Thursday, August 28, 2014

Summer Pelagic 2014

Aboard the Thelma Dale V for a summer pelagic.  Dennis chose to sit. I chose to fling myself across the deck.

This past weekend George, Anna, and I climbed aboard the Thelma Dale V in the middle of the night in Lewes, Delaware. We claimed our main deck bench-seat berths with about twenty others who bunked inside. Many folks climbed the ladder to the topdeck and spread out their sleeping bags  under the stars/spray/rain,/wind. My birding and PhD mentor Dr. Dennis Kirkwood was also along and I was so happy to share this trip with him! We've been friends since the 1980s and he was one of the people I blame credit for my going into doctoral research.

Sunrise over the Baltimore Canyon.

We launched for the open ocean at 11pm roaring out, bumping and pitching along for five hours to reach our destination somewhere off the MD/DE coast with  6000' of Atlantic Ocean below us. We ate graham crackers and pop tarts. A lot of graham crackers and pop tarts. And drank a lot of  ginger ale. Both son George and I have served aboard various craft during our lives (schooners/patrol boats) and we gave Anna all the advice she needed on how not to get sick. It worked! 

Looking for Leach's Storm Petrel at dawn.

As soon as the captain cut the engines at 0530 everyone jumped up out of their bunks and the men ran out the side hatches while the women ran to the head (toilet) out the back hatch.  Essential business complete, suited up in jackets, cameras, binocs, crackers,  we took up positions around the ship to watch for very early morning birds. I enjoyed the sunrise most of all. There is nothing - absolutely nothing - as beautiful as a sunrise on the open ocean. 

George and Anna enjoying the relative calm of dawn.

The spotters called Leach's  Storm Petrel very early and while I did see them, the light was so poor that I didn't feel confident counting them - even though they would have been the first life bird of the day. I'll give myself another trip before I can confidently call a Leach's on my own. One of the risks of birding with lots of folks calling out species is the temptation to count a bird because someone else called said it was so. I prefer to really know the identifying characteristics well enough so that I am confident to call the bird myself. I wasn't disappointed though since the Leach's is known for its early morning appearances only to disappear for the rest of the day just at sunrise, and - why - it's an excuse to come out again! I'll be ready next time. I did count quite a few Wilson's Storm Petrels, legs danging, feet pattering on the water.

Wilson's Storm Petrel - note legs hanging out beyond tail.

I noted  throughout the day that the sky was constantly changing. I love cloud photography and sometimes it was a challenge to stay focused on the birds when the sky was putting on such a show! The shift of light, the trains of clouds rolling westward on easterly winds, mist-then-sun-then-rain-then-sky shows overhead were so distracting! I think I may have missed the Great Shearwater because I was gawking at the clouds. Hurricane Cristobal was churning way out there somewhere, giving a steady pulse of easterly winds which meant some rain and cloudy weather for folks ashore. While we did get showered on, the cloud formations were dramatic as they always are in hurricane season, and I couldn't keep from watching them as much as for pelagic birds! 

Cloud photography is my secret passion.

Cory's Shearwater was the first life bird of the trip. The sun rose higher and the light improved and I was able to see clearly the size and colors of this beautiful big glider. I couldn't do Life Bird Dance I (like a Win-The-Lottery-Dance only better) in the narrow space I had along the covered starboard main deck. It would have looked like a series of graceful pirouettes with a little hop at the end in case you are curious. This is a big shearwater, the biggest in the Atlantic. Stocky and broad-winged, these birds appeared several times throughout the day, sometimes following the boat at chumming spots, sometimes gliding up into powerful upstrokes topping out in graceful wheels to return to the ship. I was very comfortable identifying this species on my own once I was able to study a few birds in flight in good light.

Cory's Shearwater flying through a mid-morning shower.

Cory's Shearwater wheeling by.

Cory's Shearwater in wing molt showing off it's slightly bent wings in glide mode.

The Audubon's Shearwater was the second life bird of the trip, but the top deck pitched and rolled so much that I couldn't do my Life Bird Dance II (similar to a Backpacking Summit Dance) without crashing into people. It would have looked like a leaping cheer for a field goal in case you are curious. Audubon's Shearwater is often observed feeding in the mats of Sargassum that drift along in the warm Gulf Stream waters, so I was careful to watch for the streamers of seaweed that drifted past on the swells. This bird was bathing, nosing about in the weed, and pretty much giving us a show. It took off and wheeled elegantly overhead. It nests on rocky islands in the Caribbean and is almost never seen from shore. In a hurry to bobble across the deck to see it closer as the ship turned to starboard, I crashed into a nice guy taking its picture. That was not meant to be a Life Bird Dance!

Audubon's Shearwater bathing in the swells.

During the slow periods I caught up on Dennis' life and he with mine. He was pretty glad (as am I!) that I'm in the final phase of my PhD work. I was pretty glad (as was he) that he is retired from his long career in an administrative education position. He has been traveling the world leading birding trips and spending more time on his beloved farm. It's funny how when we run into old friends we just pick up where we left off.

Dr. Dennis Kirkwood and George, both fine naturalists on sea and land!

I did a lot of people watching too. Some folks were (like us) totally absorbed in the watch - searching for elusive birds that are found only out here in the open ocean. Pelagic birding is pretty intense. Try maintaining your balance on a rocking deck while taking pictures or looking through binoculars at a shearwater flying loop-de-loops like a jet fighter or a storm petrel disappearing behind a swell to just vanish - forever. Then there were the poor souls who were a little queezy (not eating their crackers obviously) head between knees, but still on the top deck, peeping out from their misery to catch a glimpse of a bird. There were the determined ones who were somewhat sick but who didn't want to miss anything, wedged into the benches below, looking out across the rails, maybe standing over the rails to...well, you know why.  And the spotters and guides  doing the Stance-Dance - a skill I need to practice.

The Stance-Dance.

Our guides and spotters never let up - always scanning and checking ID's.

My people watching instantly ended when someone hollered "Jaeger! Jaeger!" and almost without thinking I started taking pictures at a muscled, striped rocket that blew past the ship. The guide did his best lemming-in-distress squeal and the arctic bird stalled midair to listen. It turned its head and began to drift backwards to check out the sound of food, then thought better of it. I caught it in my binoculars and nailed the grey striped flanks and underwings, a powerful chest, and tern-like acrobatics. Another life bird! This time I did Life Bird Dance III which looked like a drunken sailor trying to do the twist. It worked. Three's the charm. I got a small round of applause.  

Long-tailed Jaeger! Life Bird Three for the trip!

The beauty of pelagic birding is the solitude of the open ocean and the sheer vastness of space in which open sea birds roam. The hunt for food is constant and directs every flap of wing. The crew provided chum (diced fish and fish oil) to try to entice birds to feed near the ship. Tubenosed birds, like petrels and shearwaters have an excellent sense of smell. Predicting where and when the large streamers of food-rich Sargassum may be is made a little easier by understanding how the ocean contains rivers that contain streams that course around upwellings. Knowing where the continental shelf slopes into the canyon is key.  The edge is always a good place to be whether on sea or land. The ecotone between deep waters, the slope, and the shelf is much like a transition area that borders forest and meadow. That's where the food is -  great clouds of plankton and schools of small fish. We stayed on the edge for most of the day.

Portuguese Man-O-War under sail.

I was once on a half-day pelagic trip out of Nova Scotia to see puffins and skuas with a wonderful birder Susan, who I will never forget (she was a nun at a nearby Buddhist monastery)  mentioned how much more she saw on the ocean than on land. I stuck close to her and that day we saw so many things, but no birds! The food sources were far away, and so were the birds. While some hard-core birders were disappointed (even asking for their money back!) Susan and I, however, were over-the-moon about having seen humpback whales, a school of flying fish, an enormous ray, and a Greenland shark (!!!). Oh - and the clouds!  I think that's where I learned to appreciate the spiritual quality of clouds at sea.

The back and dorsal fin of a large fin whale can be seen just as she spouted near her calf.

On today's trip George, Anna, and I saw  a fin whale calf burst from her ocean world to explore the sky three times, while her very large Mom spouted reassuringly nearby. It was Anna's first whale sighting - she did The Dance! George saw flying fish. Then there was the Portuguese Man-O-War off the stern that cruised alongside and through chum slick and hoisted his sail for distant seas. A Life Jellyfish! Is there a dance for that?  Then there was this... Hmm. Aren't Great Whites migrating south about now?

An unidentified swimmer - sporting an impressive dorsal fin!

We roared home for most of the afternoon. I looked forward to seeing birds that hang close to shore and by four p.m. there were a few gulls following the boat. Cape Henlopen came into sight as I noticed a family group of cormorants winging inland. Laughing gulls escorted us into the mouth of the Delaware. Ospreys stood guard on every channel marker. Thelma Dale swung slowly into the Lewes Canal and we were home.  What a great trip this was - I can't wait to do a winter pelagic!

Home by 5 after 18 hours at seas - Lewes Canal.


More on Sargassum communities of the Gulf Stream from NOAA:

Link to See Life Paulagics, offering Mid-Atlantic trips as well as trips beyond our region -

Here's the ship we took out of Lewes, Thelma Dale V. (Thanks Anita for the pic!)

There are different boats for different trips depending on where the trip launches from. Thanks again to Paul and Anita for a great time!

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