Winter Trips – Over the last several years about 70% of our scheduled pelagic trips from January to March have made it offshore. About 35% of these trips went on the Sunday weather date. In the case of extremely bad weather (like a northeaster or strong cold front) a trip may be cancelled the day before. You may call (252) 986-1363 the Friday before a trip to check on trip status. If there is no message to indicate the trip has been canceled or postponed until Sunday, you should plan to show up as scheduled on Saturday morning. Experience has taught us that weather forecasts are often unreliable, particularly 24 hours prior to a departure, so the final decision about whether or not to go will usually be made by the boat captain the morning of the trip.
All Other Trips – Plan to show up at the dock where a decision will be made on the morning of the trip unless really severe weather such as a strong low pressure system threatens the area. In this case, call (252) 986-1363 to find out if the trip has been cancelled or postponed.
Regardless of the season, don’t automatically assume that a trip will be cancelled just because the weather service is forecasting something like 6 or 8 foot seas or 20 or 25 knot winds. Taken in combination, say 20-25 knot winds with 6-8 foot seas, that might be enough to prevent us from going. But if you take those forecasted conditions out of context, say for example a 6-8 foot sea with light and variable winds (i.e., a gentle swell), or a brief period of 20-25 knot westerly winds during the morning (behind us), you might end up with a dreadful misconception of an otherwise pretty day. Remember also, that some weather systems are hard to predict, and we have many years of experience in dealing with this. So, have a little faith. Not much is worse than canceling a pelagic trip and having the weather turn out to be beautiful. Also, don’t figure that we won’t go if it is raining. We often do. Downpours usually let up and the birds are out in the rain!
In the event that a trip is weathered out or if you have additional time, you will find excellent birding onshore near both departure points. The are several eBird “Hotspots” nearby. John Fussell’s book, A Birder’s Guide to Coastal North Carolina provides excellent information about birding the North Carolina Outer Banks, and the North Carolina Birding Trail is another good source for sites and info.
When it comes to getting the most out of a pelagic trip, two words come to mind: preparation and participation. Time and time again, we find that those birders who have done their “homework” before heading out, and those who take an active role in scanning and calling out birds that they spot, are the folks that see the often tough birds on these trips: the high, distant tropicbirds, the fast moving rare gadfly petrels, and the rapidly disappearing skuas.
Lets talk about preparation first. While it is true that relatively little is known about pelagic birds compared to many other species, quite a bit has been written about their identification and habits. Peter Harrison’s guide to seabirds was all that we had for many years, but most of the modern North American field guides do a pretty good job covering the pelagic birds nowadays. For the enthusiast, I highly recommend Steve Howell’s recent work Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America. You can get it from Buteo Books and other sources. It is well written and Steve captured many of the images right here on trips with us off Cape Hatteras. There are also a variety of other books you can get to read more about gulls, jaegers, terns, and other groups of seabirds.
Next, pore over the our trip reports and images at seabirding.blospot.com/ This will give you an idea how the birding here varies from day to day and from year to year. Also the images show better in electronic format than they would in print because there is inherently more dynamic range looking at a lit image.
Now that you have studied all of the illustrations and read other relevant ID material online or in journals, don’t open your books when you’re birding at sea. Instead concentrate on looking at the birds. Take notes. Pay careful attention to size, shape, structure, flight style, color, plumage, and behavior, and use these features to help you make an identification. Burn an impression into your mind and maybe take some photos if there is enough time, and then consult the books and the trip leaders. Just don’t get so wrapped up in it that you forget to call out the bird! That brings us to our next topic: participation.
In order for us to have a good pelagic trip, we need active participants. Even three to six leaders cannot always spot all of the birds, even if they’re constantly looking in different directions. Participants ask questions, and that takes our attention from the sea. But that’s good, as we like to answer questions. But, if no one else is paying attention to the ocean, a Bermuda Petrel could fly down the side of the boat and be missed, particularly on a day that is windy and rough. When customers are looking, we see more birds and more people see the birds.
As for questions, again don’t be bashful. Lots of people never ask us about the rare gadfly petrels until after we have actually seen one, and then they aren’t sure what they saw because they didn’t know what to look for beforehand. Some of this knowledge isn’t in the books, but we have it. Ask us for it. People also often spend a lot of time puzzling over Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (and in doing so, miss other birds), because they are unaware how different a Leach’s or Band-rumped will look when we finally run across one. If you are puzzled by these birds, as we all were at one time or another, ask us what to look for, and we will do our best to explain it to you. On the other hand, it pays to study each species carefully to get a feel for it, so that you know something different when you see it.
Finally, as I usually say before each trip, you are not going to see every bird that is called out today, and neither am I, but if you look hard, and you know what to look for, you might find something special.
Additionally, the leaders on BPI trips often bring additional reference material that is relevant each trip, including an extensive personal collection of photographs taken at sea on previous trips, many of which are available for viewing here at our site.
Bird taxonomy is constantly changing. These days there is a trend toward splitting, that is naming species by turning subspecies into “new” species. What’s interesting is that some of these “new” species are not new at all. They are birds that were considered separate species long ago, but were then judged to be conspecific a few years ago when lumping was the trend in bird classification. Thus, a few species which were described many years ago and then lumped together, like the Baltimore Oriole and Bullock’s Oriole, are once again given full species recognition. In the area of seabirds, we are also seeing more splits these days, and this can make it hard to keep up with what is and is not being seen offshore.
A good case in point are the gadfly petrels, known in Latin as the Pterodromas. In the early Nineties we discovered that a small Pterodroma with dark underwings was an annual spring visitor to North Carolina Gulf Stream waters. At that time the bird in question was called the Soft-plumaged Petrel, and it was comprised of three subspecies in its Atlantic range. A proposed split by W.R.P. Bourne to break the Soft-plumaged Petrel into three species was under consideration, but had not been accepted. In their radical reclassification of birds by genetic evidence, Sibley and Monroe listed these three forms as separate species and called them Soft-plumaged Petrel, Cape Verde Petrel, and Madeira Petrel. The latter two names were particularly poor choices because they both refer to birds that breed in the vicinity of Madeira, and the former also breeds at the Cape Verde Islands and not at Cape Verde, which is a peninsula on the coast of Africa. Meanwhile, we deduced, from a number of clues that I won’t discuss here, that the birds that we were seeing were what Sibley and Monroe called the Cape Verde Petrel. An article by Mike Tove in the Birding discusses how these birds were identified. Because they thought Cape Verde Petrel was a poor name choice, the American Ornithologists Union adopted the name Cape Verde Islands Petrel, which was met with considerable criticism because it was cumbersome and it still did not work well because some of the population breeds in the Desertas, which are nearer to Madeira than the Cape Verde Islands. Meanwhile, the Europeans, urged by Bourne, adopted the name Fea’s Petrel (in honor of its discoverer) for the Cape Verde Islands Petrel, and Zino’s Petrel for the very similar and very rare Madeira Petrel, which we have seen just once here off Hatteras in Sept. 1995. Now it looks like Fea’s Petrel has two cryptic species, the Desertas (or Bugio) Petrel and the Cape Verde Islands form, which is called Fea’s because of priority based on discovery.
If that’s not enough to confuse you consider this. The bird that we called Trindade (or Trinidade Petrel was known for many years as the Herald Petrel because along with similar looking birds breeding in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, however, as they were all considered to be the same species. Prior to that the birds were called South Trinidad Petrels. Now genetic studies at Round Island in the Indian Ocean show us that those birds are mostly a hybrid swarm that came about by a colonization by mostly Trindade Petrels, a few Kermadec Petrels, and even fewer Herald Petrels beginning less than 100 years ago.
I hope now that you understand the reason for all of the recent name changes that made it seem like there were possibly seven or more species of petrels that have been found off Cape Hatteras when there were only five. If you thought it was just a conspiracy by pelagic birding trip operators to lure unwitting customers to the Outer Banks, now you know the real story.