I've been running winter pelagic trips for over 30 years now, and this has been one of the windiest winters I can remember. It has been blowing a gale for four weekends in a row, and we had trips scheduled on three of those. Ordinarily, with two days allotted to run a trip, we can get out on over half of the winter departures. We were looking at 0 for 3, but this time we were able to get half of our participants to hang around another day and we ran a trip on Monday. Fortunately, the wind abated overnight and the seas subsided a bit by Monday morning. The infamous Oregon Inlet was pretty manageable, even on the outgoing tide, and within minutes we were seeing plenty of Razorbills. (Sunrise beyond the Oregon Inlet bridge)
Less than an hour after crossing the bar, we saw our first Common Murre and an adult Little Gull, so we were pretty excited about the day. About five miles off we found our first Atlantic Puffin. It's usually a good sign when puffins are that close to shore and a short while later we added Manx Shearwater to the list. It took a while, but we were able to get some birds interested in the chum, and gannets stole the show, squawking and diving at close range behind the boat.
About ten miles out we really started getting some puffins. We saw groups of three, four, and five at a time, and they were very approachable. Last winter we saw a lot of Dovekies but did not see many puffins, so it was nice to find such large numbers.
Our gull and gannet flock continued in force as we moseyed offshore and about 25 miles out the water warmed slightly. Inshore we had temps in the mid 40s, but we found a slight temperature break from about 50 to 55 degrees in 24 fathoms. Apparently this was warm enough for Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, and we had great looks at a couple dozen of these acrobatic dolphins that came charging in to bow ride. We also saw a couple lethargic, large Loggerhead Turtles around here as well as a handful of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Manx Shearwaters.
The forecast was calling for quite a bit more wind and some rain in the afternoon, so we headed back toward the inlet a little early. The trek back was again productive for puffins and we had excellent looks at a Common Murre on the water beside the boat and also a young kittiwake. Closer to the inlet we found hundreds of Razorbills flying north and a couple more Manx Shearwaters. We had good conditions crossing the bar and we made it back to the dock before the rain really set in.
Once again the winter waters off the Outer Banks provided us a remarkable bounty of seabirds fairly close to shore - less than half the distance we would have to travel off the Virginia Capes where we ran the majority of our winter trips for the first 15 years. Down here, it's often action-packed from start to finish once the water gets cold. Looking forward to getting back out there this weekend. ~ Brian Patteson
Thanks so much to everyone who made it possible for us to get offshore for this trip and a huge "Thank You" to Jonathan Cooley for helping us lead the trip on short notice! Photos today by Kate Sutherland.
Species List for February 7, 2022
Razorbill - 569
Common Murre - 5
large alcid - 19
Atlantic Puffin - 166 (careful count, new record, mostly immatures with a few adults)
Black-legged Kittiwake - 7 (at least one adult, at least four immatures)
Bonaparte's Gull - 48
Little Gull - 2 adults
Ring-billed Gull - 1
Herring Gull - 97 to 112
Great Black-backed Gull - 22
Forster's Tern - 7
Red-throated Loon - 14
Common Loon - 3
Manx Shearwater - 10
Northern Gannet - 154
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin - about 25
Loggerhead Turtle - 2
Our first Common Murre was on the water on the wet side of the boat and took off before we were able to see it well!
One of the Loggerhead Turtles