January 27, 2007 pelagic trip from Oregon Inlet, NC aboard Stormy Petrel II

We ran our first trip of the year here off Cape Hatteras, NC on Jan. 27.  We ran departed from Wanchese aboard our own Stormy Petrel II, the first birding trip on this boat.  After we cleared Oregon Inlet, it was obvious that it was going to be a good test of the boat's seaworthiness as the wind was freshening all the time.  In order to get a decent angle for tacking offshore, I headed straight into the southwest breeze all the way to Wimble Shoals.  Here we began to see a few gannets and gulls, which readily came to feed on our chum.  We were hoping to draw in a skua, but we had no such luck.  Great Skuas, which are regular in winter here, are often found just a few miles off Hatteras Island.

Knowing it would take a while to get offshore, I decided to tack out from Wimble Shoals buoy.  This made for kind of a wet ride with all the wind we had, but it was not really uncomfortable on the Stormy Petrel II.  Birds, however, were really scattered, and we had to go farther than I expected to find much activity.  About 25 to 30 miles out, there were many Bonaparte's Gulls and a few small flocks of Red Phalaropes.  The sea surface temperature here was a bit warmer than inshore- in the mid 50's rather than the mid 40's.  The satellite image from the night before had shown some Gulf Stream water a few miles farther out, and we decided to go for that since the cooler water had been devoid of the characteristic boreal birds such as auks, fulmars, and kittiwakes.  We reached the Gulf Stream around midday, and truly did not find much life there either, but after riding comfortably down sea for a little while, we did have a Black-capped Petrel come in and closely circle the bow for a couple of minutes.  By now, we had 25 to 30 knots of wind, and we were seeing this bird in its element.  For many participants, it was a lifer, but even for myself and other experienced seabirders, it was an awesome sight to see a bird move with such agility in those conditions.  Unfortunately for us, the current was whisking us north much too quickly to keep going down sea for long, so I pointed the bow toward Oregon Inlet, 38 miles away. 

I must say that I was suitably impressed by how this boat handled the big head seas we found while leaving the blue water.  Amazingly enough, a few of us even got a quick look at a couple of Cuvier's Beaked Whales while we were still outside the shelf break, a lucky sighting given the conditions.  Back in the cooler green water, things settled down a bit, and we found many Bonaparte's Gulls, a few more Red Phalaropes, and several Razorbills, but none of the other real pelagic seabirds which we have seen here on previous January trips.  I suppose that is the result of a mild winter right on through most of January, but I've never been very fond of blustery southwest winds for any sort of pelagic birding here.  Those conditions seem to scatter the birds quite a bit, perhaps mostly far to sea.  Neveretheless, you have to go looking if you are going to find something, and I recall not all sou'westers are fruitless; we once found a Black-browed Albatross off the Virginia Capes on a day like this. 

Though we saw many hundreds of Bonaparte's Gulls on Jan. 27, we did not spot a single Little Gull, a species we have seen here at sea many times in winter.  Pelagic seabirds of note for the day were one Black-capped Petrel, 82+ Red Phalaropes, and 11 Razorbills.  The latter species sometimes makes a big entry to our waters in February, so I would not take that count as an indicator of what to expect here over the next couple of weeks.  I have also seen good influxes of Dovekie and puffin just a few miles offshore here in mid February when the cool water pushes down the beach.  

I would like to thank members of the Carolina Bird Club for making the Jan. 27 trip possible, and Nate Bacheler and Nate Dias for helping to spot and tally birds on that trip.  Steve Jones and Scott Dannettel kept the chum going, and even if it didn't bring in a skua, we had a great gannet show.  And I must say the Stormy Petrel II is a good sea boat.  She is only about five feet longer than the "old" boat, but the hull is massive.  We also have more room up front than on the old boat, which will be very nice in more favorable conditions.  I'm excited about it, and I hope that many of you will come offshore with us this year. 

Brian Patteson