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)|
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|
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.
|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.|
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|
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!|
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.|
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|
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!
Jeff Offerman's Flickr Page
Birdchaser--links to the trip's consecutive eBird checklists