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I’m sailing away…

September 17, 2007

Set an open course for the virgin sea…

Pelagic… say it, just the name is cool. I don’t know whether it’s because I’m a mid-westerner, born and raised far from any sea (some people call the Mississippi the third coast, those people are idiots) but the ocean is an incredible attraction to me. That’s the ocean, not the beach. I never understood the appeal of sitting on the beach “getting sun” or “laying out” or “burning up” or whatever the kids call it. That’s boring man. I need to be birding, or at least moving. Fortunately a trip on the high seas is just the ticket. Want sea legs? Queasy stomach? Salt spray in your face? Want to be left shivering and cursing the cold when the north wind blows and sweating through your rain jacket like a hog when the sun comes out? Ideally all within the same five minutes? Then you, dear reader(s), might be ready for a pelagic.

I set off with a bunch of intrepid souls from the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences to tackle the Gulf Stream aboard the Stormy Petrel II captained by Brian Patteson. Patteson is pretty much the only guy who takes trips regularly from the Outer Banks, and because of that, he gets lots of birds that you can’t get with any regularity anywhere else in the country. He has several North American firsts to his credit and there is no one better on the east coast for many of the Gulf Stream specialties. It was raining when we woke up so it pushed our departure time back an hour but Brian was determined to get out today and it was going to be a long day anyway so we didn’t mind so much. Gave me an opportunity to get some coffee and run through my gadfly-petrels in the field guide once more, a much appreciated side-effect.

So here’s the deal with pelagics that makes them so much different than regular birding. Imagine birding while walking a balance beam during an earthquake, you can’t really concentrate on what’s out there because your trying so hard to stay upright here. Field marks are so much less important compared to impression and movement. Which is an additional difficulty, because birding by impression is a function of comfort level with a particular species, and few of us get out on the sea enough to get that comfortability with seabirds. So you’re stuck trying to identify birds you’re not familiar with on a rapidly and erratically shifting deck while being pummeled by wind and water. Sound fun? God, you have no idea, it’s a blast.

So off we went at full speed for about 2 hours to get out to the Gulf Stream. It was a bit slow, pelagic birding in general is characterized by hours of boredom punctuated with brief moments of great excitement. This was the boring part, as there weren’t many birds out save a few terns, Commons mostly. As we got closer to the stream we spotted a single juvenile Bridled Tern (lifer #1!) followed almost immediately by a family group of Sooty Terns (lifer #2!). Even though Sooties nest no closer to North Carolina then the Florida Keys, this pair had two fledglings. It was pretty wild to think that the young birds followed their parents 1500 miles all the way to the coast of North Carolina, and were still begging. The juveniles were in their all dark plumage making them pretty easy to identify as they circled the boat. I tried to take a photo and failed, that’s it to the left. It’s a juvenile Sooty Tern, you’re just going to have to trust me on that one. Soon after a small group of Cory’s Shearwaters (lifer #3!) cruised past the boat, our first real pelagic species and very very cool with super long straight wings that made them look like flying + signs.

It wasn’t all birds, Brian typically runs some fishing lines from the boat during these trips and whatever we catch gets to go home with the passengers. They were mostly foot-long mahis that went in the cooler for a fresh fish dinner, but when we hooked a sailfish, the birds were momentarily forgotten as everyone ran to the back of the boat to watch the mate, also confusingly called Brian, pull it in. It was really a gorgeous fish as you can see here, and after pictures we threw it back in the water as befitting a fish of its awesomeness. Incidentally that’s using the word in the true biblical sense as “God destroyed that city in a display of awesome power ” rather then “God, these shoes are awesome”. Clear?

We still weren’t quite to the Gulf Stream and with the late start we needed to push on to the continental shelf. When we got there the warm westerly winds we’d had up to this point died down to be replaced by a cold front from the north. The west winds came from over the land so they had calmed the seas giving us an easy ride out, but when the winds shifted the swells kicked up and the birds got in the air, we were ready for them. We spotted the first Black-capped Petrel (lifer #4!) on the horizon and we turned the boat towards it and started laying down a fish-oil slick to see what would come. It worked like gangbusters. Soon we were surrounded by Black-capped Petrels, a freaking incredible bird if there ever was one. They rarely flap, preferring to glide just over the surface and then vaulting up in the the air, banking high over the waves. They’re so perfectly suited to to the choppy seas, and we were in their element. I managed to snap a photo I was reasonably happy with as one passed by the boat. Along with the gadflys came little Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, not as many as one would expect earlier in the year, but decent numbers nonetheless. The caps kept coming, though, and at one point we had nearly 50 circling the boat as far out on the horizon as you cared to look. With so many we thought the opportunity for a rarer petrel was there but none would show itself so we had to be content with Black-caps wheeling and soaring through the waves and troughs. A small consolation I guess.

Along with the Petrels came Jeagers too, and I saw two species well enough to count. A juvenile Parasitic (lifer #5!) gave the business to a group of petrels a good distance away. These birds feed almost exclusively on food stolen from other seabirds. We saw this several times though the day and there’s really no way to describe watching a jeager bearing down on it’s victim. It’s like those nature films where you see a cheetah chasing down a gazelle as the prey is whipping and turning while the predator is just going all out in a straight line closing and closing and then POW! the petrel empties its crop and the jeager swoops up to claim the spoils. Quite a few unlucky petrels were forced to give up their catch in the face of such a determined opponent. It’s just unimaginably cool. The tables had turned though for a stunning adult light phase Pomarine (lifer #6!), he was getting hammered by a small group of petrels not unlike songbirds mobbing a Screech-Owl back on land. The jeagers were birds I’d wanted to see for a long time, so the good look I had of the Pom made it my bird of the day. Like straight out of the field guide for an adult bird down to the twisted central retrices, I couldn’t have been happier. A possible Long-tailed Jeager was tempting but ultimately I didn’t feel as though I saw enough to make the call that would have given me the jeager slam. A couple nice Audubon’s Shearwaters (lifer #7!) rounded out the seabirds.

So that about did it for the birds, oh, except for the Sabine’s Gull I missed. I was right there too, someone called SABINE’S GULL! and the boat immediately got hit by three breakers in a row while I struggled to get my damn feet under me to I could get damn bins on the damn bird that was rapidly beating its way out of sight. By the time the boat settled it was a speck on the horizon. A disappointing miss, as it was one of my A-1 target birds for the trip. So it goes, pelagic birding can be as cruel as it is addicting.

We had some Bottlenose Dolphins ride the bow in the way home, including one with a baby only about 3 feet long. Scienticians say they’re smart, but as they clearly didn’t understand my requests for a photogenic timed leap the jury’s still out on that in my mind. This is the best picture I got. A fine ending though to a great day on the water, and I disembarked 7 life birds and several tasty mahi fillets richer then when I boarded. But the Sabine’s Gull and Long-tailed Jeager still call to me, and I will answer, oh yes, mark my words reader(s), they will not elude me again, unless they do of course. A target for the next trip out in any case.

  1. Greg permalink
    September 17, 2007 4:17 pm

    I really enjoyed reading about your trip. Must have been a great experience! I think I’ll have to join you one of these days!

  2. Corey permalink
    September 19, 2007 10:56 am

    Wish I had picked up 7! lifers on my pelagic this weekend…nice write-up and here’s hoping a Sabine’s Gull is in your not-to-distant future!

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