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My Life’s Birds: #448-450

December 8, 2010
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February 16, 2008 – Pelagic off Hatteras Knowing that a winter pelagic was absolutely necessary for any reasonably competitive Big Year in North Carolina almost put me off of the attempt right then and there.  I say that as someone who loves getting out on the water… in the summer.  Any birder in the winter knows that the key to warmth is to get out of the wind and stay away from the water.  The one thing you can do to practically assure that you’re going to be in those awful conditions is to find a boat and take it out into the Atlantic Ocean beyond the sight of land.  Water?  This is the ocean after all.  Wind?  What’s to stop it?  Birds?  Eh, more or less.  You just have to brave some pretty seriously extreme conditions, even on the best days, to enjoy them

In addition to the obvious comfort issues, winter pelagics pale in comparison to their summer pelagics in diversity too, especially for those quintessential pelagic species, the tubenoses.  You’re unlikely to find the graceful Pterodromas or the lanky Shearwaters or the wind-up toy Storm-Petrels.  Many of those birds are plying the southern oceans; some nesting on desolate islands around Antarctica, some winging their way far and wide waiting for the winds to turn and the call to reproduce to pull them back to islands in the north Atlantic.  No, seemingly the only tubenose left on the whole wide ocean this time of year is the sturdy and pugnacious Northern Fulmar, the bird those original human pliers of the north seas, the Vikings, referred to as foul-gull in a reference to their caustic stomach oil used to discourage predators and feed chicks.  It works though, the North Atlantic in winter is no fit place for a bird that doesn’t have a little bit of nasty to deal with it.  We saw several of them, jetting in and out of the long tail of Gulls and Gannets that follow the boat looking for chum and successfully battling the much bigger birds for tasty fish guts.

As if to remind us that tubenoses are always full of surprises, the occasional Manx Shearwater, like the two birds just below the horizon that found out boat wanting, sticks around too.  But make no mistake, the bitter cold is the realm of the Fulmar, and it tolerates the Shearwaters out of necessity only.

But birders don’t go on winter pelagics to see the tubenoses, the targets for boats in the cold months are arctic in origin, the auks.  Razorbills are fairly common in North Carolina waters in the winter, and a pelagic at the right time can come across significant numbers.  Other auks, like Murres and Puffins are found a couple times a year annually.  But the holy grail for the Carolina pelagic in the winter is the cute little Greenland breeding Dovekie, known the rest of the world by their more appropriate name, Little Auk.  Dovekies are irruptive, coming into our waters in big numbers once every five to ten years.  You’re not apt to see them every time, but lucky for me 2008 was a Dovekie year.  The weekend before, the boats found several hundred.  We were not so lucky, with only a flyby pair, beating past the boat on whirring wings like pied bumblebees.  It was good enough for #450 though, and a great bird for North Carolina.  Enough, almost, to make the nausea and chill worth it.

Now I can say I’m done with winter pelagics.  Just like last time.

NORFUL and DOVEKI from wikipedia

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4 Comments
  1. December 8, 2010 7:42 am

    “Enough, almost, to make the nausea and chill worth it.”

    Hmmmm, that “almost” over there makes me think you might not be a totally dedicated birder after all… 😉

  2. December 8, 2010 11:56 pm

    Wow a Dovekie! Nice tick. The only one that I have seen was during a musical chairs vertebrate zoology lab exam. No music playing during this section of the exam but we had 1 minute to answer a question at each station. A bird specimen was at one, the Dovekie, and I was not yet a birder but still managed to correctly identify the bird. Now all I need is to see a living specimen. Pass the gravol please.

  3. Nate permalink*
    December 9, 2010 8:48 am

    @Jochen- A winter pelagic can certain test the resolve of even the hardiest birder.

    @Bob- I skinned a Dovekie at the state museum some time ago, they’re quite cute close up, like little footballs.

  4. December 9, 2010 2:26 pm

    Quality life bird and one I still need!

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