Wednesday, August 29, 2012

Extreme Pelagic Birding: No Pain, No Gain

On a typical 12 hour pelagic trip, my scopolamine patch works just well enough to keep me from blowing groceries over the side of the boat.  I soldier on, enjoying the great birds, but feeling slightly queezy at best, and full on sick at worst. Pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  It's both fun, and nauseating.  Literally.

But what do you have to do if you want some really good pelagic bird sightings?  In some cases, you have to go way, way far offshore.  That turns the trip into a two day affair--which obviously involves spending a full night on board a boat, tossing and turning with 50 of your closest friends.  Enter Extreme Pelagic Birding.  Sort of like the ultramarathon of ocean birding events.  We'll get back to the tossing later!

My first Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure started last spring when my buddy Mike from Montana invited me to join him for a Brookline Bird Club pelagic trip off the coast of Massachusetts on August 25-26.  Mike has 797 birds on his North American bird list, and this trip promised him his best shot at White-faced Storm Petrel.  If he could get that in the bag, he'd be in good shape to hit 800 right after the trip while birding for three weeks in Gambell, Alaska with Paul Lehman.

So last Friday I picked Mike up at the Newark airport, and we drove through Connecticut and Rhode Island rush hour traffic up to Hyannis, Massachusetts.  At 5am Saturday morning we were on the dock, and by 6am we were loading ourselves onto the 100 foot party boat the Helen H.  I had my scopolamine patch behind my ear, and my fingers crossed for a fun trip.  Once we got underway, life was fun.  Real fun.  Right away we had flocks of Red-necked Phalarope, and a couple of Red Phalarope mixed in with them.

Red Phalarope (front) and Red-necked Phalarope (back)
One of the first pelagic birds we had was a nice young Long-tailed Jaeger.  Followed by a Northern Gannet, and dozens of Wilson's Storm-Peterels.  Then there were dozens of Great Shearwaters, as well as some Cory's Shearwaters.  Did I mention that we had pelagic birding expert Steve Howell on board?  As well as birding superstars Marshall Iliff and Tom Johnson.  So we didn't just see Cory's Shearwaters, we found a couple of Scopoli's Shearwaters.  If you don't know what a Scopoli's Shearwater is, you need to read Steve Howell's brand new seabird book (I got my copy signed by Steve on the boat)!

So far so good.  Great birds.  Stomach feeling fine.  Even had a burger cooked in the boat's galley.  Then things got even better when we started finding sea turtles!  We had two Loggerhead Sea Turtles and one big old Leatherback Sea Turtle--an animal I'd wanted to see for most of my life.  Way cool!

Loggerhead Sea Turtle, one of two we saw on our first day out.

Leatherback Sea Turtle, one of my favorite animals. I finally got to see one on this trip
The reason we were on such an Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure was to find White-faced Storm-Petrels, birds that breed on islands in the southern Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and found in North America in deep warm waters way off shore.  In this case, out at the edge of the Continental Shelf.  That's like 100 miles offshore!

Sure enough, once we got out that far, we started seeing a few of these amazing little birds jumping along the tops of the waves like little kangaroos.  Or to my mind, more like little kangaroo rats.  Very cool.  Unfortunately, did I mention the waves.  While I was still able to hold my lunch down, the waves made it tough for me to get any kind of images.  Just to show you what I mean, take a look at this video of this little beauty.

Tough to see with all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling?  Here's the best video grab I could manage.  Of course, guys with more expensive Canon cameras and lenses got some great shots.  More on that (with links) later.

Video capture of White-faced Storm-Petrel

White-faced Storm-Petrel was my buddy Mike's #798 ABA area bird.  So mission accomplished.  All was good.  And I was betting him the fun wasn't over, and he would get a couple more birds by the end of the trip.  As night fell, we were happy.  It had been a great day.

What the heck is this?  Oh yeah, bonus Bridled Tern on flotsam at dusk, last bird before dark.
But then it was dark.  HO-LEE-CRAP!  No more horizon to watch to help keep your equilibrium.  Finally, about 9:15pm, I knew I wasn't going to make it.  I ran down to the back of the boat and let out a glorious technicolor yawn!  Followed by a generous liquid laugh!  Yes, I gave my offering to Neptune.

After that, I felt better, but I knew I had to sleep.  The breeze on board was refreshing, but I knew I had to lay down at some point.  And that meant crawling down into the bottom of the boat, where a warm, dank room held 30 bunk beds, including my bunk down at the very bottom.  What would happen to me down there?  What if I had to puke in the middle of the night?  Would I be able to sleep?  I avoided going down there as long as I could, but at some point I knew that it would be much better if I could sleep, rather than fight my stomach all night.

So I crawled down into the belly of the boat, squoze myself into my bunk, and amazingly, fell fast asleep.  I woke up a couple times, briefly, but thank goodness I was able to fall back to sleep quickly each time--even with the rocking of the boat, and the sound of waves crashing against the hull as we pitched and rolled anchored at the edge of the Continental Shelf.  It sounded and felt like sleeping inside a washing machine.  But it wasn't the most uncomfortable night I've spent, though I was happy to get up at 5:30am and get some fresh air.

Extreme Pelagic Birders on deck

While I was sitting, resting, enjoying the early morning light, all of a sudden I heard Tom Johnson and others yelling:

"Barolo Shearwater, Barolo Shearwater, Barolo Shearwater!"

I ran to the back of the boat, even quicker than I had run there the night before, and got a great quick look at a small dark backed and white-bellied shearwater.  If you don't know what a Barolo Shearwater is, you need to buy Steve Howell's new seabird book :-)

Little (Barolo) Shearwater
In short, Barolo Shearwater is classified by some as one of the North Atlantic subspecies of Little Shearwater--a bird that for most North American birders is just a small illustration in the back of the National Geographic Field Guide (see on right).  It is a bird seen only a few times in North America, and one that you might think you would never see--and you probably would be right.  But here was one criss-crossing the chum slick behind the boat!

My buddy Mike was still in bed.  Sleeping through his ABA bird #799!  I ran down into the bowels of the boat, going against the stream of birders madly dashing towards the back of the boat, and woke Mike up.  By the time I got back topside, the bird was much farther out.  By the time Mike got up there, it was gone.

Oh the agony of missing a bird.  On a pelagic trip, that agony is all the worse because you know the bird is right out there, somewhere.  There are no trees to hide in, or coves to disappear in.  Just a vast expanse of water and waves.  The bird you miss is right out there, somewhere, just galling in its invisibility!
Where do you hide a bird on the open ocean?  Answer: practically anywhere!
With such a great bird sighting, and since we were already out in the warm deep water where we wanted to be, we decided to just hang out there for a few more hours and see what would come in to the chum slick behind the boat.  We hoped the Barolo Shearwater would return.  Meanwhile, I steeled my mind and prepared for a couple hours of pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  There were always Great Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm-Petrels to watch, when I wasn't sitting with my eyes closed trying to stay alive.  There were also occasional Leach's Storm-Petrels, and a few Band-rumped Storm-Petrels to enjoy.  By enjoy I mean try to find in the swarm of almost identically plumaged Wilson's Storm-Petrels.  Wilson's fly like butterflies.  Leach's are like nighthawks.  Band-rumps are something in the middle, maybe like a Spotted Sandpiper.

Right in the middle of the storm petrel show, people started screaming again:

"Tropicbird!  Tropicbird!  Tropicbird!"

A white bird flew up high and behind the boat, like a bat out of hell.  OK, more like a giant white parrot, with strong quick flapping.  It would cruise down one side of the boat, then disappear over the top of the boat, then reappear again.  Once more, hard to get video or a picture of.  But here's what I got.  

Sadly, the best tropicbird video grab I got.
At first the leaders thought it was a White-tailed Tropicbird, but on further review of their digital photos (much better than the ones I got, with those giant Canon lenses) it was determined that this was a young Red-billed Tropicbird.  Very cool!  Mike didn't need this bird for his ABA list, but I did.

After this guy showed up we saw a couple of Audubon's Shearwaters, and more of the same storm petrels.  And then the screaming began again:

"Barolo Shearwater!  Barolo Shearwater!  Barolo Shearwater!"

This time my buddy Mike was right there, and got great looks.  We all did.  Sadly, I didn't get a good shot, but everyone with big Canon lenses seemed to.  So everyone was happy.  Since Tom Johnson had seen four Barolo Shearwaters from a NOAA vessel off Nova Scotia the week before, I had told Mike we had a chance for this bird, but it was still a not-to-be-expected bonus bird for the trip.

After a few more hours of searching in the deep water, we saw a many more petrels, but no more surprises.  I was really tired from all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling, and spent a lot of time sitting with my eyes closed.  Meditating.  Praying to die.  Or at least hoping to survive the rest of the day without puking in front of everyone in broad daylight.

Finally it was decided that we needed to head back for the 7 hour ride back to harbor.  There was a constant stream of birds, most of the same few species we'd seen before, but we did pick up a few Manx Shearwaters on the way back in.  I spent some of that time sleeping on a bench with my floppy straw hat from Walmart over my face.  Maybe I didn't look great, but I'd had great looks at some awesome birds, including three new birds for my ABA list!

More Extreme Pelagic Birders
It has taken me a couple days to recover from the long boat ride and all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  Eventually, I expect my disequilibrium will subside and I'll mostly be left with great memories and a few crummy shots of these great birds.  I heartily recommend this grueling Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure to others--even if you don't have a big Canon lens.  The birds are great, and you will survive the pitching and rolling.  You may have to sacrifice some dignity, and stomach contents, but the birds are awesome!

Here's one last video clip to give you a taste of the pitching and rolling of Extreme Pelagic Birding.  Pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling.  Remember, this only lasts for two days straight.  No pain, no gain!

For those who want better looks at the birds we saw on our adventure, check out some of these from fellow trip participants with big Canon lenses.  And start making arrangements to take your own Extreme Pelagic Birding adventure!

More at:
Jeff Offerman's Flickr Page
Shorebirder's shots
Naturescape Images
Birdchaser--links to the trip's consecutive eBird checklists


  1. Awesome post! Truly epic stuff out there. It's been fun to watch different accounts and posts of this trip pop up around the interwebs, but this is by far the best and most full narrative I've seen so far, and it was a truly great read.

    Appreciate you sharing your sightings from all the pitching and rolling, pitching and rolling. I'd take throwing up while after birds a great sign of dedication, nothing more and nothing less : )

  2. Fantastic! I'm going on a pelagic trip in Sept, and I'm looking forward to it.

  3. This is an awesome post, I've never been on a Pelagic trip but this is making me drool!

  4. Wow, what a fabulous experience ... with the exception of the sickness. I've read a few narratives on Pelagic trips and it certainly sounds like an adventure I would like to take. Fantastic post! Congratulations on the Barolo Shearwater sightings!

  5. Thanks for the comments. Maybe I should have titled the post "Pelagic Birding Makes Me Hurl" :-)

  6. Sounds like a great trip.

    I just went out with Paul Guris from Freeport NY last weekend and got 3 lifers - Leach's SP, Cory's Shearwater, and Pomarine Jaeger. Most of the other birders on board were talking about the Mass trip with envy! Being 85 - 100 miles off the coast is really terrific.

  7. I love that feeling of getting off a pelagic and thinking, "I'm not gonna EVER do that again!" And, three days later a friend says, "Hey, let's go on XXX pelagic. We could see XXX, XXX and XXX." Suddenly, a pelagic sounds like a GREAT idea. Booked.