Sunday, February 11, 2018

February 10, 2018 Aukorama - by Brian Patteson

Running winter trips is a challenge because it is generally a rough time of year offshore with more wind and swell than the summer. Cold fronts are more frequent and the dominant wind is usually from the north. That makes Hatteras an appealing port because the inlet here is sheltered from the northeast swell. But there are also times when the wind blows hard from the south. With this in mind, we usually keep the option open to run a trip from Oregon Inlet if necessary. This weekend was the first time in several years that we played that hand, and I ran the Stormy Petrel II up to Wanchese on Friday, with the hope that the predicted southeaster would not be too much for us up there. A southeaster is no cakewalk on the north side of Cape Hatteras either, but generally the farther you get from the Gulf Stream the less wind there is.

There was not much wind for us when we headed out to sea Saturday morning. It was blowing pretty hard south of the Cape, but off Oregon Inlet there was not even a white cap, but the swell was already starting to build. As for birds, it was pretty quiet close to shore. We saw just a few loons, gannets, and Razorbills as we jogged down toward Wimble Shoals. This can be a great area for birds, but was sparsely populated by them the morning of Feb. 10.  We did, however, find quality over quantity, and less than an hour after clearing OI, we were looking at our third species of alcid for the day. Surprisingly, it was a Thick-billed Murre, which is quite rare at this latitude.
The murre allowed us to approach closely for photos, and reminded us that part of the appeal of these trips is the potential for the unexpected. We continued on our way southward and about 35 minutes later we were looking at another murre, but this one was a Common Murre molting into breeding plumage!
BAM! Four species of alcids and no puffin yet! Well, we didn’t have to wait long for that because we spotted a puffin sometime after 9:00. We also picked up five more Common Murres before 10.

We kept on our way slowly to the southeast and we began to recruit a few gulls and gannets with our chum. It did not take long for a few fulmars and kittiwakes to find our flock, and a minute or two after 11, a Great Skua came charging in and began raising hell (photo by Alex Brash).
We’ve had some good luck with skuas so far this winter. This one came in close and sailed right over the boat. Within minutes a couple of Manx Shearwaters appeared, adding yet more diversity to the day’s sightings. Bonaparte’s Gulls are often around when you are seeing winter Manx, but they were kind of scarce.

We were still struggling with Dovekies in the tight, growing swell. We had seen a few singles, but generally not until we were right on top of them at which point they would dive or fly off. Last week it was better for Dovekies closer to the warm water change, so I pressed onward to the southeast in search of such a condition. We finally found some warmer water around 12:15, but it was not a super sharp change. Not surprisingly it was devoid of phalaropes, which are more often near a hard change. There were, however a few puffins around and we found them in the cold water and in the warmer water. There was about an 8 degree spread over a few hundred yards from around 50 to at least 58.

We stuck close to the change for a while and a couple of new species appeared. We saw not one, but two Black-capped Petrels near the change (photo by Ed Corey).
It’s always great to see them, especially a few miles away from the deep Gulf Stream water they prefer. Then we had some excitement when a Sooty Shearwater arrived near the boat at the same time as a pair of adult Little Gulls. The Sooty stuck around for several minutes, but the Little Gulls quickly moved on, but we all had a close look before they left.

Working back into the cold water we found many more Razorbills than we had seen during the morning but they were nervous and hard to get close to. We had better luck getting close to some Common Murres and we saw several over the course of an hour (photo by Kate Sutherland).
It was mix of basic plumaged and molting Common Murres. We also had a few more of encounters with at least one more Great Skua.

It was a pretty nice ride back to the inlet in following seas. That helped us get some better looks at Dovekie. It was little bit foggy and some fulmars followed us inside the 3 mile line. So we saw fulmars in state waters in the truest sense. We also picked up another Sooty Shearwater just south of the OI sea buoy (photo by Kate Sutherland).

It’s been a long time since we had to swap departure points a couple of days before the trip, but it enabled us to run a trip we would have otherwise had to cancel. The timing of the weather was also crucial to our success. If the southeaster had come on the afternoon before, we probably could not have gotten down to where the concentration of birds was and we might not have been able to run a trip at all.  I would like to thank everyone who came out and had faith in us getting trip out. I would also like to thank Kate Sutherland and Ed Corey for working the deck all day without a break. They did a top-notch job making sure nothing was missed despite the fact that birds were appearing and disappearing quickly in the conditions we had to work with.

We're going to put the eBird link here for the trip list - click here for that!  A big thank you to Ed Corey and participant Alex Brash of CT for allowing us to use their photos for the blog!  -Kate

We had both light and dark Northern Fulmars in our following flock.  Light bird below is by Ed Corey, dark by Kate Sutherland.
Dorsal view of the second Black-capped Petrel (Kate Sutherland)
One of our closer Manx Shearwaters (Alex Brash)
Black-legged Kittiwake - all of the individuals we saw were young birds (Kate Sutherland)
A couple more Great Skua images, the first (top) and second (bottom) close encounters with this individual!  (Kate Sutherland)
& yes....Aukorama! 
Razorbill group by Alex Brash (top) and individual Razorbill by Ed Corey (bottom)
A few more Common Murre images by Brian Patteson and Ed Corey
Another Thick-billed Murre image by Ed Corey
And finally one of the Atlantic Puffins (Kate Sutherland)

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Saturday February 3, 2018 - by Brian Patteson

It was good to be back out on the water this weekend. Nathan Gatto organized a group from the Forsyth Audubon club for a birding charter on our boat. It was still a bit windy when we got to the inlet, but it was a north wind so the shoreline provided some shelter and there was an abundance of Razorbills close to the beach. That’s not too surprising because cold water had surged southward in previous days, as you can see in this sea surface temperature map from Rutgers (marine.rutgers.edu).
Earlier in the week I had seen over 12,000 Razorbills from the beach at Cape Hatteras, the most recorded here to date. Razorbills tend to fly in the morning and they kept us busy counting as we worked eastward closer to Cape Hatteras.

As we got near Diamond Shoals, we began to see hundreds of Red-throated Loons flying.  These small loons are much more aerial than Common Loons, and like the Razorbills, they have been quite abundant locally in recent days. Similar to last weekend, there were also several Manx Shearwaters close to shore. We stayed in the lee of the shoals and worked slowly to the southeast. We knew there was a hard change somewhere inshore of the shelf break, probably in about 30 fathoms (you can see this on the temperature map above!).

The water temperature increased slightly from mid to upper 40s as we got closer to the change and we added a few species to the day’s list. An immature Black-legged Kittiwake joined our flock of birds trailing the stern and came in for a close look (photo by Nathan Gatto).
A couple of Dovekies popped up beside the boat, but they spent a lot of time underwater and were not easy to see in the chop. A Great Skua appeared far astern and promptly headed away into the wind.

Soon after 11:00 we could see blue water on the horizon. As we got closer to the color change, we spotted a couple more Dovekies and an adult Little Gull.  Both of these are species that we did not see on last weekend’s trip. We had been seeing a good number of Bonaparte’s Gulls all morning but they had been scattered. Little Gulls are rare but regular here in winter and they are frequent associates of the Boneys.

There was a small concentration of Bonaparte’s Gulls feeding along the color change and we moved in closer to investigate. We soon began seeing scattered Dovekies along this break and another Little Gull was spotted- this time feeding with the Boneys. This bird was much closer to the boat and was easily seen without binoculars (photo by Ed Corey).
We followed these small gulls for a while and found a single Red Phalarope in their midst. It was a bit odd to see just one phalarope, but it pitched close to the boat and we were able to see it quite well.

As we worked westward on the change, we noticed less bird activity, so I decided to turn around and track the change to the eastward. Soon after we came about, a Northern Fulmar came by to check out our chum. Next we got bombed by a Great Skua that appeared suddenly over the bow at point blank range (photo by Ed Corey).
My sense is that it came out from the sun glare over the blue water. A little farther ahead Kate spotted a couple of Atlantic Puffins. The puffins gave us good looks and we picked a few more Dovekies along the change. A very lethargic looking Loggerhead Turtle appeared on the blue water side of the change. Perhaps it had just arrived there and was a little stunned from being in the cooler water. The blue water was in the 60s so it was a better place for the turtle to be (photo by Kate Sutherland).

Turning back towards the inlet, we found a few more fulmars zipping around just inshore of the change. There was a bit less wind and we were able to spot several scattered Dovekies for the next few miles too. Razorbills were still flying well into the early afternoon and we saw many hundreds (photo of flock by Ed Corey, individual Razorbill by Nathan Gatto).
In the half hour between 1:00 and 1:30 PM, we tallied 435 of these auks, and we saw them in good numbers right up to the beach.  We saw several Bottlenose Dolphins just out side the inlet and we also had a lone Humpback Whale a couple of miles off the beach.

We ended the day with a new record count for Razorbills on our trips, 2515, and it was a great day for seabird diversity. I would like to thank Nathan for bringing us this charter, and of course we could not have done it without our experienced crew. Thanks go to Kate Sutherland for her ceaseless work on the deck, and also to our guest leaders for the trip: Ed Corey, Nathan Gatto, and Jeff Lemons.

We are trying out a new method for the list - click here to see the eBird list for the day!  The non-avian species are in the comments before the list!

Thanks to Ed & Nathan for allowing us to use some of their images here for the blog!  A few additional photos are below:
The color change!  Wish we had this on every trip - it was beautiful - about a 15 degree change from green to blue water.  Sea smoke is visible on the blue side (warmer water) with a flock of Razorbills in the distance.  (Kate Sutherland) "Auks Patrol These Waters"
Atlantic Puffins, our first pair on the water by Kate Sutherland
And a closer look by Nathan Gatto!
I only took one picture of a Dovekie...so here it is (Kate Sutherland)
And our Red Phalarope in flight (Ed Corey)
Little Gull with a Bonaparte's Gull on the temperature break (Kate Sutherland)
Bonaparte's Gulls, in flight and on the water (Kate Sutherland)
You have got to love the face of the Northern Gannet! (Kate Sutherland)
And finally, one more Razorbill photo!  The light was nice and these birds were flying right by the boat - it was a perfect day to photograph some Razorbills!  (Kate Sutherland)