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Tuesday, July 29, 2014

North Carolina Pelagic Trip 7/26/2014

L-R Nick Pulcinella, Al Guarente, Gary Becker, Rob MeGraw and George Wrangham
         I've often dreamed about taking a pelagic trip out of Cape Hatteras, N.C. So when George Wrangham asked if I would be interested in going I jumped on the opportunity. Five of us birders ended up getting together for this long trip down to North Carolina. It would be a long 8 hour drive to get there so we left Friday morning at around 7 o'clock. We went by way of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel which is always a treat to drive across. 
George viewing the bridge-tunnel up ahead
          We arrived in Hatteras around 4:30pm and checked into our motel. A quick dinner followed and than a little visit to a nearby beach where we observed Black Skimmers, Common, Royal and Least Terns, Willets, Ruddy Turnstone, Sanderlings and one lonely Whimbrel.

Black Skimmers
Then it was off to bed to get rested up for the 10 hour boat trip the next day.  
         The next morning we had to be at the dock at 5:30am and found out one of our guides on the boat was Tom Johnson, a local guy from the Hershey area that Nick and I know from serving on the Pa Birds Records Committee. There were only 15 participants so the boat had a lot of room to walk around and view the avian creatures that we were hoping to see.
Our home for the next 10 hours
          We all boarded the boat and got the mandatory safety speech and then we were on our way.
Everyone looks so excited, don't they?
          One of the trip participants was a young boy from Virginia who was very eager to start birding.
Leaving the harbor
            Once we left the harbor we hightailed it for about two hours so that we could reach the gulf stream's warmer waters. While we were doing about 18 knots the crew let out a fishing line and within one minute of setting the lure into the water they had a fish take the hook. Going this rate of speed they knew the fish had to be a wahoo because that was the only fish that would be able to keep up with the boat. Sure enough, after a short battle the captain gaffed the fish and brought it aboard for a later meal that evening.
          Soon we started spotting some birds. The first were two Bridled Terns sitting among the Sargasso Grass. These are such gorgeous terns. Dark gray above and white below with white outer tail feathers.
Bridled Terns
Bridled Tern (by Nick Pulcinella)

          One of the more common species of shearwaters that we began to find was the Audubon's Shearwater. Smaller in size than the Cory's and Great Shearwater it is a medium sized bird. Dark upperparts and white below with a long tail and white belly area but the undertail coverts and dark. This feature plus some subtle other differences help separate Audubon's from the similar Manx Sheatwater.
Three Audubon's Shearwater
Audubon's Shearwater (Photo by Nick Pulcinella)

            We were also entertained by a couple sightings of Gervais' Beaked Whales. The second group we spotted actually allowed us a fairly close view. Bottelnose dolphins also were riding the bow of the boat and we could look down into the ocean water and see them swimming on their sides eyeballing us. 
Beaked Whale - believed to be Gervais' Beaked Whale ~ 18' in length
Wilson's Storm-Petrels dancing and prancing on the water
               Wilson's Strom-Petrel were the most numerous pelagic species seen today.
Wilson's Storm-Petrel (Nick Pulcincella) Note feet extending beyond tail and short broad wings

               Finally, after what seemed like a lifetime, we spotted a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel which was a life bird for me. This petrel is slightly larger than Wilson's and the wings are more pointed instead of rounded. The squared off tail is another good field mark, along with shorter legs that do not extend beyond the tail like Wilson's. But the best way to pick them out among the group is by flight style. The Band-rumped has a more powerful and determined wing beat, compared to the butterfly flapping of the Wilson's and the more nighthawk like flight of the Leach's Storm-Petrel which we would see later today.
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel
Leach's Storm-Petrel (Nick Pulcinella)
Leach's Storm-Petrel (Nick Pulcinella)
             We were also lucky to find a few migrating shorebirds. There was a small flock of four shorebirds that flew past which included one Least Sandpiper, one Killdeer (20 Miles out to sea) and 2 Pectoral Sandpipers. We also found our only Red-necked Phalarope of the trip.
Red-necked Phalarope (Nick Pulcinella)

            Throughout the later morning and afternoon hours we were getting some good looks at Black-capped Petrels. Most were distant birds but some came within a 100 yards of the boat.
Black-capped Petrel (Nick Pulcinella)
Black-capped Petrel (Nick Pulcinella)

           Other tubenoses that were spotted today including one Great Shearwater that noboby got a photo of because we were watching the beaked whales, and about a dozen Cory's Shearwaters.
Cory's Shearwater (Nick Pulcinella)
Cory's Shearwater (Nick Pulcinella)
After spending all that time on the ocean it was nice to be getting back to the harbor. Birding in the harbor produced Black-crowned Night-Heron, Snowy and Great Egrets, Common and Royal Terns and many Brown Pelicans. As we entered the harbor the Army corps of Engineers were dredging the channel.

          It was a great day at sea and no one got seasick, probably because it was so calm. We only had three foot waves and a slight breeze all day long. Totals for each species were:  

  85 Black-capped Petrels (mostly black faced but one white faced)
  34 Cory's Shearwaters
    1 Great Shearwater
  45 Audubon's Shearwaters
140 Wilson's Storm-Petrels
    1 Leach's Storm-Petrel
  10 Band-rumped Storm-Petrels
    8 Bridled Terns
    1 Red-necked Phalarope
Of course no trip would be complete without a visit to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse.
Cape Hatteras Light (George Wrangham)
         So I think we all had a good time and were glad to be back to land. Hope to do this again sometime.
Goodbye from Cape Hatteras
Photos by Al Guarente unless marked otherwise.

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