Tuesday, August 20, 2013

How to find a Trindade Petrel off Cape Hatteras

The Trindade Petrel (formerly considered to be a subspecies of "Herald Petrel" in the Pacific) is one of those scarce Gadfly, or Pterodroma, Petrels that is rarely seen by birders.  It has a few, small, remote breeding colonies off the coast of Brazil in the Southern Hemisphere and ranges over a poorly delineated, but expansive swath of Atlantic (and possibly Indian) Ocean.  There may be as few as 1100 mature individuals in existence and the IUCN lists the species as "vulnerable."

The odds for August suggest that it should take 5 or 6 all-day pelagic trips with Brian Patteson to get a Trindade Petrel, but this summer has seen more reports than usual off the east coast.  They have been more regular than usual on pelagic trips out of Hatteras and several have been recorded on NOAA seabird surveys.  This past weekend was my last chance to spot on one of Brian's trips in 2013 and I was psyched to read the teaser he posted on Carolinabirds midweek:

A front just came through and we now have northeast winds, which is usually the best for seeing Trindade Petrels here- better than the conditions we've had recently.

It's ballsy to predict a good trip offshore, especially days in advance, but if anybody knows about birds in the Gulf Stream, it's Brian Patteson.

Sure enough, the Saturday trip, with winds out of the north, was about the birdiest I had ever seen the pelagic ocean off Hatteras.  Shearwaters were all around the boat most of the day without the much in the way of a typical midday lull.  In fact it was just after noon when vindication appeared:
Trindade Petrel (intermediate)
Passengers were screaming and cheering and Brian was giving his petrel breeding call over the PA, which actually seemed to bring it in closer.  The bird gave us several close passes (usually a bird has to just about sit on the deck of the ship for me to get passable blurry shots like these). 

Trindade Petrel (same individual as above)

Trindade Petrels are polychromatic, meaning they have dark, light and intermediate color morphs.  The first and friendliest bird we saw appeared to be intermediate and we had a second dark bird appear about an hour later that I failed to photograph.

To address the post title, hope and pray for winds out of the north when you take your Patteson pelagic and you just might get a Trindade Petrel.  Even if you don't, you should have a better than average time birding.  That petrel was just one of the 14 pelagic species we saw, which is about as good as one can reasonably hope for!

Other excellent birds seen were a White-tailed Tropicbird (my 350th bird for North Carolina!), Long-tailed and Pomarine Jaegers, Manx Shearwater (uncommon in summer), and both Bridled and Sooty Terns.

Oh and we also had one more first for me: a Hammerhead shark!

Hammerhead (if you look closely you can see the head)

Unfortunately the winds shifted around to the south overnight and Sunday's trip didn't yield such exceptional diversity.  But we still saw all of the usual suspects: lots of Cory's, Great and Audubon's Shearwaters, inquisitive Bridled Terns, a few Wilson's and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, great looks at Black-capped Petrels and the always cute Red-necked Phalaropes.

Bridled Tern looking a bit bald

Red-necked Phalarope

 Always cool to see shorebirds looking at home 20+ miles from the shore!

Red-necked Phalaropes
We did have a couple nice bonuses on Sunday:

A few Manx Shearwaters including one that sat on the water next to a couple Audubon's for excellent side-by-side comparison, and a distant Sooty Shearwater, quite uncommon off Hatteras in August.

Well, that wraps up a successful pelagic season for me.  Hopefully there will be more to come in 2014!

Check out the official trip report and some fantastic photos by Kate Sutherland on the Seabirding blog.  Brian has space on his trips this coming weekend.  More info at: http://www.seabirding.com/


  1. Nice one Scott! Congrats on the Trindade, well done getting photos. I'm hoping for a rare Pterodroma on this weekend's trip out of Cape Cod if the weather cooperates.

    1. Thanks Nick! Looks like you had a fun trip out of Mass. earlier in the month. Good luck this weekend. Hope some of the Trindades have moved your way.

  2. Thanks, Scott. I think it was a bit more than a shift of wind that chased all the petrels out for the next day. We had four Trindades on a sou'wester last week, so I don't think that was it. On Sunday, it was all dirty green water where we had the blue Gulf Stream water the day before. Plenty of shearwaters in that stuff, but the reverse change and the blue water filament had moved 40 or 50 miles up the coast and the best conditions for petrels and tropicbirds were 60 miles from Hatteras (either northeast or due south), which is just too far for a regular day trip. Kate did indeed get some cracking shots of that first petrel w/ my 400.

    Brian Patteson
    Hatteras, NC

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