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My Life’s Birds: #430-436

October 13, 2010
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September 15, 2007 – Off Hatteras, NC There’s something that’s sort of amazing about living in or near a place that’s widely considered to be a continental “hotspot”, by which I mean a place that birders from across the nation have on their radars as the place to find certain birds.  You feel a sense of ownership, a small tinge of pride in the fact that this place, that is so easy to consider practically your own backyard, is an A-1 must visit location for so many birders.  When I lived in the Ozark region of Missouri we certainly had our special species.  It’s the only place in the state where you can regularly find Painted Buntings and Greater Roadrunner for instance, and birders from the coasts are always well impressed by Scissor-tailed Flycatchers that dot the barbed wire fences down any rural route in the southwest part of the state.  But all of those species have extensive ranges, and none are difficult to find elsewhere.  I’m referring to something different, something birders who live in places like southeast Arizona or the Lower Valley of Texas would understand.  Because North Carolina has a very special part of the state that seems to turn up rare birds at a rate not unlike those two well established vagrant magnets. It’s Cape Hatteras on the Outer Banks, and specifically, it’s what happens when you take boat from there out into the ocean.

This was my second pelagic, but my first warm-weather one, which as far as personal comfort is concerned is far far (far far far) superior.  It also means the potential for excellent life birds beyond the handful you might find on a winter pelagic.  Birds that can be found in the Gulf Stream where it comes closest to North Carolina, in some cases,  that are not easily found anywhere else on either coast.  That seems weird to those of us not accustomed to the topography of the ocean where one patch looks indistinguishable from any other anywhere on the globe, but there’s something about the way the currents line up here, the arctic Labrador and the tropical Gulf Stream, with the edge of the continental shelf that makes this part of the ocean as special for seabirds as the sky islands of Arizona or the mesquite brushlands of south Texas seems to be for Central American landbirds.  It’s an amazing place, truly one of a kind.

I was trekking out as part of a trip from the Museum of Natural Sciences, led admirably by my friend Becky Desjardins, formerly of the museum.  The rest of the group, museum members and students and the like, had a broad range of pelagic experiences, from old hands to outright newbies.  Pelagics are a very strange, very different way of birding, and a certain set of birding skills are critical.  The best birders on land utilize general impression hones through years of experience as a way to identify birds, but it’s not always necessary.  At sea, this is pretty much the only way its done and further complicated by the fact that few of us spend enough time in this foreign environment to really get good at it.  As such, pelagic birds, even incredibly common ones, are not easily grasped, though starting off a trip with something a little more familiar like Sooty and Bridled Terns, as we did on this trip once we finally reached the pelagic zone, is definitely appreciated.  It wasn’t long after that a Cory’s Shearwater, my first tubenose in its appropriate land-free environs.  This, friends, is what it’s all about.

The crew, the one’s getting paid for their time on the boat, soon got to work chopping fish livers and spreading Menhaden oil.  The long slick ran like a sinewy trail behind the boat as we turned circles concentrating the smelly substance in one spot.  It soon did its duty as little Wilson’s Storm-Petrels arrived as if like magic, pattering on the surface and picking items off the surface far too small for us to see.  Not long after the Pterodromas arrive, the birds that make these pelagics so specials in the form of Black-capped Petrels, truly amazing birds that arc over the water on outstretched wing without wasting a single bit of energy or needing to flap once.  They came by the dozens, individuals likely gathering to return to their nesting grounds in Haiti as Black-caps unlike just about every other species of Northern Hemisphere bird, nests during our winter.

Once the Petrels arrived other birds came too, Jaegers harassing the Pterodromas at every opportunity.  Hawking the birds like cheetahs after gazelle, except instead of their quarry proper they sought to force regurgitate yummy petrel crop fixins.  The most common were Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers, including  a stunning adult Pom as if straight from a field guide.  The boat as a whole determined a Long-tailed was seen as well, but I decided I hadn’t gotten a look enough to call that one myself.  Too bad.  It remains off my list to this day.

The sea was calm that day, which is good for stomachs, but not so hot for birds, and we added little through the afternoon but a pair of Audubon’s Shearwaters that flushed off the water in front of the boat.  The most frustrating miss of the day came when the call came out “Sabine’s Gull!”, and as I rushed forward to get a look at what would be lifer number 8 for the day a triple play of rogue waves slammed the boat knocking me over such that by the time I righted myself the Sabin’es was a gull-shaped (though in retrospect it was a very tern-like gull) dot off on the horizon.  That’s two missed birds on one trip, neither sniffed since.  But that’s the triumph and the tragedy of pelagic birding, and fortunate for me, it’s just in my backyard.  The opportunity will no doubt, come again.

CORSHE by ah_koppelman via flickr (CC BY-NC-2.0)

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