It seemed that we were due for some pretty weather after the big blow of early August, which weathered out both of our trips on August 1 and 2, a rare event for early August. A solid week of northeasterly winds also created a strong current that seemed to push the Gulf Stream much farther out than usual, and bring cool water well south of Cape Hatteras. Fortunately for us though on August 8 and 9 off Hatteras, the Gulf Stream was still within our reach and her warm waters were full of life.
While we had to run about thirty-five miles on August 8 (about ten miles farther than usual off Hatteras and the Stream proper was even farther) before we started finding warm water and birds, once we got there, there were birds everywhere. In fact, for the first couple of hours on Saturday, the number of birds was overwhelming. It was all that we could do just to count what was pretty close to the boat. There were literally hundreds of shearwaters and dozens of storm-petrels in view for a while. The water was calm so most of the birds were sitting. We didnt see any rarities until twelve-thirty though, when John Wright screamed "Herald Petrel!" It too had been sitting on the water and flushed close to the boat when we passed by. Exhibiting the curiosity that these birds often show, it made a very close pass and a circle off the stern of the Miss Hatteras. That was the third Trinidade (Herald) Petrel in as many trips off Hatteras. All three were dark morphs and each came very close to the boat. No chases were necessary as we got the word out on the P.A. system in ample time for people to enjoy fairly leisurely close looks through their binoculars.
The bird life well within the Gulf Stream where these rare petrels and tropicbirds seem to live can often be pretty sparse, but then Michael OBrien spotted a big flock of shearwaters about two miles from the boat, what we call a "beehive", a tight flock feeding over fish. We revved up to get there before they dispersed and when we arrived on the scene, we found a South Polar Skua battering the shearwaters. The water in the Gulf Stream was 86 degrees, but at one-thirty, we found ourselves nearly fifty miles offshore, so we decided to ease back inshore. An hour later we came across an excellent area for Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and between two-thirty and three oclock, we tallied thirty-three Band-rumps, an excellent total for a day, let alone a half hour. Shortly after three oclock we were still about thirty-eight miles from Hatteras Inlet, so we decided it was time to start running back in. We were going to be a little late as it was. We couldnt have been running for five minutes when I heard O Brien start screaming about an all dark (storm-) petrel. It had flushed from the water with a couple of Band-rumps. Thanks to a lot of teamwork, we were able to all get on the bird and get closer by giving chase. Captain Spurgeon Stowe of the Miss Hatteras deserves a lot of credit for keeping us "on the bird" for at least forty minutes while we attempted to get photographs of what could be the first North American record of SWINHOES STORM-PETREL, a species for which there has been a recent spate of records in the Eastern North Atlantic. One of our leaders, Ned Brinkley, had actually seen one of these birds five years ago off the Outer Banks on an offshore fishing trip, but he did not obtain any photographs of that bird. My photos from August 8 are just back from the lab, and they show the dark rump, long wings, and big, buffy carpal bars. A couple of observers also thought that they saw white bases on the primary shafts, a couple of the photos seem to confirm that. Compared to Leachs, the bird seemed to fly more directly, and while it is true that we were pursuing it, Leachs that I have pursued with the boat before (for not nearly so long a time) almost always seem to eventually start flying rather erratically from side to side. The tail, while it appeared in the field to be forked, did not seem to be as deeply forked as Leachs. Actually, in none of my photos does it appear forked at all. The rump was solidly dark and there was no hint of any paleness there. While dark-rumped Leachs occur in the Pacific, there are no records for the Atlantic. A rumour of one such bird turned out to be false. There is however a growing number of records of Swinhoes Storm-Petrels for the other side of the pond although their main range is in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. More information about the species in the Atlantic can be found in a Point-Counterpoint feature in Birding in 1995, in which Ned comments on the bird he saw in August 1993.
With hundreds of birds behind us and a new North American bird to talk about, we werent really expecting anything else, so when most of us were enjoying eating a watermelon on the stern of the boat, I was surprised to hear a scream. I quickly ran to the bridge and pointed the boat full throttle ahead at a young White-tailed Tropicbird. Everyone got good looks, even Fred Alsop, who has been a bona-fide tropicbird jinx for the past four years. That tropicbird was resting just eighteen miles off the beach, so it shows that it pays to keep watching all the way in, just like Louise Zemaitis was.
It seemed too good to believe that we could be blessed with pretty weather two days in a row, but we were. Our trip on Sunday, August 9 trip followed basically the same plan, and we again found hundreds of birds sitting in calm seas. Audubons Shearwaters were particularly abundant with over four hundred seen in one half-hour. We saw what I believe was our largest ever number of Bridled Terns with an even one hundred for the day. While we did not see any rarities, we werent too disappointed about that, having already seen a couple of days worth the day before. As a bonus, we caught and released our second Blue Marlin of the year , which put on quite a show when it jumped less than a boat length away. We also caught several Dolphin (Mahi-Mahi), and I am looking forward to eating fresh fish all this week. Over the course of the weekend, we saw at least seven pods of Cuviers Beaked Whales, confirming that they are regular in deep water off Hatteras, if you have calm enough conditions in which to see them. We also saw both Spotted and Bottlenose Dolphins and Pilot Whales each day. Lastly, I should mention that there were a lot of baitfish visible in the water where we were seeing most of the shearwaters and the terns. It was the most bait that I had seen in a long time.
It also deserves a mention here that on the same day that we saw all of our rarities, another stellar rarity was found by pelagic birding group out off Oregon Inlet. What they found was North Carolinas second, but first photographed, Bulwers Petrel, a bird that I have been hoping to see in the Gulf Stream for years. Had there not been one photographed off Monterey, California two weeks ago, it would have been a first documented N.A. record. Ive seen the species off Hawaii, and there really is nothing else quite like it. It sounds like a trip off O.I. on Monday had the Band-rumps that we had off Hatteras two days earlier. It is noteworthy ,though, that no Trinidade (Herald) Petrels were seen up there, as that makes five trips in a row off O.I that have not found one. Interestingly enough, we have found it on three of our last four trips off Hatteras. Just a couple of years ago, some postulated that the Gulf Stream off Oregon Inlet was the best place for them. I think that theory was advanced after a spate of records up there in a relatively short period of time. According to my calculations, and Im counting ALL of the records in the last four or five years, it appears to be equally likely off both ports. Anyhow, Ive been wanting to clear that up for some time now.
In closing, I would like to thank all of the folks that participated in the trips on August 8 and 9. The leaders were Butch Pearce ("chum-master "), Michael OBrien, George Armistead, and Todd McGrath, who missed Saturdays trip because of a delayed flight! Diane Andre of the Cape Pines Motel in Buxton was the official counter and scribe. Needless to say, when you see the list below you can tell that we kept her pretty busy both days, yet she still managed to bring us some great food. Our captain, of course was the inimitable Spurgeon Stowe, without a doubt the most enthusiastic and accommodating boatman I have worked with and a great friend as well.
Birds and Cetaceans- August 8/ 9
Black-capped Petrel- 115/71
TRINIDADE (HERALD) PETREL- one dark morph on Aug. 8 well seen by all at close range
Corys Shearwater- 733/ 536
Greater Shearwater- 183/ 112
Audubons Shearwater- 309/ 704
Wilsons Storm-Petrel- 258/ 387
Leachs Storm-Petrel- 11/ 5
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel- 156/ 18
SWINHOES STORM-PETREL- one, potentially a first documented record for North America, photographed and well seen by all for over 40 minutes on August 8 about 37-42 miles SSE of Hatteras Inlet
WHITE-TAILED TROPICBIRD- one immature seen on August 8
Yellow-crowned Night-Heron- one immature way off Hatteras on Aug. 8 was the third in as many trips- Does it live out there?
Red-necked Phalarope- 13/ 4
SOUTH POLAR SKUA- one on August 8 punishing the shearwaters
Pomarine Jaeger- 5/ 3
Pom./ skua- 0/1
Jaeger sp.- 3/ 2
Common Tern- 3/ 21
Royal Tern- 16/ 5
Bridled Tern- 16/ 100
Sooty Tern- 5/ 5
Black Tern- 2/ 3
Blue-winged Warbler- one on Aug. 9
Spotted Dolphin- 20/ 42
Bottlenose Dolphin- 73/ 15
Pilot Whale- 3/ 22
Cuviers Beaked Whale- 15/ 14
After last weekends record breaking trips out of Hatteras, I knew that we would have to readjust our expectations for August 15 and 16. (After seeing all of those birds in one weekend, its easy to get spoiled.) I also knew that we would be hard pressed to reach the Gulf Stream, and that it had been so far offshore the weekend before that birding trips off Oregon Inlet never even got to the current. Nevertheless, they also had good birds up there while we were plying the waters off Hatteras (Bulwers Petrel in particular), so I was optimistic that we would also have some luck off Oregon Inlet. I was kind of pessimistic about how many Band-rumped Storm-Petrels and Black-capped Petrels wed see if we didnt get to the Gulf Stream proper, but since there had been good numbers the weekend before, I thought that wed at least see a few. With that in mind, and with hopes for maybe finding a White-faced Storm-Petrel in the somewhat cooler water, we set out to bird our usual course for an Oregon Inlet trip. While the weather was beautiful and we saw plenty of birds, we saw only one Band-rump and no Black-caps, nor the much hoped for White-faced. We did, however see a Manx Shearwater, a bird that we rarely see on summer trips. (It was nice to compare it directly with Audubons). That was Saturdays trip.
On Sunday the wind was still calm, so we decided to make a long run south in order to get into the Gulf Stream, which, according to reports from Hatteras fishermen, had moved just a tad closer on Saturday. We ran nearly sixty miles south from Oregon Inlet (not counting the 11 miles from the dock to the ocean) and shortly after 10:00 AM we had seen our first Black-cap and Band-rump. We were basically birding the same waters we go to on our Hatteras trips because the Gulf Stream was taking a bend eastward south of Cape Hatteras, rather than turning east a little south of Oregon Inlet, like it usually does. Over the course of the next several hours, we saw over a hundred Black-caps and several dozen Band-rumps, most of them sitting together on the calm seas. While we did not find any rarities, and we did not get far enough south to see the large numbers of Bridled Terns that Spurgeon Stowe reported from a fishing trip on the Miss Hatteras, we had a great day and the Country Girl got us back to the dock at Pirates Cove in record time. The list for the weekend follows below.
Birds and Cetaceans- August 15/ 16
Black-capped Petrel- 0/ 141 (we never made it to the Gulf Stream on Saturday)
Corys Shearwater- 132/ 353
Greater Shearwater- 18/ 15
Manx Shearwater- 1/ 0 (our first for this summer)
Audubons Shearwater- 54/ 37
Wilsons Storm-Petrel- 616/ 59
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel- 1/ 76 (yes, more Band-rumps than Wilsons on
Sunday in the hot Gulf Stream water; it happens occasionally)
Red-necked Phalarope- 11 on Sunday
Pomarine Jaeger- 4 on Sunday
Parasitic Jaeger- one on Sunday
jaeger sp.- one on Sunday
Common Tern- 5/ 28
Least Tern- two on Sunday
Royal Tern- 12 on Sunday
Sandwich Tern- one on Sunday
Black Tern- 14 on Sunday
Sooty Tern- 2/ 1
Bridled Tern- 18/ 14
Barn Swallow- two on Saturday
Louisiana Waterthrush- one on Saturday
Cuviers Beaked Whale- 9/ 7
Pilot Whale- 78/ 6 (presumably Short-finned)
Bottlenose Dolphin- 12 on Saturday
Spotted Dolphin- 10 on Sunday
I hope that you have found this report interesting and entertaining. I also hope that you will be able to join us offshore sometime soon if you haven't already been out with us recently. If you've already been out with us this year, thanks, and come back soon.