Weather, it's always something we obsess about as we approach a scheduled trip. This past weekend with two out of three trips to run there was a bit more pressure than usual - but we made it out on both trips. And WOW were we rewarded... It was blowing right up until Saturday morning and the Oregon Inlet bar looked a bit iffy as we crossed the bridge on our way up to Wanchese. We gave the swell a little time to fall out and then headed out, making it to the ocean less than thirty minutes later than usual. Winds were predicted to pick up again in the afternoon and the tide was going to be low - yes, wind + shallow water = larger seas. So we were in a little early but it's possible no one was too upset about it since we found nine target species during our foray to the south east then north east of Oregon Inlet. We knew Saturday morning that Sunday wouldn't be fit to go so pushed that trip back to Monday. Two participants couldn't make it so we had space for the Stoll brothers to join who had been scheduled for an earlier trip this winter that was weathered out. Monday was unbelievably beautiful offshore, light winds, sunny skies and close to glassy calm seas by the end of the day. Perfect conditions for detecting alcids. And for finding more Atlantic Puffins than have ever been seen in a day in North Carolina: 302!! A day with six target species. Those who joined us for the set not only saw those nine target species of seabirds but also four species of cetaceans and two species of sea turtles! A weekend for the lucky. (Atlantic Puffin, Kate Sutherland)
Great Skua is a target species for most everyone who comes offshore with us in the winter. We don't usually expect to see them on "bluebird sky" days, but we had at least two individuals each day come to the boat. When it's sunny like it was this weekend they will come in from the glare to maximize their stealth as they wage an attack on the gull flock. It looks like the same individual buzzed us closely each trip with two other individuals photographed at a bit more of a distance. THREE Great Skuas aka Bonxies over two trips. Not bad. (Kate Sutherland)
Atlantic Puffins are always fun to see, but we don't see them every year and we certainly don't have an influx every year. So when we tallied 166 on our first trip of the season, February 7th, we were super excited to have broken the record for the most seen in one day in North Carolina. We found 118 on Saturday's trip. So almost doubling that high count on Monday? It was astounding. Monday the conditions were just right for us to be able to spot these small, dark alcids with their dusky faces and thicker bills at quite a distance. Most of the birds we encountered were either juveniles or immatures which is what we typically find here in the winter, remember that alcids drop their flight feathers after breeding so those adults are flightless for a period after breeding. It was incredible to scan around the boat and see small groups of up to seven or nine swimming along. Some were mixed in with Razorbill and Bonaparte Gull flocks which was cool to see. Brian took a photo of the bottom machine close to where we found our first puffins and you could see why they might be in the area! (Brian Patteson)
Razorbills were the most common alcid we saw on both trips with high tallies each day - we could have been low on those counts too, it was really challenging to keep up with them as they buzzed around closer to the beach. Luck was with us and we found super cooperative Thick-billed Murres (Kate Sutherland top, Saturday's bird, Peter Flood bottom, Monday's bird)
Gulls and gannets were around each day with some that were attentive to the chum and others, like the Bonaparte's Gulls, that were actively feeding along rips and foam lines. Saturday's trip was lucky enough to have our persistence pay off with four Little Gull sightings, the final of which was long enough for us to get everyone on these petite gulls with their dark underwings (yes, all four were adults!). White-winged gulls have been in short supply this winter so we were very happy to have not one but two Kumlien's Gulls join our feeding flock on Saturday! They were both with us at the same time, one a bit darker than the other. Kumlien's Gulls are what we typically see here in the winter, a true Iceland Gull will not show any pigment in the primaries. (Ed Corey)
Manx Shearwaters have certainly been around offshore from Oregon Inlet this winter and we were lucky to see them on both trips. Each day we saw just a handful as we headed offshore with some joining our gull flock and feeding on fish and others working tide lines closer to the inlet in the afternoon. (Ed Corey)
Saturday brought another very cool sighting, one that we've not seen in many years...a Basking Shark! I spotted this animal in a slick at first just catching glimpses of the large, blunt looking dorsal fin. As we got closer we could see the enormity of this filter feeder under the surface and we observed it as it swam along, mouth agape (you can see the mouth in this image by Peter Flood),
In addition to our Basking Shark on Saturday we had Risso's Dolphins on Saturday, a small pod in fairly shallow water closer to shore than we typically expect to find them. (Kate Sutherland)
Overall it was a great set of trips. Thanks so much to everyone who joined us out there and made these trips possible! A huge thank you as well to our leaders Peter Flood, Ed Corey, and Jacob Farmer for helping us lead the trips. All photos today are by Kate Sutherland, Peter Flood, and Ed Corey except for the one noted by Brian Patteson of the bottom machine!
Species List February 19 / 21
Surf / Black Scoter - 4 / 0
Red Phalarope - 5 / 0
Great Skua - 2 to 3 / 2
Common Murre - 1 / 12
Thick-billed Murre - 2 / 1
Razorbill - 859 / 1,324
large alcid sp. - 2 / 1
Atlantic Puffin - 118 / 302
Bonaparte's Gull - 1,002 / 1,129
Litte Gull - 4 / 0
Ring-billed Gull - 2 / 2
Herring Gull - 280 / 320
Kumlien's Gull - 2 / 0
Lesser Black-backed Gull - 15 / 12 to 15
Great Black-backed Gull - 12 / 5 to 7
Red-throated Loon - 21 / 30
Common Loon - 3 / 39
Manx Shearwater - 14 / 20
Northern Gannet - 230 / 139
Brown Pelican - 10 / 5
Humpback Whale - 1 / 0
Risso's Dolphin - 5 to 8 / 0
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - 0 / 6
Bottlenose Dolphin - 35 / 100 to 125
Basking Shark - 1 / 0
Loggerhead Turtle - 0 / 9
Kemp's Ridley Turtle - 0 / 1
Red Phalaropes by Peter Flood
A couple more Great Skua images by Ed Corey - the bird pictured in the text above was seen on Saturday February 19 while these below are from Monday February 21.
"I'm too sexy for these peeps, too sexy for these peeps, peeps are going to leave me!"
"Splish splash I was takin' a bath, with 30 of my new best friends...."
"Hey! You talkin' to me??"
Some of the Razorbills we saw were fully hooded like this top individual, we had them flying by each trip nearshore. (Kate Sutherland) Participant Chris Thomas photographed this Thick-billed Murre in a flock of Razorbills on Saturday (bottom image) - Doug Hanna sent us an image of it as well!
Little Gull (L) and Bonaparte's Gull (R) by Peter Flood
A Herring Gull with a delicious tidbit being pursued by a young Lesser Black-backed Gull who is certain it can capture the prize! (Kate Sutherland)
A gorgeous capture by Peter Flood of this Brown Pelican!
Bottlenose Dolphins (Peter Flood)