Saturday, June 12, 2010

Pelagic Birding Off Cape Hatteras, NC

Why did I say "yes"? A pelagic birding trip? Me? I get motion sick just riding in a car! No freakin' way. I just knew I would spend most of the trip heaving my breakfast over the side of the boat, adding to the chum slick and embarrassing myself in front of experienced birders. So I had resigned myself to never having pelagic birds on my life list. But it was my birding mentor, Uncle Jim, who suggested the trip. I love birding with him.
So in January I agreed. In February I started to panic.
I got a prescription for scopolomine patches from my doctor, stocked up on Dramamine, bought sunscreen and a rain slicker and pants and prayed to the bird gods and Neptune. Be gentle with me, please.
I studied my field guide to prepare for the birds we were likely to see. Uh-oh. They all look alike - small, brown and gray. This is not going to be a typical spring warbler trip! Well, I will be with some experts who can help me sort them out in between bouts of puking over the side.
The Stormy Petrel II waiting for birders at 5:00am

I drove to North Carolina and Uncle Jim and I birded Lake Mattamuskeet, Pea Island and the Outer Banks (to be covered in another blog post) on the way to Cape Hatteras where at daybreak on Saturday, we boarded the Stormy Petrel II, owned and operated by Brian Patteson and his wonderful staff.

There is a Wilson's storm-petrel flying off to the right in this picture. Honest. Click on the picture to enlarge.

We left dock at 6:00am to head to the gulf stream (a two hour and twenty minute top-speed ride). Lots of fun, if a bit damp. The only time I got queasy was when I went into the bathroom. The enclosed space and the rocking motion made for a bad time, but once out in the fresh air where I could see the horizon, I was just fine. I even managed to eat lunch without getting sick.

In my new rain slicker - steaming towards the Gulf Stream.

Uncle Jim getting salt-sprayed but looking foward to good birds.

Once we got out to the gulf stream, we saw dozens of Wilson's storm-petrels (they soon became the trash bird of the trip - they stayed with us the entire time we were on the gulf stream). They danced and fluttered on the ocean partaking of the menhaden oil that the Stormy Petrel II staff spread on the water to attract more birds. Wilson's storm-petrels dip their feet into the water as they feed, "paddling" to either hover over the food source or perhaps stir up more food. It gives an impression of seabird butterflies. Beautiful and magical. White-rumped storm-petrels soon joined in. I could not tell the difference between the two - the field guides say that the white-rumps have a divided rump patch, but with the speed of the birds and the rocking motion of the boat, all I could see was a brown bird with a white rump.

Pretty soon, black-capped petrels and greater shearwaters joined in. The shearwaters were easy to study since they often floated on the ocean like gulls and let us take good long looks. A Leach's petrel and Audubon shearwater were spotted by some but I didn't get on them. I did get great looks at a lone bridled tern (another lifer). A few Cory's shearwaters flew by. It is amazing to think that these birds spend all their time at sea unless they are nesting or are blown ashore in a storm. Pelagic life list was up to six. Life was good. But pelagic birding is long stretches of blue ocean and boredom punctuated by moments of intense excitement as a bird flies by. Six hours passed and the boat finally revved up to take us the two and a half hours back to shore.

Sunrise on the Atlantic

Suddenly, there was a big ruckus at the front of the boat. A group of six false killer whales was spotted. They gave us great looks as they swam close to and under the boat, almost playing with us. Dolphins, sunfish and flying fish rounded out the ocean wildlife for the day. Then, sooty and manx shearwaters flew in. Awesome - two more lifers for a total of 8 pelagic species for the day.
Two hours later we pulled into dock, salt-caked, sunburned and very tired, but exhilarated from the sights and sounds of a day on the Atlantic.

Fishing boats following us out to sea under a gorgeous sunrise

Wilson's and white-rumped storm petrels dancing on the oil slick (click to enlarge)

After a seafood dinner and a good night's sleep, we left for Ocraoke Island and the Cedar Island ferry, making our way back home. Thanks to Uncle Jim and the crew of the Stormy Petrel II for a fabulous time.


Susan Gets Native said...

I'm so proud of you, Beth. You went where the good birds were.
And what birds! I'm so jealous.

Beth said...

Thanks,Susan - I didn't think I could do it, but it was worth all the worry and the hassle. Great birds and a great time.

jalynn01 said...

Looks like a fun trip and I just love the sunrise behind the fishing boats.. Great capture...

Kathiesbirds said...

Wow, this was exciting! I have never seen any of these birds and wouldn't know one if it flew up and bit me on the nose!

Congratulations on the lifers AND on NOT puking your guts out!