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

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