Tuesday, October 17, 2023

The Gulf Stream's Inhabitants - 7 October 2023 by Kate Sutherland

The wind was blowing for a few days before our final scheduled trip of the year to the Gulf Stream, but by Saturday there was just a nice, long period (ten second) swell of about 6 to 7 feet from the east / southeast and wind about 15 miles per hour from the west /northwest. Skies were sunny and we were all quite content heading offshore on such a gorgeous morning! There were ducks moving by as we headed offshore, those we could get a good look at were Blue-winged Teal, but there were hundreds over the course of the day that slipped by just far enough to be noted only as duck sp. A couple of Red-necked Phalaropes flew by as we approached a temperature break and the first bit of Gulf Stream current. Just a few minutes later we crossed the shelf break and almost immediately we began to see Black-capped Petrels! 
This time of year these attractive Gulf Stream inhabitants have finished molting and look incredible in their fresh feathers! We saw both light and dark form individuals over the course of the day and our count of almost 100 is conservative since they were on the horizon for most of the morning. We also were very happy to find some Audubon's Shearwaters just over the break, they were a challenge this summer to find! Little did we know that morning that they would be the most numerous species of the day... 
A couple of Great Shearwaters passed by, giving us good views and nice comparisons with the larger Atlantic Cory's we had been seeing. And our slick finally enticed a few Wilson's Storm-Petrels to join us giving everyone a chance to study these small, Antarctic nesting world travelers. Some even showed off the yellow webbing between their toes!
The 1100 period found us heading to a shearwater flock with a couple of Sooty Terns up high, one adult with its attendant juvenile! This is a great species to find here in October since most have moved on to the south already. This flock had mostly Audubon's Shearwaters and Atlantic Cory's with a few Black-capped Petrels and a handful of Great Shearwaters. The next period brought us a flock with over 150 Audubon's! It was incredible to look around and see them everywhere low over the water! As Brian mentioned if you were just a short distance away you could easily miss how many were around, and this in an absence of southerly wind preceding our trip. The wind had been from the north for days, so it is likely these birds were coming down from some time spent in the Gulf Stream offshore of the mid-Atlantic and New England, they were probably repositioning back south. It was really incredible to see them in their own little "beehives," zipping around one another and calling. A couple of times we saw them gathered around what looked to be moon jellyfish (Aurelia aurita) diving underneath and around them, presumably consuming small fishes and other prey items associated with these floating creatures. 
So while we did see other species out there, the highlight of this trip were those species who can be found utilizing the Gulf Stream year round. We had at least a couple of Scopoli's that were photographed, but not seen well, and a distant Pomarine Jaeger out in the deep...plus a couple of young Laughing Gulls who were very happy to find the pieces of fish we dispensed!
Thanks so much to everyone who joined us out there - we had a great group of participants - and a huge thank you to Sarah Toner and Larry Chen who drove down to help Brian and me lead the trip! All photos today are taken by me.
~Kate Sutherland

Species List 7 October 2023
Black-capped Petrel - 96 to 106
Atlantic Cory's Shearwater - 20
Scopoli's Shearwater - 2
Cory's / Scopoli's - 121
Great Shearwater - 12
Audubon's Shearwater - 384 to 394
Manx / Audubon's - 1 (not seen well enough to tell, nearshore)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 10 to 12
Red-necked Phalarope - 2
Pomarine Jaeger - 1
Sooty Tern - 2
Common Tern - 2 nearshore
Royal Tern - 4 nearshore
Laughing Gull - 9 (2 juveniles offshore)
Herring Gull - 2 nearshore
Great Black-backed Gull - 3 nearshore
Blue-winged Teal - 53 (15 offshore)
duck species - 285 to 305
passerine sp - 1

A few more Black-capped Petrels
One of the Atlantic Cory's Shearwaters we saw
Great Shearwaters, one that looks fresh with some newer body feathers and another just finishing primary molt.
And finally some more images of Audubon's Shearwaters! I just spent a few days at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences looking at all 168 skins they have in the collection - it is incredible the variation in the facial patterns and the under tail! So exciting to have such great views of these birds out there - our Gulf Stream species were out in force 💙
And to wrap it up? Our offshore flock of Blue-winged Teal 🙂

Monday, September 18, 2023

Seabirds of September - 17 Sept 2023 by Kate Sutherland

Hurricane Lee's passage far to the east of us caused us to push this trip back to the weather date far in advance of running giving everyone ample time to be ready for their offshore adventure! As it turned out we didn't have much to worry about in terms of ocean overwash on NC Highway 12 and the seas were calm with a long period swell from the east on Sunday morning, so we headed offshore in comfort under sunny skies! It was nice to find some birds on the shelf after a westerly blow the evening before - Common and Black Terns were around a few miles from the inlet then we started to see some flocks of shearwaters and Sooty Terns as we got into the warmer water a little over an hour out! It was great to see some Sargassum there and also to find some Audubon's Shearwaters which had been tough to find on our trips up the beach. We also had a nice, young Pomarine Jaeger there chasing shearwaters (Kate Sutherland).
We crossed the shelf break and the shearwater action continued with nice views and comparisons of Cory's, Scopoli's, and Greats to get our participants up to speed on their identification! Audubon's were cooperative as well and these small black and white shearwaters were easy to pick out alongside their larger companions (Kate Sutherland).
Less than an hour past the shelf break we were looking at multiple jaegers (Long-tailed and Pomarine) plus had both Sooty and Bridled Terns flying by...but we hadn't yet found Black-capped Petrels so we kept working offshore with the chum. Wilson's Storm-Petrels began to follow in the slick (Kate Sutherland) 
and a couple of distant Black-cappeds were seen. They didn't seem interested in the chum, however. We continued to make our way offshore checking shearwater flocks as we found them for something different, and just before 11:00 Daniel Irons spotted a larger black and white shearwater sitting in a flock that looked to have a short tail! Sure enough as Brian positioned the boat to get a better look it flushed and we had a Manx flying right at us! Excellent views were had as it zipped across the bow and away. Just thirty minutes later we began seeing Black-cappeds on the water. As many of you know if you have been offshore with us, they are quite a wary bunch and it can be difficult to sneak up on them when they're on the water. However, we had some luck and when the first couple of flocks flushed they flew right to us! (Kate Sutherland)
As we approached the shelf break in the afternoon the wind was picking up and while usually that would mean more birds flying around and in the slick, we didn't have that luck today and things began to calm down a bit. About thirty minutes after crossing onto the shelf we found a beautiful color change with a three or four degree Fahrenheit change from the warmer, bluer water of the Gulf Stream to the cooler, greener water inshore (Kate Sutherland)
As we headed to Hatteras Inlet in the now greenish water we switched back over to Common and Black Terns feeding in small flocks. Right around 15:30 we found a nice flock feeding just ahead of the boat and Brian Patteson spotted a Sabine's Gull feeding with them!! What an incredible ending to this amazing day!! This strikingly patterned juvenile, oblivious to our paparazzi attention, flew right around the boat swooping down to the water to feed with the terns on small bait fish being pushed to the surface by some albacore. (Kate Sutherland)
Those who were on deck watching attentively also got to see some Parasitic Jaegers chasing terns on the shelf in the afternoon! A perfectly incredible day with the seabirds of September out there! Thank you to everyone who joined us making this outing possible, and a huge thank you to our leaders Daniel Irons and Andrew Thornton, they certainly helped to get everyone on the birds!

Species List 17 September 2023
Black-capped Petrel - 33 to 36
Atlantic Cory's Shearwater - 12
Scopoli's Shearwater - 5
Cory's / Scopoli's - 1230 to 1330
Great Shearwater - 210 to 215
Manx Shearwater - 1
Audubon's Shearwater - 36 to 40
Wilson's Storm-Petrel - 38 to 41
Pomarine Jaeger - 3
Parasitic Jaeger - 2
Long-tailed Jaeger - 1
Pom / Parasitic - 1
Sooty Tern - 28
Bridled Tern - 4
Sooty / Bridled Tern - 3
Black Tern - 97 to 103
Common Tern - 131 to 136
Sabine's Gull - 1 juvenile
shorebird sp - 8
Merlin - 1
Offshore Bottlenose Dolphin - 20 to 25

A few more images of the Sabine's Gull! What a beauty! You can see the forked tail in the last image:
And a few more Black-capped Petrels, we saw both light and dark forms, so here is a light form top and a couple of darker individuals below.
The shearwater flocks were spectacular and we had mostly Cory's types wheeling on the horizon almost all day while we were in the deep! Here are a few captures of the feeding Cory's, Scopoli's, and Greats:
We had both Cory's (top) and Scopoli's (bottom) over the course of the day, though there were so many shearwaters I just checked photos for those I could identify using the underwing instead of trying to check them all in the field as we can sometimes do!
This Great Shearwater has what almost looks like a tiny Mahi mahi - it gulped it down while we watched!
These are such attractive looking shearwaters and were very vocal bickering with the other shearwaters for food.
It was nice to see some Audubon's after not seeing many up the beach - here are a few captures and one that shows a lot of white in the under tail coverts:
A couple shots of our Wilson's - they were super cooperative in the slick!
And one of the two Pomarine Jaegers we found offshore sitting on the water - it was surrounded by shearwaters 🙂
Adult and juvenile Bridled Terns were super cooperative along a current edge / Sargassum line out there offshore - what luck because the first one we saw was flying directly away from the boat!
One of my favorite things about the trip, though, were the flyingfishes! We saw so many and I was super excited to see some with black pectoral fins (or "wings") and pale pelvic and caudal fins (perhaps in the genus Cheilopogon or Hirundichthys). Usually the "blackwinged" flyingfish we see show dark pelvic fins and sometimes a yellow lower fork to the caudal fin. Our trips from Oregon Inlet found a lot of dark finned fliers but maybe there are just some around this year, who knows? Here are some of those and a few of our usual suspects - the clearwings (perhaps in the genus Cypselurus or Hirundichthys) and some Sailfin Flyingfish (Parexocoetus hillianus