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Sea Change

February 18, 2008

I never get sick. I probably should knock on wood what with this being peak flu season and all, but I take no small measure of pride in the fact that my immune system is a finely honed machine, a veritable Great Wall keeping the viral hordes at bay. Now of course, there’s a fair amount of difference between the kind of illness that knocks you out of commission on land and the one that put you down on sea, but on my previous trips offshore I’ve managed to stay clean and clear. But you know that they say, the only people who never get seasick are those people who never go to sea.

Anyway, the sea was angry that day, my friends. The same nor’easter that had pushed temperatures below average across the state was due to head offshore Saturday. I had hoped that the wind might push a few northern birds down into North Carolina waters, maybe something in addition to the alcids that had been hanging around this year. So I went out on my winter pelagic with several target species that I hadn’t gotten on my last winter trip (after which interestingly, I said I’d never do another winter pelagic). I was a little concerned about the aforementioned winds though. By all accounts it was going to be a rough ride.

But not at first, before the afternoon winds kicked up we were doing quite well seeing birds. After some expert chumming we soon had a flock of several hundred gulls and Northern Gannets tailing the boat. The gulls were mostly Herring, Great Black-backed, and Ring-billed but at times there were at least a dozen Lesser Black-backed Gulls in the group as well. Lesser have become quite common this time of year in the area and the birds in the gull flock were a good mix of ages and plumages allowing for useful study. Our half mile long gull tail soon attracted the attention of a Great Skua, who buzzed us before settling on the water a couple hundred yards away. It wasn’t a picture perfect look, but the impression of a thick bodied dark bird with white flashes in its wings was unmistakable. Pretty good under the circumstances and certainly a great bird.

That was only the beginning. The expected Razorbills were few but provided us with nice views as they flew by, and it wasn’t long at all before a couple Northern Fulmars (lifer!) picked up the scent and began circling the boat providing great looks at these sharp little tubenoses with ridiculously huge dark eyes. One in particular was supper ratty and missing several primaries so he looked a bit like the Freddie Krueger of Fulmars. Funky feathers aside, this particular bird was the most aggressive and avidly fought with Gannets nearly ten times its size for fish guts just six feet of the back of the boat.

The choppy seas were less than ideal for spotting birds on the water, so we had to be content with whatever birds rocketed by. This meant that time spent in the boat’s cabin was time wasted, and those who shunned the north wind and sea spray for the warmth of the interior missed many good birds. Case in point, while resting on a bench along the rail I noticed two tiny birds whipping down the port side. I thought Red Phalarope (of which we saw several) at first, but when my binoculars went up I saw something altogether different. DOVEKIE! Lifer (ABA #450!). The call echoed down the boat and the people who happened to be lucky enough to be on my side got good looks as the pair sped by. They would be the only ones we saw the whole day.

That was the way the trip went, you just had to be in the right place at the right time to be where the birds were, and I managed to see all the good birds. This was mostly because I stationed myself near the boat’s excellent spotter, George Armistead. As the only two people on the boat younger than 50, we had plenty to talk about. In fact, it was while discussing a interesting hybrid gull in the gull flock (we decided it was a Nelson’s x Herring, so one of its grandparents was a Glaucous. It was very dark with a big Glaucous bill and a thick body. Cool bird and the closest thing to a rare gull we had all day.) George spotted a pair of Manx Shearwaters (lifer!) flying by. Only a few people saw them. Very lucky for me I guess.

It was in all this exciting birdfinding that I lost track of time and failed to keep to my Dramamine schedule. When the wind began really kicking up and the boat got really rolling, well, I began to feel a bit off. I ate some lunch, didn’t help. I popped another Dramamine, hoping to catch up, didn’t help. The weird thing about seasickness is not just the physical effects, but the mental. You begin thinking that you can’t see land, you’ll be out there for six more hours, this won’t get better. It’s an awful sinking feeling that when compounded with the stomach issues makes for a miserable time. Thankfully, I didn’t get that bad, but I eventually reached a point where I had to head to the stern and help with the chumming, if you catch my drift.

The afternoon was slow, another Skua, closer this time, provided some excitement but the birds were not as common later in the day, and with the seas only getting worse we headed in a little bit early. Even so, it was a great day out, and even though we didn’t pick up any unusual gulls I got all my other targets. With my success it will probably be my last winter trip offshore. Though, a good Puffin year might get me out again, with my pills of course.

More the next day here.

  1. pinguinus permalink
    February 18, 2008 8:10 pm

    I’m going on my first pelagic trip in March, so I read your account with keen interest (but some trepidation!)

    Of course, so many good times end up involving chumming if you’re not careful; why should birding be any different?

  2. February 18, 2008 8:33 pm

    You’ll have a good time. Pelagics are a blast, a kind of addicting, at least for me. Just make sure you’re outside as much as possible and hang out near the spotters and you’ll see lots of good birds.

    I figured I got three lifers and only got sick twice. I can live with those odds.

  3. noflickster permalink
    February 19, 2008 12:27 am

    Well, as they, meaning Igor in Young Frankenstein, would say, “Could be worse, could be rainin’.” Seriously, congrats on the lifers and some key pick-ups for your year list. Now I’m longing for my next chance at a pelagic, trips to the stern be damned.

  4. Patrick Belardo permalink
    February 19, 2008 10:38 am

    I have to admit that I’ve only been on one pelagic myself. I’ve signed up for three, but only one ran. I’ve been on several whale watches and a cruise though. I’m always paranoid about getting sick and I’ve used the scopalamine patch with success. Then again, I’ve never had really rough water. In any even, congrats on the awesome birds!

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