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My Life’s Birds: #414-417

August 11, 2010
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February 10, 2007 – Off Hatteras, NC – My first pelagic was not one of those early summer days on the water filled with Pterodromas and Stormy Petrels and myriad swirling Shearwaters.  For reasons that don’t seem entirely clear as I look back on them, I decided to forgo the pleasant weather pelagics and jump straight into the hard-core stuff.  It’s one thing to stand near the bow and take a face-full of sea water when that water is around 80 degrees as it is when the Gulf Stream brings that Caribbean bathwater north to the waters off the coast of North Carolina, but it’s quite another to brave the wind and cold water that waits for a pelagic birder who heads offshore in February.  A jacket is not enough, you need a rain suit that covers you head to toe in waterproof fabric.  You need waterproof gloves and shoes, because the minute your hands and feet get wet, it’s all over.  You might as well spend the rest of the day in the cabin, huddled around the only source of heat, a vent from the bridge running full on blasting warm air that only circulates into the very immediate vicinity.  When you get cold, you stay cold.  For 12 hours.  Winter pelagics are not for the faint of heart.

The unavoidable cold was only the least of my problems.  Halfway into my drive from Chapel Hill to Hatteras, in the deepest heart of Martin County, North Carolina, my rear tire blew out.  So what was already a four hour drive was extended as I had to replace the busted tire with the bicycle tire spare, during which time my battery went dead.

So imagine if you will.  A Friday night in mid-winter.  A deserted highway in an extremely rural part of the state.  A dead car, long past the point of hazard lights blinking out.  And a bearded and increasingly agitated young man waving wildly at every passing vehicle.   Now I don’t consider myself to be particularly threatening, but my haggard appearance was enough for the two dozen cars or so cars that passed to slow down just long enough for me to see once curious faces turn terrified, then quickly accelerate.  At long last, a truck stopped to give me a jump, and the cigarette smoking and seriously southern drawled driver confided that he’d once been in a similar situation and had been similarly unlucky.  His empathy was the difference between a night in a bed and a night beside the highway.  Chalk it up to southern hospitality, I guess.

My prospects then were either to head on out to Hatteras at the spare-tire prescribed 45 mph, worry about finding a new tire on Sunday before heading back to the triangle or to pull up stakes and turn around.  As excited as I was for this first pelagic, I seriously considered calling it quits and turning back.  But the pull of Alcids and Skua was too strong, so I turned the car east and made the long, slow trip to the shore.  I finally arrived close to midnight, just in time to wake up five hours later to get to the dock.

We boarded the Stormy Petrel II, we hardy few, and headed out of the sound.  A small flock of Brant foraged in the eel-grass against the island, the first lifer of the trip and an auspicious start considering the way the species has declined in North Carolina in recent years.  When the chum-throwing began in earnest and the gull and gannet tail stretched half a mile behind the boat, all car-related anxiety was soon forgotten.  We started picking up the birds you go on a winter pelagic to find.  Razorbills flushed off the water, whirring wings on football shaped forms bolting along the surface.  Flocks of Red Phalaropes buzzed the boat regularly until we reached the sargasso mats where they sat, allowing close study during the few seconds they were visible on the crests of the rolling waves.  The birds were only part of fun, massive schools of Common and Bottlenose Dolphins accompanied the Gannet hordes and we often found ourselves in the middle of a feeding frenzy of both birds and cetaceans.

As the day wore into the afternoon, the passengers began to tire.  The chill in the air becomes more evident and more often than not we congregated in the cabin to take advantage of what little warmth we could while the birding was slow.  Around then the call came over the loudspeaker that brought everyone out to the deck.  “Skua!”  A massive dark bird with white flashes in its wings bullied its way over the horizon.  The Great Skua circled the boat at about 2oo meters out before alighting on the water allowing everyone to drink it in.  Skua are notorious bruisers, ruthless and fierce, and there’s scarcely another bird on the sea it won’t shake-down for a meal, but something about our boat didn’t sit right with this one.  Perhaps the proportion of gulls to gannets among our chum-chasers was too low, as after sitting tight for a few minutes it once again headed over the horizon and we headed back into the cabin to warm ourselves.

We pulled into the dock after dark, and once again I was faced with my crippled car.  The next day, having stopped at nearby Pea Island NWR for a bit of post-pelagic birding on the way home, I met two people who would play a central role on all of my Hatteras dealings from that moment forward.  Neal and Pat Moore, a retired couple living in Hatteras and volunteering at Pea Island, directed me to the only open garage on the Outer Banks, where my car was fitted with a used and only slightly wrong-sized tire to get me home at regular highway speeds. So these things tend to work out.

The car, however, was sold not two weeks later. Sure that little Civic had handled many a mile with me, but crapping out before a pelagic is the last straw.

REDPHA by davidhoffman08 via flickr (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)
GRESKU from wikipedia

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