Thursday, June 17, 2021

June 15 & 16, 2021 - Ed Corey

No two days offshore are ever the same, and this was abundantly clear on our trips this week! Tuesday’s weather consisted of a stiff wind out of the southwest, keeping our tubenoses in the air most of the day. Once over the shelf break, we found a good feeding flock of shearwaters in amongst the fishing boats. Lots of Greats and Audubon’s were foraging in and around the patches of Sargassum, with a smattering of Cory’s in the mix as well.  A Royal Tern checking out the action brought in a feisty Parasitic Jaeger, leading to a hot pursuit and the tern losing its dinner to the aerial pugilist! (Kate Sutherland)
After establishing our chum slick and heading towards deeper water, we were able to eke out a nice following of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. These small seabirds breed around the Antarctic coast, and are one of the most abundant bird species in the world, with an estimated 50 MILLION pairs. In contrast, the Band-rumped Storm-Petrels we observed later in the slick were larger, with longer wings and a more powerful flight. We were able to see both the Grant’s (larger birds, with obvious primary molt in late Spring) and Madeiran (slightly larger than Wilson’s, mostly fresh in June) types, which each breed in the Northern Hemisphere. Once considered a single species, there may be as many as 8 types of Band-rumpeds in the Atlantic alone.  (While this individual looks fresh, it actually has an old outer primary and is just finishing primary molt!  There is still a lot to learn about Band-rumpeds offshore from NC.  Kate Sutherland)
One of our leaders spotted a small flock of birds towards the horizon, with a few tubenoses underneath, and some terns working overhead. After a bit of a chase to catch up to them, the terns revealed themselves to be Bridled Terns. These smaller tropical terns often patrol around the grass-lines, resting on any floating structures they can find. The trio decided to make a few close passes by the boat, giving all on board great looks! (Kate Sutherland)
Shortly thereafter, Kate spotted an outline at the surface, which turned out to be one of two White Marlin! These medium-sized billfish were working slowly along near our slick, with only the dorsal and tail fins visible. The dorsal fin of a White Marlin has a rounded aspect, versus the pointed dorsal of the much larger Blue! (Ed Corey)
In contrast, Wednesday’s conditions were mostly calm, with some swell, but not much chop to be found. The low, rolling seas made for excellent cetacean watching, beginning with a few bow-riding Atlantic Spotted Dolphins on the ride out. We were able to again find a familiar gathering of shearwaters near the grass-line, as well as several small pods of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins. 
A little before 930, one of the passengers mentioned they had a large dolphin off the port bow. As the animal surfaced again, the distinctive coloration and head shape made us realize that this was a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale! This species currently holds the record for the deepest dive of any mammal, at over 9,000 feet! They also have the record for the longest dive, at well over 3 hours! (Ed Corey)
As we powered offshore, we picked up more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and a few Black-capped Petrels, the latter giving decent passes, but not really settling into the slick as they often do. We were able to get a few glimpses at some Grant’s-type Band-rumpeds, but these, too, were not interested in sticking around for long. 
A little after 11, another passenger spotted a low, “bushy” blow off of the stern. As more eyes got on it, we could see that the blow was only coming out of the left side of the head: a Sperm Whale! This individual stayed at the surface for several minutes before disappearing below the surface. (Ed Corey)
Thanks so much to everyone who joined us out there for these additional spring trips, especially WINGS for helping to make the additions possible with their group!  Thank you also to Ed Corey for helping out on both trips, writing the blog post, and contributing photos.  So glad we could find him something new out there for his birthday on Tuesday!  Thank you also to Andrew Rapp for helping on Wednesday's trip.  (Kate :)

Species List June 15 / 16
Black-capped Petrel - 11 / 16
Cory's Shearwater - 15 / 5
Scopoli's Shearwater - 5 / 5
Cory's / Scopoli's - 30 / 13
Great Shearwater - 126 / 178
Sooty Shearwater - 0 / 1
Audubon's Shearwater - 89 / 39
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 45 / 39
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 8 to 10 / 2
Bridled Tern - 3 / 0
Common Tern - 0 / 3
Arctic Tern - 1 / 0
Royal Tern - 2 / 6
Pomarine Jaeger - 1 / 0
Parasitic Jaeger - 1 / 0
Long-tailed Jaeger - 1 / 0
Barn Swallow - 0 / 1
Sperm Whale - 0 / 1
Cuvier's Beaked Whale 0 / 1 male
Bottlenose Dolphin (offshore) - 25 / 28
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 12 / 11
White Marlin - 2 / 0
Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) - 1 / 0

Scoploi's Shearwaters were quite obliging on these trips! (Kate Sutherland)

Not to mention the Great Shearwaters!  Once they found the chum they definitely stuck with us for awhile!  (top Kate Sutherland, bottom two Ed Corey)

We saw a lot of Audubon's Shearwaters this weekend and they were happy to forage for chum in the slick with the Greats, Cory's, and Scopoli's. (Kate Sutherland)

Band-rumpeds were super cooperative in the slick on Tuesday and anyone who wanted to study them certainly had the chance!  (top Ed Corey, bottom two Kate Sutherland)

Another image of the Parasitic Jaeger from Tuesday (Kate Sutherland)

And one more of the Cuvier's Beaked Whale seen on Wednesday (Ed Corey)

Monday, June 14, 2021

June 11 & 12, 2021 - Shearwater Studies - Kate Sutherland

Weather has figured prominently in our trips this spring and these were no exception.  Both mornings we took a little extra time to check the weather offshore and make sure we'd have some company out there (never a good idea to be the only boat offshore when conditions are challenging!), and both mornings we headed offshore.  The weather turned out to be manageable for both trips and we were rewarded with some great shearwater shows in the slick plus incredible views of our signature species, the Black-capped Petrel!  Friday participant Jamie Adams spotted a whale surfacing near the boat and it turned out to be not just one, but three Gervais' beaked whales!  They spent a few minutes surfacing and swimming fairly close to the boat before heading down for another deep dive.  These whales spend most of their time below the surface, feeding on the bottom in very deep water and their genus, Mesoplodon, contains some of the least known species of cetacean due to this behavior.  
Black-capped Petrels came quite close on both trips and responded well to some homemade chum blocks we deployed for a drift each day.  Band-rumped Storm-Petrels also responded well to these blocks making some passes by the Wilson's Storm-Petrels we had gathered in our slick and on Friday one even stopped to feed on the block.  
A Leach's Storm-Petrel made a brief appearance as well on Friday, but it didn't stick around and was not very cooperative in the slick.  Shearwaters are HERE!  It was so nice to have shearwaters following us in addition to the Wilson's Storm-Petrels, they were especially cooperative on Saturday.  All of the feeding activity attracted a Pomarine Jaeger who came to check out our flock and harass some of the shearwaters, a Sooty Tern that flew right up the slick to see what we had to offer, and a Laughing Gull that fed with the shearwaters as we approached the shelf break in the afternoon.  It was a super productive day for power chumming!  With the shearwaters comes the chance to study Cory's vs. Scopoli's and to compare them with the smaller Great Shearwater.  
There was also the chance to study Black-capped Petrels with Great Shearwaters and everyone could see how differently they fly in addition to studying the body shape, wing shape, and the bill differences (if you're curious about this check out the photo gallery at the end of the blog!).  We saw just a handful of the pale morph Black-capped Petrels but they were there, along with our dark morph birds and a number of intermediate types.  Both molting and non-molting Band-rumped Storm-Petrels were seen over the two day set and we had really nice views of at least one "little" Band-rumped which we presume to be the Madeiran species.  Audubon's Shearwaters were here with the Sargassum and the south swell so we had nice views of them sitting on the water, feeding, and zipping by the boat as they do when we have nice winds.  
On Saturday I was keeping a close eye out for Manx Shearwater in our flock of 60 or so shearwaters and 40 or 50 stormies, but one snuck by in the form of a small black and white in the slick.  I was photographing Black-cappeds, Cory's types, and small black and white shearwaters, which were mostly Audubon's, but found at least one Manx that flew through on Saturday.  
Their larger size is obvious in this photo where it was flying with a Scopoli's Shearwater.  A few notes on this identification versus Audubon's are also in the photo gallery below!
Thank you to everyone who joined us for this set of trips, it turned out to be a great couple of days with a nice list of species.  Thanks also to Andrew Rapp who helped Brian and I lead the trip!  Our next trips with space are in August but we'll be out there a couple more days in June...and we'll keep you posted!
*all photos today are by Kate Sutherland

Species List for June 11 / 12
Black-capped Petrel - 37 to 39 / 36 to 43
Cory's Shearwater - 35 / 26
Scopoli's Shearwater - 4 / 12
Cory's / Scopoli's - 44 / 55 to 57
Great Shearwater - 24 to 25 / 65 to 67
Manx Shearwater - 0 / 1
Audubon's Shearwater - 20 / 25 to 26
small black & white shearwater - 1 / 2
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 50 to 55 / 95 to 105
Leach's Storm-Petrel - 1 / 0
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 2 / 4 to 5
Sooty Tern - 0 / 1
Bridled Tern - 2 / 0
Pomarine Jaeger - 0 / 1
Osprey - 0 / 1
Royal Tern - 0 / 1
Laughing Gull - 0 / 1
Barn Swallow - 0 / 2
Gervais Beaked Whale - 3 / 0
Hammerhead Shark (likely Scalloped) - 1 / 0

Black-capped Petrels were pretty cooperative on both trips!  On top is a nice fresh pale morph that looked to be a young individual, below is darker individual, you can see the dark wash on the nape and the fairly thick chest spur.
Most birds, though, were molting like these individuals:
Many guide books list Black-cappeds (L) and Great Shearwaters (R) as a confusion pair - we had many opportunities to study these birds together on Saturday's trip.  You can see the difference in body shape and size, also the wing shape - Black-cappeds have narrower wings and Greats broader wings that they hold differently.  The bills are short and thick (BCPE) vs long and thin (GRSH).  Though when coming toward the boat head on in the slick, it might take a minute to figure out which species you have!
Here we have Cory's Shearwater (top) versus Scopoli's Shearwater (bottom).  You can see the dark underprimaries in Cory's versus the white extending into the visible outer primaries in Scopoli's giving the white a rounded versus pointed shape in the underwing at a distance.  These birds overlap in size and can be difficult to distinguish if you don't have a large Cory's or a small Scopoli's.  It is best to get photos to reinforce your identification if possible.  Saturday we had a number of smaller, likely female, Scopoli's feeding with Great Shearwaters in the slick - when this happens you can observe that the Scopoli's are even smaller than the Greats!!  Or you can see how much larger the Cory's are than the Greats!
Great Shearwaters were really excellent on both trips and made some close passes in addition to feeding right off the stern on Saturday.  Here you can see the dark belly patch these birds have and also the mottled dark in their underwings.
Audubon's Shearwaters were flying around a lot on both days, which was good because the seas made it difficult to see them on the water!  Though we had a chance to observe some sitting on Saturday!

Audubon's are small and have a long tail with dark under tail coverts versus Manx which are a bit larger, they actually weigh twice as much as Audubon's, and have a white under tail.  Typically Audubon's also have a whiter face and Manx show more dark.
Wilson's Storm-Petrels were also quite cooperative and not only could we hear them at times when we stopped to drift, but we could also see the yellow webbing on their feet!
Here are two Band-rumpeds, one molting (top) and one of the non-molting birds (bottom).
And finally, a few more images of the Gervais' Beaked Whales we saw on Friday's trip!!

Wednesday, June 9, 2021

June 5 & 6, 2021 - Kate Sutherland

Weather again!  We had storms and high winds move through on Friday June 4 causing us to cancel the trip scheduled for that day, the following two days were suitable, however and we made it out there!  Both days life was a bit farther offshore from the shelf break than usual, but we were able to find and have great looks at a number of seabirds if you were with us for both trips.  No matter how many times we say it, people still think they can see it all on a single trip, and while we have those days, anyone who joined for both trips this weekend had a nice, solid list of seabirds to show for it!
Winds were southwest, our typical wind direction here in Hatteras, but usually we have some Gulf Stream current offshore in conjunction with that wind, working to keep the waves a bit smaller than they would be without that current moving in the same direction.  Saturday we didn't have much current, which was nice because the breeze made the sea a bit choppy and we also had some clouds and weather around - all good things for making seabirds fly and for making our chum interesting to them!  Saturday was strictly a tubenose day, we didn't see any terns or jaegers out there, but had a solid list.  Great Shearwaters were super attentive in the chum and we had some followers for most of the day.
Cory's are here and in addition to the Atlantic breeders we also saw at least three of the Mediterranean species, Scopoli's Shearwater!  Audubon's were zipping around and we had enough pass closely by for everyone to see these small black and whites with their long tails and pale faces.  We were even lucky enough to have a Manx Shearwater fly up the slick and away so everyone in the stern could see how different from, and similar to, Audubon's they really are!  While Wilson's Storm-Petrels were not around in high numbers, we had our fair share in the slick and as usual they were super helpful for participants to study while waiting to see a larger storm-petrel appear in the slick.  Though they never seem to prepare them for how quickly they move around, flying circles around the Wilson's!  Both Leach's and Band-rumpeds visited the slick on Saturday with nice views of both.  Black-capped Petrels were around but they were not very interested in the chum so didn't come incredibly close, but definitely made some nice passes!
Sunday was a bit different, life was still offshore of the shelf break and it took some time to gather a small following of Wilson's Storm-Petrels, but skies were fairly clear and there was not as much wind.  The Gulf Stream current was closer to the shelf and there were some birds moving on the horizon - Black-capped Petrels were around and we'd only seen a handful before the shout went out from the top deck - "FEA'S PETREL!!"  Todd McGrath spotted this silvery petrel with dark underwings that made a few nice passes around the bow of the boat before angling away.  Photos by Tom Blackman (top) and Douglas Koch (bottom)

Not a bad start to a day of calm seas!!  A little over an hour later a distant tropicbird was spotted flying high, flight style and photos revealed it to be a White-tailed Tropicbird.  Not the most satisfying views...but no worry...this bird or another appeared above the Stormy Petrel II, as these curious birds sometimes do, less than 30 minutes later!  
The view was quite satisfying, close enough that many of us couldn't get our lenses to focus.  A third new species for the pair of trips flew in to investigate the slick and our followers in the afternoon - two Long-tailed Jaegers.  These birds put on quite a show feeding on our chum and harassing some of our shearwaters and storm-petrels.  We finished up the pair of trips with 13 pelagic species!  It pays to sign up for at least a couple of trips when you decide to join us!
Thank you so much to Todd McGrath and Dave Pereksta for traveling to help us out this weekend and also to Andrew Rapp for helping Brian and I lead these trips.  Our summer schedule is beginning to fill up, so if you wanted to join us be sure to check our availability soon.

*all photos except for those of the Fea's Petrel (and those are labeled) are by Kate Sutherland

Species List for June 5 / 6
Fea's Petrel - 0 / 1
Black-capped Petrel - 24 to 29 / 25 to 26
Cory's Shearwater - 48 / 41
Scopoli's Shearwater - 2 / 0
Cory's / Scopoli's Shearwater - 32 / 12
Great Shearwater - 36 to 37 / 15
Sooty Shearwater - 0 / 1
Manx Shearwater - 1 / 0
Audubon's Shearwater - 20 / 18
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 65 to 70 / 52 to 57
Leach's Storm-Petrel - 2 / 0
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel - 4 to 5 / 3
Leach's / Band-rumped - 0 / 1
White-tailed Tropicbird - 0 / 1 to 2
Long-tailed Jaeger - 0 / 2
jaeger sp. - 0 / 2
Common Tern - 0 / 4
Laughing Gull - 0 / 1
Beaked Whale sp. - 0 / 1
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 20 to 25 / 0

A couple more Fea's Petrel images by Tom Blackman
Black-capped Petrels with the ocean texture, we saw mostly dark form or intermediate (pictured below) individuals over the weekend.  Just a handful of light form birds.
Great Shearwater showing off its dark belly patch
A couple of Band-rumped Storm-Petrel images - a molting individual (top) and a non-molting individual (bottom).  
Our second encounter with a White-tailed Tropicbird - close enough to see the Stormy Petrel II reflected in the eye!
And finally, one of the Long-tailed Jaegers that followed us for a period