New York’s Magic Pelagic

Pelagic birding trips appeal to my inner explorer. Searching for wildlife on the high seas offers a special kind of thrill, an opportunity to break from more typical, terrestrial efforts and visit a realm beyond the boundaries of humanity’s collective comfort zone. The inhabitants of this habitat are inherently fascinating in their adaptations and lifestyles. Truly monumental surprises can occur at literally any time. The potential rewards for a traveler who braves the wind and waves are tantalizing enough to draw even chronically seasick landlubbers outside the shelter of the harbor time and time again. Every outing presents a chance to discover something new about how marine organisms navigate Earth’s vast network of ocean currents. Simply summed up, birding by boat is a lot of fun! The best trips involve a great deal of careful planning, but these ventures are especially vulnerable to the whims of fate, random chance, and luck both good and bad. No two pelagic tours are identical, even on back-to-back days or annual journeys to the same location. This year’s voyage from Brooklyn with See Life Paulagics was an especially memorable expedition.

Foolishly, I had failed to sign up for any 2018 pelagic trips until quite recently. I initially wasn’t sure about the when and where of my tentative summer travel plans, and I knew that August was going to be a busy month. A week-long seawatching binge at the end of July got me craving some proper maritime birding, so I started to explore the remaining options available to me. I was able to book a place on the upcoming Brookline Birding Club overnight pelagic out of Hyannis, Massachusetts in September. Many close friends have regaled me with amazing stories about these tours, but I also know that the two-day trips from Cape Cod often get weathered out due to extreme conditions. Not wanting to put all of my eggs in one basket and risk missing a chance to bird at sea this year, I also reached out to the Paulagics team about availability. Though I was initially put on the waiting list, last minute dropouts allowed me to secure a spot aboard the Brooklyn VI once again. Sunday evening found me standing at the docks in Sheepshead Bay, bags packed and ready for a full day at sea.

The forecast called for a choppy, blustery overnight ride out to the continental shelf. The captain decided we would first head east along the sheltered coast of Long Island until we reached Suffolk County, then turn south and travel with the wind to avoid getting battered around too much. Most folks were competing to get priority seating within the cabin so they could be protected from splashes and spray, but I much prefer to sleep in the fresh air on the upper deck. Once I established my sleeping space up top, I spent some time catching up with the many familiar faces who had also boarded the ship. Brendan Fogarty, Taylor Sturm, Tripper Paul, and Jay McGowan joined me at the table, and we began discussing our expectations and hopes for the next 24 hours. The eponymous leader of See Life Paulagics, Paul Guris, was accompanied by established guides Doug Gochfeld and Sean Sime along with special guest Tom Johnson. I’d last seen Tom a few years prior when I worked in Maine, and I was glad to have his pelagic prowess and rarity magnetism along for the ride. Doug brought an interesting teaser topic to the table, asking all of us what our most likely state bird would be. We bandied about the names of several species, ranging from near guaranteed to total pipe dream, in a fun conversation that only increased the anticipation of what the morning would bring. When we eventually decided to try and get some rest, I settled into my bed roll and let the motion of the ocean rock me to sleep.

I snoozed in several short bursts over the course of the night, but any session of honest REM sleep aboard a moving boat is a victory. Around 4 AM I awakened, comfortable and mostly dry, to gather up my sleeping gear and move it to the cabin below. Other birders slowly started to stir as the sky gradually began to lighten, and we reached our destination 120 miles offshore at the break of dawn. The action got kicked off right away. We spotted a few birds before we even came to a stop, including several storm-petrels and our first Black-capped Petrel of the day. Once we slowed down, the deckhands immediately set to work starting a chum slick off the stern of the boat. Storm-petrels and shearwaters quickly arrived to inspect the source of the powerfully irresistible stench, an olfactory beacon luring them in from miles around. It wasn’t long before we’d tallied multiple species: Wilson’s, Leach’s, and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels along with Great, Cory’s, and Audubon’s Shearwaters. Black-capped Petrels proved to be especially abundant. These long-winged gliders belong to the genus Pterodroma, a group of masterful flyers that stand out even among the impressively talented competition in the seabird world. They use a dynamic soaring pattern that harnesses the wind to effortlessly sail long distances with great speed and maneuverability. We watched in awe as the petrels circled the boat, arcing up high above the sea as they twisted and turned in the breeze.

After a few hours of chumming, we moved along towards the eastern edge of the Hudson Canyon’s mouth to set up another slick. On our way there, we came across a cooperative group of Risso’s Dolphins. Non-avian marine life is often quite sparse on pelagic trips in New York waters, so we were thrilled to enjoy such good looks at these bizarre sea creatures. I’m always happy to see a new species of cetacean! Storm-petrels continued to flit past and even followed the ship for a bit, and the larger seabirds occasionally rocketed by as we kept motoring onward. We also saw a few small groups of Red-necked Phalaropes migrating south.

When we finally reached the Canyon’s edge, the crew once again began dutifully flinging meat and oil into the ocean. Within moments, the seabirds homed in on the scent of our offering and began appearing from downwind. We sifted and scanned through the expected species, searching for anything out of the ordinary. Brendan was the first to spot something unusual. “There’s a bird crossing the bow…it’s dark and it looks very interesting!” he called out. Tom’s booming voice followed, with a shout that ripped through the idle chatter of the searchers on deck. “TRINDADE PETREL!

Every single person on board leapt to action and scrambled to get their eyes on the bird. This was the kind of sighting we’d all been dreaming of. The Trindade Petrel is another species of Pterodroma like the Black-cap, an expert aerialist with jaw-droppingly smooth and swift flight trajectory. The name comes from the Portuguese word for “trinity,” roughly pronounced “trin-DAH-jee.” It shares the title with one of the islands in an archipelago off the coast of Brazil where it nests. Unlike the Black-capped Petrel, which breeds in the Caribbean and regularly spends summers along the Atlantic continental shelf, the Trindade is a rare visitor to the warm waters of the Gulf Stream. In New York state, there have only been two prior records of this species. The first was in August 1933, when “a strange looking duck” was discovered on a farm near Ithaca after a powerful hurricane displaced the unfortunate creature far away from its typical home range. In August 2012, another individual was photographed from a cruise vessel some 200 miles offshore, just barely within the border of the Empire State’s waters. The gorgeous, graceful bird wheeling around the Brooklyn VI was only the third documented occurrence of the species in New York, and the first to be seen by a group of birders on a pelagic tour. The scene was rampant, ecstatic chaos. To our surprise and delight, the petrel remained with with us for about 4 minutes, an eternity in the world of seabirding. It circled the boat repeatedly, passing incredibly close and putting on one hell of a show. The views and photo opportunities were simply unparalleled. What a treat that the rarest bird we found should also be the most confiding! It doesn’t get any better than this.

After the Trindade Petrel finally departed, it took a long time for the high to dissipate. Everyone on the boat was buzzing with energy, including the seasoned and well-traveled guides who wouldn’t have dared get their hopes up for a new experience on the trip. Even though the encounter with the mega rarity was the indisputable highlight of our voyage, the fun didn’t stop there. The hits just kept on coming as we moved up the boundary of the Hudson Canyon. Trying hard not to be outdone by their fancy cousin, Black-capped Petrels continued to put in a remarkable showing. We ended up tallying about 20 individuals over the course of the day, a contender for a state high count record. Two dark-colored, distant terns turned out to be Bridled Terns, a new species for my own state list and my 500th bird observed in 2018. While trying to catch up with them for a better look, we were distracted by a young Pomarine Jaeger that took interest in the morsels tossed overboard by the deckhands. It flew around and over the boat multiple times, very close, very low, entertaining us as it searched for the choicest chunk of chum. We later crossed paths with a second older jaeger as well.

For a refreshing change of pace, the birds weren’t the only stars of the show out at the shelf this time. In addition to several more groups of Risso’s Dolphins, we also came across a trio of Offshore Bottlenose Dolphins, multiple large congregations of Pilot Whales, and an energetic pod of acrobatic Striped Dolphins. The captain turned the ship around to go back for a Portuguese Man o’ War that we passed, making sure that everyone had a chance to get a good look at the bizarre, floating organism. Fish sightings included the caudal fin of a mystery billfish, a small unidentified shark, a 9-foot long Blue Shark that was cut loose by the crew after it took their bait, the remora and pilotfish accompanying the large predator, and a Mahi-mahi that the mates fished up. Long-time recurring customers of New York Paulagics remarked that this was an especially noteworthy trip for marine life of all varieties, with great numbers and diversity across the board. The deep offshore waters felt so alive!

By early afternoon, we’d finished our run up the length of the Canyon, and we knew it was time to start heading back to port. I took a brief power nap to recharge my batteries: it had been a long and exhausting morning after a night with very little sleep. Once I awakened, I got to take part in one of my favorite parts of a successful pelagic excursion, swapping stories and jokes with the leaders and other passengers over cold drinks. Quality company and engaging conversation during the quiet stretches help to make a good pelagic great, and this outing was already exceptional. I really appreciated the opportunity to spend some meaningful time with friends who I don’t get to see that often. Everyone was still riding high on the adrenaline rush of the incredible discoveries we’d made over the course of the day. All those who’d been on the fence about coming or unsure if they would get a spot were equal parts relieved and thrilled that they were a part of this trip. We kept our eyes out for any additional surprises on the way in, and we managed to add a new species to the trip list when we passed a Sooty Shearwater. A handful of other shearwaters and storm-petrels put in brief appearances as we moved across the borders from Suffolk to Nassau to Queens. We rounded Breezy Point and entered Brooklyn waters just after sunset, returning to the dock almost exactly 24 hours after we’d left. My legs wobbled and quaked as I staggered back onto dry land, sunburnt and sleep-deprived but loving life. I profusely thanked Paul and the other guides, the captain and his crew, and all of my friends who helped to make the 2018 Brooklyn Paulagic a roaring success. This trip was one for the record books, and I was just glad I got to be onboard for all the excitement!