One of my favorite types of bird watching is "sea birding" or pelagic birding. Similar to hawk watching, you are searching the horizon for birds on the wing, and wondering just what will appear next. The major difference is that this horizon is the endless and deep blue sea, and viewed from the deck of a boat, rather than anchored to a land form. The element of surprise and possibilities of birds at sea offers a constant thrill--at least for me. Pelagic birds are like none other on the wing, and watching them in flight is an awesome experience.
On August 13, 2011, I was fortunate enough to once again go off-shore in search of birds. This time, out of Cape Hatteras, North Carolina. This was my third pelagic in summer, and second out of Hatteras. As with previous pelagic adventures, I was left in awe of the experience, and ready to board another boat the next opportunity I get.
If you think I am crazy, read on...You may still think I am crazy (especially if you are prone to sea-sickness), but you may understand what draws me and many others to these amazing birds at sea.
Most pelagic trips are run by experienced leaders on fishing boats that are either owned by the trip leader, or chartered just for birders. I went with Brian Patteson, out of Hatteras, NC., who is probably the most well known sea birder/pelagic trip leader for the Gulf Stream trips.
Though he once chartered fishing boats for his trip, Brian now owns the Stormy Petrel II, a boat which nicely accommodates birders and fishermen alike (though, not typically on the same trip--however, that doesn't mean you won't see a pole or two dragging behind the boat at times).
The Stormy Petrel II
Brian Patteson's 61 foot vessel for pelagic birding trips
The Stormy Petrel II left the dock at about 5:45am (we had to arrive no later than 5:30am), and traveled approximately 35 miles off shore to the deep sea canyons and the Gulf Stream. At one point, Brian announced the sea depth to be over 3,000 feet.
It was nearly a twelve hour trip. Unlike other Atlantic Coast departure ports for pelagic trips, when you leave from Cape Hatteras, you are "into birds" within two hours. More precisely, you have hit the canyons and the nearby warm waters of the Gulf Stream within that time.
I've done a few trips out of Virginia Beach, and while great trips, it takes several hours to get to the canyons and "into" the birds. The ride out and back in can be long and bird-less. Trips out of the mid-Atlantic and northern Atlantic are similar in proximity to the canyons (several hours). I'm not saying they aren't worth it, because they can be fantastic and I'll certainly do another sometime. But Hatteras trips are more bang for your buck, if you will.
The most encountered family of birds at sea are what are called "Tubenoses". This includes shearwaters, fulmars, petrels, and storm-petrels, but also the albatrosses and diving petrels (southern hemisphere). The "Tubenoses" are aptly named in that there are special tube structures on the top mandible of the beak. These tubes are nostrils, and technically called naricorns. Naricorns are specialized to expel the salt in sea water these birds consume (which was filtered out by special internal salt glands), and provide the sense of smell for finding food on the open oceans. This fantastic adaptation is unique to sea birds, giving them the ability to survive on salt water, thus enabling them to spend years without returning to land.
Cory's Shearwaters, true "Tubenoses", float by the Stormy Petrel II offering the opportunity to have a closer look at the naricorn.
Pelagic birds have wings specially structured for their flight style and feeding behaviors. Most all wings are exceptionally aerodynamic, and offer the bird the ability to soar and glide adeptly on what winds are offered to them, spending little energy on flapping. After all, it's probably not all that easy to "make a living" as a sea bird, and finding the next meal could be a challenge. Burning less calories while flying make survival a bit easier.
The Black-capped Petrel is one of the speciality birds of a Gulf Stream pelagic trip. We were lucky enough to encounter quite a few of these superb fliers. Check out the shape and length of those wings.
While the boat is moving, she's dragging "chum" from the stern (back end). Chum on the Stormy Petrel II was frozen mashed fish parts (cinder block size) put into a wire mesh cage (much like a giant suet cage feeder). Also, gallon jugs of Menhaden Oil were punctured on the bottom, and left to drip a continuous slick as they hung from the stern. Think: bird feeders at sea... And, it works! The more slick or chum introduced, the faster and more birds we seemed to see. Especially in the case of the Storm-petrels, who were particularly attracted to the fish oil that first mate and spotter extraordinaire, Kate Sutherland, released in attempts to bring them closer to us.
Wilson's Storm-Petrels hop or dance on the surface of the sea as they feed on chum and fish oil slick provided to attract them.
Check out the bright yellow webbing on the feet of this little bird
The Wilson's Storm-Petrels was probably the most numerous bird species we saw, and what a special treat it was to watch these little guys come in to feed on the surface.
The Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, is slightly larger and a longer winged bird. A few were combed out of the moving groups of Wilson's, due to their different shape and flight style.
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel glides over the surface of the ocean in search of the source of the fishy smell it detected
Possibilities of tern species more often encountered at sea, such as Sooty and Bridled Terns, exist on summer pelagic trips. At one point, we looked up and saw two high flying terns speeding in to check out the "scene" created by our chum. These guys were two Bridled Terns.
Sooty Terns did not make an appearance on this trip, much to my dismay (I've got a weakness for terns). These fierce sea terns didn't stay long, but I managed to grab a quick shot of one before they took off.
Bridled Tern with Wilson's Storm-Petrels
While at sea, we only saw six "Tubenose" species:
Great Shearwaters (my photos didn't do them justice), Band-rumped Storm-Petrels (best image above),
and the Wilson's Storm-Petrels.
On the way out, we did see a few tern species: Black, Sandwich, Royal, and Common. Some distant and unidentified shorebirds were seen, as well as some gulls. While less than fifteen species doesn't sound like a lot for a day's worth of birding, it is satisfying, considering you don't get to acquaint yourself with any of them too often.
Also, pelagic trip leaders are happy to show you other ocean life, especially: whales, sharks, and dolphins. Several Bottle-nosed Dolphins "played" along side the boat, close enough for us to hear their vocalizations, and see details in the surface of their skin. That experience is always just as amazing as seeing sea birds. On other trips, I have seen Hammerhead Sharks and a few whale species.
I should mention, there are trips that run off-shore much closer to home. See Life Paulagics, run by Paul Guris, offers chartered boat trips from Cape May, NJ and Lewes, DE. Paul's trips are stocked with excellent and well known spotters to find you birds. I have heard many great things about his trips through the years, and hope to attend one in the near future.
If you own a digital camera, this is a good chance to try your hand at sea bird photography. This was the first pelagic trip I brought a camera with me. I must say, this was the most challenging feat with a camera I have encountered. A rocking boat, the swelling sea, and moving birds present challenges I wasn't prepared for. I took over 1300 images. I trashed about 1285. That said, it's a ton of fun to try and capture images of the birds you will see, and worth it to bring home souvenirs of your trip.
If you get a chance to get off-shore for some birding, I hope you can take it. And when you go, I wish you "fair winds and following seas" and a trip chock-full of tubenoses and other ocean specialties!