Winter 2008 Trip Reports - scroll down to read past reports

February 16 & 17, 2008 Trip Report

We had a salty (literally) crew aboard last weekend on our pelagic trip from Hatteras on Saturday, Feb. 16.  Fortunately for us, the north wind didn't come on until we had positioned ourselves north of the shoals, so we were able to work offshore to about 50 fathoms southeast of Diamond Tower without too much discomfort.  This course took us out around Diamond Shoals and near the edge of the Gulf Stream.  We saw the first Great Skua not much more than an hour after leaving the dock.  We did not see another one until mid afternoon (about 8 miles southeast of Hatteras Inlet.)  In between, we saw many gulls and gannets, and a few tubenoses, phalaropes and alcids.  Dovekies and Red Phalaropes were flying by at incredible speeds in the 25 knot breeze.  It was nice to be able to tuck in south of the Cape for the afternoon where there wasn't so much fetch.

All day Saturday there had been some interest expressed in going out again on Sunday.  I thought that enthusiasm might have waned by the time we reached the dock, but I was mistaken.  I had my doubts that it would be fit to go the next day, so I didn't call anyone else to come down. But the wind abated somewhat, and so did the seas, by early morning.  So on Sunday morning we set out again with eight eager birders.  It wasn't a matter of if, but when, the wind would come on from the southeast, so we beat it offshore for about an hour into a short choppy swell from the east to get in position early.  I slowed down around 0845, and within 20 minutes we had our first encounter with a skua.  Over the next hour or so, we had some very nice looks at Great Skuas, probably two and maybe three birds.  The morning sunshine lit them up very nicely so that you could see how different they look from the drab South Polar Skua, which we have yet to encounter here during winter.  On Saturday it had been too cloudy to see the red and gold colors as well.  We also had incredibly close looks at a Razorbill and a Loggerhead Turtle Sunday morning.  Dovekies were again difficult to see well, but we did see several, with the last one less than five miles from the inlet.  Other highlights from Sunday were an a adult
Little Gull and a Greater Shearwater, the latter only our second ever for February.

List of Seabirds f/ Feb. 16 and 17
Common Loon
Red-throated Loon
Northern Fulmar
Greater Shearwater - Sunday only
Manx Shearwater
Northern Gannet - many more younger birds than last weekend; all ages in
Brown Pelican
Double-crested Cormorant
Red Phalarope
Little Gull - Sunday only
Bonaparte's Gull
Herring Gull
Lesser Black-backed Gull - many each day
Herring X Lesser- one on Sunday
Great Black-backed Gull
Forster's Tern
Royal Tern- near the inlet Sunday
Great Skua

I would like to thank everyone who came out, and George Armistead, Dave Shoch, and Kate Sutherland did an excellent job leading the trips.  Dave was on the first winter trip that I organized and led back in January 1988 from Virginia Beach!

We set some records over the weekend- most winter trips in a year - Seven, and the most winter Saturdays in a row - Five!

January 26, 2008 Trip Report

The forecast for yesterday turned out to be fairly accurate. I wish more people had been able to go, but I'm glad we went .  We had less than 10 knots of wind in the morning, a great condition for seeing alcids.  With the cloudy conditions, we didn't leave the marina until 0645, but by 0720 we had stopped and were looking at a Dovekie just a few yards away. Not long after that, we had good looks at Razorbills. We steamed up and across the cut at Diamond Shoals, and started chumming.  It took a while to recruit some gulls and gannets, but we got them going, and we coaxed them to follow us up the beach to waters a few miles off Avon, where we saw more Dovekies and Razorbills scattered throughout and a good number of Red-throated Loons.  We also saw a Northern Right Whale, one of the world's rarest marine mammals, along this stretch.  In past trips (including last weekend) we have sometimes found Great Skuas less than five mile from shore.  No such luck Saturday, so we headed offshore.  Less than nine miles off, we found a young Atlantic Puffin.  There were more Dovekies and Razorbills offshore, and a young "Nelson's" Gull, which we had chummed up off Cape Point, followed us for many miles.  "Nelson's Gull" is the relatively common hybrid between Glaucous and Herring Gulls.  It is not common here, but probably as likely as Glaucous Gull at Cape Hatteras, based on my experience. Farther out to sea we saw a few Northern Fulmars, but they did not follow us around the way they did last weekend.  We saw another puffin, but no Great Skua this time.  I think these were the earliest puffins I have seen south of Oregon Inlet, and I would expect more in the weeks to come.

We will add the trip list to the website soon, but I think the final tally was something like 80 Dovekies, 70 or more Razorbills, two Atlantic Puffins, five Northern Fulmars, and several hundred Northern Gannets.  There were many Lesser Black-backed Gulls present all day long.

The number of Dovekies seen on Jan. 26 was the most I have ever seen in a day offshore here, and to put it in perspective, it probably exceeds the number of Dovekies that we have seen on all of our trips here in the last decade.  We sometimes go a couple of years with no Dovekies at all on these winter trips, so I don't recommend waiting until next year if Dovekie is a bird you want to see.  There are certainly no guarantees they will be present for all of the trips, but this is the most to be seen off  the Outer Banks for many years.  They nest in Greenland, so it is a long trip for them to Cape Hatteras.

January 19, 2008 Trip Report

We began our winter program of seabird trips off NC Saturday, Jan. 19 with a trip from Hatteras aboard the Stormy Petrel II.  Fortunately for us, the large swell from the day before had abated, and there was very little wind when we began our trip.  We ran straight to Diamond Shoals, where two weeks earlier there had been some Dovekies around.  We did not find any Dovekies, but there were a few Razorbills buzzing around there.  I slowed the boat down, Kate Sutherland began chumming, and we soon had a flock of Northern Gannets and various large gulls feeding behind us.  A Great Skua put in a brief appearance here less than three miles off the beach.  It seemed to be heading offshore, so after a couple of circles, we headed east, but did not see it again.

About ten miles out, we saw our first Northern Fulmar, which was attracted to the gull flock and came back to sniff out some fish oil we poured out.  As we continued on our way to the east, we saw more fulmars and the occasional Black-legged Kittiwake.  The water was fairly cold, in the low 50's.  A Common Loon paddled around out here not far from Diamond Tower.  Small numbers of Bonaparte's Gulls came to investigate our flock.  A single adult California Gull joined the flock for a while and at one point it was the closest gull to the boat, identifiable to the naked eye.

It was a bit unclear how far offshore the Gulf Stream edge was, as clouds had obscured the satellite photo and there were no boats fishing close by to give us a report.  We continued out beyond 200 fathoms but we never reached the blue water, which is unusual even in winter.  There were many more Bonaparte's Gulls out in this deep water, but not the sort of concentration one typically sees at the Gulf Stream change.  With a forecast for strong winds coming on later in the afternoon, I elected not to chase the current edge any farther, and we headed back inshore.

While we were watching a feeding flock of Bonaparte's Gulls in about 35 fathoms, a single Red Phalarope flew in and circled the flock a few times.  We also saw a couple of Loggerhead Sea Turtles in this vicinity.  Fulmars continued to follow and feed on our chum.  At one point there were seven milling around the boat.  The fulmars actually followed us in to within less than three miles of the beach west of Cape Point.  I can't recall seeing them this close to shore in the past.  I was expecting to see several Razorbills on the return leg of the trip, but we only saw a couple.  Choppy conditions were not ideal for spotting alcids on the water, but the wind didn't really come on strong until we were nearly back to the dock.  Nor did the hard rain begin in earnest until then either, thankfully.

It had been a cold gray day on the water, but a birdy one.  We had anywhere from several dozen to a few hundred birds around us all day.  If you've never been out to sea here between November and March, you should see what it's like.  There is a big difference between watching the gannets fly by at Cape Point and being out AMONG the gannets.  Most people don't realize how vocal they are.  At this point there are still a number of younger gannets around though the vast majority are adults.  Gannets often take five years to reach definitive adult plumage, and on this trip we saw all the age classes.

Gulls were not as numerous as they sometimes are, but we haven't had much commercial fishing effort in the vicinity of the Cape this winter yet.  If that changes, we can probably expect more gulls.  Nevertheless, we probably saw 20 or more Lesser Black-backed Gulls and one oddball, which could have been either a Herring X Lesser cross or a Yellow-legged Gull. We generally do well finding Little Gulls when there are more Boneys around, particularly at the Gulf Stream edge.  And more gulls and gannets often means more skuas, and we have often seen three or four in a day on past trips.  The Hatteras area has been the best place in the eastern U.S. to see Great Skua for a number of years now.  If cold water stays south for a while, it could be a very interesting year for seabirds.  I actually prefer a somewhat closer Gulf Stream for winter trips here because it concentrates the birds and their food, but there are some occasions when warm water spills so far inshore that it ruins the winter seabirding here.

I think the early showing of fulmars and Razorbills is an encouraging sign for the rest of the trips we have planned this winter.  Sometimes these birds don't arrive until February.  When we get to the Gulf Stream, we sometimes see hundreds of Red Phalaropes. 

Just two weeks ago there were a few Dovekies around here.  It will be interesting to see if more come down with the cold water and brisk northerly winds.  I have never seen the large numbers here that we've seen off the Virginia Capes, but having run only one to three winter trips a year here since 1994, I think it's safe to say there is much to be seen and learned yet. 

I don't have the trip list here with me right now, but I will post it to the website when I get a chance.  This report includes all of the seabirds of particular interest.