Cape Hatteras : 18 May - 1 June (part 1 : seabirds)

This trip was an old dream for me ever since I heard and then read about Brian Patteson and his trips out in to the Atlantic on his boat ‘Stormy Petrel II (r) and saw his sightings on his web site
www.patteson.com – you only have to take a look at the list of species and the photos to understand the reason for my dream. Furthermore, last year we took part in the best pelagic in the eastern Atlantic out of Madeira so I thought that it was now time, before age caught up with me totally, to partake of the best pelagics in the western Atlantic. I therefore broke open the piggy bank and started to plan. What follows is the story, in two parts, of the trip. This first part is devoted to the seabirds and the second, which will hopefully appear in a week, will concern all the other species seen.

For those whose geography leaves something to be desired, Cape Hatteras is the southern point of a long spit of land with over 80 miles of dunes and various habitats which runs north-south in the area known as the Outer Banks of North Carolina. There, just before arriving at the tip just before arriving at the sound that separates it from Ocrakoke island, is the village of Hatteras. And from Hatteras Brian Patteson, along with the tireless help of Kate Sutherland (l) and a variety of well known birders as 'spotters', takes trips out into the immensity of the Gulf Stream.

I got there by flying from Madrid to Dulles (Washington DC) and thence to Norfolk (Virginia) with a United flight operated by Aer Linctus (sorry, Aer Lingus). From there I took a hire car (expensive) and the poorly signed route some 50 miles down to Coinjock (NC) where I spent the night in the motel section of the Midway Marina. There, the following morning, the birding started, but of that more in the second part of this chronicle.

I undertook 10 pelagics on 20-23, 25-28 and 30-31 May. Meeting at the marina took place in the predawn at 05.15 while the mosquitos attacked in wing strength and after the briefing we were usually on the way out to sea by the first light of day. Usually Brian ran the boat south for some 2 to 2 hours 30 out into the warmer waters of the Gulf Stream beyond the continental shelf. Once in position, Kate's job of starting the chumming began.

For the chumming a commercial fish oil made from menhaden (Brevoortia patronus) and frozen blocks composed of mashed up fish remains used to attract fish for sport fishing which is the major source of income for the village of Hatteras. This, slowly motoring along, a slick line of fish oil was spread over several miles of ocean to which, with luck, petrels, shearwaters and stormies, all of which have well developed olfactory bulbs, would be attracted. This system has its pros and cons when compared with the Madeira Wind Birds rather more static drifting around frozen blocks, although Brian would often double back along the slick and circle when there were aglomerations of birds.

At this point I should make it clear that I now understand Einstein's theory of relativity and that there definitely more than three or four dimensions, rather five or six. I will explain: When the vessel is going in one direction at, say, 6 or 7 knots over waves of 4-5 feet which make it roll and move somewhat, the bird that one is trying to see is going in another -often at high speed with changes in height and direction in the case of the petrels, and you are using one hand for the binoculars or camera with one hand for the boat and the other for the equipment, well the answer is obvious! Add to that the fact that species such as Leach's and Madeiran/Band-rumped Stormies tend to keep well back, it's all very difficult and accounts for the poor quality of some of the photos.

However, enough talk, on to the birding!

I think that it's fair to say that the majority of us hoped to see Pterodromas or gadfly petrels, but regrettably we saw only two spp. during my trips, the Black-capped Petrel P. arminjonia (230+ exs.) and Fea's Petrel P. feae (3).

So, on the first day we were all looking out for smething similar to the photo on the left, a petrel arcing over the horizon. The Black-capped is somewhat variable on the head and underwing and has a large and very visible white rump, all of these can be seen in the following photos.

The two here, left and right, show birds with whiter heads, that on the right with the black eye virtually isolated whilst the bird on the left shows a grey, not white, collar.

The differences in the underwing are not so great but within individual birds clearly visible, as is the moult pattern (l), for while some birds showed little others were more advanced with inner primary moult. Those which showed nomoult were presumed to be birds of the year and the others adults on immatures in post breeding moult, the species breeding from December onwards according to HBW.

At times we encountered small mixed flocks floating on the water, here there are 3 Cory's, a single Sooty and 2 Black-capped Petrels, whilst others incorporated Audubon's Shearwaters and also isolated groups of Wilson's Storm-petrels. We saw only 3 Fea's Petrels - a major rarity there - and I have only a single poor but identifiable photo, and that the only one managed amongst all on the boat. At least I can now say that I have seen them on both sides of the pond! We saw only one Great Shearwater (r), a bird which came in rapidly over the slick, gave us a single glance and went on its way.

Sooty Shearwaters (l) were often seen nearer to the shore than the other spp.. In flight, especially as they took off, it was easy to see the silvery white of the underwing.

One day we saw a Manx Shearwater, a regular but rare species in the Gulf Stream, which in turn caused great excitement amongst many of the Americans aboard as it was a lifer for some.

On the other hand, the Cory's Shearwaters -a species which I know only too well here and we saw several birds daily. The majority clearly belonged to the Atlantic race borealis but I did see one of the Mediterranean race diomedea.

Brian and others commented that they had observed birds which appeared to be intermediate between the two races and that they gave little credence to the claims that Scopoli's Shearwater (the Med. race) is a separate species.

The other frequently seen shearwater was the Audubon's, a species I knew well from my years in the Bahamas.
In some ways it reminds me of our Balearic Shearwater with a longer tail, whiter and less variable underparts and underwing.

With regard to the stormies, the most numerous by far was the Wilson's which was in its migration from the austral breeding grounds to summer in the North Atlantic. It is impossible to give any estimate as to numbers seen as some birds followed the vessel along the slick for miles and there was a constant coming and going of movement, but on one occasion I estimated a minimum of 55 birds in sight at once.

The adults were in active wing moult and some in a frankly lamentable state, as can be seen from the photo on the right. A minority, not more than 15% by estimation, showed a perfect wing pattern and a slightly darker forewing and these are presumed to be juveniles. Also, in the photo on the left, the yellow web between the toes can be seen.
We saw only one European Storm-petrel, which for the Americans was a major tick and the cameras - mostly Nikons and Canons with huge telephotos were firing away like machine guns.
We saw very few Leach's Storm-petrels and slightly more Madeiran/Band-rumped and neither lent themselves to easy photography as they kept well away from the boat, often feeding or flashing through the slick at distance, coming close on few occasions. Amongst the Madeiran (although I am starting to take a liking to calling them Band-rumped) there were both birds in unmoulted plumage, presumably summer breeders (l), whilst others were showing wing moult and therefore winter breeders in post-breeding moult (r) and therefore. according to one American
lister/twitcher, proposed as Grant's Storm-petrel, a different species under the new ideas and probable separations in sight.
The left hand bird also shows a dirty and much reduced rump.

There were also the always spectacular Brown Pelicans, be they only or in loose formation in small groups with their powerful flight and the spectacular dives à la tern or gannet.

And now, and with no excuse for saying it, the photos that I consider to be the best of the trip, especially that on the right, of one of the most spectacular of seabirds - the White-tailed Tropicbird.
These winged beauties - we saw 4 in total - always arrived when we were well out at sea, 30miles or more, always arrived out of nowhere, made several circuits of the boat inspecting us and probably ticking some of us off its annual list to the sound of the machine gn rattle of shutters, before continuing on their way.

And now on to the skuas, gulls and terns. Only one of my target birds, a South Polar Skua, was seen and that on the one day I didn't got to sea and we saw only immature Pomarine Skuas/Jaegers, all of these 1st summer or immatures birds, usually distant as photo quality shows.

The gulls were another story, starting with the surprise species, a rather tatty 1st summer Glaucous Gull which was still there when I left on 1 June but which delighted Americans as it often stood on a piling in the harbour on our way back in in the afternoon.
There were also some Great Black-backed Gulls, the aduklts keeping well clear of humans, and two immatures, a 1st summer bird and a second summer which is shown here.

There was an interesting slection of 1st summer American Herring Gulls (which the Americans may well end up naming the Smithsonian Gull), and if anyone wants a full selection, please write to me privately. However, the two shown here will give an idea of the variety of plumages to be seen. There were a few adults also.
The most abundant gull, and they were everywhere, in the harbour, the streets and parking lots, was the Laughing Gull with a huge number of adults but the number of immatures, all 1st summer birds (r), could be counted on the fingers of one hand. They are very confiding, cheeky and noisey. One of their many calls sounds very much like that of a Gull-billed Tern, a species seen but not photographed.
Amongst the terns, I saw one Caspian Tern, like the Gull-billed, several Least (the American version of Little) and the adult and imm. Forster's seen, on Pea Island (I shall talk about this site in part 2), but many of these photos are poor because of distance and heat haze (38ºC) .

At sea we saw 1 Arctic Tern and several Common Terns, and also a 1st summer Bridled Tern which was most obliging and, like many species seen, in moult. It would have been nice to see an adult too, as well as a Sooty Tern, but t'was not to be.

And last, another flier, not a bird but a flying fish. These never ceased to amaze for the distances they can glide, often in excess of 50m, although they definitely need to evolve in terms of making an elegant landing instead of colliding ignominiously with a wave.

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