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I’m on a boat! (Poseidon, look at me)

May 24, 2010
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So I’m discovering one of the hidden issues inherent in having a camera and a blog.  For every photo that gets used on The Drinking Bird, there are at least ten that don’t make the cut.  Either they’re no good or they’re repetitive or whatever, but because digital photography makes it easy to rip off a ton of shots and hope that handful come out ok, you definitely that the opportunity to shoot first and ask questions later.  But it also means that you’ve got hundreds of photos to go through before you have that handful to put up.  Sure, some get deleted on the spot, and more get deleted once they’re downloaded, but doing all the post-processing and cropping and playing with the levels is as intensive as the actual photographing and takes a lot of time in addition to composing some semblance of a narrative.  I have to say, I did not completely see all of that extra stuff coming.   So maybe I should be a little more lenient to those bloggers who take a little more time to compose a post in all its aspects than I do.  Or maybe not, I revel in my internal inconsistencies…

Anyway, I had resigned myself to the fact that I wouldn’t get out on a pelagic trip this year.  I was busy over Memorial Day weekend and the weekend after celebrating no fewer than three(!) nuptials and the weekend before I drug my feet until the boats were completely sold out.  As those are the peak weeks for offshore birding in North Carolina I didn’t think it would work out.  But as luck would have it I got on a waiting list and managed to sneak onto a boat out of Hatteras last Saturday.  After running it by my wife, the ultimate arbiter of long birding trips, she graciously allowed me the day and I left after work on Friday.

I should also point out that I wouldn’t have been able to do it even then if it wasn’t for my friend Alex Capaldi and his wife Mindy.  If I was too tardy to get on a boat originally, I was definitely too tardy to arrange lodging and the whole thing nearly fell apart right then when I couldn’t get a hotel room anywhere on the Outer Banks for the night before and my wife was not happy about my Plan B of “sleeping in the car in the parking lot”.  But Team Capaldi came through and allowed me to crash in their hotel room for which I’m super grateful.  Incidentally, the fact that Hatteras Island was packed even the weekend before the traditional summer kickoff of Memorial Day lends absolutely no credence to the argument that the current beach closures have negatively affected tourism.  I mean, there were tons of people out there.  But, I digress…

Despite a rainy start to the morning we boarded the Stormy Petrel II, run by Hatteras institution Brian Patteson of Seabirding Pelagics, and headed out to the gulf stream at full throttle (An aside, I would recommend Brian’s trips without hesitation, the Stormy Petrel is a good boat and there’s always great talent aboard.  If the birds are out there, and most days they are, they will definitely find them).  The Gulf Stream is closer to Cape Hatteras that it is to any other spot on the east coast, but it still takes the better part of two and a half hours to get out there.  So the first part of the trip is slow as far as birding is concerned, a couple Common Loons here, a pair of lingering Northern Gannets there.  The first real pelagic birds you see are the Wilson’s Storm Petrels, singletons still, and distant such that you can’t see them well.  But as you get closer, the tiny bouncing shapes increase in number and frequency until you stop at some point in what seems like the middle of the ocean but in actuality is a precise spot where the water warms on the western edge of the Stream.  You lay down some fish guts and Menhaden oil and in short order, you’ve got a cloud of little Willie Petrels following the boat.

Not long after the cry comes up from the spotters – BLACK-CAP! – and you turn to the horizon to see a sickle winged shape arching high and diving low and coming closer and closer until it becomes an elegant and fast Black-capped Petrel, one of the North Carolina Gulf Coast specialties that people come from around the US to see.  They’re common here, and nest nearby (for a seabird) in the Caribbean.  I was hoping for one of the rare Gadfly Petrels to help push me towards ABA 50o, but any Pterodroma is incredible to watch in its open ocean element, and few are as sharp as the pied Black-cap.

We had Shearwaters too, the little odd-shaped Audubon’s and languid lazy Cory’s Shearwaters.  The Audubon’s never really hung around much, but the Cory’s were with us most of the morning, their slow wingbeats a counterpoint to the zippy Gadfly Petrels.  I always perceive Cory’s Shearwaters to be totally easy going, they’re as elegant as anything in the air, but their long wings are a little ungainly and awkward when taking flight off the water so they seem like the big lug, the good-natured giant.  A sort of Lenny to the Petrel’s George.  Though it’s a conception that gets thrown out the window the minute you see one battling to the death on a chum slick, it’s one I cling to anyway.

No, the brutes that make the Shearwaters look meek and mild are the Jaegers, on their way to their nesting grounds on the Arctic tundra.  We were lucky to have some nice opportunities to check out both Pomarine and Parasitic at close range and the differences between these two similar species were pretty apparent, and not just because they all had their distinctive tail plumes.  The Parasitic looked small-headed and balanced more towards the belly, while the Pomarines were bruisers, balanced further forward in big barrel-chests.  They’re intimidating birds without a doubt, and all the other species gave them a wide berth.  But they’re also really sharp-looking and full of charisma, as this adult female that gave us a couple fly-overs shows in spades.

But none of these birds were lifers for me, an inevitability I was prepared for.  You can, after all, only have a first pelagic once.  It wasn’t for lack of opportunity though, the only potential life bird that showed up in the trip list apparently cruised by at the precise moment I decided to head into the cabin and have my sandwich.  I spent 10.75 hours of the 11 hour trip on the deck looking for birds and the minute I sit down I hear the call – JAEGER!  I stayed put.  We had seen several of both Pom and Parasitic at this point.  I’d seen them well and I was completely happy with my jaeger experience up to that point.  Then I hear Steve NG Howell, the spotter for this trip, exclaim, “Jaeger slam!”.  What?

I rush outside to see the bird they’d called a Long-tailed Jaeger winging away into the glare.  I saw the shadow of a long-winged, slender jaeger cutting against the horizon that was without a doubt the bird they called, but I saw nothing on it that suggested, to me, it was anything other than a Parasitic.  So I didn’t count it.  Crap.

After that the bird slowed down significantly.  We managed to pick up a couple Band-rumped Storm-Petrels , the first of the year, but generally the wind was weak and the ocean was as flat as I’d ever seen it.  All of this was great for my stomach (I’m proud to say I ended my streak of blowing chunks on a pelagic at 2), but not so good for getting the birds up off the water where we could see them.

The point was made when we watched as a flock of actively feeding and pattering Wilson’s Storm Petrels just settled all at once on the water, giving up in the stillness of the afternoon.  By and large, even though I got some great looks at birds, the birding was unremarkable which can make for a very long day out on the water.

Which is why it was fantastic that another group of ocean dwellers more than picked up the slack.  Because while choppy seas may make for better birds, calm seas make it easier to see other things.  But that, dear reader, will have to wait for a future post.  This one has gone on too long as it is.

Stay tuned for the exciting conclusion!

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14 Comments
  1. Greg permalink
    May 24, 2010 9:11 am

    Love the Steinbeck reference! “Tell me ’bout the chum, George!” Entertaining post!

  2. May 24, 2010 9:52 am

    Would’ve had several lifers on that boat…I need to get to NC for a pelagic!

    Nice pics, and I can sympathize with the sorting and deleting and editing.

  3. May 24, 2010 10:55 am

    I was going to try and quote some more of I’m on a Boat! but then I realized that song has many many cursewords in it, lol.

    Too bad on that Long-tailed, but it looks like there were some nice birds out there. Gotta get myself on a pelagic one of these days. Can’t say my stomach would agree….

  4. May 24, 2010 12:10 pm

    Too bad about the Long-tailed Jaeger, but isn’t that the way of birding? It sounds like the pelagic equivalent of “you should have been here five minutes ago.”

    Every bird in those pictures would be a life bird for me.

  5. Nate permalink*
    May 24, 2010 1:23 pm

    @Dad- Thanks!

    @Corey- If you ever do, let me know. You don’t have to twist my arm to get me out there, and there are still a handful of bird I’m leaving.

    @Robert- The stomach thing is hard to predict and you don’t know until you do it. Everyone has their own routine, and it can take a couple trips to figure out what works for you. I think, after 5 trips, I’ve finally figured out mine.

    @John- No doubt! It took so long to get a name to the LTJA that by the time everyone realized what it was it was gone. And of course, the next day they get killer flybys…

  6. May 24, 2010 3:34 pm

    Love the shot of the flock of storm-petrels! The new camera clearly suits you.

    “I have to say, I did not completely see all of that extra stuff coming.”

    Yeah, the dirty secrets no one tells you when you upgrade. Lots of investment necessary in post-shooting time (which no one likes, especially immediate family members).

    “So maybe I should be a little more lenient to those bloggers who take a little more time to compose a post in all its aspects than I do.”

    Yes! I would certainly appreciate that, I’m nearing the end (I think) of my long tunnel of moving, archiving, and organizing thousands of photos so I can start processing and blogging again. I’m very awed and humbled by any photographer who can get a post out within the same season as taking the actual shot.

    “Or maybe not, I revel in my internal inconsistencies…”

    I’m going to pretend I didn’t hear that. (Hmm, maybe I shouldn’t quote it back to you?)

    Sorry for the LT Jaeger, but get thee to Alaska where you can find them breeding! Much more reliable than chance encounters out at sea.
    -Mike

  7. Nate permalink*
    May 24, 2010 10:27 pm

    @Mike- Thanks! I’d love to get to Alaska for more than the LT Jaeger, but until the Alaskan tundra moves within 5 hours of my house, it’s unlikely.

    I’m still holding your feet to the fire for all those unwritten blog posts! Didn’t you go to Trinidad? 🙂

    • May 25, 2010 1:52 pm

      @Nate – OK, here’s my new excuse: there was a lot of Trinidadian-oriented birding posts flying around about the time I was writing mine, all based on some Leica digiscoping-oriented thing where all the bird bloggers in North America (except one, me!) were invited. Being afraid that my posts would get lost among theirs I purposely and consciously made the decision to delay spinning my own tales.

      I see that may have backfired. I’m sure expectations among those that read my blog (Hi, Nate!) are so high I can do nothing but disappoint. Perhaps I will just have to let that trip go . . . .
      😉

      Or, when I finish my computer- and web-based projects, I can start and relive the wonders of T&T!

      Thanks for the sparks, now that migration is winding down I may, no, I will focus on getting back into the writing/photography game!
      -Mike

      • Nate permalink*
        May 26, 2010 8:56 am

        Excuses, excuses. 🙂 There were a lot of Trinidad posts hanging out there in the internet ether for awhile, though.

        I look forward to seeing what you come up with.

  8. May 26, 2010 1:56 pm

    What a wonderful trip. I liked the George and Lennie reference too. I just finished teaching the book the other day.

  9. May 27, 2010 12:31 pm

    I love pelagic birds. I also NEED that Long-tailed Jaeger. And now, back to my photo-editing routine!

  10. May 30, 2010 5:29 pm

    I’d love to compliment you on a great post, but I’m holding a grudge because that song is going to be stuck in my head for the next few days 🙂

  11. May 31, 2010 7:06 pm

    Nice trip, cool sightings – look forward to the conclusion.

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