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

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