Thursday, June 4, 2015

May 31/June 1 - pelagic birding trip

It has taken a few days to mostly recover from a fabulous pelagic birding trip on June 1 on the Brooklyn VI out of Sheepshead Bay, Brooklyn. The trip was organized by Paul Guris through his See Life Paulagics pelagic birding company. I have been on several of Paul's pelagic birding trips in recent years and they have all been well run and in many cases spectacularly successful. In the interest of "full disclosure" I will mention that many of Paul's trip leaders are acquaintances (even close friends) and I have served on one trip as a leader. My first pelagic birding trip was out of Montauk, on eastern Long Island, over forty years ago, and I have done enough trips over the years to know they are always a gamble. You never know whether you will see many birds or only a few. The lure is seeing sea birds you are just not going to see very often (or ever!) from land and seeing them in their natural habitat. Some of these species only occur in our area for a few months (or less) of the year, visiting here from their nesting areas on the other side of the world.

Last week the long range weather forecasts for the trip were not encouraging. But, I long ago learned to consider all long range weather forecasts with a fair degree of skepticism. Even short range forecasts can be way off. I am sure we have all experienced going to bed at night expecting a certain kind of weather for the next morning's birding, only to wake with something totally different going on outside. The uncertainty can be even greater with pelagic trips since the weather offshore can at times be very different than onshore/inland. The forecast for Monday in NYC was pretty miserable - rain/fog/wind/ cold - but the forecast offshore was much different and that was what Paul and the boat captain went by. A few trip participants opted not to go because of the NYC forecasts, but most decided to give it a go and were well rewarded! Not only was the birding great, but for the most part so was the weather. When I packed sunscreen for the trip on Sunday, Ann said I was being very optimistic. I was glad I had it since I used it and shared it with others who didn't bring any.

Sunday afternoon (May 31) I arrived at my friend Sean Sime's Brooklyn apartment with gathering storm clouds looking very ominous. On a call to home in Inwood, I learned from Ann the skies there were very dark and lightning was flashing. Sean was one of the trip leaders so we had to get to Sheepshead Bay early. After running some errands for the trip and hunting for parking we sat in the car through several torrential downpours. Normally, participants are boarded on the boat in the order in which they signed up for the trip, but Paul (who was himself delayed by weather and traffic) called Sean and Doug Gochfeld (another leader) and told him to let people get on board out of the rain and he would sort everything out before the boat left. By the time my name came up in the list of participants all the interior cabin benches had been claimed, but I have slept outside on every pelagic trip I have ever done, so I did not mind grabbing some deck space between benches on the upper deck - particularly since the weather radar and forecasts showed the precipitation was all on the coast and no rain was indicated offshore. In fact, for much of the cruise out overnight we were motoring under a fairly bright, nearly full moon, obscured by a light haze. The main problem was that the deck was soaked from the downpours before we left and there was still light rain as we set up sleeping arrangements and departed. I got some sleep in snatches during the night, noticing only one or two people succumbing to seasickness during the night.

I was up from about 3 am on with a couple of other birders watching for birds by moonlight. By first light we were about 120+ miles offshore on the edge of the continental shelf and started a chum slick to attract birds. The first birds glimpsed in the dimness were Wilson's Storm-Petrels. I think a fair number of people were still asleep, or just getting up, when the cry of "Leach's Storm-Petrel!" galvanized them awake and off their benches. This was one of the target birds of the trip and for many years had been at the top of my most wanted list until I finally caught up with it last August on another Paulagics trip. The excitement caused by this sighting, however, was nothing compared to the stir a short time later following the screams of "Skua! Skua!" as a South Polar Skua came into the chum slick. The sun wasn't even up yet! this was the first of half a dozen skuas during the morning hours. For quite sometime we had an amazing three South Polar Skuas in attendance around the boat, sometimes all sitting near each other on the water within the same binocular field. This was a life bird for many on board, though not for me. I had seen my first one exactly 39 years ago on May 31, 1976 on a pelagic trip out of Montauk. At that time all the skuas were considered one species and Cox's Ledge had not yet been classified as in Rhode Island waters. I had seen the species since in Massachusetts waters and off Argentina in the South Atlantic, but I was now able to finally put the species on my New York State list!

South Polar Skua 06/01/2015       © Sean Sime
Over the next few hours we continued to do well with seabirds. We had good views of multiples of five species of shearwaters: Audubon's, Great, Cory's, Sooty, and Manx. Basically, this was a shearwater sweep of all the species regularly seen in New York waters. We did not pick up any more species of storm-petrels, but we did get more relatives of the skuas. A distant Pomarine Jaeger unfortunately flew quickly by and was not seen by many on the boat. Much better was a more cooperative young Long-tailed Jaeger. I saw many of this species in Alaska as well as one off Massachusetts and in the South Atlantic off Argentina, but this was new for me for New York - my second state bird of the morning bringing my state list to 417). I hoped we might see a Parasitic Jaeger by the end of the day to complete a jaeger sweep, but we did not get this last species. Rounding out the great seabird list was Common and Arctic terns; the latter a rare bird for New York. Other birds seen were Common Loon, Double-crested Cormorant and two Barn Swallows more than eighty miles offshore.

Long-tailed Jaeger 06/01/2015      © Sean Sime
Leach's Storm-Petrel 06/01/2015     © Sean Sime

Cory's Shearwater 06/01/2015               © Sean Sime

Great Shearwater 06/01/2015                      © Sean Sime

Sooty Shearwater 06/01/2015                             © Sean Sime
Birds were not the only pelagic species seen on this great trip. We also saw Blue Shark and, incredibly, a Basking Shark breaching right next to the boat! There were a number of Rizzo's Dolphins (formerly called Grampus), including a mother with young. We also had a few Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola), including a very large individual - one of them swam under the boat! The star invertebrate of the trip were a number of Portugese Man-of-war jellyfish, including one with attendant pilot fish swimming among its tentacles.

Basking Shark 06/01/2015        © Sean Sime
Ocean Sunfish 06/01/2015                                   © Sean Sime

Everyone on board thanks Paul Guris, Sean Sime, Doug Gochfeld and the other leaders for a fabulous trip. I particularly want to thank Sean for allowing me to use the above pictures in this report.

I want to thank Stan Cho for a lift home after the trip. After getting off the boat, we tried, unsuccessfully, for the Franklin's Gull that has been hanging out at Plum Beach in Brooklyn before heading home to Inwood.

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