This past Saturday, fellow NemesisBird contributor Tim Shreckengost and I joined Paul Guris‘ seabirding crew and about 30 other birders from mostly Maryland, Delaware, and Pennsylvania on a 12 hour pelagic trip out of Lewes aboard the trusty Thelma Dale IV. The morning started off with heavy rain. I was too excited to be cooped up inside though, so Tim and I stood out on the deck with a few other birders and did our best to sort through the gulls and ducks flying around the boat as we headed out on the ocean. Rain is undoubtedly the most annoying conditions for birding in, but our efforts paid off and we had great looks at an adult Parasitic Jaeger that flew past a few times, as well as a late Brown Pelican, and all three scoters. Red-throated and Common Loons were also seen in decent numbers and and the usual gulls were around, including some late Laughing and small groups of Bonaparte’s. Various ages of Northern Gannets were also putting in a good show, with many birds coming close to the boat.
As the morning went on, the rain slowed and we started putting out a chum slick behind the boat to attract gulls and hopefully other seabirds. A few minutes later, amid good numbers of Great Black-backed Gulls and Herring Gulls was a sharp-looking juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull that ended up following the boat for most of the day. The gull’s smaller and more slender shape with an all-black bill, silvery highlights, and mostly white uppertail and rump helped to pick out this increasingly-common gull as it battled for bits of fish behind the boat.
A brief rain shower started up again, so some folks took cover inside, but those of us on the deck were able to get distant looks at a few groups of Manx Shearwaters flying low over the water, out in the distance. Manx was my most-wanted bird for this trip – an actual nemesis bird of mine, that I kept missing out on seeing despite numerous pelagic trips. Needless to say, I was very happy but also was looking forward to closer views.
The next pelagic species to make an appearance was a Great Shearwater. The bird made a quick pass, far behind the boat but then turned and ran straight up our wake and proceeded to join the gulls right behind the boat, which offered outstanding views of this friendly seabird. A few missing feathers on the bird’s left upperwing coverts gave it a unique white patch and we were able to pick out that bird throughout the day, even when up to 4 other Great Shearwaters were paroling around the Thelma Dale. Oftentimes, the shearwaters would take a break from fighting with gulls over chum, and actually sit on the water near the boat! Check out the short video below showing a quick scan around the boat, from the top deck, which shows a few floating Great Shearwaters and many gulls.
While standing at the back of the boat, trying to get photos of the Great Shearwaters and Lesser Black-backed Gull, I spotted the unmistakable upperwing pattern of an immature Black-legged Kittiwake flying in to join the other gulls behind the boat. The kittiwake stayed out pretty far but offered good looks through binos before vanishing into the distance. That would be the theme for kittiwakes on Saturday – brief looks of either an adult or immature flying through the boat’s wake, and then leaving. It wasn’t until the afternoon that we had a kittiwake make a close pass for some better photos.
Another species that we saw a number of times, but which refused to be cooperative for photos were the chunky Northern Fulmars. For most of the day, a fulmar would appear out of nowhere and already be heading straight away from the boat. Sometimes one would turn broadside but usually quite a ways out. Luckily, I happened to be standing in the right place at the right time later in the day and spotted a fulmar about to pass the boat and shot off a series of photos that I am really happy with.
The rest of the day was filled with better and better looks at most species, plus our first encounter with Red Phalaropes. Along a natural slick line, we found a few large groups of phalaropes including a flock of about 60 birds! They all stayed distant, and flushed before we could get close enough for good photos but were neat to see nonetheless. Perhaps the most exciting finds of the day came when another large, brown shearwater sliced past the boat – a Cory’s Shearwater, a species not usually encountered this late into the year. Even more uncommon was that the bird appeared to be the subspecies known as Scopoli’s Shearwater (Calonectris diomedea diomedea). To make things even more interesting, less than an hour later, the more usual subspecies (Calonectris diomedea borealis) also passed the boat, offering a nice comparison of the two types, which may soon be split.
On our way back later in the day, we chummed heavily 30 to 20 miles from land, hoping to lure in some Manx Shearwaters for a closer look. This band of range seems to be the preferred habitat for Manx, possibly because of the higher number of sand eels. Right on cue, we started seeing distant Manx. A pair of birds made the closest past of the day, crossing the back of our wake. I was able to get great looks in my binoculars and even a documentation shot! It was a great way to end another incredible day out on the Atlantic Ocean. In addition to birdlife, we were also able to see two Loggerhead Sea Turtles, a small group of Short-nosed Bottlenose Dolphin, a large school of False Albacore, and a brief but tantalizing spectacle of a large shark thrashing right alongside the boat, which may have been either a Great White or Basking! Thanks again to Paul and the rest of the crew!