Sunday, February 25, 2018

Saturday February 24, 2018 - by Brian Patteson

After having already run six winter boat trips beginning in late December, it was nice to have a full boat for the last trip of the season. We’ve had some great trips here recently and our people were excited at the prospect of a day at sea, especially those taking their first trip with us (photo by participant Craig Harms).
Although it had only been five days since our last trip, I figured this one might be a bit different. We had endured almost constant southerly winds since Monday morning, and the cold water had been pinched by the Gulf Stream mid week, only to return southward a couple of days later as the Gulf Stream retreated a bit to the east. Cold water is where we find alcids, but warm water can good for tubenoses and phalaropes.

With this in mind, I decided to head to the color change, which on Saturday morning was just southeast of Diamond Shoals. The water temperature was in the 60s out past Hatteras Inlet, and there were many Bonaparte’s Gulls around. We had a close but quick look at an adult Little Gull among a flock of Boneys less than 30 minutes after we crossed the bar. During our second half hour at sea we began to see a few Northern Fulmars and we spotted our first Manx Shearwaters of the day. The water warmed and the wind freshened a bit from the WSW as we proceeded on our course eastward. A couple of miles south of Diamond Tower we found a sharp color change where the 73 degree Gulf Stream water gave way to 61 degree shelf water.

There were many Bonaparte’s Gulls feeding at this frontal boundary, and we also found a few dozen Red Phalaropes along the change (photo by Kate Sutherland).
This was the most phalaropes we had seen this winter. There were also several Manx Shearwaters feeding in this area and more fulmars visited our slick here than anywhere else (photo by Kate Sutherland).
I was hoping to find a Dovekie or a puffin here, but we had no such luck. After a while of searching I pointed the boat down sea again and we headed northward in search of cooler water and alcids.

It took a few miles of traveling to find the conditions we were after, and sometime after 11:30, we were starting to see some Razorbills and the water was down near 50 degrees. We were also seeing scattered Bonaparte’s Gulls, Red Phalaropes, and a Little Gull crossed our bow at medium distance. There were very few gannets around and I had just about given up on seeing a skua, but sure enough, one found us and even came down to eat some chum in the wake. A few minutes later a second Great Skua appeared a bit farther astern. I cannot recall a season with as many skua sightings as this winter. We have seen them on every trip we’ve run, and we have had more close encounters than usual (photo by Kate Sutherland).

This has also been our best winter ever for Razorbills. A couple of miles inshore of where we saw the skuas, we found many more Razorbills. There were several flocks of a dozen or more feeding under larger numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls. We were able to drift right into these feeding flocks a few times, and we had surprised auks popping up around the boat (photo by Brian Patteson).
There were also many Loggerhead Turtles in this area, such that I had to be look carefully when I put the boat back in gear. We looked hard for murres, but we could not find one. It was less than ideal with swell, cross chop, and alcids that were constantly diving. We saw many more flocks of Razorbills on our way south to Diamond Shoals.

We crossed the shoals about three miles off the beach and were soon back in the warmer water. There were plenty of Bonaparte’s Gulls, but for the most part it was fairly quiet on the south side. About half way back to Hatteras Inlet, a second winter Glaucous Gull joined our flock (photo by Kate Sutherland).
This was our first of the season. Better late than never, we were glad to see it. A little farther along we flushed an Atlantic Puffin from the sea. Fortunately it was on the shoreward side of the boat, out of the sun glare. Several people were able to see it before it peeled off and doubled back to the east. This puffin kept up our streak for the species; we found puffin on all of six of our winter trips in 2018!

In closing I would like to thank everyone who came out with us, making it possible to run these trips. I would also like to thank our guest leader for Saturday, Jeff Lemons, for coming out from Charlotte. And big thanks go to Kate Sutherland, who has helped lead all of these trips with me. Kate also had to dish out pretty much all the chum and spot a great number of the birds, all while answering questions and taking photos for our trip reports. And then she gets the trip reports and eBird lists posted without fail.   

Target Species List (if you are interested in the eBird list, click here)

Northern Fulmar  36
Manx Shearwater  18
Red Phalarope  138
Little Gull  3 adults
Glaucous Gull  1 second winter
Great Skua  2
Razorbill  709
Atlantic Puffin  1

Humpback Whale  4
large whale sp  1
Bottlenose Dolphin  75
Loggerhead Turtle  at least 25
small sea turtle sp  1
hammerhead shark  at least 6

We had some awesome, fresh chum this weekend thanks to local fisherman Ruben Trant!  Here is the chum by Kate Sutherland except for the Menhaden photo!
Most of the fish were Menhaden, plus we had a couple of chum blocks, and fat from Conner's Supermarket.
One of the Great Skuas thought it was worth a stop
We only saw a small number of gannets compared with our past few trips, but they also were interested...the fresher bait sinks faster giving these divers a chance to get some nice pieces.
And the gulls...well, they all seemed to enjoy it as well!  Pictured here from top to bottom: Northern Fulmar & young Herring Gull, Herring Gull, Herring Gull, Lesser Black-backed Gull
A couple more Northern Fulmar shots
Red Phalaropes with Boney's on the change
One more Great is the last trip until next winter...!!  And they have been so cooperative this season!
One of the Loggerhead Turtles, amazing the creatures that find a home on their shells!

Thursday, February 22, 2018

February 18 & 19, 2018 - by Brian Patteson

We have been offering a double header of winter boats trips down here now for a decade. For many years we only did one over President’s Day Weekend, but in 2008 we ran a second trip and since then it has been a standard offering. The weather presented a bit of a challenge this weekend. The winds veered around the compass twice between Friday night and Monday morning. The strongest winds were from the north, so we were back to our homeport of Hatteras for these trips. We woke up to 20 to 25 knot NE winds on Saturday morning and we pushed the trips back to Sunday and Monday.  On Saturday night it blew from the south and by Sunday morning we had freshening northerly winds again.

There were plenty of birds moving on Sunday morning and we did not have to go much past Diamond Shoals to find some cold water. It got colder as we went, and we saw many Razorbills in the near shore waters (photo by Peter Flood).
A little farther out there were as many or more Razorbills and we examined them with increasing scrutiny. We spotted a few Common Murres, but they were hard to keep up with in the choppy seas and the bright sun glare. We had a little better luck with one Thick-billed Murre. I spotted it flying up the port side, but it wheeled around and landed on the sea in good light, staying put for all to see (photo by Peter Flood). 
We had at least one Dovekie buzz by, another was seen briefly on the water. We had a little better luck seeing puffins, but they were scarce compared to last weekend.

A Great Skua was spotted flying up ahead of the boat and it landed on the water. We were able to get a bit closer before it took off, so everyone was able to see it. We also picked up some tubenoses as we traveled offshore. A Great Shearwater came to feed in the slick for a while and we had some Northern Fulmars visit us too (photo by Peter Flood).
South of Diamond Tower we got into some warmer water and a Black-capped Petrel put in a brief appearance. The sea was much bigger in the warm water so we didn’t stay there too long. There weren’t as many birds south of Diamond Sholas but it was good to get back in the lee of the Cape on our way back Sunday afternoon.

By Monday morning the wind was already coming around to the southeast and it made for a confused sea. Nevertheless we made good time getting over to the north side and were soon among the auks. There were also a few gannets around, and less than an hour after crossing the shoals, a Great Skua came to see us (photo by Peter Flood).
I circled the boat back around and it returned to make a victory lap, much closer to the boat the second time. The water had pushed down a bit from Sunday and we had some cloud cover, which helped for scanning the sea all around us. The Razorbills were jumpy and diving a lot, but we eventually found some a couple of Common Murres sitting on the sea (photo by Kate Sutherland).
Tubenoses were scarce, but we managed to see Manx Shearwater and Northern Fulmar again.

Working back southward and closer to the shoals, we found an amazing concentration of Razorbills. A Common Murre molting into breeding plumage made a nice flyby. I had just about given up on seeing a puffin, but Kate spotted one ahead, while another was seen close to the boat (photo by Peter Flood).
South of the shoals the water got warmer as we headed west. Razorbills gave way to Red-throated Loons, and there were also many Bonaparte’s Gulls scattered along the way. I spotted a pair of puffins, but they decided to fly off into the wind. I also saw a single Thick-billed Murre that was headed rapidly to the east. I suspect there are also some alcids down around Cape Lookout where the water cools off again, and perhaps they will make their way by Hatteras in the days to come. As of Wednesday, Feb. 21, there was a steady trickle of Razorbills eastbound at Cape Hatteras, easily seen from shore.

I would like to thank everyone who joined us for this weekend’s trips. We set the bar pretty high last weekend, and it was nice to be able to match that diversity on Sunday. I would also like to thank our spotters, Kate Sutherland and Peter Flood for working the deck both days. Back to back winter trips can be a bit of a workout!

The eBird lists with all species seen can be found here Sunday 2/18 & Monday 2/19 but below is the list of target species for the two trips!

Species List  Feb 18, 19
Northern Fulmar  3, 2
Black-capped Petrel  1, 0
Great Shearwater  1, 0
Manx Shearwater  2, 7
Great Skua  1, 1
Dovekie  2, 1
Common Murre  4, 3
Thick-billed Murre  2, 1
Razorbill  2500, 2087
Atlantic Puffin  3, 4
Black-legged Kittiwake  1, 0
Little Gull  1, 0

Humpback Whale  2, 3
Bottlenose Dolphin  45, 60
Harbor Seal  1, 0
Loggerhead Turtle  4, 0
Kemp's Ridley Turtle  1, 0

Thank you to Peter Flood for allowing us to use his photos for this post, here are a few more (all photos unless noted by Peter Flood)!

Great Shearwater from Sunday's trip, this bird fed with the gulls and gannets behind the boat for awhile, diving for fish!
 One of the Manx Shearwaters from Sunday with the shore line in the background.
This was our first adult Black-legged Kittiwake for the winter!
 The Great Skua from Sunday taking off the water (Kate Sutherland)
Another image of the Great Skua from Monday
One of the young Razorbills on the water from Sunday morning
This was a nice treat to have a Common Murre (L) and Razorbill (R) pose for us right next to the boat!
Northern Gannet diving for some fish behind the boat (Kate Sutherland)
Lesser Black-backed Gulls were with us in good numbers on both trips and we had all age classes!

One of the Loggerhead Turtles we had on Sunday
This was a super exciting sighting for us: a Kemp's Ridley Turtle!!  Peter was quick and captured this photo of the small turtle as we passed it, you can see how much bigger the beak is than the Loggerhead above and how different the color of the shell is!

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)