Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Spotting for Bee Hives on the Gulf Stream

 I gaze over Gulf Stream waters from the bow of the Stormy Petrel II and see nothing but endless blue swells.  In the calm there are no birds nor creatures of any type to be seen.

As a spotter charged with finding birds for paying customers these famines can seem interminable.  There's nothing to do but keep scanning the horizons hoping to spot a distant feast.

Brian Patteson calls such bird swarms "Bee Hives."  Schools of tuna force baitfish to the surface, which attract ravenous flocks of shearwaters.  The arcing and swirling tubenoses on a distant horizon recall bees at a hive. 

Great and Cory's Shearwaters
With one spotted, Brian slams the boat into gear and we race toward the action, stumbling upon straggling, loafing, satiated shearwaters that allow close approach.
Audubon's Shearwater
Great Shearwater

 ...and reluctantly take wing.

Cory's and Audubon's Shearwaters

Cory's Shearwater

Over the two trips last weekend we found three "bee hives" of shearwaters some 35 miles from shore, and in one we found a ferocious hive queen.

South Polar Skua with Great Shearwaters
The South Polar Skua is a kleptoparasite, making its living by stealing fish from seabirds. Brian said he has even seen them kill shearwaters.
South Polar Skua
While we didn't witness a murder at sea, the bulky pirate was causing utter pandemonium among the flocks and committed countless larcenies.

South Polar Skua
Check out this video of the action.

The skua was my favorite bird of the weekend (now I just need to find a Brown Skua, and I'll have seen all the world's Stercorariidae), but there were many other highlights.

On Saturday's trip we had, per Brian Patteson, one of the top 10 Leach's Storm-Petrel trips of all time.

Leach's Storm-Petrel
Yeah, storm-petrels are tough to photograph.  They just don't hold still.  But for those with the proper combination of equipment, skill, and patience, this was an excellent trip for storm-petrel photo ops.

My Band-rumped Storm-Petrel photos are even worse than the Leach's shot above, but I got some decent Wilson's Storm-Petrel captures.
Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Check out those long legs!

Wilson's Storm-Petrel
A fortuitous find was a young Bridled Tern resting on a float on Saturday.
Bridled Tern

We saw one or two Bridleds on Sunday as well, plus a Sooty Tern.  These tropical pelagic terns are not very common off of Hatteras until August.

Finally, the smooth ocean made for some excellent marine mammal spotting conditions.  We had Bottlenose Dolphins riding the bow, several good sightings of Gervais' Beaked Whales, and saw four Sperm Whales!

Sperm Whale
The one we saw on Sunday was particularly friendly!

Sperm Whale

It was a fantastic weekend of pelagic birding.  Brian's spring trips are more popular because of the chance of better diversity, but in the summer the numbers of birds seen are generally much higher. The trend held true this weekend and we had plenty of space on the boat and hundreds of birds to see. 

Thanks again to Brian and Kate for having me along and to Kyle Kittelberger, who did a great job in his spotting debut. More info about these trips and the official counts and species list can be found on the Seabirding Blog; and additional (better than mine) photos here

Brian says there's room on most of the trips this summer; see for the schedule and booking information.