Sunrise as we headed out to sea.
This weekend I was lucky enough to join about 45 other birders on a pelagic trip out of Hyannis, MA, on Cape Cod. This was part of the Brookline Bird Club’s “Extreme Pelagic” series. Why extreme? Well, we left at 5 am on Saturday, August 28th and returned 38 hours later, after traveling over 150 miles out to sea and seeing some great birds!
As we motored out of Hyannis and passed Nantucket, everyone was optimistic. It was turning out to be a sunny day with light winds, not too cold and not too hot. Common and Black Terns flew by, but their numbers dwindled the farther out we went. It would take about 6 hours to reach the continental shelf, but there was no reason why birds couldn’t be found sooner! A small sandpiper flew by, appearing long-winged and with a brownish wash to the face and neck. It wasn’t seen well, but I was pretty confident it was a Baird’s Sandpiper. Not long after, a large flock of large shorebirds was spotted to the west. Whimbrel was the first guess, but photos revealed that, no, they were Hudsonian Godwits in the midst of a very long migratory flight to South America, quite a rare sight. The day was off to a good start.
A flock of 51 Hudsonian Godwits. Others' pictures came out better than mine, and the structure and bills of the birds are more clearly visible.
As we continued on, birds were spotted sporadically. A small group of Sanderlings here, assorted gulls there. Then the boat started to turn around, and it was quickly announced that we had passed a possible skua on the water. Skuas are very high up on the ocean food chain. Big, bulky aggressive birds, they (like jaegers) often steal food from gulls. There are two possible species, South Polar and Great, with South Polar spotted more in summer. Neither is seen very often.
A skua alright, but which kind?
Brown tones and a white spot behind the eye . . .that’s no South Polar, it’s a Great Skua!
We threw some chum into the water for this guy and he came in a little closer!
Great Skua is a hard-to-find bird in the northeast, and it set the tone for the rest of the trip. Soon after we left the skua, we crossed paths with our first Great Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel.
Great Shearwater (formerly "Greater")
Nantucket was getting smaller and smaller, and pretty soon it was out of sight altogether. It was just us and the birds (and the mammals). I went out onto the bow, to hopefully have a better chance of photo-ops. Then, a cry came up from the back of the boat. Two jaegers were flying toward us! The captain quickly slowed us down to give them a chance to catch up. Marshall Iliff, one of our leaders, quickly identified them, “Structurally, they’re Long-tailed Jaegers!” As the birds flew overhead, the first was definitely a Long-tailed, but photos revealed the second to be the slightly larger Parasitic Jaeger. Both were juvenile birds – hard to identify.
Long-tailed Jaeger. Notice the round-tipped middle two rectrices (tail feathers), the slender shape and small bill.
Parasitic Jaeger. Slightly more bulky, with pointed middle tail feathers (not really visible in this photo).
After a while the water started to get noticeably warmer – at one point it reached 80 F – meaning we should be on the lookout for some of the rarer, more southern species. We chummed a bit, throwing out popcorn and bits of suet, which attracted quite a following of storm-petrels. Soon a Leach’s Storm-Petrel was spotted. Although they look very similar, there are some subtle differences in plumage (Leach’s has no white on undertail coverts, carpal bar is paler than Wilson’s but reaches the leading edge of the wing), but the easiest way to differentiate the two is by flight style. Wilson’s Storm-Petrel has a very swallow-like flight, where as Leach’s has a much more bounding nighthawk-like flight. Leach’s is also distinctly longer-winged.
Wilson's Storm-Petrel, liking our popcorn.
A small group of Wilson's.
Great Shearwater, also attracted by our chumming.
Scanning through the Wilson’s, I saw an orange bird among them. Huh? It was a Baltimore Oriole – no doubt lost at sea. The poor bird was so tired that it landed on the boat. Jeremiah Trimble, one of our leaders, just picked it up, but it was so emaciated (probably flying for at least 24 hours) that it didn’t care. I think it started eating a little bit and made it back to land via cardboard box, where it was released.
Hatch-year Baltimore Oriole.
We left the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and went farther into Hydrographer Canyon, toward warmer waters. Suddenly, a shout of “White-faced Storm-Petrel!” was heard from the left side of the boat. Everyone raced to the railing to catch a glimpse of the most-wanted bird on the trip. After some searching, I spotted the pale Storm-Petrel ridding the waves in its classic, almost comical, kangaroo-style. The bird sets its wings out, horizontally, and proceeds to hop from wave to wave using its legs, almost like a skipping stone. We found a total of TWENTY-TWO White-faced Storm-Petrels over the weekend (including 17 on the second day), the highest daily and trip count perhaps in all of North America.
An insane look at a White-faced Storm-Petrel.
If the trip stopped then and there, I think everyone would’ve been happy. But we still had a day and a half to go! We started chumming again, and it was late afternoon. Lots of Wilson’s arrived quickly, but one stood out to Marshall.
“I like this bird, I like this bird a lot. For Band-rumped.”
Apparently he had spotted a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, but it was toward the back of the chum slick and not many people could find it. Band-rumped is “intermediate” between Leach’s and Wilson’s in many ways. First, there is a little bit of white on the sides of the rump (Wilson’s has a lot on the rump and undertail coverts, and Leach’s has no white on the undertail coverts). Its wings are longer than Wilson’s but shorter than Leach’s, and it has a faint carpal bar (somewhat like Leach’s) that doesn’t reach the leading edge of the wing (like Wilson’s). Its flight style is more powerful and arcing than Wilson’s, but less nighthawk-like and springy than Leach’s.
We maneuvered the boat to get a better look, but not many people had satisfying views. We moved on a ways and tried chumming from a different spot, and, sure enough, a few Band-rumpeds were spotted, some passing very close to the boat on a few occasions.
A Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Bowed wings in a glide is also a mark for this species.
And, to round out the day, we got great looks at Manx and Audubon’s Shearwaters in the setting sun.
Manx Shearwater. Notice the amount of dark coloration on the face and the white undertail coverts.
Audubon's Shearwater. Notice the much whiter face . . .
. . . And dark undertail coverts.
We anchored near Welker Canyon for the night. On a couple of occasions, storm-petrels, attracted by the light, actually landed on the boat!
In the morning we set sail back along the shelf edge to Hydrographer Canyon, with the hopes of adding to the 5 White-faced Storm-Petrels we had seen the day before, as well as perhaps finding some new species for the trip. Well, we had no problem finding more White-faceds – they were everywhere! By the time we left Hydrographer Canyon we had tallied 17 on the day, making 22 the trip total! The previous trip (2-day) record was 6 and day record was 3. Wow.
We did see other birds, too. Pomarine and Parasitic Jaeger juveniles (no adults on the trip) were found, but didn’t give us nearly as good looks as the skua or the other jaegers had.
Even though this jaeger looked pretty bulky, a look at the tail shows a pointed rectrix, which only Parasitic Jaegers have (enlarged in bottom left).
On the way back toward land, we encountered another skua! Unfortunately it promptly turned around and flew away before we could identify it, and we couldn’t catch up. As a consolation, both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes posed on the water for us.
See if you can find the Red-necked Phalaropes amongst the Reds. Smaller, with darker, more patterned backs and smaller bills.
A flock of 9 Red Phalaropes.
As we left the warm waters and returned to cooler ones, the birdlife changed as well. We started seeing Cory’s Shearwaters again, and pretty soon those gave way to gannets, and then terns and gulls. By that point we knew we were close to land.
Immature Northern Gannet.
As we docked I heard someone say, “Wow, we totally crushed the record.”
“Until next August,” another replied.
Read Full Post »