Tuesday, December 1, 2020

Spring 2020 - Pandemic Pelagics by Kate Sutherland

Flexibility and uncertainty - two words that defined our Spring 2020 season and continue to play a role, likely into 2021.  There are a number of challenges we face living in and running trips from Hatteras, NC - but a global pandemic was a new one.  First we faced cancelations from customers, then a closure of our county to visitors, then the guidance from NC Governor Roy Cooper letting us know how and when we might take passengers offshore.  Brian and I formulated a plan, fine tuning it a number of times, and we were able to run reduced capacity trips starting on May 27!  (We already limit our participants to 50% of our licensed capacity, and we reduced it even more...)  Once people saw that we could offer them a chance to get offshore, we were off!  All birding tours come with some type of risk, there is no way to guarantee that no one will contract the novel coronavirus traveling to Hatteras, staying here, or on our vessel.  But we also know that personal responsibility and respect for others play a huge role in this pandemic.  And for the most part?  This was observed aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  And being outside?  With an ocean gale, I mean, breeze?  Quite possibly a good way to minimize risk while giving yourself a chance to see something cool offshore!

Though we got a late start, May 27 vs. May 7, and only ran eight trips, instead of 20, we still managed to find 21 pelagic species this spring!  Definitely an awesome run even losing two trips to weather!  One of those weather days produced a White-winged Tern at Cape Point, though, spotted and identified by some of our participants (Ruben & Victor Stoll).   Weather was interesting this spring and over the course of a couple weeks we had every wind direction imaginable.  Some days it was choppy, some downright rough, and some quite pleasant!  Easterlies were a big component here and to the south of us plus we had nice shots of north and south winds bringing us a nice variety of birds.  Rain squalls were common, which also can make for some excellent birding!  Following, I will cover each type of bird we saw, with notes about how many we had and on how many trips out of 8 they were encountered.  The Spring 2020 Species Tally is here: https://patteson.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/11/Spring-2020.pdf and there are some photos at the end with labels, in order mentioned in the post!  Thanks everyone for making these trips possible!  Big thanks to Kyle Kittelberger, Ed Corey, Peter Flood, and Justin Bosler for all helping us lead the trips and contributing photos for our blog posts!  
- Kate Sutherland

Gadfly Petrels
Black-capped Petrels were out there for every trip, as we always hope they will be!  We found white-faced and dark-faced types plus some intermediate birds.  They came in well to the chum for the most part and our high count was on May 31 with 37 individuals.  

Trindade Petrels put in quite an appearance with at least 11 individuals on five trips, high count was at least 4 on June 1!  Dark morph individuals are most commonly seen on our trips here, and most of the birds were this type.  We did have some intermediate birds and Kyle Kittelberger and Jeremy Dominguez had one light morph on May 27.  Fea's Petrels visited us twice over the eight trips, June 1 and 6, and each time they were super cooperative!  On June 5 we had two Pterodroma petrels that eluded us, one seen by Ned Brinkely and Brian Patteson looked like it could have possibly been a Bermuda Petrel!  The other looked like a possible Fea's Petrel.

Starting trips in late May was interesting!  Great Shearwaters were already here!  And we still had some Sooties around to watch, so it didn't feel like we missed much, even though we know we did!  Cory's Shearwaters were the most numerous with a tally of about 485 over eight trips.  Scopoli's Shearwaters were just starting to show up as we moved into June and we had some nice encounters with them in the slick.  Hopefully we'll start to see more as we move into summer.  

Great Shearwaters were seen on all but one trip and we even had some adults tuck in behind us a couple of times!  Sooty Shearwaters were just off the beach on a couple of days that the swell and wind pushed them inshore, otherwise we had some visit the chum with our Greats and a few times we had nice studies of Sooties and Trindade Petrels, one after the other and vice versa.  Manx Shearwater was photographed on May 31 and we saw three on June 1, glad this species didn't give us the slip this spring.  Audubon's were easier to find on the calmer days and on days that we had Sargassum offshore, so while we saw them on all of our trips, May 30 was notable with 307 individuals counted!  

Wilson's Storm-Petrels were seen on all eight trips, as expected, and their numbers were about average for the spring with some days being much better for recruiting them to the chum!  Overall we saw about 1,150.  It was a great spring for Leach's Storm-Petrels, perhaps due to the easterly component of our winds and swell over the course of the short period we had to operate.  We saw them on all but two trips with a high count of 25 on May 27.  Band-rumped Storm-Petrels were seen on all of the trips this spring, it helped that we started late as they can sometimes be scarce before May 25.  Most individuals were actively molting and presumed to be Grant's type birds.  We did have a few of the non-molting, "little Band-rumps" that are presumed to be Madeiran Storm-Petrels.  A few trips gave us some incredible views of these Band-rumpeds feeding in the chum with Wilson's Storm-Petrels allowing for size comparison and also allowing for some great photo ops!  I was hoping to make a trip to Madeira this spring to photograph some Madeiran Storm-Petrels there, but yes, the pandemic happened.

Following some southerly winds on June 3 and 4 we found a Masked Booby up on the shelf the afternoon of June 5!  This bird was incredibly cooperative, or we just found it where it wanted to be!  We watched it on the water, in flight, and most spectacularly, diving near the boat!  Seeing it's white body slice into and under the water was awesome.

After being skunked by the White-tailed Tropicbirds last year, not a one was recorded on our 2019 trips, we had two individuals in one day on May 29!  Overall we had three encounters with the birds and they were pretty spectacular, hanging around the boat for well over 30 minutes combined!  On June 2 we had a group with us from MO and some of the guys up on the top deck spotted a tropicbird in the distance!  We were able to get eyes on it and while it never came close, we were able to tell it was a Red-billed Tropicbird.  So awesome to get both species this spring!

Sargassum was in short supply this spring as was flotsam, so as you can imagine we did not see many Bridled Terns.  We had one fly-by on June 5.  On May 29, a day with some southerly movement, we had four tropical terns fly over that looked like Sooty Terns though they were not seen well enough for a positive identification.  Hopefully we can turn up some tropical terns this summer!  We did have at least one Arctic Tern on June 2 and a few Common/Arctic types over the course of the trips.  Can we take a moment to include the White-winged Tern here?  What a treat for us and for our participants to see!  It stuck around for at least a week!

Skuas & Jaegers
With two South Polar Skuas on our first trip, it seemed like we might have a good spring for them but perhaps we missed them earlier because we didn't turn up any more after May 27.  Fortunately we were able to find all three species of jaeger, which is not something that happens every spring!  Two trips found Pomarine Jaegers and they followed well in the chum on June 2, one was even chased by a Long-tailed Jaeger that came in that day!  We had just one Parasitic Jaeger on May 29 and we had Long-tailed Jaegers on June 2 and 6.

Gervais' beaked whales graced us with their presence on two trips out of eight!  Not bad!  We had a couple on May 30 then a pod of at least seven on June 2.  Each time we had nice views as they surfaced near the boat.  Otherwise our mammal sightings were a bit lean, with some Atlantic spotted dolphins and some of the offshore bottlenose dolphins encountered on a few trips.

Other Marine Life
We had a very cool encounter with a tiger shark around our chum block on our June 1 trip!  It was swimming around and under the block for a good ten minutes and we even got to see some evidence of it's desire to get in our chum cage when we pulled it in!  I captured an image of it with what looks to be a gray triggerfish in its mouth!  Pretty cool!  For us, not the triggerfish!  One ocean sunfish was seen on June 5 and we had a number of Portuguese man-of-wars, 11 were counted but I am sure there were a few we missed!

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Saturday November 14, 2020 - by Kate Sutherland

The forecast for the weekend changed a number of times in the week leading up to our trip on Saturday!  At one point, I wan't sure we would make it on either day.  Things calmed down, though and after a strong front moved through on Friday we had calm enough seas to head offshore on Saturday morning.  The day was incredibly clear with winds about 14 to 16 mph from the north northeast.  Northern Gannets and gulls were around inshore and we even had a quick glimpse of a distant small jaeger, perhaps a Parasitic, on our way to the shelf break.  At the break there wasn't much activity so we kept moving offshore for a bit before we started the fish oil drip.  A Cory's type Shearwater and Wilson's Storm-Petrel were our first tubenoses of the trip, but they were not super close.  Following them we had our first look at a Great Shearwater. 

Overall seabirds were a bit scarce, but we were surprised to find more Wilson's Storm-Petrels out there than we've seen since August!  A small flock flushed from the water as we motored past them, flying over to feed and follow in the slick for a bit.  On a day with a fair bit of swell and some wind waves, it was a treat to show everyone aboard these dainty seabirds that should soon be nesting on sub-Antarctic islands!  

Unfortunately our two Gulf Stream specialties, Black-capped Petrel and Audubon's Shearwater were scarce.  We were lucky to have one Audubon's fly across the bow in the morning and then just two more flew by in the afternoon.  One fairly white-faced Black-capped came in to check us out, but that was the only close pass we had.  At least one other was flying around out there at the same time, and one of our participants thought they had one earlier in the day.  So just a handful for each of them.  But we will note that the Gulf Stream waters were a bit atypical with more of a greenish tint than usual and without much current.  The temperatures, however, were in the high 70s so perhaps we were in an eddy of some sort, who knows? 

As fall moves on more gulls are joining us offshore and we had Great Black-backed, Lesser Black-backed, and Laughing Gulls out there in addition to two Black-legged Kittiwakes that gave us fleeting glimpses!  Each of them flew up into the stratosphere, though, with the high ceiling we had out there.  Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins and Atlantic Spotted Dolphins gave us quite a show offshore and closer to the beach.  In addition to these charismatic megafauna, we also had two ocean sunfish (Mola mola) the second of which swam right under the bow of the boat! 
After trying to describe them to participants in the morning when we just saw a fin, it was awesome for everyone to have the chance to see the whole animal!  We also saw at least one hammerhead shark and one large Loggerhead Turtle on the way in that afternoon.  

Maybe not the seabirdiest day out there, but you certainly won't find them if you don't go looking!  Thanks so much everyone who joined us and made this trip possible, we couldn't be out there without you, and thank you also to Brad Sale for helping us out!  All of the photos for the post were taken by me, Kate Sutherland.

Target Species List November 14, 2020

Black-capped Petrel - 2 to 4
Cory's type (Atlantic / Scopoli's) - 3
Great Shearwater - 6
Audubon's Shearwater - 3
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 25 to 28
Black-legged Kittiwake - 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 1
Jaeger species - 1 prob. Parasitic

Other Species Offshore of the Shelf Break

Common Loon - 1
Great Black-backed Gull - 2
Herring Gull - 5
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 1
Laughing Gull - 1
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin - 31 to 32
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 5
Loggerhead Turtle - 1
Hammerhead species - 1 (likely Scalloped)
Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) - 2

Monday, October 26, 2020

Saturday October 24, 2020 - Swell Birding - by Kate Sutherland

Hurricane Epsilon passed by us far to the east earlier in the week, resulting in some nice swell - a bit too nice to make it out on Friday, so we were hopeful that it would be just right to cross the Hatteras Inlet bar on Saturday morning for our trip offshore.  And as luck would have it, just right!  Plus we were treated to a gorgeous sunrise (photo by Kate Sutherland) and light winds from the north. 
As we headed to the south southeast Brian spotted a Leatherback turtle, not up long enough for anyone else to see, but definitely a notable sighting!  Our first hour at sea was quiet, but then shearwaters began popping up and we found a few small feeding groups on the water, mostly Cory's (photo by Brian Patteson) but a few Greats were with them as well. 
We took our time heading to the shelf break allowing us to investigate a nice Sargassum line in about 200 feet of water.  It was here that our first Scopoli's Shearwater of the trip was photographed and we found a nice ocean sunfish (Mola mola) swimming along the surface!  A nice tree and some coconuts were in the Sargassum along this current edge, but we failed to turn up a Bridled Tern.  

We reached the shelf edge just after 1000 and like magic, there were the Black-capped Petrels!  The first individual was a bit distant, but the second bird was much more cooperative, zipping toward the port side, across the bow, and down the starboard before flying off.  We promptly put out some chum blocks to see if we could lure a few more in while the light was nice!  The views of these freshly molted birds were stunning and we had a number check us out during our time in the deeper water (photo Kate Sutherland). 
Less than an hour later I spotted two high fliers and it turned out a Black-capped Petrel was pursuing a Pomarine Jaeger!  We watched them for a few minutes before they headed back toward the sea and out of sight.  Two Poms joined us near the boat just a few minutes later, one may have been the one we saw with the Black-cap, but it was tough to tell from the earlier, distant photos.  These two birds were very cooperative, sitting on the sea and flying around the boat for photo-ops.  Black-cappeds and Pomarine Jaegers were the highlight species in the deep, and while we had a few shearwaters out there, most of them were in on the shelf.  Surprisingly we did not find any Audubon's Shearwaters even though we did see a lot of Sargassum, we could have missed them in the swell, or they just might out in the deep.  

The Pomarine Jaegers we saw mostly looked adult-like with one young individual who hatched last year.  In addition to the mostly light morph individuals we saw, we had two dark morph Poms, one still had tail streamers while the other, though a bit more distant, did not seem to have much of a tail.  A few of these adult-looking birds were in mid-primary molt which is not unexpected for adults in late October, but also could be near adult individuals.  At least one adult type bird had a few barred coverts in the underwing, indicating perhaps a third year.  The only bird we could age with certainty was the one in its "first summer" or second year, with completely barred underparts just beginning its second pre-basic wing molt (Howell 2007) (photo Kate Sutherland). 

Black-cappeds were definitely the stars, though, as they rode the swell, chased jaegers, and made some incredible passes by the boat!  We had both white faced and dark faced types over the course of the day.  Another treat came in the form of a pair of Sooty Terns that flew in to check out the chum and then moved on, an adult and its attendant juvenile.  Some offshore Bottlenose Dolphins, with a number of young individuals, came in to bow ride as we headed back inshore to the shelf break, some Atlantic Spotted Dolphins had done the same in the morning on our way out.  Quite a day for late October!

Thank you to everyone who joined us and made this trip a go!  Brian and I appreciate all of your support so much, especially this year.  Our next trip in November is full, but we should have our 2021 schedule posted just after that and perhaps we will even add a trip in December!

Species List October 24, 2020

Black-capped Petrel - 34 to 35
Cory's Shearwater (Atlantic) - 12 (verified by photo)
Scopoli's Shearwater - 3 (verified by photo)
Cory's type - 70 to 71 (not verified by photo to one species or the other)
Great Shearwater - 26 to 27
Sooty Tern - 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 8 to 9
jaeger sp. - 1

Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - about 25
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin - about 30 to 31
Leatherback turtle - 1
sea turtle sp. (prob Loggerhead) - 2 spotted by participant
Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) - 1

We also saw a number of moths and a small red butterfly offshore of the shelf break, then a sulphur on the shelf in the afternoon.

A dark faced Black-cap riding the swell. (Kate Sutherland)
Black-capped Petrel (l) with a Great Shearwater (r) (Kate Sutherland)
A couple more Cory's Shearwaters images - on the water and taking off showing the dark under primaries (a Scopoli's will show white in the under primaries).  Compare the yellow bill and pale head with the Great Shearwater below.  (Kate Sutherland)
Great Shearwaters were cooperative in the slick, as they usually are! You can see the black bill and dark cap plus the mottled underwing and dark belly patch in this photo.  (Kate Sutherland)
Brian was quick enough to capture an image of our young Sooty Tern!  (Brian Patteson)
And now for the Pomarine Jaegers!  We covered the first summer bird up above, so now let's take a look at the others we saw.  At least a couple looked like this bird, adult-like, in mid primary molt with fresh looking central rectrices and dark underwing coverts.  (Brian Patteson) 
We had at least one bird with a longer tail, but upon inspection of the underwings there were some barred coverts remaining indicating a possible third year individual.  Its primary molt was similar to the other birds we saw.  (Kate Sutherland)
While the water was a little choppy for seeing the Mola mola underneath, I did capture a bit of the fin out of the water.  This creature is the world's heaviest bony fish, and produces more eggs than any other known vertebrate!!  An estimated 300 million!  (Kate Sutherland)

Wednesday, October 14, 2020

Saturday October 10, 2020 - by Kate Sutherland

Typically when we run this October trip we have winds that are northwesterly or westerly, so having south / southeasterly winds for our trip Saturday was such a treat!  Skies were overcast as we headed offshore and we were hopeful that conditions would be favorable to find some seabirds offshore.  Cory's, Great, and Audubon's Shearwaters were around as we headed toward the shelf break and we even had some curious Atlantic Spotted Dolphins come in to ride the bow for a few minutes!  Just after 0900 we had a Black-capped Petrel zip by, then a second one!  (photo Peter Flood)
Brian called out some cetaceans around the boat around the same time - and some False Killer Whales popped up!  At least four and perhaps six individuals surfaced a few times nearby before heading off to the northeast.  Wow!  We see them regularly in the spring but have never seen them in the fall, nor heard from any fishermen about them being around in the fall.  Quite a cool addition to our October species list!  There were a number of other Black-capped Petrels in this area as well and maybe they were with these blackfish (the False Killer Whales)?  Who knows, we just know we went ahead and started the chum a few miles inshore of the break!  Definitely an excellent start to the day!

Just before 1000 we reached the shelf break and had a distant high flier that turned out to be a skua!  We watched it flying up high, saw it harassing a shearwater, and could tell from photos that it was a skua, not a jaeger.  Looking at the pictures on a computer, it was probably a South Polar Skua - the nape was pale and the color dull, not warm like we would expect on a Great Skua.  Black-cappeds and all three shearwaters were attentive in the slick as we worked offshore and we even turned up a Wilson's Storm-Petrel that stayed with us in the slick for awhile, not a species that is really very common here in the fall like they are earlier in the year, so a good find for October! 

Fishermen were chatting about all of the birds they were seeing, so we generally worked that way, a bit to the south and offshore, and finally found some shearwater flocks a little before 1.  The first flock we found was incredible!!  There were more Audubon's Shearwaters than Cory's and Great combined! (photo Brian Patteson) 
There was a jaeger associated with this flock that was not very cooperative, but we did see it flare up as it chased shearwaters and photos indicated it was likely a young Pomarine Jaeger.  The second flock we found was about an hour later and was again mostly Audubon's with Cory's and just a handful of Greats.  One of the Cory's Shearwaters we photographed in this flock was banded!  (photo Kate Sutherland)
Many of the Audubon's looked to be fresh youngsters, and we tried to turn up a Manx among them, but to no avail!  Having such incredible numbers of shearwaters in October was reward enough.  Black-capped Petrels and Great Shearwaters put on quite a show as we chummed our way back to the shelf break before picking up to head back to shore.  One more stop to put out what we had left brought Black-capped Petrels right by the boat, in sleek, fresh plumage lit up by the afternoon light!  Incredible! (photo Brian Patteson) 

Thank you to everyone who made this trip possible by joining us in the fall!  And thank you to Peter Flood and Ed Corey for helping Brian and I lead the trip.  All four of us contributed photos for this post!  At this time we just have one space on our next trip - October 24 (25) - and four spaces on our November 14 (15) trip.  We're super excited to get out there twice more this fall!

Species List for October 10, 2020

Black-capped Petrel - 53 to 56
Cory's Shearwater (Atlantic) - 54 (verified by photo)
Scopoli's Shearwater - 2 (verified by photo)
Cory's type - 244 to 245 (not verified by photo to one species or the other)
Great Shearwater - 101 to 111
Audubon's Shearwater - 508 to 563
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 1 to 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 1
skua sp. (prob South Polar) - 1
Common Tern - 3

False Killer Whale - 4 to 6
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 6

Our Black-capped Petrels were quite cooperative for photos!
A number were dark-faced birds (Peter Flood - top - and Ed Corey - bottom)
We had at least three or four individuals that were white faced types (Peter Flood)
Here is an intermediate looking bird above with a white-faced bird below (Kate Sutherland)
One more image with a darker individual's underwing (Kate Sutherland)
In the shearwater flocks it was nice to show everyone Cory's vs Great Shearwaters on the water!  The yellow or straw colored bill of Cory's vs black of Great, plus the paler head of the Cory's vs the darker head seen on Great.  Here you can also see the clean underwing of a Cory's vs the mottled underwing of a Great!  (Peter Flood - Cory's top, Great bottom)
A couple more images of Cory's Shearwaters (Brian Patteson - top - Kate Sutherland - bottom)
As I sorted through photos I did uncover at least two Scopoli's Shearwaters, here is a record shot of one (Kate Sutherland)
Great Shearwaters were super cooperative!  We had some individuals that looked fairly fresh and others that were a bit rattier looking!  (Kate Sutherland)
And yes, the Audubon's!!  They were incredibly cooperative, not something we can usually say about these small black and white shearwaters!  (Peter Flood)
And sitting on the water with a Cory's (Kate Sutherland)
Here is a wide shot of a portion of the first flock (Kate Sutherland)
Zoomed in a bit by Peter Flood
And here is our record shot of the skua (Peter Flood) you get the picture!