Monday, September 12, 2011

Deepwater Sunday

 [Wilson's Storm-petrels were on our chum slick before daylight, and were in almost constant view out at the Canyon.]

"How long has it been since you've done a pelagic?" Michael O'Brien asked me as we headed back to port.

"East coast pelagic, and like 10 years."

"You're kidding!"

I'm not, and the "east coast" distinction is important, since something like 10 west coast pelagics have come and gone since my last east coast foray. That is, before I got on the boat Saturday at midnight to join many good friends for a Tom Reed - orchestrated trip to Wilmington Canyon.  West coast pelagics spoil you, like, for example, you don't have to get on the boat at midnight so you can get to deep water  in daylight! A 5000+ foot deep submarine canyon comes right into Monterey Bay, to name one favorite pelagic place.

Truly, it was the friends that lured me as much as the birds - hanging out with the likes of TR, Tony Leukering, Dave La Puma, Scott Whittle, Michael O'Brien, Bob Fogg, Sam Galick, Glen Davis, Tom Magarian, Tom Johnson, et. al., people who I spend entirely too little time with anymore, and people who I want on my team for any birding anywhere - because I knew if anything, ANYTHING flew near that boat, someone of us was going to get on it, name it, photograph it, sign, seal and deliver it. Friends like this are good to have, and that's only one reason. And seeing old friends from north Jersey like Pete Kwiatek, compiler of the Hunterdon CBC, or Jim Zamos, or the Senchers, Frank Jr. and Sr., was a bonus.

 [Great Shearwaters were not far behind the Wilson's Storm-petrels, and up to six were in view in the wake at one time.]

As noted above and in my posts from the boat below, we set engine at midnight, and started with the Brown Booby on its channel marker as we passed. Most of us slept on the deck, a feeling I love though a fog bank dampened the experience, literally, because I was sound asleep on my thermarest and was too lazy to pull on raingear before I was pretty damp. Once through the fog, it was a beautiful night, and by dawn we were chumming with oil, fish bits, and Scott's special suet.

Truly, I wasn't expecting the day we had. East coast pelagics for me have been a whole lot of time in a boat, and not lots of birds to show. Luckily, and I'm knocking on wood as I write, I've never once been seasick, and never have had to worry about a patch or a pill to prevent it, either, so at least I knew I'd be comfortable staring at waves under a birdless horizon. But the horizon was anything but birdless, and the waves held bounty too. I'll let the pictures do the talking from here. . .

[Big, floppy Cory's Shearwaters were less common than the Greats, but we still saw a bunch. These are our largest shearwater, and give a prehistoric feel. La Puma and I were talking about how this whole pelagic bird thing evolved, and Cory's reminds me how old the earth is, how much of it is covered with water, and how life originated there.]

[Audubon's Shearwater was a target bird. Most look obviously brown, though some fresh ones can be black. Manx has faster wingbeats, looks black, and with a view like this you can look at the face pattern differences (more white on cheek, and usually in front of eye, for Audubon's.) Note the Sargassum, a free-floating seaweed (algae, technically) of the South Atlantic. When you see it off the mid-Atlantic, you're in warm water and should start looking hard for Gulf Stream specialties.]

[One of several flotillas of Red-necked Phalaropes we saw. Although we did see several Red Phalaropes earlier, and although a few of these look much paler than the others, all these are Red-necked's, something some folks on the boat struggled with. Just because two birds look different doesn't mean they aren't the same species - in this case, the pale ones are all the way to winter plumage.]

 [Another target bird - only two white primary shafts, heavily barred rump, stubby bill, and tern-like flight identified this juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger, which took a swipe at a storm-petrel before catching a little fish on its own.]

 [My second "tropical" tern of the year: we saw a number of Bridled Terns, like this first year individual.]

[Gotta tell you, the non-birds beat the birds on this trip. This Common Dolphin was one of a pod (herd?) of at least 500 individuals, which were surging on the surface, and rode the wake waves of our 110' boat, calling in seeming protest when we slowed down!]

[Life whales: we saw several small groups of Pilot Whales loafing on the surface. Males have crazy broad dorsal fins.]

 [And who knows how many Loggerhead Sea Turtles we encountered? Conditions were idyllic and calm offshore, and while at first I pessimistically figured all these surface-basking animals had something wrong with them (like a balloon stuck in their guts), we encountered a pair mating late in the trip - nothing wrong with those two! Perhaps that's what had all the turtles up and about. Note the barnacles.]

[Fins on the surface often meant a Hammerhead Shark underneath, though we did see an Ocean Sunfish as well, not to mention all the cetaceans.]

[Okay, two birds that trumped non-birds. This male Yellow-breasted Chat gamely followed us part way in, starting about 50 miles offshore. It later flew off, but was still headed generally inland and we are hopeful. . .]

[And this young male Common Yellowthroat was a real inspiration, dodging gulls and terns the last few miles towards shore, then, as we approached Cold Spring Inlet, it surged over the boat and sprinted towards shore. Errant migrants often find themselves over ocean, and needing to redirect - this is part of what spawns Morning Flight in Cape May and elsewhere.]


  1. Hi Don, sadly I have done very little pelagic birding. Trips like this make me very jealous. Next time Tom arranges one, I'm going! Looks like a real dream trip. GREAT photos too!

  2. @ Patrick, it would have been great to have you along!