I have been on many pelagic birding trips out of Westport, Washington and one out of Neah Bay. I also took a short such trip in Maine. All have been fun and productive giving access to many wonderful birds that are rarely if ever seen from land. There are regular pelagic trips that are run out of the Central Coast of California, the San Diego area and Hatteras, North Carolina. A few trips go out of other areas. Each has its own special birds that birders seek on those trips. In addition to the regular fare, there is always the possibility of rarities. All trips offer this possibility but perhaps no area is more likely to find truly rare birds than the ones out of Hatteras run by Brian Patteson aboard the Stormy Petrel II. The list of rarities including mega-rarities is astounding. It was finally time for me to give it a go.
The Stormy Petrel II – Hatteras, North Carolina
Patteson runs some trips throughout the year but from late May through early June, it is his Spring Blitz that has the greatest appeal with an amazing record of rare birds. The general approach is to book at least two trips to insure against weather cancellations and to increase the odds of finding good birds. Some people book 5 or more trips and do it every year – hoping for that truly special bird. Frank Caruso and I reserved trips on June 1 and June 2. The day we arrived in North Carolina – May 29th, the trip had found a Tahiti Petrel, a bird of the Pacific Ocean and is the only record in the Atlantic. Of course we wished we had been there, but it certainly reinforced our decision to take this trip and got our excitement level way up.
In my planning, I figured it was almost guaranteed that I would get four ABA Life birds on the trips: Audubon’s Shearwater, Black Capped Petrel and both Wilson’s and Band Rumped Storm Petrels. I also expected to get a first ABA photo of a Cory’s Shearwater, a bird I had first seen without getting a photo last year in Provincetown. Beyond them, I hoped for maybe one real rarity and if I was really, really fortunate maybe a second one. In any event this was a chance to add a group of ABA Life birds all in one place – something that is getting harder to do.
Pelagic trips leave early. We had to be at the boat at 5:30 a.m. Fortunately our hotel was only a few minutes away, but remember this was 2:30 a.m. West Coast body time. The usual case for pelagic trips is for the Captain to be knowledgeable and for him to be assisted in spotting birds by two or more spotters – who really know their stuff. This was certainly the case with this crew. Brian is an expert himself and his first mate, Kate Sutherland is terrific in every way including really knowing her birds and being really good at getting people on them. There were three other spotters: Steve Howell, a Senior Leader with WINGS Bird Tours and the author of a number of birding books including Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America, Peter Flood, a seabird expert from Cape Cod who was well known by Frank, and Ed Corey, an excellent birder from Raleigh, N.C. who among other things had been the February 2016 “eBirder of the the Month”.
In addition there were many super birders on-board, some of whom had been on numerous Hatteras pelagic trips and were experts in their own right. It was an interesting and fun group from around the U.S. Pelagic birding generally doesn’t “get good” until at least 10 and even as much as 20 or 30 miles out from shore – getting to the deeper water and in the North Carolina case getting out to the Gulfstream. Our weather was great and we were treated to a great sunrise as we left Hatteras.
You never know what the sea conditions are going to be – a function of the tides, the winds and the ocean temperatures among other factors. Our water was not bad – not big waves, but it was a bit rough and the spray caused us to take shelter wherever we could. For me this meant in the cabin which was a bit close and hot and humid, but better than being exposed outside. On the Westport trips there are often birds of interest fairly quickly including gulls, alcids and often Sooty Shearwaters sometimes in the hundreds or even thousands. On this trip it was quiet and almost birdless for the first hour. In Washington the trips have a far greater diversity and number of birds. Usually the best birding is when a processing ship or a trawler is located and there may be hundreds of birds surrounding it. No such opportunities here.
There being far fewer birds in general, the pressure was really on to be ready for any sighting as it could be “a good one”. Early on the birds were found kind of helter-skelter – one or two would appear out of nowhere and may or may not be visible for more than a few moments. Later, Kate would put out some kind of vegetable or fish oil to create a slick and if we were lucky birds would smell this and come in to explore. She also used some menhaden – frozen and then dragged behind the boat in a cage to increase the chum effect.
When we finally got out to the “good water” about 30 miles out, we had our first shearwaters and not long afterwards some petrels and then storm petrels. Birds were never in great numbers and unlike in Washington where they are often right next to the boat coming in for fish parts that are cast out to them, birds were generally further away – often very far out. Nonetheless the spotters were excellent at identifying birds at great distance and directing our attention to them.
I am not going to try to relate the observations chronologically. Among the early birds seen were Audubon’s, Great and Cory’s Shearwaters. I was able to get good looks and ok photos. There was also a single Manx Shearwater. Just a quick look and no time for a photo before it disappeared.
Audubon’s Shearwater (ABA Life Bird)
Cory’s Shearwater – New ABA Photo
The next birds to show up were our first Black Capped Petrels. These were the second most numerous of the species seen and were easily identified by their white rump. It was another ABA Lifer for me.
Black Capped Petrel – ABA Life Bird
The most numerous birds were the Wilson’s Storm Petrels – another new life bird for me. They are less than half the size of the Petrels and just under a third of the size of the the Shearwaters. They often came in close to the boat following the slick and picking bits of food off the water. But they are very small and active and not always easily photographed. But I took many photos so some did come out well.
Wilson’s Storm Petrel – ABA Life Bird
The Wilson’s Storm Petrel has relatively long legs which extend behind the tail in flight – a good way to distinguish them from the larger, slower flying, longer winged and shorter legged Band Rumped Storm Petrels. Kate was particularly good at calling out the relatively few Band Rumps and I eventually got decent looks and ok photos.
Band Rumped Storm Petrel (Note that legs do not extend behind tail) – ABA Life Bird
It was maybe about 9:00 a.m. and I had now seen all of the expected new species for the trip – four ABA Life Birds. I had the cake and now it was time for some icing. Frank Hawkins, one of the long time participants in these trips shouted out “Fea’s Petrel“. Everyone raced to the stern and we were able to get quick looks and some photos of this major rarity. Usually one or two is seen each year – usually earlier in late May. This was the first of 2018. There was a celebration onboard.
Fea’s Petrel – ABA Life Bird and a Major Rarity (Note Dark Underwings)
After this excitement we continued to get more of the same birds seen earlier and then a Long Tailed Jaeger made an appearance and stayed with us for more than 30 minutes – harassing the Storm Petrels and Shearwaters.
Long Tailed Jaeger
Everywhere except in the ABA area, a somewhat smaller version of the Cory’s Shearwater is recognized as a separate species called Scopoli’s Shearwater. On this trip we had at least two of these birds which breed in the Mediterranean. Supposedly they will be split off and recognized as a separate species this year or next.
Scopoli’s Shearwater – Potentially an ABA Life Bird after a Split
Early in the afternoon, Frank Hawkins came through again when he spotted a Mega-rarity, a European Storm Petrel. Smaller than the Wilson’s and much faster flying with a quicker wingbeat and white under the wing – a new ABA bird for almost everyone. Only one was seen all last year and two the year before. Getting this together with the Fea’s Petrel was a major coup.
European Storm Petrel – Mega Rarity and ABA Life Bird
Brian and Kate did a masterful job following and relocating this bird and everyone eventually got a view. It meant we got back to the marina a bit later than usual but nobody was at all concerned about that. We also had a very brief look at a single Leach’s Storm Petrel.
Species List for June 1, 2018
Fea’s Petrel 1
Black-capped Petrel 36
Cory’s Shearwater 27 / Scopoli’s Shearwater 2
Great Shearwater 9-11
Sooty Shearwater 1
Manx Shearwater 1
Audubon’s Shearwater 20
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel 130-150
European Storm-Petrel 1
Leach’s Storm-Petrel 1
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel 8-10
Day 2 – June 2, 2018 – met again at the dock at 5:30. Much of the same gang as yesterday with a few new faces. The seas out were a little calmer and the birds seemed fewer with an occasional Audubon’s Shearwater and some Great Shearwaters the first to be seen. Kate got the chum going and HOLY COW! Maybe the first bird in to the chum was a Fea’s Petrel – better and longer looks than yesterday, There was some extra excitement as what appeared to be a relatively small bill had folks thinking of a possible Zino’s Petrel. Sadly not the case but what a way to start the day.
The reality was that the start was the highlight of the day. A first day that that had everything you thought you would get plus two specialties dims everything else by comparison. If we had only gone out on this day it would have seemed spectacular with the same life birds as the previous day except for the European Storm Petrel. There were not as many birds as the day before but all species were represented. It did not seem spectacular to two newcomers who were quite seasick. Not fun for them or to watch.
As with the day before we saw numerous Flying Fish but on neither day could I get my camera focused on them quick enough for a photo. I include one from a spotter below. Another treat was a small Portuguese Man of War – much easier to photograph.
Flying Fish (Photo by Spotter Steve Howell)
Portuguese Man of War
The only new bird added on this trip was a Skua. There was some discussion that it could be a Great Skua but they are very rarely seen except in the Winter. Some concluded it was a South Polar Skua – the likely Skua species and others left it as Skua sp. I barely got a distant look and was not on it in time for a photo. The photo below was taken by David McQuade who was on the boat both days with spouse Tammy. More on them later.
Probable South Polar Skua – Photo by David McQuade
Here are some more photos of the same species seen on June 1st.
Black Capped Petrel
Wilson’s Storm Petrel (Note Legs Extending beyond Tail)
Species List for June 2, 2018
Fea’s Petrel 1
Black-capped Petrel 30
Cory’s Shearwater 14
Great Shearwater 5
Audubon’s Shearwater 76
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel 58-63
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel 8-10
We were back earlier than the day before. There had been reports of Tropicbirds being seen by some of the fishing boats and we were on the lookout for them in the skies all the time but it was just not to be. I checked all of the reports from trips that went out from May 23rd through June 9th – the 17 days of the Spring Blitz. There were no more rarities seen after ours. We had the only Fea’s Petrel and European Storm Petrel for the whole time. White Tailed and Red Billed Tropicbirds had been seen on May 26th and the by now famous Tahiti Petrel was seen on the 31st. Two Trindade Petrels were seen on May 25th. There were a number of trips – particularly in May where there were many Leach’s Petrels. One would have to say that we had done extremely well – especially adding in that there was no rain.
Summarizing, I had seen 11 pelagic species – not a lot compared to some Westport trips where I have seen twice that many species on a single trip, and there is no comparison between the North Carolina and Westport trips for total numbers of birds, but of those 11 species seen, six were life birds and I got another life photo. If/when the Scopoli’s Shearwater is split, that would be another ABA Life bird and photo. Pretty amazing.
ABA Life Birds
- Black-capped Petrel
- Audubon’s Shearwater
- Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
- Band-rumped Storm-Petrel
- Fea’s Petrel
- European Storm-Petrel
- Scopoli’s Shearwater (Contingent)
ABA Life Photos
- All of the above plus Cory’s Shearwater
I mentioned David and Tammy McQuade above. I spent a lot of time visiting with both of them. They are very active, very passionate and very excellent birders. They discovered this activity together about five years ago and have jumped in big time – birding almost entirely together and then with many others including people I have met or read about. They have a great network. Despite having birded only in the Lower 48 and for such a short time, they have each observed more than 720 species. Oh yeah, neither is retired either. Really fun to compare notes and share stories. I envy them their shared birding life and I also envy the 500 mm lens that Tammy uses quite well to take super photos. It was great to visit with many others as well. People had birded all over the world with great stories and great birds seen. Good company.
Also great to be out with Kate and Brian. They run a first class operation. Can’t imagine how little sleep they got during the Blitz.