My Life’s Birds: #503
June 11, 2011 – off Hatteras, NC – They arrive out of nowhere, coursing inches above the water in the troughs of the waves and obscured by even a foot of swell until they’re right on top of you. The call goes up. Great Shearwater, 4 o’ clock, going left and coming in. A quick stiff flap, a trailing wingtip just touching the surf as they bank to the back of the boat and collapse all at once into the slick created by the mixture of a menhaden oil jug pierced with a rusty hook and an improvised cage filled with frozen fish guts, both tied to the back rail and dragged behind the boat. The little Wilson’s Storm-Petrels who, up to now, had held court squabbling among only themselves at the stern scatter at its arrival.
It’s not as big as the lankier, blonder Cory’s Shearwater that is generally more common at anytime of the year off the coast of North Carolina, but you’d never know it by attitude. Cory’s stay away from the boat, making quick passes and rarely settling on the water. They’re easy going, even nonchalant in their deep lazy wingbeats and complacent demeanor. That’s not true of the Greats, however, whose pugilistic attitude shows through with every move they make. The first bird we had, my life individual, circled the boat twice and settled in the wake where it shook off a small mob of Storm-Petrels to take more than its fair share of fish guts. Never sated, the same bird leap-frogged back to the stern plunging into the water with a defiant wheeze, a noise not unlike an agitated Catbird onshore. This vocalization was notable since pelagic birds are mostly silent at sea, and prior to this Shearwater sneeze, the only sounds I’d even heard from tubenoses were the soft chuckling cackles of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels on the rare occasion they’d come close to the boat. This Great Shearwater is a different bird, indeed.
We saw plenty of them, sometimes multiple birds in view at one time, always a good way to welcome a life bird to your list. This was, in fact, one of the reasons I wanted to schedule a trip in June rather than one in late May. The numbers of Great Shearwaters peak later than most species, and June is the time to find them. That means some of the other, snazzier, birds that people travel to North Carolina to see would be less likely, but I wanted Great Shearwater. And I got it, attitude and all.