Freeport Pelagic: Birds with Friends

birds with friends


Years ago, back when the Internet was younger, Nemesis Bird sprang forth from a group of young Pennsylvania birders who met each other working field jobs and chasing rare birds. Nowadays, we find ourselves scattered across the map. We’ve always gone where the jobs were–that’s nothing new–but our increasingly adult lifestyles and (thankfully) increasingly professional work situations make it increasingly difficult to actually go birding together.

Luckily, we seem to have stumbled into a new tradition. An annual effort to get together for an overnight pelagic trip. These trips are challenging, to say the least, in terms of logistics and physical demands, but the birding memories are truly priceless. Last year we had a fantastic expedition out of Cape May. This year Drew lobbied for New York waters, because he wanted to add a ton of species to his state life list. (And given that it was close to his birthday, we decided to oblige him. It turned out to be a lucky day for all of us!)

"We're going to need a bigger boat... (for all these people)"

“We’re going to need a bigger boat… (for all these people)”

For the fortunate Nemesis Birders, who were able to get out to Long Island for a Monday-Tuesday trip, we were additionally lucky that this trip didn’t sell out until after our last-minute reservations with See Life Paulagics. Battling an entire megalopolis of traffic, we converged on Long Island from various corners of the Northern Hemisphere. Alex had just returned from a long field season in Idaho, Luke was fresh off a flight from Iceland (where he claims not to have triggered the impending eruption of the Bardarbunga volcano) and Mike returning from a month of banding nestling Golden Eagles in Sweden.

We set sail at dusk, which was somewhat disappointing because we didn’t cast off until it was too dark to see any inshore gulls and terns. However, we were probably better off without that distraction because it took about an hour to figure out where and how to sleep. If you have never ventured forth on one of these famous overnight trips, you might imagine something like a Viking River Cruise® advertisement in National Geographic magazine. That is just wrong. Pelagic birding trips are hardly dignified. Epic days of birding follow “challenging” sleeping conditions–imagine a floating refugee camp. People gladly surrender their normal concepts of personal space for the ability to unroll their Therm-a-Rest sleeping mat in the center of the top deck. If you have a full sleeping bag footprint to yourself you are fortunate. The alternative is sleeping airplane-style in the seated position. Good luck with that when the boat starts pitching and heaving.

Mike, Alex, and Matt discus tactics and strategy for victory at sea while Drew thinks about where to sleep.

Mike, Alex, and Matt Sabatine discuss tactics and strategy for victory at sea while Drew thinks about where to sleep.

These overnight trips accept fewer passengers than the day trips, but a full trip still means a packed boat. On the bright side, these conditions are great for building camaraderie. As long as you’re the type of person who can tolerate your fellow man, it’s a good opportunity to expand your network of birder friends. We Nemesis Birders wanted to sleep up on the open-air top deck, but so did about 30 other folks. The end result is sleeping shoulder-to-shoulder with friends or like-minded strangers. In fact, many people do not sleep at all, either due to their anxious excitement or over-stimulating foreign surroundings and perpetual motion. Sadly, this comes with a price of extreme fatigue the following day. I have empathy for those who cannot avoid this fate.

packed like sardines

It looks like a refugee camp, but I didn’t hear a single complaint. (However, I was also the first person to fall asleep.)

Pre-dawn chumming

Pre-dawn chumming

Who needs natural light? It's never too early to start identifying storm-petrels.

Who needs natural light? It’s never too early to start identifying storm-petrels.

Almost worth the ticket price for the sunrise alone.

Sunrise over the Hudson Canyon, 105 nautical miles from Freeport, NY.

We stopped around 3am at the mouth of the Hudson Canyon at which point we started drifting and laying out a long line of chum to bring in the storm-petrels while it was still dark. This was very successful, and before first light we were already seeing Wilson’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels zipping past the spotlights coming off of the boat. As the sun rose, we could see that there were hundreds of storm-petrels skimming the chum slick, bouncing off of the waves and cruising in from all directions. Band-rumped Storm-Petrels were coming in to the slick in small groups, and we were getting great looks at Leach’s Storm-Petrels, as well as Wilson’s which were flying close to the boat.

Screenshot 2014-08-26 10.17.14

Compared to other modes of birding, pelagic birding more closely resembles basic training for prospective NASA astronauts. People work cooperatively in extremely challenging physical conditions, trying to execute intricate manual tasks. Making sure your SLR settings are correct when the rare Pterodroma petrel ambushes the starboard side of the boat is akin to astronauts flipping the right toggles at the right time when re-entering Earth’s atmosphere. Luke Musher came up with 5184×3456 white pixels instead of an image of a Fea’s Petrel when his settings had been inadvertently bumped to bulb. Such is life. Luckily pelagic birding is a team sport.

We had been cruising through a relatively dead zone of water, with little in the way of visual stimulation when Andy sat down next to Luke. About to lament that “we haven’t had many shearwaters today…” someone else pointed out that, “Aaacctually… there is a bird way out there on the horizon.” Most of us got on the bird pretty quickly, and we watched this seemingly larger bird with long, pointed wings wheeling and arcing above and below the horizon, tacking left and right, while making remarkably fast forward progress closing the distance towards the boat. Calls rang out, “shearwater nine o’clock!” People got on the bird as it was quickly visible to the naked eye. Everyone was holding their breath and bracing themselves, straining to get the best possible looks. Brains were siliently running through the combinations of field marks. Then the ID rang out from a couple folks almost simultaneously, “FEA’S PETREL!!!!” and it was screamed in repeat by most of the bird-spotting crew. Camera shutters clicked, paparazzi-style. It was a lifer for the vast majority of the folks on board, and all of us Nemesis Birders that day.

Fea's Petrel (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

Fea’s Petrel (Photo by Alex Lamoreaux)

The next few hours were slow, if you can consider a somewhat steady number of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels with the occasional Leach’s or Band-rumped to be slow. However, other species were pretty scarce, with just a few Cory’s and Great Shearwaters and a lone Common Tern to break the monotony of water as far as the eye could see.  We were looping our way back up the canyon and were going through a particularly quiet spell when a small flock of storm-petrels danced their way in, including one that was really acting bizarre.

WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL! The species many of us were targeting with this trip was now just off the starboard, twisting and spinning like a crazy top, as it bounced off of the waves on its long legs. Let’s just say that the boat was utter pandemonium for the second time that day as everyone rushed to the railing to get a good view and photos. Alex and some others on the boat would catch a glimpse of another White-faced Storm-Petrel later in the day, but this was the only encounter most of us had with the species on this trip.

After this, we spent most of the day motoring back to Freeport, because we were still 100 miles from the harbor. We did come across several more Cory’s Shearwaters, and an Audubon’s Shearwater, but our biggest surprise of the trip back was when Alex jostled us our of our drowsy, mid-day, sun-induced stupor with shouts of “Bridled Tern!” Even if it was a pretty nice day, we were all sleep-deprived and needed the occasional burst of excitement to keep us alert and scanning.

We only met up with a couple gulls in our entire trip, a Herring Gull early on and then pulling a couple immature Great Black-backed Gulls off of fishing boat that we passed on our way back towards land. Luke and Drew tried valiantly to chum the gulls in with saltines, in hopes of making a commotion and attracting more birds, but the gulls were not impressed and soon disappeared over the horizon.

Once we got closer to land, we finally picked up a large flock of gulls and terns as we tossed out the last of our snacks and chum to lure them in.

Conclusion: An overnight pelagic can be a challenging experience, from the expensive to the lack of sleep, over-exposure to sun and constant motion messing with your digestion. It can also be dominated by long periods of boredom, staring out at the horizon, scanning fruitlessly at an empty ocean. But despite being a difficult mode of birding, it is so incredibly worth it. Especially with friends.