Saturday, February 25, 2023

President's Day Weekend Doubleheader

President's Day Weekend started out with a strong blow from the northeast on Saturday, so we pushed the trips to Sunday and Monday, and it worked out quite well. We did lose a couple of weekends entirely to weather this winter, but we've also had more calm days than usual, and Sunday was no exception to that. A beautiful sky greeted us as we pulled out of the Fishing Center and headed toward the Basnight bridge on Day One.

Photo by Brian Patteson
We crossed the Oregon Inlet bar around 0650 and within minutes we were seeing scores of Razorbills, and we tallied over 500 of these auks in a little more than an hour. There was also a good showing of hungry gannets and they quickly took advantage of our Butterfish offerings in the wake. Large gulls were scarce compared to previous trips, but that just meant more chum for the gannets.

Razorbill by Ed Corey
Northern Gannet by Brian Patteson
Northern Gannet by Ed Corey

Conditions were ideal for spotting small birds on the water, so I set an eastward course, hoping to see some Dovekies, which had eluded us so far this winter. The plan worked, and by mid morning we were seeing a few of these tiny alcids in about 100 feet of water. They were mostly either flying by or diving frequently, but we eventually managed to be in the right spot when one resurfaced for a longer breath. 

Dovekie by Ed Corey

We also found a Thick-billed Murre in this area, and it too stayed up long enough for some photos. We had already seen several Common Murres inshore, so this got us up to four species of alcids, our best count so far for 2023.

Thick-billed Murre by Brian Patteson

It seemed that some puffins were overdue, and knowing they sometimes stay a little farther out to sea, I pressed farther eastward. Within minutes we had our first puffins, and our first five alcid day off the Outer Banks since 2018. By the time we made it 20 miles offshore, we were seeing small flocks of puffins and it was obvious that it was going to be a big day for them.

Atlantic Puffin by Ed Corey

The satellite photo from Rutgers showed some warmer water a few miles to the east, so we continued on our way and eventually came upon a temperature break from mid 50s to about 60 degree water. It turned out to be a good spot. There were about a dozen Northern Fulmars sailing around this area, as well as a flock of Bonaparte's Gulls and one adult Little Gull. It wasn't an optimal spot for phalaropes, but we did eventually see a pair of Red Phalaropes there, and had a non avian bonus sighting of a Kemp's Ridley! Most of the sea turtles we find offshore in winter are Loggerheads, so it was pretty neat to get the Kemp's, which differs by being plain brown instead of the warmer more orange hue of the Loggerhead. There were also plenty of puffins around the change, including one flock of eight!

Northern Fulmar by Brian Patteson
Northern Fulmar by Jesse Anderson
Little Gull by Ed Corey
Red Phalarope by Ed Corey
Kemp's Ridley by Brian Patteson
Puffins by Brian Patteson

Knowing there would be plenty to see on the ride back, I left the break, which was in about 40 fathoms, around noon. We saw over 100 puffins on the inshore tack, along with several Dovekies. We also spotted a Loggerhead Turtle, and we were able to see how the color was different from the Kemp's we had seen about an hour before. We found a lot of life from Platt Shoals to the inlet, and we took our time counting the Common Murres, which were showing better than they had during the morning. On the previous two trips here we had set new record counts for the species and it seemed likely we could break it again. We eventually found another 44 to go with the morning's 22 Common Murres, so we again set the bar higher. A couple more Little Gulls and some close looks at a Humpback Whale were just icing on the cake, and we made it back to the sea buoy by 1600 to find a nice tide line with dozens of Razorbills and the third Thick-billed Murre of the day!

Loggerhead Turtle by Jesse Anderson
Common Murres by Ed Corey
Humpback Whale by Jesse Anderson

Not surprisingly, Day Two had different weather and sea conditions than the first trip, but it was not bad at all. 20 to 30 knots of southerly wind south of Cape Hatteras overnight had changed the attitude of the sea, but a morning lull had tempered the swell. I knew there would be more more wind and sea- also from the south- by afternoon, so I set a course southward and found it to be better than expected and quite tenable with no real discomfort at all. We found a big presence of Bonaparte's Gulls just south of the inlet, feeding along a tideline there, along with dozens of Razorbills and a few Common Murres. Continuing inspection of the Boneys revealed an adult Little Gull in their midst, and we also picked up a couple of Manx Shearwaters in the area, which was quite close to Pea Island. 

Bonaparte's Gull by Ed Corey
Razorbill by Ed Corey
Common Murre by Brian Patteson

From there I headed down to Wimble Shoals, where we saw a couple of trawlers working. From a distance there did not appear to be many birds there, but when we got close, we found hundreds of gulls and quite a few gannets sitting on the sea awaiting a haul back. The vast majority of the birds here were Herring Gulls, but there were also nearly 200 Lesser Black-backed Gulls. That might seem like a lot of the latter, but we were only about three miles off the beach. There was a surprising paucity of Great Black-backed Gulls, continuing a trend we've seen all winter. Our best find around the trawlers was a first winter Kumlien's Gull, a taxon which we see here in small numbers every winter. This is what American birders in the East count as an Iceland Gull. Presently Kumlien's is lumped together with Thayer's Gull and the nominate Iceland Gull, and treated as a third subspecies in that complex. In reality it probably more of a hybrid population that developed when Thayer's and Iceland Gulls first met eons ago. In my opinion, we lost Thayer's Gull to lumping so that Americans can count Kumlien's as an Iceland Gull. It's akin to lumping Glaucous-winged and Western Gulls, so one could count "Olympic Gull."

Herring Gull by Brian Patteson
Lesser Black-backed Gull by Brian Patteson
Great Black-backed Gull by Brian Patteson
Kumlien's Gull by Ed Corey

We soon left Wimble Shoals, because aside from the fishing boats, there really wasn't much to recommend it. Some of the gulls and gannets took an interest in our recently thawed Butterfish, but most of them stayed where we left them. Heading eastward from Wimble Shoals, it wasn't long before we were in somewhat warmer water, and it was not at all productive. I pointed the boat northward until we found cooler water a few miles up, along with another trawler and a few smaller boats fishing gill nets for Atlantic Cutlassfish, known locally as Ribbonfish. There was another concentration of gulls around these boats, but not as many as we had found closer to the beach. 

Photo by Brian Patteson
Northern Gannet by Brian Patteson
Northern Gannet by Brian Patteson
Photo by Brian Patteson
Herring Gull with "Ribbonfish" by Ed Corey

There were also a couple of fulmars cruising around, but otherwise no obvious reason to stay, so we continued along our way, heading farther offshore, hoping for some puffins, which would not be quite as easy to find as the had been in yesterday's smooth seas. Around noon, I heard the word that everyone had been wanting to hear: "SKUA!!!" The Great Skua was our long awaited target bird. Not sure if I have ever been this many trips (six!) into a winter season before seeing one. The skua appeared far back in the wake, and it was showing pretty well, considering the distance, as it terrorized the gulls sending them skyward en masse. I knew from experience that there was a good chance the skua would soon take to the water, and if we could keep eyes on our prize until that moment, we might manage a better look at it. Sure enough, all that went to plan, and over the next few minutes we got closer and everyone had satisfactory life bird views of the brown bomber. Unfortunately Great Skuas do not typically come at the boat as well as South Polar Skuas, and true to form this one soon went on its way, but not without coming into camera range for a brief spell. 

Great Skua by Ed Corey

There weren't nearly as many alcids to the southeast of the inlet as what we had seen just 15 miles to the north the day before, and conditions for spotting small birds on the sea was less than optimal, but we did get good looks at a puffin for folks who were not aboard the boat on Day One. Dovekies eluded us, however, and we ended up with a more typical three alcid day. We did see a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, AKA Nelson's Gull, on the way in. This is a fairly common pairing in the areas where the species overlap, but we don't see many Glaucous Gulls down south, so it's pretty uncommon in our area. 
"Nelson's Gull" by Jesse Anderson

There was a bit of activity near the inlet as we approached the sea buoy, making for a fitting ending to what had been two action packed days from start to finish, I would like to thanks everyone who came out and made these trips possible and also our crew who worked  non stop to make sure nothing was missed: Ed Corey, Jeff Effinger, and Jesse Anderson all did a top notch job.  

Species List

Surf Scoter 0/4
Black Scoter 12/0
Red-breasted Merganser 0/5
Dovekie 34/0
Common Murre 66/11
Thick-billed Murre 3/0
Razorbill 1337/548
Atlantic Puffin 222/6
Bonaparte's Gull 287/1200
Little Gull 4/1
Laughing Gull 0/1
Ring-billed Gull 1/5
Herring Gull 120/850
Herring X Lesser B-b 1/0
Kumlien's Gull 0/1
Lesser B-b Gull 10/170
Glaucous X Herring 0/1
Great B-b Gull 24/120
Red-throated Loon 54/41
Common Loon 139/15
Northern Fulmar 20/5
Manx Shearwater 0/5
Northern Gannet 400/450
Brown Pelican 0/4

Non Avian

Bottlenose Dolphin 35/11
Atl. Spotted Dolphin 5/0
Humpback Whale 3 to 5/0

Kemp's Ridley 1/0
Loggerhead 1/0

Friday, February 17, 2023

'MURRICA by Brian Patteson

The days are getting longer as we move onward through February, so we cast off a little earlier than last week. I grabbed the obligatory morning iPhone pic as we approached the Basnight Bridge making about 16 knots.

photo by Brian Patteson

It's a pretty short run to the ocean from the Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, and by 0644 we were already across the bar. Birdlife was sparse just outside the inlet, but it picked up a couple of miles to the south, and I set a course toward Wimble Shoals, running about four miles off. There was a slightly confused sea with some swell coming in from the northeast and a little chop against it from the southwest. It was not the best conditions for spotting alcids, but we saw well over a hundred Razorbills in the first hour. Some of them were flying well, while others were heavily laden with food.

Razorbill by Brian Patteson

There were also good numbers of Red-throated Loons on the move, mostly northbound, and the most gannets we had seen so far this winter from the boat. Chumming got us some great looks at the gannets, and we soon had a good following of gulls that would stick with us for much of the day. The vast majority were Herring Gulls, but there were also a few Great and Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the mix. All that activity sometimes attracts some other target species, and sure enough, a Manx Shearwater sailed in to check us out.

Manx Shearwater by Brian Patteson
Northern Gannet by Brian Patteson

We had some folks who were keen to see a Common Murre after last week's big day with them, but the murres were not as quick to show themselves. We finally got a good look at one a little while after 8.

Common Murre by Brian Patteson

We found plenty of Razorbills down near Wimble Shoals, but the murres were not as thick as they had been last Thursday. No whales to be found either, so I headed offshore hoping to find some warmer water and different species. We got out to 22 fathoms and it was evident that the color change had pushed off from the day before. Cloud cover overnight meant we didn't have a fresh satellite pic and there weren't many tuna boats out because the Bluefin fishery had closed the day before, so we were flying blind. We did find a few gillnetters fishing in the cooler water, but all we saw among them were more gulls and gannets.

Herring Gull by Brian Patteson
Lesser Black-backed Gull by Brian Patteson
Lesser Black-backed Gull by Brian Patteson

We were about 30 miles from the inlet and the wind was picking up from the south. Water was only about 51 degrees, but no puffins around and we had subpar conditions for spotting one. I set a course for the inlet, and we had a nice ride going down sea. When we got within about 10 miles of the beach we were seeing more alcids and soon found ourselves swimming in Common Murres. It was choppy, but with a following sea they showed pretty well. There were several small flocks, including one bunch of eight! Several of these murres were already in breeding plumage, but the Razorbills were all still in basic. It was a great opportunity to compare the two species, and our guest leader Andrew Thornton got lots of pics. The murres are readily identified by their longer thinner necks and fine pointed bills. On takeoff they invariably throw their feet out to the side and it's really obvious because their tail is so short. Although they are not as portly as a Thick-billed Murre, they definitely have more of a belly than a Razorbill, which looks slim in flight. Given the paucity of Common Murres we encountered during the morning, I would not have expected a new record day for them, but we tallied 39 in a little over an hour and that put us over the top. My West Coast friends wouldn't be too excited, but any day with a new state record count is not too shabby.

Common Murres by Andrew Thornton
Common Murre by Andrew Thornton
Common Murre by Andrew Thornton
Common Murres by Andrew Thornton
Razorbill and Common Murre by Andrew Thornton
Razorbill by Andrew Thornton
Common Murre by Andrew Thornton
Common Murre by Andrew Thornton
While diversity was a bit lower than it sometimes is here, we had a pleasant day at sea with plenty of birdlife. I would like to thank everyone who came out mid week so we could run the trip. It's a short run to the action here, so we don't need to pack the boat to get a trip out. Also big thanks to our mate, Captain Brian King, who dispensed the chum all day like a well oiled machine, and our guest leader Andrew Thornton, who didn't miss much and helped me tally over 3000 birds for the day. I said that's a Dare County problem: having so many birds to keep track of in February.

Species List:

Common Murre: 47
Razorbill: 1050
Bonaparte's Gull:180
Ring-billed Gull: 4
Herring Gull:140
Lesser Black-backed Gull: 11
Great Black-backed Gull: 8(!) very low
Forster's Tern: 3
Red-throated Loon: 580
Common Loon: 46
Manx Shearwater: 5
Northern Gannet: 1400

Bottlenose Dolphin: 40
Loggerhead Turtle: 1


Sunday, February 12, 2023

MURRE MANIA II – Colossal Callosities, The Sequel! by Jesse Anderson

 MURRE MANIA II – Colossal Callosities, The Sequel! 

Headed out of the inlet to a beautiful sunrise just after 06:30, none of us realized that it would be another record-setting day on the Stormy Petrel II, almost doubling last year’s record of Common Murre with a high count of a whopping 44!! (25 in 2022)

Photo by Brian Patteson

Right out of the inlet with Basnight Bridge still in sight, we immediately started seeing hundreds of Razorbills. It wasn’t long after 07:00 when we had our first Common Murre of the day. It was a treat to have such a great cooperative subject and still be in the ‘golden hour’ of nice light. Pictured here with Basnight bridge still in view.

Common Murre from Jesse's phone

First Common Murre by Brian Patteson

We began to get a handful of Manx Shearwater from just about every direction, some cooperating enough to hang out in the slick for a minute or two.

Manx Shearwater by Brian Patteson

Around mid-morning, the sizable gull flock we had accumulated from chumming had finally produced; we attracted our first Kumlien’s Gull of the day, a nice first cycle, and the expected brand of Iceland Gull in our area. 

Kumlien's Gull by Jesse Anderson

A little after 09:00AM, we spotted a Thick-billed Murre streaking up the slick on the starboard side, which hung around for everyone to enjoy. This more northern cousin of Common Murre is the largest of the remaining alcids, after the extinction of the Great Auk, which makes for ease of picking it out in flight due to its rotund belly. Closer examination shows a nice white gape line. 

Thick-billed Murre by Brian Patteson
Thick-billed Murre by Jesse Anderson

We would move on, south toward Wimble Shoals, only to find more and more Common Murre mixed in among the Razorbills. The number of Common Murre began to add up quickly, some in groups of 5 to 7! 

Common Murres by Jesse Anderson

We tallied over two dozen Common Murres in half an hour and we had seen 36 before 9:30! Some were already in alternate plumage and some were in transition.

Common Murre by Jacob Farmer

Even with such an epic showing of auks, the highlight for some was our sighting of a North Atlantic Right Whale. Enjoying the productive waters off North Carolina, it was joined by a Humpback Whale as well, within a couple hundred meters. With less than 350 North Atlantic Right Whale left in the world, it was truly a treat to see. Both Humpback and Right Whale in view made for great comparison. Unlike the Humpback, the Right Whale lacks a dorsal fin, which eases differentiating these two. North Atlantic Right Whale also has very distinctive growths or bumps on their head, called callosities, appearing white. These callosities are actually colonies of small amphipod crustaceans called cyamids or whale lice. The patterns of these callosities can be used to identify particular Right Whale individuals. Unfortunately, we didn't get close enough to see that level of detail, as we are supposed to stay at least 500 yards away, and within 10 minutes of seeing the whale we were joined by a spotter plane, a Cessna O2 Skymaster,  which was specifically looking for North Atlantic Right Whale.

Northern Right Whale by Jacob Farmer
Spotter Plane by Jesse Anderson

Later to find out, that plane was flying over a confirmed mother and CALF! It appears the calf might be visible in some of our pics, but we couldn't tell at the time. Even more outstanding, learning that the future of the Right Whale population within a quarter mile of us. Only 11 calves have been noted so far this season. More info on calf spotting here:

Screenshot from shows the numerous circles the plane made over us

Later in the day we traveled out to deeper water to see if we could get some more diversity, but recent swell and winds had pushed warmer water much further offshore. We made it to 22 fathoms of water, but as we reached that deeper water the swell certainly revealed itself, making it seem prudent to head for the inlet bar before low tide, when there would be a hollow breaking sea there. Along the way we saw a couple more Humpback Whales.

Humpback Whale by Jacob Farmer

Aside from the gull flock, bird numbers certainly dropped off as we turned east, but a second Kumlien’s Gull joined the flock, this time a clean adult. 

Kumlien's Gull by Brian Patteson

Turning northward, moving into more productive waters we were greeted by a sizable raft of Common Loon and immediately got back into high alcid numbers, picking up a few more Common Murre and a large pod of Bottlenose Dolphin along the way. Razorbills presented us with many close flyby photo ops.

Razorbill by Brian Patteson

As we headed back toward Oregon Inlet, an adult Thayer’s Gull joined us, making for some exciting day of studying the variation of pale four-year gulls. 

Thayer's Gull by Jesse Anderson

With low tide looming, we made it back into the inlet a bit early, cashing in on another record-setting and overall outstanding day aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  Captain Brian Patteson would like to thank all of our paying participants for making this trip possible and also our crew: Captain Brian King, who spotted the Right Whale and tirelessly dispensed the chum like a well oiled machine, and Jesse Anderson and Jacob Farmer who made sure we kept a good lookout both forward and aft and port and starboard.  Extra thanks to Jesse for writing this report. Kate Sutherland is usually tasked with it, but she is on her way to seeing some Emperor Penguins in the Ross Sea.

Species totals for Feb. 9, 2023

Thick-billed Murre- 1
Common Murre- 44 (new NC high count)
Razorbill- 1650
Bonaparte's Gull- 360
Herring Gull-150
Lesser Black-Backed Gull- 40
Great Black-backed Gull- 25
Ring-billed Gull- 1
Red-throated Loon- 22
Common Loon- 110
Manx Shearwater- 17
Northern Gannet- 245
Brown Pelican- 3
Kumlien's Gull- 2
Thayer's Gull- 1

Bottlenose Dolphin- 58
Humpback Whale- 5
Northern Right Whale- 2