Thursday, May 30, 2019

Thursday May 30, 2019 - by Sea McKeon

Physicists will tell you that space and time act something like a fluid, bending around objects as a river accommodates a rock. How we perceive time is dependent on our own speed and position. Pelagic wildlife observers know this phenomenon well, understanding that time onboard can stretch or contract with the vagaries of wind and current and behavior.

After a lively ride out to the Gulf Stream left a live flyingfish on deck, we were treated to good numbers of Black-capped Petrels almost immediately.  Accompanying us throughout the day, they would get increasingly close to the Stormy Petrel II until by early afternoon the birds were just out of reach, seemingly enjoying the freshening breeze.  (photo Peter Flood)
A Pomarine Jaeger drew the attention of the Black-capped Petrels as it dropped from the sky to hone in on the growing chum slick. After an initial show of force, the petrels left it to feed well within the range of the cameras on board, with repeated close passes and great views of ‘1 ½ spoons’. (photo Frank Hawkins)
Audubon’s shearwaters had wind to fly, and rocketed past with strong lines of Sargassum stretched underneath and good light on the contrasting colors of this species. We had one early Audubon’s foraging near to the SPII with wings outspread and pattering feet like a giant storm-petrel. Cory’s type shearwaters passed by at speed and distance in low numbers throughout the day, with one individual showing characteristics of Scopoli’s shearwater. (photo Peter Flood)
Spotted Dolphin appeared for a few moments off of the bow on the way out, and remained our only marine mammal sighting until the afternoon when 4 juvenile ‘offshore’ Bottle-nose Dolphin came charging into the bow audibly whistling. A few moments later and the adults and calves appeared, with the total pod numbering some 37 individuals. (photo Frank Hawkins)
The highlight of the day came in the flocks of storm-petrels that slowly gathered in the menhaden oil slick carefully laid out behind us. The exhortations of Brian, Kate and leaders to study the small and stiff-winged Wilson’s Storm-petrel paid off as we were graced with at least seven Band-rumped Storm-petrels, which seemingly bent time to dance effortlessly around the smaller Wilson’s and our vessel. Photos revealed a few individuals were completing their 2nd prebasic (post juvenile) molt (top) alongside adults (bottom). (photos Steve Howell)

*Thanks to everyone who joined us today & a huge thanks to our leaders, Steve Howell, Sea McKeon, and Peter Flood!  Sea also penned the post today and Steve & Peter, plus participant Frank Hawkins, supplied me with photos! -Kate*

Species List for May 30, 2019
Black-capped Petrel - 42 to 46
Cory's type Shearwater - 8
Scopoli's Shearwater - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 1
Audubon's Shearwater - 33
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - about 100
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 7 to 9
Pomarine Jaeger - 1
Laughing Gull - 1
swallow sp. - 1
peep sp. - 9

Black-capped Petrels were flying straight in towards the stern, like this dark-faced individual (Steve Howell)
Frank Hawkins captured an image of a very dark-faced individual
Dorsal view of the Scopoli's Shearwater (Steve Howell)
Wilson's Storm-Petrels were very cooperative in the slick (Peter Flood)
Another image of a non-molting Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Peter Flood)
And one more Bottlenose Dolphin image!

Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Wednesday May 29, 2019 - by Steve Howell

What a difference a day makes... This morning we started out with a stiff southwesterly breeze, in theory not ideal for pelagic birding off Hatteras, and with cloudless blue skies. Given the strong current yesterday, Brian figured heading even more to the south than usual was the best way to work the situation, and our almost 3-hour commute out to the hot blue water was mostly pounding into choppy seas, slow and hard going—but it proved well worth it. As we slowed down among dispersed Sargassum weed a couple of immature Bridled Terns appeared and one allowed close approach for superb views, the first of this species for the Spring Blitz and a nice start.
Out in the Gulf Stream the strong current actually helped settle the seas and it turned into a much more pleasant day than anyone would have guessed as the chum slick started to flow and a few Black-capped Petrels began to buzz around. Then, just after 8.30 a different bird flew by—Bermuda Petrel! It wasn’t close, but it was in good light and its unhurried pass meant it stayed in view long enough for everyone to see. After a steady buildup of sightings off Hatteras in the 2000s and early 2010s, the last few years have been a dry spell for this endangered species. However, Brian saw a couple on trips earlier in the spring (on 8 and 9 May) when he was engaged in Black-capped Petrel research, and this makes the third of the season, but the first on a scheduled Hatteras pelagic trip since 2015. Perhaps the tide is turning... Time will tell, but a great bird either way.

A real-life view of the Bermuda Petrel; note the narrow wings, long tapered tail, and overall dark aspect.
Zoomed in to see the narrow white rump band and dark hood.
Drifting at the chum slick we enjoyed good view of both black-faced and white-faced Black-capped Petrels (see yesterday’s blog post for more on those) and a few Band-rumped Storm-petrels among a relatively small gathering of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. Here’s a very white-faced Black-capped:
And a black-faced bird—different species, morphs, or just variation? The jury is still out. But both much bigger and bulkier than Bermuda Petrel, with a huge white rump patch.
The Band-rumped Storm-Petrels included one small, fresh-plumaged bird, a presumed summer-breeding “Madeiran Storm-petrel” and 2 or 3 larger birds, the more common winter-breeding “Grant’s Storm-petrel” shown below in wing molt. Note the faded and worn outer primaries, white wrap-around rump band, and feet falling well short of the tail tip, plus the stout bill—see yesterday’s blog post.
A South Polar Skua made a brief but close pass, unlike the birds yesterday that wouldn’t go away—remarkably, we’ve seen skuas on 9 of the last 10 trips. Then, at 10.15am Kate started screaming Trindade Petrel (pronounced as it sounds ;-) and sure enough a very dark morph of this South Atlantic breeder zipped around the boat providing absolutely stunning views but challenging photo ops—too close and too fast.

An uncropped image, but... Dear Canon, had you considered a decent auto-focus system that works for seabirds rather than for relatively slow-moving, 6-foot tall carbon-based bipedal lifeforms on sports fields?
A sharper dorsal shot, and...
 Less than a minute later, a bye-bye going away shot. Short but sweet.
A midday lull followed, punctuated by a few groups of Bottlenose Dolphins, and Black-capped Petrels came and went—it’s not a bad day when the commonest bird you see is Black-capped Petrel, which globally is a highly endangered bird. A briefly breaching beaked whale added afternoon interest, and the commute back to shore featured another Bridled Tern plus some fancy immature phases of flyingfish, 2 examples below. Wow, quite a day.

Purple Bandwing
Sargassum Midget
Thanks to everyone who joined us out there today, plus spotters Peter Flood, Steve (N G) Howell, and Sea McKeon—Steve also wrote the blog. See (some of) you out there again tomorrow...

Species List for May 29, 2019
Bermuda Petrel - 1
Trindade Petrel - 1 (dark individual)
Black-capped Petrel - 58 to 59
Cory's Shearwater - 14
Sooty Shearwater - 3
Audubon's Shearwater - 33
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 55 to 65
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 4 to 6
Bridled Tern - 4 to 5
South Polar Skua - 1
Bottlenose Dolphin (offshore) - about 30

Updated May 31, 2019 to add photos from participant Frank Hawkins!
A couple more images of the Bermuda Petrel
A nice dorsal view of the Trindade Petrel
Black-capped Petrels as they came to feed on our chum!

Tuesday, May 28, 2019

Tuesday May 28, 2019 - by, Steve Howell

Today was the same as yesterday, in that it was different from every other day, the classic pelagic situation where habitats come and go overnight with wind and current. Overall it was a very pleasant sunny day with generally low seas and light Southeast winds. We headed out of the inlet as a burning red sun emerged from sleep over the Cape Hatteras lighthouse and our commute offshore featured a Northern Gannet, the expected Cory’s-type and Sooty Shearwaters, plus a Pomarine Jaeger and a bonus Leatherback Turtle, rarely seen here in spring. Slowing down in the blue water around the shelf break we found some Audubon’s Shearwaters and had a nice show of flyingfish before the chum block attracted its first customers—diminutive Wilson’s Storm-petrels, all the way from Antarctic breeding grounds to spend their “winter” here before heading back south in September to breed in the land of ice. Here’s an adult with obvious wing molt.
Soon the first Black-capped Petrel showed up and we enjoyed 45 minutes at a slick with constant and photogenically close Wilson’s plus good showings of both black-faced and white-faced Black-capped Petrels. The enigma of the two types of Black-capped Petrel remains to be resolved (otherwise it wouldn’t be an enigma, points out the editor), but it seems likely they represent cryptic species. Here’s a classic white-faced type:
And here’s a classic black-faced type. As well as face pattern note underwing pattern, bill size, and later wing molt timing of the smaller Black-faced types, indicative of later breeding than the white-faced types, whose breeding grounds even remain a mystery:
And a (OK, cheating) Photoshop composite of dorsal views
Moving away in a strong current—ripping north at over 4 knots—we continued into the deep blue and shortly after 10 am a very obliging South Polar Skua flew in to the boat, and stayed so long that people stopped watching it (and even stopped photographing!)—another molting migrant from Antarctica.
Things slowed down in late morning, but the first “large storm-petrel” appeared just after 11 am and at first was thought to be a Band-rumped. Examination of photos, however, showed it was a (presumed 2nd-summer) Leach’s with the tail fork worn down to look squared. Plus in calm conditions the flight of Band-rumped and Leach’s can be very similar—a good lesson for all. Here’s a photo to show the distinctive long slender bill of Leach’s, plus a relatively bold pale upperwing band, the worn tail, and the hint of a dusky median line in the white rump—although some Band-rumps can show this also!
Then, an hour later, a real Band-rumped Storm-petrel showed up—note the thicker bill among other features—bill shape may seen an esoteric feature but, just like sparrows and warblers, subtleties of bill shape can be useful in ID and reflect different feeding strategies and foods. This bird is a small and non-molting bird, thus presumably a Madeiran Storm-petrel, one of 4 cryptic species of Band-rumps that breed in the eastern North Atlantic, at least 2 of which visit Hatteras waters.
A midday lull followed, but at least it was hot and sunny... Then things picked up as we approached the shelf break—a second South Polar Skua joined us, and the first bird had also returned (it came and left several times over the course of 4 hours!), a Great Shearwater and then Sooty Shearwater joined the slick along with Black-capped Petrels, another Band-rump or two, and a Scopoli’s Shearwater swung by... (Scopoli’s is the “Cory’s Shearwater” breeding in the Mediterranean, split as a full species from Cory’s by the rest of the world although not (yet) by the Flat Earth American Ornithologists’ Society—sooner or later a saltwater enema will surely relieve their taxonomic constipation.) The busy finale was rounded out by a group of bow-riding Bottlenose Dolphins and then it was time for our commute back to the “real world” of life onshore.

Not again—just another frame-filling view of South Polar Skua!

Thanks to everyone who joined us out there today, plus spotters Peter Flood and Steve (N G) Howell—Steve also wrote the blog. See (some of) you out there again tomorrow, and spaces remain for any who would like to come.

Species list for May 28, 2019:
Black-capped Petrel - 33 to 35
Cory's Shearwater - 37 to 39
Scopoli's Shearwater - 1
Great Shearwater - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 4 to 5
Audubon's Shearwater - 15 to 17
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 45 to 50
Leach's Storm-Petrel - 2
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 3
South Polar Skua - 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 1
Parasitic Jaeger - 1
Common/Arctic Tern - 1
Bottlenose Dolphin (offshore) - about 20
Leatherback Turtle - 1
Loggerhead Turtle - 1

Flyingfish, an immature stage of species unknown, perhaps growing up to become...
 ...An Atlantic Patching, here a full-size adult individual.

Monday, May 27, 2019

Monday May 27, 2019 - by Peter Flood

Today was not yesterday.  Nor will it be tomorrow.  The day to day fluctuations in wind speed, wind direction, sea state, currents, weed lines and species diversity is exquisitely exemplified along the western edge of the Gulf Stream off Hatteras, NC.  Today we exited Hatteras Inlet under delightful conditions sailing beneath mostly sunny skies with light southwesterly winds and 2-4 foot seas with some higher swell.

Things started off with a quick bang with a northeast bound South Polar Skua just a few miles outside the inlet. Several Cory's Shearwaters and a couple of Sooty Shearwaters kept us company until we arrived at the shelf edge. At the shelf edge we were able to chum in a few storm-petrels but the real superstars of the early morning low sunlight were the Black-capped Petrels - where both white-faced and dark faced types showed beautifully. (photo Peter Flood)
A couple of Band-rumped Storm-Petrels eventually turned up in the chum slick but kept their distance as did most of the storm-petrels today.  (photo Peter Flood)

Around noon time there was a fairly abrupt wind shift to the north/northeast which unfortunately ended up not doing much for species diversity. 

As we were coming to the end of our westbound tack, we had two Cory's Shearwaters along with a Scopoli's Shearwater all feeding together in the chum slick which provided ample opportunity for study between these two taxa. The more delicately built, smaller billed and headed Scopoli's showed well against its larger cousins.  Additionally the classic Scopoli's underwing pattern was visibly apparent and captured nicely in the photos below: (photo Kate Sutherland)
*Spaces are still available on select trips through June 2, 2019. Thanks to everyone who joined us out there today and thank you to our spotters and leaders Steve NG Howell and Peter Flood.  And thanks to Peter for writing the blog! - Kate*

Species List for May 27, 2019
Black-capped Petrel - 27 to 28
Cory's Shearwater - 36
Scopoli's Shearwater - 1
Sooty Shearwater - 6
Audubon's Shearwater - 16 to 17
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 36 to 40
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 4
South Polar Skua - 3
peep sp. - 1
Bottlenose Dolphin - 1
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 3

Black-capped Petrel (Peter Flood)
Dorsal view of the Scopoli's Shearwater (Kate Sutherland)
One of the South Polar Skuas we saw today (Peter Flood)
We also saw at least five types of flyingfishes today!  Here are photos of some Sargassum Midgets (top) and a Atlantic Patchwing (bottom) (Kate Sutherland)
& finally, some of our regulars with Steve...the Steurer brothers and David Crowe have been heading offshore with Brian for years, so it was nice to see them this Memorial Day weekend!  They even dragged a friend along.  L to R - Steve Howell (CA), Todd Easterla (CA), Tim Steurer (CA), Fritz Steurer (CA), and David Crowe (NC).

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Sunday May 26, 2019 - by Peter Flood

Fourteen participants and Captain and crew of the Stormy Petrel 2 steamed out of Hatteras Inlet under party cloudy skies and freshening southwesterly winds. We plowed our way through 4-6 foot seas in transit to the shelf break and managed to turn up a couple of northbound Sooty Shearwaters and a dozen or so Cory's Shearwaters while underway. Seas were a bit more agitated at the shelf break as the water tend to pile up here under the right conditions.  Black-capped Petrels were in their element in the brisk winds - arcing high and ripping past the boat in true Pterordroma fashion.  (All photos below by Peter Flood unless otherwise noted)

A South Polar Skua (one of three individuals seen today) bullied its way into the chum slick around 9:45 and at one point made a B line along the starboard side of the boat to pursue and kleptoparasitize a hapless Cory's Shearwater up ahead of us. This was an all-to-brief but interesting interaction as after the attack on the Cory's, four Black-capped Petrels seemed to materialize out of nowhere and made several aggressive swooping passes by the Skua which had landed on the water at this point.
Audubon's Shearwaters were more numerous today showing well with several making reasonably close passes and a few coming into the chum slick.
We were able to chum up a few Band-rumped and Leach's Storm Petrels both of which were seen well today by our participants.
Marine mammals have been somewhat scare the last 3 trips so we were delighted to have a few Short-finned Pilot Whales flirt with the Stormy Petrel 2 early in the afternoon.  (photo Kate Sutherland)

*Thank you to everyone who joined us today.  And thank you to our leaders and spotters Steve NG Howell, Jeff Lemons and Peter Flood.  And thank you for Peter for writing the blog! - Kate*

Species List for May 26, 2019
Black-capped Petrel - 44 to 46
Cory's Shearwater - 30
Sooty Shearwater - 5
Audubon's Shearwater - 18 to 20
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 80 to 85
Leach's Storm-Petrel - 4
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 3 to 4
Common Tern - 1
Common/Arctic Tern - 4
South Polar Skua - 3
jaeger sp. - 2
Short-finned Pilot Whales - 7 to 10

White-faced (top) and dark-faced (bottom) Black-capped Petrels (Peter Flood, Steve Howell)
Cory's Shearwater (Peter Flood), most birds we saw today were Atlantic Cory's
A closer image of the non molting Band-rumped we had today (Steve Howell)
And our skuas!  Top and bottom two by Peter Flood, second by Steve Howell
First individual

Second individual
Final individual