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.
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.|
|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.
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.