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The Pelagic Guarantee

June 20, 2011

A pelagic trip is a crapshoot. It’s probably the closest thing in birding to buying a lottery ticket and crossing your fingers.  You picks your day, you lays down your money – a not insignificant chunk of change – and you takes your chances.  Big Storm-Petrels are at 3:1.  Rare Pterodromas are 15:1.  Albatross?  If you have to ask…  Step right up folks, test your luck.

But the one sure thing on just about every trip out of any port on the Atlantic coast from April to September is the Wilson’s Storm-Petrel.  These little seabirds, impossibly small given the incredibly harsh world they live in, are easily the most numerous species on any pelagic voyage.  In fact, their presence is essential, as the best way to attract the special birds, the ones you hope to scratch off on your ticket, is to build up a nice tail of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels behind the boat, drawn to the Menhaden oil slick and fish guts like flies to… well.. Menhaden oil and fish guts.

They’re the party guests that always show up early and stay late, it’s just a good thing they’re so much fun to be around. This is especially true for the Shearwaters and Petrels that use them to find food, Storm-Petrels scattered across the seven seas, little Imperial probe droids dispersed throughout the galaxy to bring back information.  Food.  It just takes one to win the big bucks.

Dipping and diving behind the boat.

Joined by another… and another… and soon you’ve got a little armada trailing behind.

Pattering on the surface of the ocean alongside the boat like horseflies circling a pile of cow dung.

Much is made about the tippy-toe behavior of the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels; how it is this trait that gives the whole group their name.  It’s supposed to evoke Saint Peter walking on water, from whence “Petrel’ is derived.  They have wings though, so it’s less miraculous.  Other Storm-Petrels occasionally do the same, but it’s the long-legged Wilson’s, the most widespread of the family and possibly the most numerous bird on the planet, that has made it an art.

Pause into the wind, and leap forward, trailing globs of sea water behind.

As far as the pelagic lottery goes they’re akin to breaking even on a $3 scratcher.  But sometimes that’s enough to make your day anyway

  1. June 20, 2011 10:24 am

    It looks like a lot of those birds are molting their flight feathers.

  2. Nate permalink*
    June 20, 2011 7:20 pm

    @John- Yeah, these birds were almost exclusively in their pre-basic molts and missing most of their innner primaries. It’s a nice way to differentiate the adults from the first years though, the adults were molting and the subadults showed a complete wing.

  3. June 20, 2011 9:33 pm

    Storm-petrels as Imperial probe droids. Love it.

  4. Nate permalink*
    June 20, 2011 9:41 pm

    @Grant – Probe Droids! Not Drones. I knew I shouldn’t have trusted my shoddy memory!

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