Tuesday, June 10, 2014

300th State Bird

Following a tip from Nathan and Sarah on the pelagic trip, Sam and I decided to stop by Pea Island NWR on the way back to Raleigh.  A Brant, usually long gone to its arctic breeding grounds, had been hanging around with some Canada Geese for the past week or so.  Brants are usually only seen off of ferries in North Carolina in winter, so I had yet to see one.  We pulled over at the telephone pole labeled "66" and scoped the North Pond.  It wasn't hard to find the little Brant swimming off to the side of the goose flock.  It was a lifer and my 300th bird in North Carolina.  I finished the three-day trip with 16 lifers, including Gull-billed Tern, 14 pelagic species, and this small goose - amazing for staying in my home state.  I also had my first soul-satisfying view of a Northern Bobwhite - one waddled through the campground on our second night.  This trip also allowed Dare County to soar to the second-place position on my obsessive county listing map.  My birding will never be the same.

Brant in the North Pond.  I took this with my phone through the scope, so give me a break about the image quality.

Wednesday, June 4, 2014

Hatteras Pelagic - The South Polar Express

Ever since I learned what a pelagic trip was, I wanted to go.  It took long enough, but Sam Jolly and I finally decided to drop the money on one and head out to Hatteras, on a trip captained by Brian Patteson.  Pelagic trips are one of the most bizarre things birders do - subjecting oneself to the unpredictable conditions of the sea to see a few gray-and-brown birds seems, well, unnatural.  But those few birds out there are often incredibly rare (at least rarely seen by humans), and are always entertaining.  So we, along with over a dozen other birders, filed onto the Stormy Petrel II at 5:15 AM Monday morning, hoping to see these seabirds.

It takes approximately two hours to get out far enough to find the birds, which are usually found at the edge of the Gulf Stream at the continental shelf.  On the way out, we spotted a few wayward seabirds - the ubiquitous Wilson's Storm-Petrel, my first lifer of the day, as well as a Sooty Shearwater and a Cory's Shearwater.  Cory's was my 500th life bird!  An adult Arctic Tern flew alongside the boat, silhouetted by the rising sun.  It was going to be a good day.

After another hour or so, we stumbled on an eddy in the Gulf Stream that was much closer to shore than expected.  Brian stopped the boat, and almost immediately one of the spotters found a Long-tailed Jaeger, the first one seen in North Carolina this year, chasing a small group of Sterna terns.  A few Pomarine Jaegers, much larger and more "pot-bellied" than the Long-tailed, joined in behind the boat, and followed us for quite some time.  One of the Poms flew over the boat several times, giving everyone on board excellent views of this impressive bird.  This also was the third and final jaeger on my life list.
Pomarine Jaeger
Red-necked Phalaropes usually pass through North Carolina's waters a few weeks earlier in May, so it was a surprise to find two flocks floating near the boat.  Phalaropes are strange birds, and are essentially sandpipers pretending to be ducks.  Most of the ones along the East Coast tend to stay far offshore, so a pelagic is the easiest way to see them.
Red-necked Phalaropes
We saw a few more Pomarine Jaegers before motoring up and heading further offshore.  En route, a distant Bridled Tern flying over a swath of sargasso gave us identifiable views, enough to count.  It was a shame we couldn't see one close-up, but a Bridled Tern is a good bird under pretty much any circumstance.

We arrived at the true Gulf Stream, and could see a defined line between the bright blue warm waters and the more gray waters we were used to seeing.  They started putting out fish oil behind the boat to bring in the birds.  Tubenoses (the family to which many of the target species belong) have excellent senses of smell, so it didn't take long them to fly in.  After a while, a few of the rarer storm-petrels, Band-rumped and Leach's, started joining the throngs of Wilson's Storm-Petrels gathering behind the boat.  The Leach's were especially prevalent due to the strong northeasterly winds the past few days, and have the distinction of flying almost exactly like the Common Nighthawk.  As the storm-petrels grew in number, the swells grew in size - they began to appear taller than the boat.  Several folks started to feel a little ill, and would succumb to seasickness within a few hours - luckily I was not among them.  Larger birds continued to zoom by, mostly Cory's and Great Shearwaters.
Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  Band-rumped and Leach's have longer wings and different flight styles.
Cory's Shearwater.  Yes, that is actually how blue the water was.
Great Shearwater, taken later in the day.
Another Long-tailed Jaeger flew in, our third of the day.  This one stayed behind the boat and was much more cooperative for photographs.  Long-tailed are the smallest and most graceful birds in the genus Stercorarius, which includes skuas and jaegers.  They tend have a more delicate frame and a tern-like flight style, helping to eliminate the similar Parasitic Jaeger (Poms aren't even close).
Long-tailed Jaeger.
Somehow, Sam and I ended up on the side of the boat with only a handful of other people.  One of the spotters, who was standing nearby, said "get on this bird - 9 o'clock, above the horizon."  We looked up to see a massive bird far off in the distance.  It turned.  It was getting closer.  Wait - I know what that is! "Skua!"we said simultaneously.  Then even louder - "SKUA!"  "South Polar Skua" - Brian's intercom message caused a frenzy of activity on the deck.  Everyone ran to our side of the boat as the bird flew directly overhead, then circled directly behind the boat to tussle with the Long-tailed Jaeger.  Skuas are pretty much the Grizzly Bears of the avian world - they're bulky, lumbering animals that strike terror in the hearts its smaller peers, and the onlooking human is always excited to see one.
South Polar Skua, the most majestic of the world's dull brown birds.
Because you can never get too close to a South Polar Skua.  Never. 
Everyone on the boat was elated, and it was a lifer for many of us aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  This beautiful Antarctic breeder gave us incredible views just an arm's reach from the stern before it settled further back into the fish oil slick, eventually disappearing along with the jaeger.

Some of the primary targets of any Hatteras pelagic in the summer months are the Pterodroma petrels, also known as the "Gadfly Petrels".  The sun was climbing to noon and there was still no sign of even the most common one (locally), the Black-capped Petrel.  As we searched, we started to see more and more Audubon's Shearwaters, substantially smaller than the other shearwaters in the area.  Finally, around 11:30 we had a Black-capped Petrel sweep by the boat, giving everyone close, but brief, views.  There are only a few thousand of these Hispaniola-breeding petrels remaining, and nearly all of them spend  the summer feeding off the Outer Banks.  
Black-capped Petrel
Over the next few hours, we saw a few more of the endangered Black-cappeds along with scores of Great Shearwaters, Cory's Shearwaters, and hundreds of Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  No more new species appeared after lunchtime, but we wrapped up the trip with another Arctic Tern and a flyby Pomarine Jaeger.  The 30-mile trip back to port took quite a while, broken by the occasional view of a flying fish jumping away from the boat.  The lighthouse came into view, then we could see land.  Finally, we stumbled back ashore, thanking the crew for the great time.  I got 14 lifers on this 12-hour boat ride, an incredible number for my home state.  I'm sure I'll be back out on the open ocean again, looking for more pelagic magic.