The first day offshore was choppy, if not downright rough, but those conditions have certainly produced some of the most exciting birds of the decade, so hopes were high, as they always are on the opening day of the season. There is something about a pelagic trip, something about knowing you have to turn around and go back to shore -- that future time will be decanted steadily into past time and that at the end of the day, you'll be out of habitat for most of the seabirds you've just seen. The sense of imminent fascination is everywhere -- especially for those who've never been to sea before: everything is new. To see this kind of enthusiasm on a regular basis is one of the best parts of doing a lot of boat trips.
Sometimes the fascination comes in small packages -- a male Blackburnian Warbler hovering inches away from a participant, fifty miles from the nearest land. Or one of the few Arctic Terns of the season, rowing the air by the boat as it completed its 11,000-mile trek northward. The highlight of the day must have been the large numbers of Black-capped Petrels (111), many of them close to the boat, presumably investigating the chum slick behind us for some more tangible morsel. We did not see this many Black-cappeds in the subsequent six trips, though the spring closed with a grand total of 386, which is about average for late May. Most of these birds were molting adults, probably newly arrived from Hispaniola after leaving their chicks to fledge on their own. A distant gadfly petrel with dark underwings, probably a Fea's Petrel, continued to beat a retreat downwind, unchasable alas but evidence that the species was to be hoped for at some point. This scenario would repeat itself the following day, and if you think about it, this is quite normal. Most Black-capped Petrels are observed and identified at some distance; the identification is facilitated by the two large areas of white in the collar (usually) and the uppertail area. The number of Black-capped Petrel that come near the boat, on most days, is fairly small overall, a percentage less than ten, surely. Less than ten percent of the rarer gadfly petrels is probably a very small number, and so it is frequently the case that we see "interesting" or "probable Fea's" or "probable Trinidade" Petrels in the distance and for various reasons are unable to haul after them. For many on board, the highlight of the day were the two cooperative pods of Cuvier's Beaked Whales, a species encountered regularly in this vicinity but a "lifer" even for most veteran whale watchers, at least those who rarely spend time in tropical waters. The Gulf Stream off Hatteras Island may be one of the most convenient areas to study this species anywhere.
The weather of the next three days was -- dare I say -- strangely calm. One never knows what to expect in May, but these days (and the three days of the following weekend) were more like a ferry ride to Ocracoke than an Atlantic pelagic trip. It was hard even to remember when we'd seen a stretch of calm weather like this for birding boats. The morning of the 23rd began well with a dark-morph Trinidade Petrel streaking across the bow. Ned Brinkley noted it in the great distance, following a flight line of several Black-capped Petrels and an Audubon's Shearwaters and radioed it up to the wheelhouse as "gadfly petrel sp.-- going south too far, too fast." And then it turned and came toward the Miss Hatteras. George Armistead, from Philadelphia, had spotted the bird simultaneously from amidships, but -- not being the type to create pandemonium on a birding boat without a firm identification in hand -- walked up to the bow to bring it to the attention of several of the leaders. Captain Spurgeon Stowe brought the speed of the boat to bear on the lovely bird, which showed its characteristic flight style and underwing pattern just a few dozen meters off the bow. A great way to start the day. Armistead had just begun to smoke, though, and he set fire to the boat by spotting a distant tropicbird that was losing altitude and -- ... approaching the boat! A nearly adult-plumaged Red-billed Tropicbird came to land on the water near the boat, and we lost no time sidling up to it. Cameras were brought to bear on the coral-billed bird. (This was to be the pair of species that eluded us the following weekend!) Shortly thereafter, Butch Pearce, working the sky from astern, spotted an odd gadfly petrel moving rapidly away off the port stern -- a light-morph Trinidade Petrel. But the bird slipped away rapidly, and Ned was able to glass it only for a few seconds. For the second day in a row, we were escorted in the shallow water by bow-riding Atlantic Spotted Dolphins, a highly variable small species we see often offshore here.
The next two days held no real "rare" species, but the numbers of several species, Pomarine Jaeger and Audubon's Shearwater among them, had slowly begun to rise, we found the first Bridled Terns (resting on the obligatory boards) of the season, and we saw a good diversity of species, as well as some sea turtles. On the 25th, one of the first birds seen was a Mourning Warbler, which circled the boat several dozen times, looking for a spot to land. Many long-time North Carolina birders haven't seen Mourning Warbler in the state, which provided a chuckle of Schadenfreude for those disappointed in the quest for scarcer seabirds. One birder even started keying out butterflies offshore -- Monarchs for the most part, but even one Goatweed Leafwing! Southwest wind indeed.
The pelagic trips over the next weekend were some of the best in recent memory, with a total of 16 pelagic seabird species and nine cetacean species recorded over three days. The previous Memorial Day weekend's four trips held two seabird species (Red-billed Tropicbird, Trinidade Petrel) not recorded on the subsequent weekend, but the new addition to the cumulative May 1998 list -- Bermuda Petrel, Fea's Petrel, White-tailed Tropicbird, Long-tailed Jaeger -- were worth the wait.
After the choppy trip off Oregon Inlet a week earlier, the May 29 trip there was quite pleasant. The Gulf Stream wasn't quite as far out as it had been, and there was very little wind. We started the morning with a good variety of pelagic birds. In fact, we observed no fewer than nine species as we caught some nice Yellowfin Tuna. The tuna were coming up and chasing bait to the surface and consequently attracting an attendant beehive of shearwaters and jaegers.
Leaving the tuna and shearwaters behind, we journeyed out to the deep in search of rarer game. Our patience was rewarded when Patteson spotted a Fea's Petrel off the port bow. We gave chase and everyone got good looks at the bird as we followed it at a speed of about 22 knots.
The Fea's Petrel actually took us out to some really quiet, unbirdy waters, and we were just about to turn around when we noted some distant flotsam. We headed over to it and saw three Bridled Terns perched on several boards nailed together. We were hoping to catch a Dolphin (Mahi-mahi) around it and did miss hooking a big one as we trolled past, but even more exciting was the Blue Marlin that we saw swimming at the surface. It followed our baits for about a minute but never struck. Still, the marlin was a spectacular sight with his pectoral fins all "lit-up" a neon blue.
We continued in this deep water (~1200 fathoms) and saw some commotion in the distance that turned out to be a Sperm Whale slapping the water with its flukes. When we approached, we found a group of eight Sperm Whales, probably young males, that eventually came to the surface, logging in a "chorus line" formation. If that weren't enough, we ended there catching three big Mahi-mahis (on spinning tackle) that were apparently attending these whales, hanging just beneath them as they do below the flotsam, jetsam, and gulfweed lines.
It was nearly 2:30, time to head back to port, when Patteson spotted an odd-looking gadfly petrel off the port side of the boat again. Not immediately sure of its identity, we gave chase, finally able (after a few minutes of puzzlement) to determine that it was a molting Bermuda Petrel, most likely an adult that had left Bermuda (and its single chick) a week or so ago. We chased it for about 12 minutes, and we were able to obtain good photographs of the ventral surface, as well as several not-so-great photos of the dorsal. A lifer for nearly all on board, it was the third that Butch, Ned, and Brian had documented for these waters.
May 30 was a return to reality. While we had even prettier weather than the day before, we did not find as much diversity, and the numbers of most species, while good, were down a bit from the day before. The big exceptions were Leach's Storm-Petrels and Audubon's seeing so many Leach's Storm-Petrels in one area that we were able to count at least thirty in front of the boat at once. By the end of the trip, we had tallied 136 Leach's, nearly as many as we saw of Wilson's that day. Surprisingly, there weren't that many Band-rumped Storm-Petrels among them, although some of the Leach's made some Band-rumped-like maneuvers on many occasions, confirming that Leach's vs. Band-rumped can be a very tough call sometimes, particularly if you can't see the upperside of the bird. Because there was so little wind, we had little luck attracting the Leach's to chum, but nevertheless we had some great looks at these birds from the bow of the Miss Hatteras.
In fact, it was so calm on Saturday that Patteson spent a lot of time standing atop the wheelhouse, scanning for birds and whales. We saw several very interesting cetaceans, mostly concentrated in one area. One of these was a male Blainville's or Dense-beaked Whale, which surfaced about 8-9 times quite close to the port bow. It was only the second time that we had found this species on one of our trips, the first being at the Poor Man's Canyon, off Virginia, in August 1996, in company with scores of Risso's Dolphins.
We also saw, for the first time ever on our pelagic trips, a Dwarf Sperm Whale (we had recorded Pygmy Sperm Whale in July 1994). Because these animals are rather small and inconspicuous, the calm conditions were essential to our finding them. A small pod of Cuvier's Beaked Whale, a species seen to better advantage on Memorial Day weekend, were recorded in the same vicinity, in this case with a tiny calf, certainly the smallest one we've seen here. We see Cuvier's Beaked Whale commonly, sometimes almost daily, in the deeper water during the warm months. It should be noted that stranding records on the Carolina beaches suggest that none of these species are especially rare off the coast -- they are just generally boat-shy, often solitary or in very small groups, and present largely in very deep water, which has only been visited by birders in the last decade or so, as a result of the discovery of gadfly petrels and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels here.
While the weather on May 31 was again ideal, the birds were in their lowest numbers of the weekend. We weren't seeing much around the shelf edge, so we headed out to the deep early. A report of a tropicbird from a charter boat raised our spirits for a while, until we found out the captain was just kidding and hadn't seen one at all. Ironically, we did see one, just a few minutes later: the first White-tailed of the season. We had to chase it for a couple of miles before we got good looks, but we did catch up with it. It turned out to be quite fortuitous, because just minutes later another good bird came streaking by: a very close Fea's Petrel, spotted by Alec Humann, from Buffalo, New York. Patteson quickly shoved the levers down, and we soon had a Fea's Petrel just off the bow. We chased it for a five minutes or so, and Patteson was able to obtain some of his best photos ever of the species. The bird actually ended up turning around, and as we slowed down, it made a beautiful close circle around the boat. It was state bird number 400 in North Carolina for John Fussell! What a milestone!
After that we were feeling quite giddy, so fishing was the last thing on our minds -- until we heard Spurgeon Stowe call up "There's a Blue Marlin back here in the baits!!!" It wasn't long before the fish disappeared, but we circled back, and when we did, the fish crashed one of the long baits. Spurgeon hooked the marlin, and our substitute cook Joey grabbed the rod as the marlin took off jumping off the stern. It wasn't long before Joey was up in the bow gaining line (the fish took several hundred yards), and within 30 minutes we released about a 300-lb. fish. It was Joey's first blue marlin as an angler and the first marlin of the year to be caught on a birding trip. (He was subsequently thrown into the water by the veteran fishermen waiting for him at the dock -- a local ritual for one's first Blue Marlin. Caveat pescador.)
Things calmed down quite a bit after that, but there was some more excitement a couple of hours later when we came upon several pods of dolphins (not Mahi-mahi) in the deep. We approached them and our initial distant identification was confirmed as Rough-toothed Dolphin, as they cavorted under the bow of the boat. This was quite a find, being only the second known offshore encounter with the species off North Carolina (the first was off Hatteras on one of our trips, on May 28, 1995). It turned out that that wasn't the only group around, however, as we soon found another pod, hanging around a floating board. Close inspection revealed that these animals were apparently hunting Mahi-mahi under the board, as Butch saw a Rough-toothed with one of these fish in its mouth, and we observed a single Mahi-mahi hiding under the board, unwilling to leave its cover, even for a ballyhoo bait. Patteson subsequently spoke with cetacean expert Todd Pusser of the encounter, and Pusser noted that this sort of behavior had been observed before in the Pacific.
We would have had a great day if nothing else happened after that, but some people never give up. Veteran leader Butch Pearce put us onto a Long-tailed Jaeger (about fourth calendar-year) sitting on the water while all of the rest of us were watching a couple of Pomarine Jaegers ahead of the boat. He then proceeded to chum it closer to the boat with chunks of fish. Way to go, Butch! That was the only Long-tailed Jaeger that we saw in seven days offshore this May. We usually expect to see them about every other trip. Though we had no champagne to pour over Fussell, the warm feelings for his accomplishment marked the remainder of the trip for all aboard. It was a smashing close to a great month off North Carolina.
Credit is due here to Diane Andre of the Cape Pines Motel in Buxton, who provided logistical support and kept data logs offshore. Captains Allan Foreman and Brit Shackleford of the Country Girl saw that everything went smoothly on the Manteo trips and both kept the rare petrels close to the boat on that spectacular day, May 29. Captain Spurgeon Stowe of the Miss Hatteras went out of his way to see that our Hatteras trips were a success, spending long days out in the deep water -- and proving that that big Head Boat can chase birds!