Slippery when wet
You know those amusement park raft rides popular in the mid-summer? And how, while waiting in line, you’ll see signs along the way, “Caution: You Will Get Wet”. You may laugh it off, you may even want to get wet on a particularly hot summer day, but you never really expect to get totally and completely soaked. After all, it’s not like you’re going swimming or anything.
This was sort of my mind set going in to the pelagic out of Hatteras on Tuesday morning. I had been warned by my hosts that it had been windy lately, and the ferry rocked quite a bit when it crossed the inlet, so I expected some rough seas. But I had my Dramamine with me, and there’s no way I would recreate my last trip, right?
The day started perfectly. The skies were clear, the winds had changed to the east a tad (the better for rarities), the boat was boarded and we headed out. As soon as we got in the inlet and headed around Cape Point, full steam ahead for the Gulf Stream, I wondered whether or not I would be able to handle it. It was windy, really windy. During my February trip we had to contend with 10 foot swells. Well, I reckon, based wholly on my layman’s opinion, that these swells were more like 15-20 feet, no wait, like 50 feet…. that’s the ticket. Anyway, they were wicked, and my stomach began to turn. But I dutifully took my pills, headed outside into the fresh air to look for birds, and held on.
About an hour and a half out, as we began to near the Gulf Stream, we saw our first tubenose, a Black-capped Petrel in the distance arching like they do over the water. As uncomfortable as the winds made the ride, they had the distinct advantage of getting the birds up in the air and moving. Pterodromas love a stiff wind, and for good reason, they’re pretty incredible moving in it. Once we got to the continental shelf, where the depth drops off and the Gulf Stream starts flowing, we cut the engines and dropped some menhaden oil on the water to see if anyone would swing by.
The oil slick was soon attended by several little Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, the first of many we’d see on the day, a few more Black-caps and a couple Cory’s Shearwaters. It allowed for direct comparison of the three groups of tubenoses as they circled the boats. The sleak, quick petrels, the lazy, floppy shearwaters and the frantic storm-petrels. The wind was still blowing hard, and the birds were moving fast all around us. Especially the petrels, riding the wind, turning on a dime and hugging the waves around the boat like a high performance Italian sports car on a mountain road. They’re really impressive when the wind is high. Shearwaters, on the contrary, had slower and sloppier wingbeats, but were equally able to impress even if they weren’t as agile as the petrels, more like a big engined model out of Detroit, like a GTO or something. In keeping with this car theme, I suppose the Storm-Petrels are Smart Cars; small, efficient, and more like a wind-up toy than anything. (tangent: I have a friend who calls Smart Cars “Yao Ming’s roller skates”, makes me laugh every time I see one)
The wind and waves made photos difficult, but the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels that came close made tempting subjects. I snapped a few photos below, unfortunately it’s all I have in the way of pictures, I spent the rest of the day trying to keep myself dry, I didn’t dare get the camera out. But enjoy some Wilson’s…
Between the wind and the Gulf Stream we were tossed about quite a bit, and constantly had to fix our location to account for the movement of the wind and waves. It was a real lesson as to the power of the ocean. As we headed up the stream a bit the call came from over the loud speaker of a “different” petrel. It was soon confirmed when a Fea’s Petrel crossed ahead of the bow turning one way to show the gray rump and then the other to show the dark underwings , both of which differentiate it from the more common Black-caps. A really great bird, and one of the big draws of pelagic trips out of North Carolina. It’s a bird that is rare, but regularly seen every year on these boat rides. My first lifer of the trip, and a real doozy.
With the Fea’s fresh in everyone’s mind we slowed and started working the petrels hard to see if it would come back for a closer look. We were soon surrounded by good numbers of the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, into which a few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels flew in. It was an opportunity to work on the mysterious art of Storm-Petrel identification, and let me tell you, as someone who has only limited experience offshore, it’s not as cut and dried as books may make it out. There are obviously subtle differences in the pattern on the upperwing, the amount of white on the rump, and the shape of the tail, but this is all very difficult to come to grips with when you’re rocking and rolling on the high seas. And the birds don’t typically cooperate much, what with the flying and all.
The lead spotter on the trip, Brian Sullivan from Cornell, helped me get a handle on them somewhat. You basically have to drop the binoculars and look at the whole bird. Band-rumped is a bigger bird than Wilson’s, with longer wings and shorter legs. In fact, to me, they seemed a lot like some sort of mid-point between the Wilson’s and the Pterodromas. Especially when you watch them fly with deep powerful wingbeats whipping over the surface in a way that the stubby-winged Wilson’s just weren’t able to do. Plus, it helps to have them side-by-side. They’re still tough birds requiring careful study, but I began to see how people who are good at them, like Brian, identify them with such confidence. The sum is greater then the parts.
I was just getting to the point where I could pick out the Rumps myself when a cry went out. “British (European) Storm-Petrel!” It was Brian, standing right next to me, trying to get people on a tiny bird from within the multitudes of teeming Wilson’s. I had trouble finding it, for the same reasons I had problems originally with the Rumps, just that Storm-Petrels are tough and fast little buggers. I eventually found the bird in question in the flock heading into the wind as we were blown in the opposite direction from the epicenter of tubenoses. From a family that is, with few exceptions, mostly small, dark, and frantic, my impression was of an especially small, especially dark, and especially frantic storm-petrel, so yeah, I’m pretty certain I got on the bird before it was gone. I would have liked to see it again certainly, but for a bird as rare as Euro Storm-Petrel, with fewer than 10 reports in North America (most of which since 2005 with trips out of Hatteras), I’ll take what I can get. Just a great great bird.
But we didn’t give up, as there were a few people on the boat that missed it (I was just lucky I was on the right side at the time). We drove around in circles laying menhaden oil in the hopes we’d get another shot. It never returned but some Sooty Shearwaters showed up, looking like the Cory’s evil twin. A pair of Pomarine Jaegers, one light and one dark, swung past, defying my attempts to age them (not really, they were just both adults, too easy man), and a couple Audubon’s Shearwaters kept their distance. Best of all the petrels kept coming, including caps from both the dark and light extremes. The two forms are pretty wildly different, with the darker birds clearly bulkier as well as the implied plumage differences. It’s possible that they come from two different populations that nest in two different places, and given what we know about seabirds returning to the place they were hatched, they could even be two separate species. But there’s a lot we don’t know about seabirds, cool to think about though.
Anyway, it was around this point that I began to really feel the effects of the waves. I had been splitting my time between standing in the cabin doorway , where the stuffiness made me feel sick, and the railing in the back of the boat (where the petrels were following us, pattering on the water like storm-petrels, it was wild) getting pummeled by the spray and waves, like to the skin. I was trying to fight being completely soaked and completely sick. The first was a losing proposition from the start, and I was slowly losing the battle for the second. When I stepped out for some fresh air and saw another gentleman losing his own lunch, it was over for me. And I was so close too. On the plus side, though, at about this time an Arctic Tern flew by, so it wasn’t a complete loss. I’ve always said that I’m willing to vomit for a good bird, Euro Storm-Petrel definitely fits the bill. It was a shot I was willing to take, but this is two pelagics in a row now. Admittedly both were on the choppy side, all the same it’s a worrying set of circumstances. My body does not seem to respond well to being in the cabin for any length of time, so I guess next time I’ll have to bite the bullet and just get soaked, but it’ll keep everything where it’s supposed to be.
Those were the highlights, the afternoon was uneventful as far as new birds go, but the petrels were putting on a show, following the boat like gulls after chum. We even had more encounters with additional Fea’s Petrels, including a couple birds that circled the boat for ridiculous views. The wind and waves eventually drove us to port early, but with Euro Storm-Petrel and Fea’s Petrel in the bag I don’t think anyone was complaining. I certainly wasn’t. I only had time for one spring pelagic this year, and several folks on the boat where there for consecutive days, but I think I picked a good one. Just lucky I guess.
I got back early enough that I decided to make the drive home Tuesday night as opposed to the next day. There’s nothing like sleeping in your own bed after a pelagic, and I had work the next day besides. But a couple stops up the banks netted me a flyby Gull-billed Tern, a bird that’s too easy to miss on the Outer Banks due to their locally declining population, and a lifer besides. A somewhat uneventful end maybe, considering the fireworks I’d had at sea, but a good bird nonetheless. Just one more to add to a great day.