Saturday, June 19, 2010

Non-Pelagic Birding on the Outer Banks

After a 9 and 1/2 hour drive to North Carolina, I was tired, but ready to bird! So Uncle Jim and I started our birding weekend in his family room. Birding by Butt, North Carolina-style. Watching the crepe myrtle tree out the window and the pond with the drip faucet, we bagged ten species. Nothing unusual, but an auspicious start to the weekend. He also took me on a tour of his bat box, stuffed with sleeping brown bats. No screech owls in the nest box, but a colony of purple martins (Uncle Jim swears they are all lesbians - he runs a gay-friendly establishment). We made a quick run to the wastewater treatment plant next door and got ruddy ducks, bluebirds and some gulls and then to the quarry for rough-winged swallows.

Uncle Jim doing some birding from the couch.
a The next morning, we packed the car full of snacks, gear, luggage and a cooler full of ice and drinks and made our way to Lake Mattamuskeet National Wildlife Refuge (stopping along the way wherever we thought there might be birds). It was quiet, muggy, hot and....quiet. Not much in the way of bird activity.

At one point, we got out to set up the scope to look at......a great egret. Yup. That's how desperate we were. As a matter of fact, Uncle Jim told me to make sure I put this picture on the blog telling everyone that we are setting up a scope to look at AN EGRET! But slowly and surely, we added a species here and a species there. Pretty soon we had an decent list. When we made it to the Outer Banks, we made sure to see the three lighthouses - each with a distinctive paint pattern and light flash pattern.

Ocracoake lighthouse. My favorite - short and stubby. I can relate.

The Cape Hatteras Lighthouse. Relocated in 1999, about 1/2 mile inland to pretect it from the eroding beach.

The Bodie Island lighthouse (under scaffolding for sandblasting and re-painting that will take about 12 months).

Another view of the Ocracoake lighthouse

This is the British Cemetary on Ocracoake Island. During WW II, the HMS Bedfordshire, a British fishing trawler was hired by our Navy to escort a band of merchant ships to the Outer Banks. The Bedfordshire was sunk by a German U-boat and the bodies of 4 sailors washed ashore at Ocracoake and were buried by the locals. The tiny cemetary is now maintained by the US Coast Guard station at Ocracoake.

Standing by the barrier protecting the least tern (LIFER!) and black skimmer nesting sites.
It's hard to see in this photo (click on the photo to enlarge), but the bottom of the sign reads, "Illustration by Julie Zickefoose". Hey, I know her! I've birded New River Festival with her! Awesome!
While on Ocracoake, we noticed signs posted on a lot of lawns and in front of a lot of businesses with slogans like "We the People, not We the Plovers". It seems that nesting sites for piping plovers and least terns are being protected at the expense of tourists and residents being able to drive on and access some of the beaches. At a restaurant one night, the waitress asked us if we were birders (looking out the window through binoculars at a green heron may have given us away). When we said yes, she asked our opinion on the plover issue. We explained about the endangered plover and how our encroachment on it's habitat has been the cause of it's demise and she expressed dismay at not knowing that it was an endangered species. It seems that bit of information is not getting as much press as the loss of tourist dollars due to lack of beach access. However, with the local economy built on fishing and tourism, it's easy to see why residents look at protecting a few birds not nearly as important as their livelihoods. I have a feeling this issue isn't going away any time soon.
So it was an awesome birding trip- 81 species, including ten life birds, but more importantly, time with Uncle Jim.

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.