Memorial Day came late in 1999, so we decided to start our pelagic trips a week earlier, with two trips off Oregon Inlet aboard the Country Girl on May 22 and 23. Both numbers and diversity were fairly low on those trips, but we managed to get good looks at most of the expected species, including both Band-rumped and Leachs Storm-Petrels close to the boat. We had two good encounters with dark morph Trinidade (Herald) Petrels on May 22, possibly the same bird twice. During the second encounter we watched it chasing Black-capped Petrels like a jaeger. Ned Brinkley and Butch Pearce were both aboard for that trip, and while the three of us have seen dozens of Trinidade Petrels off the Carolina coast, none of us had ever witnessed that sort of behavior before. May 23 was somewhat rougher than the previous day, but we were lucky enough to have another dark Trinidade Petrel come streaking close by the boat, which was fortunate because we were in no position to pursue it for a better look. Its nice to have a fast boat and be able to chase after a bird when conditions allow, but the sea doesnt always let us do that.
We returned to Manteo to start our Memorial Day pelagic birding marathon with another trip aboard the Country Girl on Friday, May 28. We had barely slowed down at the edge of the Gulf Stream when a White-tailed Tropicbird came flying up to the boat for a very close, albeit brief, look. After that we had high hopes, but over the next several hours we found disappointingly low numbers and diversity of pelagic birds. Things turned around for us at 2:10 though when we jumped a Feas Petrel off the water close to the boat and chased it for several minutes. For the next three days, we operated our trips from our home port of Hatteras village aboard the Miss Hatteras. While the Country Girl excels as a fast boat, the Miss Hatteras accommodates many more birders, and even when fully loaded offers much easier and drier viewing than the Country Girl, with just enough horsepower to chase the occasional rare petrel. Our first rare gadfly of the weekend off Hatteras actually came to us, when an intermediate morph Trinidade Petrel flew into our wake to investigate "Chum-master" Butch Pearces fish oil slick. As it flew alongside, we accelerated and were able to keep pace with the bird for a while so that everyone got a good long look. We also found larger numbers of pelagic birds off Hatteras than we had seen on the previous day off Oregon Inlet, particularly Black-capped Petrels. We saw only 18 Black-caps on Friday but on Saturday we counted 289, an excellent count for any season. Sundays trip from Hatteras was fairly quiet, with the lowest diversity of the weekend and no outstanding rarities, but we did have a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel follow the boat closely for several minutes that day. As we headed offshore on Monday (Memorial Day), it was obvious that seabirds were on the move, as we saw several Corys and Sooty Shearwaters just off the beach and we began seeing Leachs Storm-Petrels in relatively shallow water. As we got into the Gulf Stream, we saw a few Pomarine Jaegers and a couple of Long-tails, the first of the latter for us this spring. Around 11:00 George Armistead spotted a Feas Petrel among a sitting flock of Black-capped Petrels and everyone enjoyed excellent views as this dapper little gadfly circled around among the Black-caps only to alight on the water again. Apparently, because there was little wind and the birds were well fed, most of them did not venture very far after being flushed by the boat. Around noon I spotted an odd looking bird sitting alone which turned out to be a dark morph Trinidade Petrel. Unlike the Feas, however, this bird wasted no time in getting away from the boat. By following it for several minutes with my binoculars though, I was able to find an actively feeding flock of shearwaters and Black-caps to which it was attracted. These birds ultimately settled on the water and when we investigated their ranks, we found not only the dark morph, but also a light morph Trinidade Petrel as well as a Manx Shearwater! Somewhere along the way we got good looks at a South Polar Skua, which we also found resting on the water. By early afternoon, we had tallied 16 species of pelagic seabirds for the day, which was as many as we had seen in the previous five trips combined! Interestingly, pelagic trips run from Oregon Inlet on the same days as our Hatteras trips did not fare well with seabirds, recording only 11 species for the weekend and no outstanding rarities. Usually the birding is pretty similar off both inlets, but this May I noticed that there were considerably fewer birds north of Cape Hatteras than south of the cape.
Friday, June 4 found us birding off Oregon Inlet again, but this time we found a lot more birds around than we had found a week earlier. One of the first birds we saw was a distant gadfly with dark underwings, most likely a Feas Petrel, but unfortunately we werent able to get close enough for a good look. Within an hour or so of reaching the Gulf Stream, the wind shifted and breezed up considerably, eliminating any possibility there had been of chasing a bird with the boat. The fish oil worked wonders though and for a while we enjoyed a nice parade of shearwaters, Black-capped Petrels, and storm-petrels behind the boat including many Greater Shearwaters which had been completely absent just a week earlier. We also got good looks at Leachs Storm-Petrels among as many as 50 or 60 Wilsons Storm-Petrels behind the boat at one time. Maybe not too exciting for some, but my personal highlight of the day was finding a Roseate Tern in the Gulf Steam that morning, only the second time that I have encountered that species offshore of the Outer Banks. The next day we were back on the Miss Hatteras again and got off to a roaring start when Capt. Neff Matthews of the charter boat Lucky Chip called us on the radio to tell us that he had a tropicbird following his boat. The Lucky Chip was about five miles from us, on the edge of the Gulf Stream, so we cranked it up another 200 rpms and were on our way at 20 knots, spray flying. When we arrived on the scene, the tropicbird, a White-tailed, was still in place and when we slowed down beside Neffs boat, it came flying over and made several close passes by the Miss Hatteras just like a good tropicbird is supposed to do. Like most White-tails we see, this bird was a adult, but it had some of the longest tail streamers that I have ever seen. Over the next several hours we plied the Gulf Stream, but found most of the seabirds concentrated in a fairly narrow band between 100 and 500 fathoms. A strong northeast wind limited our movements somewhat and by early afternoon forced us back onto the continental shelf as it was just too rough in the deep water and Gulf Stream current. We actually got back in a bit early that day, which is rare for us, but no one was complaining about a short day. By the next morning the wind had fallen out and clocked around to the south, so Sundays trip was more like a cruise in sheltered waters than an amusement park ride (it pays to sign up for a couple of trips!). Much like Memorial Day, there were a lot more birds moving, particularly jaegers, shearwaters, and Leachs Storm-Petrels. Around noon, Marshall Iliff spotted an intermediate morph Trinidade Petrel off the starboard side of the boat and I was able to slow us down and get the word out quickly so that everyone got a good look as it passed astern. Over the next hour we found two different South Polar Skuas sitting on the water which allowed us close approaches. By 2:00 wed moved inshore a bit and werent seeing much so I took us on one more lap offshore. This proved to be fortuitous because I spotted a "beehive" of shearwaters feeding over tuna about 2-3 miles southeast of us. Time was running out, so we picked up speed and after a few minutes caught up with the flock, which contained about a hundred birds, mostly Corys and Greater Shearwaters. We slowed down, put out baits and almost immediately we found a Manx Shearwater and caught a small Yellowfin Tuna. A South Polar Skua also put on a show battering shearwaters before slipping away. Feeding flocks are like that; they attract all sorts of seabirds, if only for a couple of minutes. We were actually just about to leave the area when a light morph Trinidade Petrel came zooming into the flock only to investigate it briefly and move on. As we started cruising back in we flushed an intermediate morph Trinidade from the water again, quite possibly the bird that we had seen about three hours before, about seven miles to the south. Most likely that bird went to rest on the water within minutes of us jumping it the first time and then ended up seven miles north by drifting in the Gulf Stream current. Seeing some familiar flotsam in the same area as the petrel tends to support this notion as well. While June 6 wasnt quite as birdy as May 31, it was a great day and we ended up with 13 species of pelagic seabirds for the day, all of which were well seen.
Overall, our spring 1999 trips were very successful in a number of ways. While a couple of trips were a bit rough, we lost no days to weather, and for the most part the weather was exceptionally benign for spring. We found a total of 19 species of pelagic seabirds which equaled last years total but this year we did the best that we have ever done in getting so many good close encounters with the rare Trinidade and Feas Petrels- 7 or 8 Trinidades, including all morphs, and 3 or more Feas. There were only two trips (of nine) where we did not find a rare petrel. While we no doubt had some luck with these birds, I owe a lot to our leaders who worked hard to find the birds and when they found them wasted no time in getting the word out. Just a few seconds can make the difference in having everyone see a bird well or having most people miss it. This year we were fortunate enough to have several excellent leaders. Butch Pearce was on all nine trips and did a great job with dispensing fish oil off the stern which lured in a number of less common species, including both Trinidade and Feas Petrels for longer looks than we otherwise would have had without the chum. Diane Andre of the Cape Pines Motel was on all of the Hatteras trips and kept the list and transects for those trips and also helped to keep us fed in the wheelhouse those days. Our other leaders included George Armistead (6 trips), Todd McGrath (4 trips), Jamie Cameron (3 trips), Marshall Iliff (2 trips), and Ned Brinkley (1 trip). Ned is usually on most of the spring trips, but this year other tour leading commitments prevented him from being able to make most of them. On the Country Girl, Capts Allan Foreman and Brit Shackelford did an excellent job as usual in running the boat on all four of our Oregon Inlet trips. In Hatteras, we enjoyed good fresh dolphin (Mahi) sandwiches for lunch as the result of Ronald Mosers work with the lines and Megan Cannings work in the galley. And of course the Hatteras trips would not be the same without the strong presence of Captain Spurgeon Stowe, who makes any trip an adventure. For those considering a trip with us next spring, keep in mind that all but one of this springs trips were fully subscribed, some of them by early February!
Click here to see the official sightings list.