Tuesday, February 25, 2020

Sunday February 23, 2020 - by Kate Sutherland

We decided to keep the boat in Wanchese as another winter storm moved through on Thursday and Friday, knowing the weather still might be a bit unsettled to get offshore on Saturday, we again pushed back to our weather date of Sunday the 23rd.  Gale force winds from the north and northwest pushed cold water right down around Cape Hatteras and set us a nice temperature break offshore.  (image courtesy of marine.rutgers.edu)
This break seemed a bit far for us to reach from Oregon Inlet, but not out of the question.  So we headed towards Wimble Shoals to the southeast first thing hoping to turn up a Common Murre.  There was an incredible flight of Red-throated Loons in the morning and flotillas of Common Loons seemed to be popping up everywhere as we headed down Hatteras Island.  Razorbills were flying, but not in the numbers we found last weekend (Kate Sutherland),
and while it took some time, we finally recruited a nice feeding flock of gulls and gannets behind the boat!  Around 9:37 am a Common Murre was spotted on the water just ahead of the boat!  The next thirty minutes were excellent as we found at least two more individuals on the water and Brian and I saw one more flying ahead of the boat!  (Kate Sutherland)

Water temperature increased a bit as we moved offshore getting into the mid to high 40s.  Bonaparte's Gulls were scattered along a tide line that also held a couple of Red Phalaropes and our first Dovekie!  Right at 11:30 we saw our first Atlantic Puffin and everyone was able to get a good look at it.  As a number of people were talking about our chances of Great Skua just before noon, one flew right in to the boat from the sun glare (as they often do!) and down the starboard side before it flew off to harass our gull flock!  Excellent views and super exciting encounter (photo by Ed Corey). 
As we continued to make our way offshore, hoping to find a temperature break, we saw a few more puffins and a couple of loggerhead turtles.

Finally, around 12:30, we hit a temperature break that was a 15 degree change!  It was likely the little finger of water visible in the satellite image above just to the east of Avon.  This change was full of life, a Manx Shearwater zipped by when we arrived, we found almost 50 Red Phalaropes sitting with Bonaparte's Gulls, Dovekies and puffins were out there, and the edge was teeming with hammerhead sharks! (photo by Ed Corey) 
It was awesome!  We had a little under an hour in this productive area, then headed back inshore where the auk show continued until around 3 in the afternoon, after which we just found Razorbills.

A pod of short-beaked common dolphins, or saddlebacks, made an energetic rush to the bow in the afternoon as well, checking us out and then moving on, riding our wake for a few minutes before they headed back offshore (Kate Sutherland). 

As we approached the inlet we found the Red-throated Loons still moving by to the north and east, and a humpback whale blew once and surfaced ahead of us before giving us the slip.  It was another great trip from Oregon Inlet, and our last for the season.  Thank you to everyone who made it possible to run our winter trips this year and to Ed Corey for helping us to lead this last trip and for contributing photos for the post!

Species List for February 23, 2020
Red Phalarope - 56
Great Skua - 1
Dovekie - 13
Common Murre - 4 to 5
Razorbill - 408
Atlantic Puffin - 13
Bonaparte's Gull - 520
Red-throated Loon - 404
Common Loon - 115
Manx Shearwater - 7

Humpback Whale - 1
Bottlenose Dolphin - about 85
Short-beaked Common Dolphin - 25-35
Loggerhead Turtle - 5
Hammerhead Shark - at least 30! (likely scalloped hammerheads)

*we also saw Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed Gulls, plus Northern Gannets

The Red Phalaropes seemed to be everywhere when we got to the temperature break / color change! (Kate Sutherland)
Dovekies were not quite as cooperative as they have been on other trips this winter, but at least we had a few that showed well, just not very close. (Kate Sutherland)
Ed captured this cool image of Razorbills with the new Marc Basnight Bridge and old Bonner Bridge both in the background! 
It was neat to see adult (L) and young (R) Razorbills together! (Kate Sutherland)
Atlantic Puffins were also not as cooperative as they were last weekend, but Ed captured this nice image of one!
This looked like a second winter Lesser Black-backed Gull (Kate Sutherland)
And a first winter Great Black-backed Gull (Kate Sutherland)
But as usual, the Northern Gannets were the stars behind the boat!  This weekend they came in well for some nice photo ops! (Kate Sutherland)
This is the underside of an adult gannet as it enters the water - pretty interesting perspective!
But the best photos were of the darker, young gannets!
One of the large Loggerhead Turtles we saw, we also saw at least one smaller one (Kate Sutherland)
And one more artistic take on one of our hammerhead sharks! (Kate Sutherland)
We were lucky to pass right though a small feeding group of Little Tunny (Ed Corey)

Wednesday, February 19, 2020

February 16 & 17, 2020 - Epic Winter Birding! by Kate Sutherland

After our first trip of the winter season last weekend, we decided to run the boat up to Wanchese and spend Presidents' Day Weekend to the north!  The weather was cooperative in the respect that it stayed true to the forecast and we knew we would run on Sunday and Monday by midweek, allowing our participants to schedule accordingly!  Sunday the seas were fairly calm allowing us to check a number of locations for seabirds, we headed down to Wimble Shoals, then to The Point offshore of Hatteras Island, back up and a bit farther offshore, then back to Oregon Inlet.  Monday was the polar opposite and we were dealing with choppy seas so we headed pretty much straight out front from the inlet and then back.  Over the two days we tallied four species of auk, two tubenoses, phalarope, and Great Skua plus three rare species of gull!  Yes, it was an incredible set of trips for those who were able to join us for both!  (sunrise by Kate Sutherland)

Sunday morning was gorgeous as we headed under the new Marc Basnight Bridge to Oregon Inlet and we found over a hundred Bonaparte's Gulls right out front with at least one adult Little Gull!  A bit later we had another!  Razorbills were flying with over 500 tallied before 0830 and we also had a Common Murre fly by the boat, close!  Definitely a super start to the day, and the seas fell out to slick calm by the end of it.  Brian saw the first Atlantic Puffin of the day from the wheelhouse just after 0900 and we saw at least 91 over the course of the day, many close like the one pictured below (Peter Flood).
Dovekies were also around where we found the puffins and many of them were cooperative for photos as well! (Peter Flood)
It was cool to see how the alcids were segregated and the Razorbills were not out where we found the puffins and Dovekies.  While it took some time, we were able to coax some gulls to follow us in the early afternoon where we found the gill net fleet from Oregon Inlet.  These feeding birds did a great job and just after 1pm we had a Great Skua come in!!  It put on quite a show chasing gulls and sitting on the water a number of time for us to approach.  Some of the passes it made were fairly close and the coloration was easy to see on the back and nape (Peter Flood). 
As we were watching the skua, we saw that a Glaucous Gull had joined the gull flock, at first I thought it was an adult since the light made it hard to see the bill color, but it still had some smudging on the belly and while the mantle looked close to adult coloration, it was not complete.  As we headed back toward the inlet, tallying puffins and dovekies as we went, a Northern Fulmar came by the stern and up the starboard side (Kate Sutherland)!
Then as we crossed a shoal around 3:30, Brian spotted a Common Murre on the water!  Excellent views were had by all, though it did not allow us to get very close (Kate Sutherland).

Monday was breezy!  Since the wind had just picked up overnight, we had some choppy seas out there that made viewing alcids a bit of a challenge...but we still found our first puffin just after 0900!  Outside of the inlet gulls and gannets were flying and we were able to attract a nice flock with our chum that stayed with us all day.  Again, this paid off and we had at least one, possibly two, Great Skuas visit us just after noontime!  Neither of these sightings looked like the individual we had on Sunday, though the same Glaucous Gull came to visit the flock again (Peter Flood).
In addition to this we had a first winter Iceland Gull follow us for hours, many times flying close to its pale winged cousin!  Razorbills and Dovekies were on the move again Monday, but while we tallied more Razorbills on Sunday, Monday afternoon we could barely keep count of all the Dovekies moving by and our total count of 731 is likely low!!  It was a spectacle and we easily saw over 300 in less than thirty minutes!  Manx Shearwaters were around both days in small numbers and we had nice views of these small black and white shearwaters on each trip.

Our trip this weekend will run from Wanchese, and we have a couple spaces open on that, otherwise we have added another date to the schedule, February 29 (Mar 1 weather date)!  So join us!  We would like to thank everyone who joined us this holiday weekend and a huge thank you to our leaders, Peter Flood and Jacob Farmer, for helping us with the boat, helping everyone get on the birds, chumming, and letting us use photos here on the blog!

Species of interest February 16 / 17

Red Phalarope - 8 / 2
Great Skua - 1 / 1-2
Dovekie - 272 / 731
Common Murre - 2 / 0
Razorbill - 729 / 230
Atlantic Puffin - 91 / 3
Little Gull - 2 / 0
Glaucous Gull - 1 / 1
Iceland Gull - 0 / 1
Northern Fulmar - 1 / 0
Manx Shearwater - 4 / 5

Minke Whale - 1 / 0
Bottlenose Dolphin - 50+ / 0
Loggerhead Turtle - 3 / 2
shark species, possibly a Mako - 1 / 0

*We also saw Bonaparte's, Herring, Lesser Black-backed, and Great Black-backed Gulls, Red-throated and Common Loons, and Northern Gannets.  We had three Brown Pelicans offshore on Monday!

Another angle for Sunday's Great Skua (Kate Sutherland)
But mostly we saw things like this... (also by Kate Sutherland)
The Great Skua from Monday (Peter Flood)
Dovekies on the water (Peter Flood), one taking off (Kate Sutherland), and one in flight (Peter Flood)
There were some Razorbills beginning to show a dusky head like the lead bird here (Kate Sutherland)
A couple more Atlantic Puffin images, it was just amazing to see so many of these out there on Sunday!!  (Kate Sutherland)
Glaucous Gull in a compromising position going in for some chum!  (Kate Sutherland)
The Glaucous Gull on Sunday sitting with a Herring Gull (Kate Sutherland)
And a Herring Gull throwing back a nice piece of Menhaden (Kate Sutherland)
The young Iceland Gull that spent time with us in the stern on Monday (Kate Sutherland)
And we had some nice photo ops with Northern Gannets feeding behind the boat first thing on Monday morning! (Kate Sutherland)
One of the Loggerhead Turtles from Sunday (Kate Sutherland)
We captured some images of what I initially thought was a Basking Shark pushing water on the surface, but upon inspection, the back and dorsal fin shape point more to a Minke Whale!  You never know what you'll turn up out there!  Pretty exciting to find after the fact!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Sunday February 9, 2020 - by Kate Sutherland

After being weathered out last weekend, we were excited to see the perfect window for a trip on Saturday February 8th!  But mother nature had other plans, and the weather system that moved through on Thursday night dropping inches of rain was followed by strong westerlies that pushed the water from the swollen Pamlico Sound onto the northern portions of NC Highway 12 on Hatteras Island.  This forced us to push back to our weather date, Sunday February 9th, and that morning we were excited to finally board our participants and head out into the sound still lit by the full moon! (Kate Sutherland)
The sea surface temperature maps showed that the south and southwesterly winds from previous days pushed warm water right up past Avon.  Regardless, we hoped to find some winter seabirds around Diamond Shoals or on our way north, and while there were thousands of Northern Gannets south of Cape Hatteras, we did not see a single Razorbill!  Oftentimes gannets are a good sign for the possibility of a Great Skua lurking around, but we didn't turn one up on Sunday.  With water in the high 50s, we continued to the north in search of a temperature break with some cooler temperatures on the other side!  Unfortunately this water was 25 miles to the east of Oregon Inlet!  Fortunately we can use Oregon Inlet to get back to Hatteras by running down the sound on the inside of the island!  So we stuck it out and continued searching for seabirds with our loyal gull and gannet flock as we moved to the north (gannet face by Kate Sutherland).
Soon after we reached the cooler water, temperatures between 50 and 52 degrees Fahrenheit, Brian began hearing news from the Oregon Inlet fishing fleet, they had several mako bites and farther offshore were even catching bluefin tuna!  Around this time there was a shark leaping out of the water in the distance, Brian thought it might be a thresher, but I didn't see it well enough to tell, I just saw a shape and a splash.  Thirty minutes later, another shark leaped from the sea much closer!  A common thresher shark!  This fish put on quite a show, leaping at least seven times close enough to capture!  As many of you probably know, threshers have a tail that is as long as their body.  They can use this like a whip to herd, confuse, and ultimately stun their prey.  There is only one genus in the family Alopiidae (this is derived from the greek word for "fox," as they are "clever like a fox"), and only three species in the genus Alopias; the one we saw was the common thresher shark, or Alopias vulpinus (species name is derived from the latin for "fox").  The elongated upper lobe of their caudal fin also allows them to accelerate to incredible speeds, high enough to launch them entirely out of the water!  Thresher sharks regularly display this behavior, and while the reason they do so is purely speculation on our part, some researchers think it could be a mode of communication or a behavior that helps to scare their prey species into "balls" or small groups that make them easier to stun, kill, and eat.  Who knows?  We were just excited to be in the right place at the right time to experience it! (incredible photo by Ed Corey!!)
We headed inshore toward Oregon Inlet and the new Basnight Bridge, checking out our second lighthouse for the day, Bodie Island.  Finally some Razorbills were flying by, there were some Common Loons sitting around on the water, and we even had a quick glimpse of a mola mola, or ocean sunfish!  Suddenly there was some commotion up in the bow pulpit!  Alcid on the water, just ahead of the boat...DOVEKIE!!!  And it went right under us, diving to avoid the boat!  We stopped and waited, and sure enough, the little auk popped up next to a gull not too far from the boat!  Slowly we approached it to show everyone, and to our surprise, it was more than happy to be in the shadow of the Stormy Petrel II safe for the time being from the large gulls around us.  It allowed us to spend time photographing it, with our big lenses and cell phones alike! (photo by Kate Sutherland)
Videos of it swimming along the side of the boat and under the bow pulpit were taken.  What a way to end the day!  Weather was just right to navigate this inlet to the north, and as we pulled back into the channel that would take us to Hatteras Landing a couple of hours later, we were treated to the most gorgeous sunset. (shown here with the F/V Little Clam - Kate Sutherland)
Thank you to everyone who joined us out there today!  Also a big thanks to Jesse Anderson for organizing a group from Forsythe Audubon to join us, and for helping us lead the trip along with veteran leader, Ed Corey!  Excellent job, gentlemen!  And thank you for contributing photos for today's post!

Species List for Sunday February 9, 2020
Dovekie - 1
Razorbill - 12
Bonaparte's Gull - 265 (count)
Ring-billed Gull - 7
Herring Gull - 1205 (estimate)
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 80 (estimate)
Great Black-backed Gull - 55 (estimate)
Forster's Tern - 1
Red-throated Loon - 3
Common Loon - 5
Northern Gannet - 3000 (estimate)

Bottlenose Dolphins - nearshore population - 75 to 100
Loggerhead Turtle - 3
Common Thresher Shark - 2
Ocean Sunfish (mola mola) - 1

A few Dovekie photos, of course! (Top by Ed Corey, two below by Kate Sutherland)
One of the few Razorbills that came close enough for a photo op!  (Jesse Anderson)
Herring Gulls with Great Black-backed fighting over chum (Kate Sutherland)
Great Black-backed Gull being chased by young Lesser Black-backed and Herring Gulls! (Kate Sutherland)
Lesser Black-backed Gulls - top near adult (Ed Corey) bottom first winter (Kate Sutherland)
 A couple of diving gannets (Kate Sutherland)

Bottlenose dolphins, these nearshore individuals are not as obliging for photos as their offshore cousins! (Kate Sutherland)
Ed Corey captured this image of one of the loggerhead turtles peeking over a wave!
And a couple more images of the obliging thresher shark! (Kate Sutherland) A really cool way that we know these sharks use their long tails to stun and/or kill prey items is that they are often hooked in the tail by fishermen!