Jump to content

Pelagic safari off Cape Hatteras


offshorebirder
 Share

Recommended Posts

This is a quick trip report about a 'pelagic safari' I enjoyed last week to the Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, USA.  It was part of the famous "spring blitz" with the highly respected outfitter Seabirding.   The Spring Blitz consists of a daily series of 18-20 'game drives' from Hatteras Inlet to the outer continental shelf and into the depths where the Gulf Stream flows past eastern North America.  They depart at 5:15am and return around 4:30pm.   Most of the day is spent over depths of 1,000-3,000 fathoms (500-1,000 meters) or more.  I was one of the trip leaders whose job it is to spot birds and wildlife, provide information and answers to questions for participants, and act as crew on board the Stormy Petrel II - https://www.seabirding.com/about-seabirding/our-boat/

 

I often tell participants to think of the Gulf Stream like a pelagic desert.  Like the Kalahari, the wildlife is sparser than lush areas like the Okavango, but still amazing when you visit the right waterholes, pans or grasslands.  Or I suppose Sargassum 'reefs', thermoclines, or upwellings in the marine context.   

 

Conditions were a bit strange this year - persistent westerly winds and abundant rains over eastern North Carolina had conspired to push lots of 'dirty' inshore water out onto the continental shelf and to push the Gulf Stream father offshore.   Instead of the usual sharp demarcation between the cold southward-flowing Labrador current and the warm Gulf Stream, instead there was a blended swath of brownish-green water gradually transitioning to the pure blue Gulf Stream waters.  In addition, we had problems finding the hard current of the Gulf Stream that we normally duck into and out of in pursuit of good bird and wildlife sightings.  

 

We still did well - not as many cetaceans and rare petrels but still plenty of neat things to see.

 

I did not shoot as many photos as one might expect; photography had to wait until after I had helped all the clients get on the birds and get good looks at their target species.  So for brief encounters I tended not to be able to shoot photos, and with many others the bird was too far away by the time I was free for photography. 

As we all know, it's irksome to have a guide who spends too much time shooting photos instead of spotting and helping clients.  

 

One of our most frequent sightings was of flying fish.  Big ones, little ones, adults, juveniles, the lot.  Of course getting a decent photo of a flying fish is quite a challenge.  If you do not nail them quickly after takeoff, they get up too much speed and distance and it becomes nigh unto impossible.  Since they often flush a few at a time in staggered fashion, the best approach is to stand in the bow or pulpit, and when one takes off ,get ready and try to nail its compatriots when they flush slightly later.  Even so, this is about the best photo I could manage, of a Sargassum Midget.

 

Sargassum Midget

Sargassum_Midget_FlyingFish.jpg.cf3e362398b2c86627414da9a32c5b80.jpg

 

We also saw Bottlenose Dolphins multiple times each day.  They often rode the bow wave a little while after coming to check on us.  

 

Most days we also saw Pilot Whales, presumably Short-finned Pilot Whales.  Despite their name, Pilot Whales are actually large members of the Dolphin family.    They are highly social creatures - I have never seen a single or even pair of them - always in a pod.

 

Short-finned Pilot Whale

Pilot_Whale_Hatteras_6-7-2018_1_16x11b.jpg.75bec2659bb9cdee6ca2877225b46e1a.jpg

 

Pilot_Whale_Hatteras_6-7-2018_2_21x12b.jpg.8e0fc897439c988576a9088317a85867.jpg

 

 

Our rarest sighting might have been the Leatherback sea turtle I spotted on June 6.  She was as big as a Volkswagon Beetle!    Leatherbacks are the world's only warm-blooded reptiles, as well as the deepest-diving.  I was on the lower deck, so lacked the best vantage point for photography.

 

Leatherback

Leatherback1.jpg.eff0c1924d328613e0fd29778dfd8591.jpg

 

Edited by offshorebirder
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Great Shearwaters were frequently encountered, as were Cory's Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm-Petrels.    Great Shearwaters breed on isolated islands in the far South Atlantic and they are migrating past the eastern USA currently.  They spend the nonbreeding season feeding in the North Atlantic - the Bay of Fundy is one of their favorite feeding areas.  Then in the fall, they migrate south down the eastern Atlantic off Africa on their return trip to the breeding grounds. 

 

Here is a Great Shearwater catching a squid.  It tried to consume it, but a Cory's Shearwater started angling in - this forced the Great Shearwater to take flight to protect its prize. 

 

Great_Shearwater_feeding0_Hatteras_6-7-2018_12x8b.jpg.b852099768c6bd692489dd57bb017969.jpg

 

Great_Shearwater_feeding1_Hatteras_6-7-2018_12x9b.jpg.f36e75836b57e567b4f3271b4ef8c346.jpg

 

Great_Shearwater_takeoff1_26x12b.jpg.4a2d01d512daea7047a6638da768a6f3.jpg

 

We saw multiple (sub)species of Cory's Shearwater.  Most ornithological authorities (except the AOU - American Ornithological Union) now treat the Mediterranean-breeding population of Cory's Shearwaters as a separate species - Scopoli's Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea).  It is smaller, with a smaller bill, and with more extensive white color on the underwing primary feathers.  

 

Nominate Cory's Shearwaters (Calonectris borealis) breed on islands in the North Atlantic and are much more numerous off the USA in late summer and early fall. 

 

Scopoli's Shearwater

Scopolis_Shearwater_Hatteras_6-7-2018_1_22x21b.jpg.3647405b215c0b0ed72cb3971810363c.jpg

 

Scopolis_Shearwater1_Hatteras_6-6-2018_9x7.jpg.ff1aa07fd5f891380e7306af00a90c7a.jpg

 

 

Edited by offshorebirder
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I love watching Shearwaters feeding.   They are able to fly in the air and underwater.  They can go seamlessly from flight, diving into the water, and flapping their wings for underwater locomotion (like a penguin).  Then they can bob to the surface and run a few steps into flight.  It is mesmerizing to watch them smoothly transition between aerial and aquatic flight, often twisting and turning in the air to adjust their pursuit of fish they are diving upon.

 

Here is a Great Shearwater twisting and turning as it dives into the water after a baitfish driven near the surface by a school of Skipjack Tuna.  Note its left wing shearing the surface of the water as it descends.

 

GRSH_twist-dive_Hatteras_6-9-2018_1_16x13b.jpg.67ef719ee6a3eecb201df1ecb382adb5.jpg

Edited by offshorebirder
Link to comment
Share on other sites

I like Storm-Petrels a lot.  They have been entertaining sailors for eons. Watching a feeding flock of Wilson's Storm-Petrels as they peep like little Chicken chicks is extremely relaxing.  

 

Wilson's Storm-Petrels were the most common seabird species we encountered.  They bopped along the waves, frequently stopping to peck at the water while paddling with their feet.  This gives the effect of their walking on water.  Occasionally one would pogo-hop across the surface of the water, like White-faced Storm-Petrels are so fond of doing.  

 

In June, ragged Wilson's Storm-Petrels like these are worn adults or second-year birds.  Fresh ones are juveniles that fledged in Antarctica in March, before traveling 5000 miles to reach the waters off Hatteras.   

 

Wilson's can be distinguished from Leach's Storm-Petrel and members of the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel complex by Wilson's more batlike and fluttery flight, shorter and less angular wings, and feet that protrude past the tail tip in flight.  

 

Wilsons_Storm-Petrel_Hatteras_6-9-2018_10x7b.jpg.65516431e7bc581a9cd616f28db3558b.jpg

 

Wilsons_Storm-Petrel_hopping_Hatteras_6-9-2018_1_16x18b.jpg.9a6c204be6d18857e6ceaef8d590a2ef.jpg

 

 

What was once called Harcourt's Storm-Petrel, and currently Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) is starting to be considered up to five or more species.  They breed in the Atlantic and Pacific, with 5+  populations in the Atlantic and 4 in the Pacific. 

Most that we saw were winter-breeding Grant's Storm-Petrels in worn plumage.  About 20% we saw were freshly-plumaged Madeiran type Storm-Petrels, which are a summer breeding (sub)species.  

 

Band-rumped (Grant's) Storm-Petrel

 

BRSP3.jpg.4c1e4e8bd5ce6c015d5929909cc5ba88.jpg

 

BRSP_flight1b.jpg.d0d7436b67c6d88a5ea1a79fa82ed2c0.jpg

 

Band-rumped_Storm-Petrel1_Hatteras_6-7-2018b.jpg.bc50cbe066f102d77528d69b2bd6dea0.jpg

Edited by offshorebirder
Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks for posting these. As a birdwatcher I find it interesting to see what could potentially be expected from this kind of outing if I ever find myself in that part of the world at the right time of year.

 

Andrea

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thank you for posting- you got some good photos considering your other duties!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Unfortunately we did not see any rare Gadfly Petrels during my five days at sea.   Gadfly Petrel is the vernacular for members of the Pterodroma genus.  Petrodroma means 'winged runner' in ancient Greek and it is a very apt name for these exuberant fliers.   On days when there is good wind to aid them, Pterodroma Petrels bound and zip back and forth with alacrity.

 

The staple of Gulf Stream pelagic trips off the Southeast USA are Black-capped Petrels and are seen on virtually every trip.   Birders occasionally get to see Trindade Petrels (formerly called Herald Petrel) or Fea's Petrels - a handful of each are seen every year during the Spring Blitz.   Even luckier birders occasionally see Bermuda Petrels, which are highly endangered and only breed on Nonsuch Island near Bermuda (through reintroduction projects are underway on neighboring islands).   And this year on May 29, birders on the Spring Blitz got to see the Atlantic Ocean's first TAHITI PETREL.   I am sorry I was not on board for that one.  Another extremely rare possibility is Zino's Petrel, a close cousin of Fea's Petrel that breeds on Madeira.

 

Black-capped Petrels (Pterodroma hasitata) are a very endangered species - only 2,500 breeding pairs are left.  They breed in burrows on high mountain slopes in Haiti, the Dominican Republic, the island of Dominica, and perhaps Cuba and Jamaica.   Threats to their survival include deforestation, invasive species like rats, house cats, and Mongoose, light pollution, oil spills in or near the Gulf Stream, and more.  Conservation efforts in Haiti are complicated by terrible poverty - for example, predator-proof fencing is stolen for resale as scrap.

 

I hope these photos help convey how dynamic and dashing these birds are in flight.  I have not mentioned it yet, but photography is MUCH harder when you are on a bouncing boat!   Aim for a shutter speed of at least  1/3000 or 1/4000 of a second.

 

Black-capped_Petrel2b-w.jpg.27482db463992dc2ce32500b9a8bffed.jpg

 

Black-capped_Petrel1-fixed.jpg.0034d4bd7cf4ec85137e2f3dea4ef881.jpg

 

Black-capped_Petrel_Petrel_Hatteras_6-8-2018_vertical1_11x16b.jpg.581a2071695c620716ff5c0d81f7387e.jpg

 

Black-capped_Petrel_Hatteras_6-8-2018_dorsal2_16x16b.jpg.5129ab3295e4f5f34b42a5dbf080c099.jpg

 

Black-capped_Petrel_Hatteras_6-8-2018_dorsal1_16x14b.jpg.5e2e6119b3ae9b156b8484fc0b3819e1.jpg

 

Black-capped_Petrel1_Hatteras_6-6-2018_14x12b.jpg.9f647b1041b6ca829262306223c7669f.jpg

Edited by offshorebirder
Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 6/17/2018 at 7:04 AM, kitefarrago said:

Thanks for posting these. As a birdwatcher I find it interesting to see what could potentially be expected from this kind of outing if I ever find myself in that part of the world at the right time of year.

 

I highly recommend a pelagic trip - for more than just birds.   Cape Town has multiple pelagic operators and a Cape Town Pelagic is high on my bucket list!     Coastal California, particularly Monterey Bay is also pelagic central.    And Australia and New Zealand both have a tradition of great pelagic birding.  For our friends in the U.K. pelagics out of the Scilly Isles can be pretty good.  I am also dabbling with the idea of putting together a pelagic birding trip out of Watamu Kenya on a future visit.

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some amazing bird-ogrpahy!  1/4000 is fast!  Not just birds, but the leatherback and whales.  Nice variety. Your intro shot is not real; it's a beanie baby.  Remember those?  Fantastic stuff close to home.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks @Atravelynn.   I do remember beanie babies - my younger cousins were gaga over them in the 80s (or was it 90s).

 

I mainly posted this thread in case our international birding members like @Dave Williams, @Geoff, @Galana or @inyathi might find it of interest.   Glad it appeals to a wider Safaritalk audience.

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

@offshorebirder Stunning photos of some fantastic birds and the flying fish is pretty cool, sadly though very interesting though it is, it’s unfortunately not my kind trip I’m afraid I am not a sailor at all. I have once been whale watching and done an albatross watching trip from Kaikoura in NZ, but as a rule just the thought of going out on a boat at sea is enough to turn me bright green. Small planes I can fortunately cope with provided there’s no aerobatics or serious turbulence, but with small or smallish boats, the weather has to be perfect and the sea flat calm for me not to start feeling rough. Seeing these birds has a lot of appeal, but the idea of having to go out on a boat really doesn’t, although I probably could do it If I took some tablets. I fear the number of serious seabirds on my life list will remain fairly short. Thanks for posting this report all the same, at least I can enjoy the photos without turning green.:)

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Some excellent photography there and much thanks for alerting me to the post. I especially like the flying fish and the Black-capped Petrel sequence. I have often tried to 'do' birds from a small boat but it ain't easy which makes your superb results even more outstanding.

 

Just for clarity may I make so bold as to suggest you return to navigation classes? A Fathom is six feet and a metre around three feet so your equation seems to be somewhat reversed.

On 6/15/2018 at 6:52 PM, offshorebirder said:

depths of 1,000-3,000 fathoms (500-1,000 meters) or more. 

1000 fathoms is four times deeper than 500 metres. The discrepancy at the other end of the scale is even greater. :o

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Oops - sorry @Galana - I went the wrong way way and halved what I should have doubled.  I should have said 2,000 to 6,000 meters.

 

Thanks for the kind words @TonyQ, @inyathi, @Galana and @Atravelynn.  I will have to sort through some more photos and post them.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I should mention that I got a new camera and lens before this trip, practicing a few times on shorebirds before going to sea.

 

They are a Canon 5DmkIV and the 400 mm f/4 DO II lens.  I like the combo,  but I really felt the 7 frames per second versus 10.    And this body and lens combo, like so many Canon products, has trouble focusing on small dark targets or low-contrast targets against the water - even if the water is uniform in color and not rough.  And it still has trouble focusing on targets with a stubble background or reeds.  But I would rate the 5DmkIV auotofocus above the 7DmkII.

 

I was not brave enough to try them with the 1.4x III extender, but in retrospect I should have.  Except on the cloudy day...

 

Much of the time I was shooting wide open at f/4 at 400 ISO which was giving me around 1/4000 second shutter speed with targets below the horizon and 1/6000 and higher with targets above the horizon.  To keep the shutter speed from going off the chart, I often clicked up a couple of aperature settings if the target was above the horizon, since lowering the ISO takes me more time and potentially taking my eye off the target.

 

I am now resolved to get the 1DXmkII body and if that autofocus doesn't satisfy me, I will dump Canon and go Nikon like Art Morris recently did.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

I posted these over in the Birds in Flight thread but they should also be in this TR collection.

 

Great Shearwater during a very close flyby

 

Great_Shearwater1.2_Hatteras_6-7-2018_12x11b.jpg.61e0eab900078e1b280dc4180c896e63.jpg

 

 

Audubon's Shearwater

These charming little Shearwaters inhabit tropical waters and occur in a few subtropical places like the southern N. Atlantic

 

Audubons_Shearwater_Hatteras_5-9-2018_1_10x7.jpg.18b523d1e1900eda0c2f72c0b047cc89.jpg

Link to comment
Share on other sites

On 6/21/2018 at 2:18 AM, offshorebirder said:

I am now resolved to get the 1DXmkII body and if that autofocus doesn't satisfy me, I will dump Canon and go Nikon like Art Morris recently did.

 

Before dumping all your Canon gear tell us where you will dump it :D. On a serious note, rent Nikon bodies first before buying them. D500 for pro crop body and D5 for pro full frame. 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

3 hours ago, xelas said:

rent Nikon bodies first before buying them. D500 for pro crop body and D5 for pro full frame. 

 

Thanks @xelas - that would be the plan.  

 

Ha - I should have said "sell" and not "dump". 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Fabulous photos! Almost enough to get me on a pelagic...but not quite ;) I only like boats when I can still see the shoreline!

Link to comment
Share on other sites

46 minutes ago, offshorebirder said:

Ha - I should have said "sell" and not "dump". 

 

Ha - there goes my chance of getting my hands on a gear that is capable of producing really excellent wildlife photos :(; of course in proper hands ;).

Link to comment
Share on other sites

31 minutes ago, xelas said:

gear that is capable of producing really excellent wildlife photos :(; of course in proper hands ;).

 

Except in the rare situations I described.  Multiple top wildlife photographers were on board and voiced the same complaints about Canon gear - trouble autofocusing on low-contrast targets against water background, any targets with stubble background, etc.

 

 

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Thanks @janzin - high praise coming from you.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

  • 1 month later...

Incredible photos!

 

Late to this discussion, but:

1) all cameras have problems with low-contrast targets and birds against a cluttered background.

2) I doubt Nikon is considerably better than Canon in this regard, especially when considering models with similar purpose and age.

3) The one constant in the camera world is change. I have no doubt that in this regard, as in every other, the lead will change soon.

 

Just my two cents.

Link to comment
Share on other sites

Create an account or sign in to comment

You need to be a member in order to leave a comment

Create an account

Sign up for a new account in our community. It's easy!

Register a new account

Sign in

Already have an account? Sign in here.

Sign In Now
 Share

×
×
  • Create New...

Important Information

Safaritalk uses cookies to ensure you get the best experience on our website. By using Safaritalk you agree to our use of cookies. If you wish to refuse the setting of cookies you can change settings on your browser to clear and block cookies. However, by doing so, Safaritalk may not work properly and you may not be able to access all areas. If you are happy to accept cookies and haven't adjusted browser settings to refuse cookies, Safaritalk will issue cookies when you log on to our site. Please also take a moment to read the Terms and Conditions and Privacy Policy: Terms of Use l Privacy Policy