Monday, January 30, 2023

Winter Kickoff: January 28 by Brian Patteson

As I look toward the 35th anniversary of the first winter trip I organized and led (Jan. 31, 1988- off VA Beach), I am pleased to say that we are off to an earlier start than last year, and we saw thousands of birds on Saturday off Oregon Inlet. We had fine weather and slight seas with about 10 to 15 knots of wind from the WSW, and a good bunch of eager participants. We left from the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center this time instead of Wanchese, so we had a very short run to the ocean. The newly dredged channel was a little but longer than it used to be but it led to the the high part of the bridge, and this year the entire route was marked with buoys!!!

Oregon Inlet by Brian Patteson

 The water was in the high 40s outside the bar, and it did not take long to find some Razorbills.

Razorbills by Brian Patteson 

There was a scattering of large gulls and gannets just off the beach and after a while our chumming lured them close to the boat. In addition to the menhaden I had cut into chunks before leaving the dock, we had some small whole butterfish and these were just right for the gulls to fight over.

Gulls by Ed Corey

We had some fairly fresh bait and it also got the attention of some gannets, which tend to be pickier than the gulls, especially during periods of fine weather.

Northern Gannet by Ed Corey

We had seen a couple of Manx Shearwaters zip by in the distance, but eventually we got one close behind the boat for a few minutes.

Manx Shearwater by Ed Corey

We had very clear conditions which meant we had to contend with a lot of glare, but these same conditions meant we had some good intel to go by, as the satellites had a clear view of the sea. The water shot from Rutgers was completely free of clouds.

Satellite photo from Rutgers

It showed us that the Gulf Stream was dominating the ocean off the Outer Banks, and we just had a little strip of cold water that extended down to the Cape. This can be a good setup for concentrations of alcids, but we were only seeing Razorbills inshore, so we decided to investigate  the edge of a Gulf Stream eddy which was just a few miles to the east.

 Last year we found hundreds of puffins close to shore under somewhat similar circumstances, but that was well into February, and we had yet to see the first puffin. It seemed more likely that we would find some phalaropes and Bonaparte's Gulls out there, and that's exactly what we encountered.

Red Phalaropes and a Boney by Brian Patteson

We see both species of pelagic phalaropes on our trips off Cape Hatteras, but the Red Phalarope is the only species that winters here. They feed on zooplankton and when conditions are right, there is good habitat for phalaropes (and Bonaparte's Gulls, which also eat tiny stuff) at the edge of the Gulf Stream. Some of our winter trips don't get to the Gulf Stream because there is so much to see inshore and there just isn't enough time. Consequently we don't even see phalaropes on some of these trips, but every now and then we see a lot of them. This was one of those days. We saw over 800 Red Phalaropes by 10:00.

We found the phalaropes along with hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls where the water temperature climbed from the low 50s to mid 60s quite suddenly. There was some cooler water on the north side of the eddy and I decided to head there and go out to where it warmed up again closer to the shelf break. We really didn't find much there. We did have a lone Northern Fulmar make a nice pass off the starboard side, but none of the hoped for Dovekies, puffins, or kittiwakes. The first two don't seem to have arrived yet and the kittiwakes have apparently come and gone from the shelf waters.

It seemed like a good idea to spend some more time along the temperature break, so I turned around in 40 fathoms, and headed back inshore. Arriving back at the change we found even more phalaropes and Boneys, as well as a couple of other critters: Loggerhead Turtle and Ocean Sunfish.

Loggerhead Turtle by Ed Corey

Ocean Sunfish by Ed Corey

There were thousands of birds on the change, and the slight majority of them were Bonaparte's Gulls. We'd seen a Little Gull briefly during the morning and it was not super close, so this seemed like a good chance for some redemption. We tracked the Boneys closely along the change and eventually we were rewarded with cracking looks at an adult Little Gull close enough for decent photos. We also saw several Manx Shearwaters quite well- some of these resting on the water with the Boneys. 

Bonaparte's Gulls by Brian Patteson

Little Gull by Brian Patteson

Manx Shearwater by Ed Corey

The ride back didn't yield any new birds for our list, but there was quite a bit of life outside the inlet, including Bottlenose Dolphins, raining gannets, and a Humpback Whale. It was a beautiful day to be offshore and I would like to thank everyone who joined us, including our trip leaders, who worked ceaselessly to ensure that all went to plan: Ed Corey, Sage Church and Jeff Effinger. 

Species Totals for January 28, 2023

Black Scoter- 1
Black/Surf- 1
Red Phalarope- 3152 (our second highest count)
Razorbill- 296
Alcid sp- 2 (probably Common Murre- flushed in sun glare)
Bonaparte's Gull- 4124
Little Gull- 2 or 3 adults
Ring-billed Gull- 3
Herring Gull- 286
Lesser Black-backed Gull- 18
Great Black-backed Gull-54
Forster's Tern- 8
Red-throated Loon- 2
Common Loon-1
Northern Fulmar-1
Manx Shearwater- 21
Northern Gannet- 270

Hammerhead- 3 (Scalloped/Carolina)
Ocean Sunfish- 1
Little Tunny- school after school along temp break
Loggerhead- 6
Sea turtle sp- 1 (small and brown- Kemp's?)
Bottlenose Dolphin- 27
Atlantic Spotted Dolphin- 1
Humpback Whale- 1