of year!  Southerly winds brought us the earliest record we have for the Stormy Petrel II and Brian remarked that it may have been the 90's when he last observed one this early (it was May 16, 1992)!  Not long after the tropicbird, we had a couple of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels briefly in the slick and a couple of Pomarine Jaegers joined us for an easy meal of chum!  We had another Trindade Petrel come in a little before 1230 and this one was more cooperative, giving most everyone aboard a nice pass before moving on! (photo by Kate Sutherland)
Excellent start to the spring, and the Blitz begins on Wednesday May 23, we will be out there daily until June 9th and still have some trips with space, so just let us know if you would like to join us!

Thank you to everyone who came offshore with us today, we certainly were lucky!  And thank you to Jeff Lemons for helping Brian and I to lead the trip today!

May 19, 2018
Trindade Petrel  2-3
Black-capped Petrel  35-40
Cory's Shearwater  5
Sooty Shearwater  14
Audubon's Shearwater  19
Wilson's Storm-Petrel  60-70
Leach's Storm-Petrel  4
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel  2
White-tailed Tropicbird  1
Pomarine Jaeger  4
Least Tern  2
shorebird sp.  1
Cuvier's Beaked Whale  5-6
Pilot Whale (prob. Short-finned)  20
Bottlenose Dolphin  8

Trindade Petrel flying towards the boat courtesy of participant Brad Sale
Black-capped Petrel feeding on some fish from the chum block (Kate Sutherland), it is always cool to see those pink legs and bicolored feet!
A white faced Black-capped Petrel, we had a few of these today, you can see how little black is in the underwing!  (Kate Sutherland)
One more White-tailed Tropicbird image (Kate Sutherland), this bird was banded but I was unable to get any photos that showed the band well enough to read!  The closest nesting location is Bermuda.
One of the Pomarine Jaegers that followed us for a bit...(Kate Sutherland)
A few more images of the Cuvier's Beaked Whales!  The males have teeth at the tip of their beak that they use to fight with one another, leaving the scars you can see on the backs of these two individuals.  The older they are the more scarred they get, so you can see that one of these was very scarred, while another was just slightly so.  Nice sighting!  (Kate Sutherland)

Monday, March 12, 2018

Spring Blitz Primer

We have been running pelagic birding trips off Cape Hatteras in spring for 25 years now. Prior to that I led some spring trips off NC for previous trip operators, as early as 1990. I began organizing spring trips off VA in 1987. It started as an effort to see a few seabirds that were seldom seen on summer pelagic trips. We were looking for species such as Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Long-tailed Jaeger, South Polar Skua, and Arctic Tern. Our wish list off NC included Red-billed Tropicbird, known just from a few records back then. What we have found since those humble beginnings has been even more diversity than we expected. Trindade Petrel, Fea’s Petrel, and Bermuda Petrel became big drawing cards here by the late 1990s. Of those, only Trindade Petrel was on the AOU checklist when we began. We have also found three species of storm-petrels that were not known to occur here. One of these, the European Storm-Petrel, is now found almost annually as a result of our intensive chumming, days at sea, and careful observation. Even on days when no rarities are found, a diverse list of species is possible and it is not unheard of to see 12 to 15 species of pelagic seabirds in a day between mid May and mid June.

Many years ago we were running these trips mostly on weekends, but that changed over a decade ago when we acquired our own vessel. No longer in need of larger parties to fill a larger boat, we started to spread the passengers over a greater number of dates. This evolved into something that was dubbed the “Spring Blitz,” where we have offered (and run) as many as 19 consecutive pelagic trips from Hatteras. Running so many trips gets to be a grind, but the opportunity to go out day after and day and observe the parade of seabirds that pass offshore of Cape Hatteras keeps us going. The diversity goes up and down as the wind shifts around the compass and the Gulf Stream changes course and speed. We have a special opportunity to get in touch with what’s going on out there that cannot be had when you are just a weekend warrior. Every day is different because not only are birds are on the move, but the water is moving too. The Gulf Stream sometimes flows at a clip of four knots out past the edge of the continental shelf, so even birds that are rafted up are on the move. As such, we can go to the same places and see different things from day to day. Offshore fishing is here works much the same way. People see some good reports posted and they have great expectations for the following day. Often it’s just the reverse.  A slow day can or follow or precede an epic day of fishing or seabirding. That’s one reason why we encourage people to sign up for at least a couple of trips, either back to back or with a day off in between.

Knowing what to expect is key to making the most of your experience offshore. Many of our clients come prepared, having studied the possibilities well beforehand. Things can happen quickly on a pelagic trip. We can lure a variety of species closer to the boat with our chum, but there is no guarantee that a bird will take more than a passing interest. And when you increase the wind a bit, you will appreciate the time spent studying. That’s not to say we don’t help our newcomers get a handle on what’s being seen. Our trips are known for setting the bar when it comes to that business. Just keep in mind that you will derive more satisfaction when your preparation meets opportunity. Some species will be seen in numbers, but when the first Fea’s Petrel in three days comes by at 40 mph among half a dozen Black-caps, it’s helpful to know to look for dark underwings. To help with preparation, we have compiled this annotated checklist of spring seabirds, with some commentary on their status so you know what should be on your radar. There are plenty of good guides to help with ID and we have hundreds of images of birds seen on our trips at our blog site. Perusing this blog will give you an idea of age classes that might be expected as well as molt timing, which can provide quick clues as to whether you are looking at a Band-rumped or a Leach’s Storm-Petrel on a spring trip.

Before we get to the list of birds, be aware that seabird migration is not necessarily direct nor is it locally consistent from year to year. We are looking for birds that wander vast distances across ocean basins during their non-breeding seasons. Some of these birds also travel many hundreds of miles on foraging trips while they are nesting! Many of these species are sailing birds, and as such they plot their course based on the winds. Wind can be beneficial for seeing gadfly petrels, but other species, such as jaegers and terns might be found in better numbers during periods of light winds, especially if the wind direction tends toward shore. Our daily reports also provide insight into why we saw what we did on a given day, based on the weather patterns and the flow of the Gulf Stream. The weather is different every spring, so it’s not usually helpful to plan based on the dates from just the previous season. To do so is almost always the wrong approach. It’s far better to stick with the long-term results, which we draw from in this annotated list of pelagic seabirds from spring trips off Cape Hatteras.

List of Spring Seabirds

Northern Fulmar can be fairly numerous some years into April, but is hardly ever encountered past mid May. In 2005, we saw fulmars well into May.

Fea’s Petrel is a rare but regular visitor off Cape Hatteras from mid May onward into summer. May and June are the best months and it might be found on 20 to 40% of the trips in a given spring. What we see here are probably almost all Desertas (aka Bugio) Petrel, a cryptic species not yet recognized by the ABA as distinct from the Cape Verde population. Alan Brady and I got the first photos of Fea’s in the Western North Atlantic here off Hatteras on May 24, 1992. Fea’s Petrel occurs here on a variety of wind directions. The odds of seeing it go up with wind intensity, but we have found it on several light wind days.

Bermuda Petrel nests less than 600 nautical miles from Hatteras, but it primarily ranges toward the Azores. It is also quite rare with just over 100 breeding pairs. Nevertheless a few birds visit our waters. If we run 15 spring trips, we might see it on one or two trips or not at all. Like Fea’s, we have seen this species on some days with westerly winds. I got the first at sea photos taken anywhere of the species off Hatteras on May 26, 1996. Image below is from May 25, 2015.

Trindade Petrel forages extensively in the North Atlantic from at least May to September, but is generally found far out to sea. Easterly winds greatly increase the odds of finding this species. We have seen it on as many as 40 to 50% of trips some years but on a few years it has gone unrecorded in late May and or early June. Dave Lee collected one off Hatteras in August 1978 and Killian Mullarney got the first photos on a trip with Bob Ake off Hatteras in May 1991.

Black-capped Petrel is the signature species of the Hatteras Gulf Stream pelagic trip.  It is a scarce seabird that nests at just a few mountain sites in the Carribean, but its’ fast, high arcing flight makes it a conspicuous part of the Gulf Stream avifauna. Most trips encounter at least a couple of dozen, but there are days when we see just a few. We’ve only missed it just once in hundreds of spring trips. We see good numbers of Black-caps on westerly winds. Blue water is best, but they can also be found in smaller numbers when the Gulf Stream takes a queer turn. Black-caps we see here show a lot of variation, particularly in the extent of the cap and the dark bars on the underwing and it’s not yet if that is related to their breeding distribution, past or present.

Cory’s Shearwater typically arrives off Hatteras in mid May and numbers quickly increase by early June. It can be scarce in the early 20s of May. Southerly winds are good for bringing Cory’s to Hatteras in spring, and they are often found well inshore under such conditions.

Scopoli’s Shearwater is considered by the AOU to be a subspecies of Cory’s Shearwater, but nearly every other taxonomic committee considers it to be a valid species. We see it here sparingly in the spring, but it does occur with regularity and it is more common during the summer. Identification is still being worked out and some individuals are hard to place. Our experience suggests that Scopoli’s might be more of a boat follower than Cory’s, and it might be more likely to feed offshore.

Great Shearwater can be seen here in late May but is more reliable in early June. Wind and swell play a big role, and if the wind is offshore, this species is harder to find in May.

Sooty Shearwater is seen off Hatteras mostly in the last ten days of May. The timing of the flight and the proximity to shore varies from year to year depending on the wind and swell. Easterlies mean more Sooties and good flights can be seen from shore on very light southeast winds.

Manx Shearwater is generally more in evidence if there is a good flight of Sooty Shearwaters in progress, but it can also be found among flocks of Cory’s, Greats, and Audubon’s in the Gulf Stream or on its own offshore. Overall it’s a good bird here in spring, seen on about 15 to 35% of trips depending on the year.

Audubon’s Shearwater is expected although numbers vary from just a handful some days to a few dozen. On rare occasions it may number in the hundreds, as it is did for a couple of days in May 2017. A good accumulation of Sargasso Weed and southerly winds are helpful for seeing numbers of Audubon’s in spring.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel is usually the most numerous species on our spring trips and we generally see a hundred or more each day. We tend to see better numbers when the wind is from the north. In 2017 we had more a more westerly flow than usual and numbers of Wilson’s were way down from the long-term average.

European Storm-Petrel occurs almost annually and has been seen from May 18 onward into early June, with a single record in July. Most of the records fall between May 29 and 31, but in 2005 we saw it on the four trips we ran between May 30th to June 5th.

Black-bellied Storm-Petrel has been seen off Cape Hatteras on May 31, 2004, June 23, 2007, July 15, 2006, and August 14, 2010. These are the only records for the western North Atlantic. The late Capt. John Gallop spotted the first one and all of the others to date were spotted by Kate Sutherland.

Leach’s Storm-Petrel is uncommon in spring and whether we see them comes down to the conditions. Easterlies bring them in and strong westerlies send them out to sea.

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel comprises a number of as cryptic species in the North Atlantic. Some of these have not yet been formally named. These birds actually nest in the same burrows at different seasons in the Azores and perhaps other islands. It seems that we have two types here, but the molt timing is such that we are only able to decipher that during late May and early June. Age of the birds in question compounds the problem. This will always be a vexing ID problem away from the breeding grounds. We see Band-rumps on nearly all of our spring trips. The great majority are presumably winter breeding adults undergoing primary molt.

Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel has been seen here three times between June 2 and 9. We also saw one off Hatteras on August 8, 1998. All four of these records are documented with photos and two of the birds responded well to our chum. It’s certainly a small sample, but all of the June Swinhoe’s were seen on days with NW wind. The only other Swinhoe’s from the western North Atlantic was the first one, seen by Ned Brinkley off Oregon Inlet, NC in August 1993.

White-tailed Tropicbird is quite rare here before June, but the odds go up when we have southeasterly winds. We saw several birds here in late May and early June 2011, but that was exceptional.

Red-billed Tropicbird is rare but regular here from mid May onward. Many of the birds we have seen at sea have been short-tailed, yellow-billed immature birds. An adult has been known to visit Cape Hatteras several times in recent years between mid March and late May. Usually seen on 15% of trips or less.

Masked Booby is mostly a summer visitor to the Gulf Stream here, but we have seen it several times during spring over the years. Photo by Peter Flood.

Brown Booby seems to be increasing here in recent years, but it remains a very rare spring visitor, perhaps more likely in June than May.

Northern Gannet is a common to abundant winter resident and spring transient around Cape Hatteras. A few stragglers occur, mostly near shore well into spring.

Red-necked Phalarope is a common spring migrant off Cape Hatteras, but is seldom seen much past May 20.

Red Phalarope is a common winter resident and spring transient off Cape Hatteras, but departs even sooner than Red-necked Phalarope, and is hardly ever seen on our spring trips.

Laughing Gull is very scarce offshore here in spring. They are often non-descript looking first summer birds.

Sabine’s Gull is a great rarity here in spring. I’ve seen it just twice in mid to late May and there are few other spring records.

Sooty Tern is seldom seen offshore here before July. In May 2003, we had an unusual incursion of Sooty Terns for a few days following a strong blow from the southeast. Photo by Kate Sutherland.

Bridled Tern is found on about 25 to 40% of spring trips and almost always in low numbers. First summer birds are what we usually see in spring, and they are generally found in association with Sargasso weed and flotsam.

Roseate Tern is a good find here offshore in spring. Perhaps we would see it more often if we had more trips in early May. Most years we do not see it.

Common Tern is regular offshore in spring. We see it on the majority of trips in May and a large minority of trips in early June.

Arctic Tern is generally seen on less than 40% of our trips in late May and less than 30% of our trips in early June, but if conditions are favorable they might be seen daily for a few days. This of course means they can be missing for several days if the wind is offshore.

Brown Noddy is very rare here and has been seen well on just a couple of spring trips off Cape Hatteras. Photo May 31, 2017 off Hatteras by Steve N.G. Howell.

South Polar Skua has been seen on 20 to 25% of our spring trips over the years. Easterlies increase the odds and at times they can be seen well inshore of the Gulf Stream.

Pomarine Jaeger is usually the most likely jaeger to be found offshore. The long-term odds are 40 to 70% overall. With easterly winds, it’s pretty much guaranteed, but with westerlies it can be quite scarce.

Parasitic Jaeger is usually the least encountered jaeger offshore in late spring, and many of the ones we see in the Gulf Stream are young birds and harder to separate from Long-tailed than adults. Seen on just 15 to 30% of the trips overall. With easterly winds a sea watch can be a better way to find them here.

Long-tailed Jaeger is found on 20 to 40% of spring trips. Easterlies are best, especially light southeast winds. At such times it can be seen well inshore of the Gulf Stream and it has been observed flying over Cape Hatteras. Long-tailed birds (mostly second and third cycle) predominate in mid to late May but by early June we see mostly late first cycle birds.

Except for the Manx Shearwater, all of these images were captured on our pelagic trips off Cape Hatteras. I hope that you can join us sometime to see the diverse array of seabirds that we encounter here during the spring.

Good seabirding,

Brian Patteson