Sunday, September 6, 2009

Extreme Pelagic

The first Bridled Tern with his fish

White-faced Storm-Petrel

Every late August for about five years now there has been a deep-water pelagic trip, which is to say a birding boat trip, that heads out to the Gulf Stream waters more than 100 miles south of Nantucket. It, along with a couple other such trips in June and July, have been dubbed the "Extreme Pelagics." They leave at 4am and get back at 9pm, and its a long day on a boat. This year, just for the August one, a new twist was put on the whole trip, by making it an overnight trip, from 5am the first day until 6pm a day and a half later.
I was scheduled on the one in late August, which I've gone on for four years now, and was slated for the weekend of the 22nd-23rd, originally anyways. Of course, the first hurricane of the season that made it up our way rolled through that weekend. So then it was the 29th-30th. And the second storm of the season came through, postponing it yet again. Well, this time the captain couldn't give us another weekend slot, so it was planning on going out on September 3-4th, a Thursday-Friday gig. The only problem for me is that weekdays don't quite work, there being the slight issue that I have to work dawn-dusk 5 days a week, so I had to drop my name from the passenger list with regret. And I thought that was the end of that, that they would go out and find tons of amazing birds and I would be sad that I missed it and cry myself to sleep, all that good stuff. (Note: Crying would not have really happened)
But then while hanging out in the banding room on Wednesday, my phone rang with a call from Rick Heil, one of the leaders on the trip. The trip normally has four leaders, three spotters and a guy on the mic, calling the birds out to the 50-80 birders on the boat. Because of the repeated rescheduling, two of the leaders were unable to make it, and I was offered the position to be one of the leaders! As a couple of my friends kindly put it, "Wow, they must have been desperate." The only slight hitch was that I would be working both of the days. Normally I could have just asked Trevor, our head bander and reigning deity, and I'm sure that he would have said yes and I could have gone. It just so happened that Wednesday was the only day so far in the entire season that Trevor was gone the whole day, at a conference up in Newburyport! No cellphone to contact him by, no number to reach him at, and as a bonus the power was also off on the premises, and there was nobody in the office building at Manomet.
My only method of contact was his home number, which I called and luckily his wife, Linda Leddy, another great human being and former president of Manomet for longer than I was alive, answered. I hung up that phone call with a wifely assurance that it would be it would be fine, and I should just go along with it. Well, a wifely assurance counts for a lot, and despite my agony at not being able to get in contact with Trevor, I part regretfully and part happily called Rick back and accepted the leader position. I still have not seen Trevor, and won't until Tuesday! We'll see how it goes.
As it turns out, the other replacement leader was Mark Faherty, a birder and friend who lives less than 1/2 mile away, the only other birder in White Horse Beach! What are the odds.

Thursday the third:

So after finishing the rest of the banding day on Wednesday, I went to bed early, set the alarm for 3:15, and got as much sleep as possible. A few hours later pre-dawn saw me standing around with about 35 other birders in downtown Hyannis, all of us preparing to be extreme. After leaving a little bit later than scheduled we were on our way, with a couple flyover Black-crowned Night-Herons and a few Least Terns, getting late for the terns, spicing up the harbor area. An hour or so later as we started rounding Nantucket we started getting into some Black Terns, and we saw over 90 Black Terns in the next few minutes, in flocks from 2-20 or so. Nice start. Not much else of interest until we got onto the Nantucket Shoals, an area that can be very productive, and after seeing a small pod of Harbor Porpoises, a life mammal for me, a large cloud of birds was spotted on the horizon, seemingly mostly terns from a distance. As we got closer, it turned out that they were indeed mainly terns, and estimates varied from 2,000-6,000. There were also some shearwaters scattered under them, with the bird highlights from the beginning of the flock being Manx and Sooty Shearwaters, as well as Forster's and Roseate Terns. Just as we were wondering where the jaegers were, a small grouping of them were spotted in the distance, and as we watched they landed on the water. What choice did we have but to head over there as quickly as possible? As we neared the group of birds on the water, a bunch of shearwaters with seven jaegers mixed in, they were originally called out as Parasitic Jaegers, with a couple birds that seemed to be Long-tailed as we got closer. In the initial hour or so after seeing these birds, at different times the flock was thought to be all Long-tailed, no Long-tailed, or any mix of in between numbers. After review of pictures, I think that there were five Long-tailed and two Parasitic, some others think the same, and some think four Long-tailed and three Parasitic. In any case, they put on an AMAZING show after they took off, as they repeatedly made passes at the bow of the boat, coming within 25 feet quite often. It's always a good thing when you can't fit an entire Long-tailed Jaeger in the frame of the picture.
After a nice show on the Shoals, we resumed steaming south, with not much new or different on the way out, a couple Minke Whales, some Short-beaked Common Dolphins, and pretty much the same birds. A couple more Long-tailed Jaegers made appearances, including one dark juvenile.
Our first destination was Hydrographer Canyon, a deep-water canyon that cuts into the continental shelf off of the Gulf Stream, our ultimate destination. I don't remember the exact locations of the best birds, everything got lost in the excitement, but the majority of good birds were had once we got out into the Gulf Stream proper, where there was water that was consistently 79.2 degrees Fahrenheit, and deep too. The birding was really good out there, and of course got good late in the day, when we were running out of light. The undisputed highlight of the first day were THREE White-faced Storm-Petrels, a bird that shows up in the US only a handful of times annually. Four Band-rumped Storm-Petrels were also really good, as well as being a state high count, and a final daily tally of 25 Audubon's Shearwaters was also a state high count. For mammals, there were Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins, Risso's Dolphins (also known as Grampus), and my personal favorite, a Cuvier's Beaked Whale that breached a couple times off of the bow before surfacing once, and then never being seen again, another life mammal. I had also been feeling a bit under the weather as the day progressed, and had to spend some time on the stern during the afternoon. I was feeling better as darkness approached, and thought that I was fine. As soon as the sun set, I knew I was wrong.
Apparently, once I lose sight of the horizon, I'm a goner. It was my first time being seasick. I ended up being the sickest person on the boat that night, and didn't make it inside until almost 11pm. The fact that it was pouring, POURING rain didn't help very much. I ended up sleeping fitfully on a bench with my legs hanging off of the end. What a night.

Friday the fourth:

Dawn, well, dawned. It was still drizzling, so no epic ocean sunrise, nor sunset the night previously, it was kind of damp and gray. I was still feeling a bit fuzzy around the edges in the morning, so I spent a bit more time on the stern in the morning. We woke up in the 79 degree water this day, so the good birds started right off of the bat. By mid-late morning or so I was feeling a bit better, and a phenomenal three MORE White-faced Storm-Petrels and four MORE Band-rumped Storm-Petrels helped for sure, as well as kind birders gifts of scopolamine patches, ginger pills, oyster crackers, and water. Once I felt good as new again I started making my way back up to the wheelhouse on the upper deck, and WHILE I was walking through the boat, a "tropical tern" was announced over the speakers. "Tropical tern" means either Bridled or Sooty Tern, both of which only breed off of the Florida Keys in the United States, and either of which would be a lifer for me. Needless to say, I started almost running on the pitching boat, and was lucky to make it topside alive.
Sure enough, just off of the bow of the boat there was a Bridled Tern sitting on a piece of wood, a typical behavior of this species, and the only piece of wood we saw the whole time we were out there! What are the chances. The captain skillfully maneuvered us within about 40 feet of the bird, a worn and molting adult, and great looks and photos were had by all. The most amazing part of the whole experience was that while we were watching this bird at one point it calmly bent its head, stuck its bill in the water, and came up with a fish! A fish! Apparently this one small fish had chosen the wrong piece of wood to hide under. Eventually the bird flushed and we gave chase, when all of a sudden the captain, not a birder, and without binoculars, goes "hey, there's another one!" and points out the right window. Sure enough, a second Bridled Tern. Seconds later someone calls out another one off of the bow. Three. In the next couple minutes we ended up with a total of five Bridled Terns, yet another high count for the state. Incredible. When it rains it pours.
After this wonderful experience it was getting time to head back for the six hour ride back to port, so we sadly left the warm waters and headed back across the continental shelf through Muskeget Channel, the passage between Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Birding was very slow on the way back, but it frankly didn't really matter any more. A Pomarine Jaeger that flew with us right off of the bow for a while was great for photo opps. As we were passing through the channel, there was an exposed sandbar with some Gray Seals on it, another mammal for the trip list, and there was a Parasitic Jaeger harassing some Laughing Gulls nearly.
I think everyone was happy with the trip, I don't see how you couldn't be, and most people got at least one new bird I believe! I for one was partially glad to be back on land, but I will look forward to the next trip out there. It sure was one Extreme Pelagic.