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My Life’s Birds: #455-460

January 5, 2011
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May 20, 2008 – Pelagic off Hatteras, NC It’s hard to be pretentious when you’re sitting on a small boat in the Atlantic Ocean, far beyond the sight of land for hours on end.  It’s even harder when you’re bent over the railing of a boat, feeding the fishes the ham sandwich that your wife carefully prepared for your lunch, and silently cursing yourself for thinking it was a good idea to pack anything with mayonnaise on it on a pelagic trip.  In fact, there’s scarcely a more humbling experience on which you could find yourself.  But pelagics are like that, equal parts brutal and wonderful, boring and exciting.  The entire expanse of a birding career writ in one day on the waves.

Needless to say, my cold cuttus interuptus was the low point on what really was a fantastic trip.  The end of May is the high point for pelagics out of Hatteras.  While the Gulf Stream is fabulous year-round, late spring offers the best opportunity for birds on different breeding schedules, from Arctic summer nesters like the Jaegers to southern hemisphere birds here on there off-season like Storm-Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters, to eastern Atlantic wanderers who breed on the Azores and Madeiras.  Not to mention the specialty bird of the area, the Caribbean nesting Black-capped Petrels who disperse into the Gulf Stream in numbers in spring following their winter breeding season.  My previous pelagics had been blustery winter trips or calm early fall rides, and while I’d found the commoner species, the possibility for birds of which land-bound birders can only dream is much higher in May.

So once you reach the Gulf Stream, a full two hours at cruising speed later, the boat idles, the jugs of Menhaden oil are released into the ocean, chunks of greasy shark liver are chopped and readied and the birds begin to arrive. First are the funny little Wilson’s Storm Petrels pattering on the surface, followed by those amazing Black-capped Petrels diving through troughs in the waves and circling the boat.  As much as the calm seas might be better for your stomach, the birds prefer the chop and wind.  It is their ether.  While it seems like nothing but endless blue to us, cleaved in perfect halves by the horizon, the micro-millibars of pressure rising off the water and carved by the rolling sea offer a myriad of niches in which the birds are all too happy to slide.  Cory’s and Audubon’s Shearwaters hold tight to the surface, and the aforementioned Petrels, both storm and conventional, are less picky.  But those are the common ones.  The promise of something exciting, maybe even unknown, keeps birders with a mind to stay at the rail for the whole 12 hours.

And when the call comes out you run to which ever side of the boat the crowd gathers and hope for something incredible.  This trip was a doozy, and the call for the first Fea’s Petrel, the soft gray Pterodroma with the coal black underwings, came quickly.  Soon the first Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was sighted as well, and birders did the mental gymnastics necessary to convince themselves they’d seen the long wings and square tail well enough to count it.  The identification issues Storm-Petrels pose are decidedly under-appreciated.  Not only are they small and quick and frustratingly similar, but the behavioral characteristics that make each species unique are difficult for most birders to internalize when you spend only a few hours per year in their presence.  Birders who get them down pat are dedicated individuals, and their presence on a boat is appreciated all the more when a little bird with white bars on the underwings is picked out as a mega-rarity, a European Storm-Petrel.

Alone that’s probably enough.  Add in the Jaegers and the Terns and the common tubenoses and you’ve got a fine day on the water, regardless of whether you leave some lunch in it or not.  Even better when that ham sandwich seems to attract the day’s only Arctic Tern, for which I lifted my head just in time to see before returning to the business of emptying my stomach.  The high highs and the low lows, practically a birding hallmark card.

We returned to port while it was still light so I decided to head for home so I could sleep in my own bed.  Along the way I stopped at Pea Island for a quick scan of the ponds and a look at the ocean.  A Gull-billed Tern flew past as I packed up my scope, ending the day with a full half-dozen lifers.  Not as appropriate as a Sandwich Tern perhaps, but good enough for a day in which while the entire gamut of birding emotion was covered, the ultimate reminder that birding is as surprising an avocation as you can imagine.  And there’s nothing more humbling than unpredictability, not even half-eaten sandwiches.

SOOSHE by marlin harms via flickr (CC BY-2.0)
ARCTER by J. N. Stuart via flickr (CC BY NC-ND-2.0)

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