Another boatload of anxious birders gathered at Fisherman’s Wharf in Lewes this past Friday evening for an overnight Seelife Paulagics trip into Maryland (and a little bit of Delaware) waters. Weather conditions looked fantastic for the day ahead with light east winds, a very low chance of rain, 3-4 foot waves, and 70 degree water out on the continental shelf. Paul Guris read off the roll-call, and everyone boarded and found a place inside the cabin or up on the top deck to get a few hours of sleep, while the Captain drove us out onto the open ocean. The (mostly) gentle sea and cool breeze made for a nice night’s sleep on the Thelma Dale IV.
By 4:30am the next morning, we were 98 miles off Maryland and above the mouth of Poor Man’s Canyon- one of many large, underwater canyons that provide ideal foraging habitat for seabirds and cetaceans. As soon as it was light enough to view the sea around us, the tiny shapes of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels could be seen bouncing above the waves, and a few Cory’s Shearwaters were cruising around. Most birders on board were still waking up or trying to get a few more minutes of rest, but as I and the other leaders started to get more excited about a few Leach’s Storm-Petrels and a Great Shearwater that came zipping past the boat, it wasn’t long before everyone was up and glued to the side of the boat.
The first show-off of the morning was an adult Common Tern that glided around above our heads for a few minutes and then moved off. We weren’t the only ones to notice the tern around our boat though, and it was only a few minutes later that the distinctively bulky shape of a Pomarine Jaeger was spotted heading right towards us. The jaeger made an incredible pass right over the boat, and then continued off in the direction of the tern. Around this time, more and more Cory’s and Great Shearwaters could be seen around the boat, and a nice chum slick had been formed behind our boat which created a nice trail of Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm-Petrels behind us. The chum was also attracting a few other sea-creatures, and one of the boat mates caught a large Yellow-fin Tuna! There were also hundreds of Portuguese Man O’ War jellyfish floating around us, nicely lit up by the rising sun and showing off their translucent, purple, and blue color.
Our third shearwater species of the day started making appearances just after the jaeger flyby -Audubon’s Shearwaters. The smaller and strikingly black-and-white color of these subtropical shearwaters provided a nice contrast to the larger Cory’s and Great Shearwaters. Our first cetaceans of the trip were a pod of pilot whales that made a nice pass – their broad dorsal fins, large heads, and dark color providing nice fields marks. Pilot whales are frustrating though because without seeing their pectoral fins it is impossible to tell between Long-finned and Short-finned. Our southerly position and warm water may suggest that they were Short-finned, but again – who knows?
The next hour of the trip had more of the same species, but as the light was getting better it offered passengers better views of each species and how each species flies and behaves out on the ocean. There was a brief moment of excitement for a few of us that noticed a distant Sperm Whale laying on the surface and then slowly sinking below – the whale’s short, humped fin and long body and head were distinctive. Paul mentioned how they look like a floating telephone pole. The whale didn’t want to cooperate for us, but luckily a large pod of dolphins were spotted and always seem excited to investigate our large, loud boat. The dolphins came right up along the Thelma Dale , and rode in our bow’s wake, offering awesome views of them directly below us. Their small size and the variation of spots and stripes along their sides IDed them as Atlantic Spotted Dolphins! Around that time, a small dead bird floating on the water caught our attention and we moved closer to scoop it up with nets. We were very surprised to discover that it was a Dovekie…our smallest alcid, and very rare this late in the season.
The next few hours had good numbers of birds, but very similar species compositions as previous hours. We passed many natural slicks and a few chum slicks set out by fisherman who were out for tuna and sharks. Each slick had storm-petrels (sometimes over 100 Wilson’s) and various shearwaters loafing nearby. A few distant Common Terns and Pomarine Jaegers made brief appearances, and our first Red-necked Phalaropes of the day were spotted. These chunky shorebirds often spend much of their wintering and migration periods way out on the sea, foraging in clumps of sargassum. Striped Dolphins and a few Risso’s Dolphins also made brief appearances alongside the boat.
One fisherman’s slick had over 200 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and a fairly large group of floating shearwaters, so we moved in closer for a better look. Hiding among the shearwaters (and floating alongside a Pomarine Jaeger) was an all-dark bird that proved to be our first Sooty of the day – and quite a bit further out than you’d normally find them. Sooty Shearwaters became more abundant throughout the rest of the day as we moved closer to shore. During the chaos of sorting through the large flock of storm-petrels and shearwaters, a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel flew past and was photographed but not IDed in the field – told from the more numerous Leach’s by its dull carpal bar, and squared (not forked) tail.
At 12:30, we spotted our 5th and final shearwater species of the day – Manx! This species is like a larger, meaner Audubon’s; with black-and-white plumage but longer wings and with completely white undertail coverts. Audubon’s breed on islands in the Bahamas and Caribbean, and Manx breed on islands in the North Atlantic. Both love sand eels. When we turned around to go back for a better look at our first Manx, we stumbled into perhaps our best find of the day – a super awesome and super cooperative Atlantic Puffin! This is a great species to find during winter, but for June it was incredible. We spent a few minutes with the puffin, and then kept motoring along.
In the afternoon, we spotted a distant flock of terns on the horizon and turned to head their direction. The flock scattered and most of the terns stayed distant, so it was hard to get a thorough read on what species were present. We were lucky to have a few make closer passes and all seemed like (mostly adult) Common Terns. But as we were giving up and about to keep going, one more flock crossed right in front of our bow and the smaller size and lighter coloration of 1 Roseate Tern and 2 Arctic Terns mixed in with 8 or so Common Terns was striking. Sadly, the flock continued away from us and never offered another look. I didn’t even manage to get any photos, but luckily others did. The final species seen in ‘pelagic’ waters was a pair of immature Common Loons that looked as surprised as we were. A huge Ocean Sunfish and a Fin Whale were nice additions to the day list though, too.
Our full trip list for the day was as follows….
Cory’s Shearwater (all C. d. borealis)
Inshore Bottlenose Dolphin
pilot whale sp.
sea turtle sp.
Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola)