Friday, February 24, 2012

More on the Hatteras pelagic...

To give my last post a bit more context, the Black-browed Albatross will be only the fifth formally accepted record of the species for the United States (once the NC records committee gets a chance to vote on it) with 10 or so other unconfirmed reports over the years (source). And it is only the second report of any kind from North Carolina waters with a first being a sight record of two birds seen in the 70s .

Obviously the Black-browed Albatross, for its incredible improbability and stunning beauty, stole the show from what had already been fabulous winter pelagic trip off Hatteras.

The weather was mild and the sea was calm (at least by afternoon). Our first rare bird of the day appeared almost instantly: an Iceland Gull, not 15 minutes out of port in the sound. I had seen a few of these on the pelagic trip I took February last year and got some great photos, so like lack of sunlight and photo opportunity didn't bother me.

Moments later we cruised by a flock of about 60 Brant, a goose species found on salt water that can be elusive within North Carolina (NC bird #302!).

Out on the open ocean we weren't finding the incredible density of alcids that we had last year; one Dovekie skittered away from the boat and I saw small groups of Razorbills here and there. But we found almost all the typical winter pelagic species that I had missed last year including a few Manx Shearwaters (lifer #1546), Great Skuas (lifer #1548), one lone Northern Fulmar (lifer #1549), and several groups of Red Phalaropes.
Red Phalaropes (lifer #1547!); so cool to see shorebirds at home on the open ocean

The phalaropes were working along an obvious contrast between warm blue gulf stream water and cold green water.

more phalaropes with a Bonaparte's Gull; at a distance these two birds can look remarkably similar
The confluence of nutrient-rich cold water and the gulf stream drives a hotspot of primary productivity, attracted fish and other marine macrofauna. Not-birds included Bottlenose and Spotted Dolphins, but most impressive were the abundance of Loggerhead Sea Turtles.
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
We noticed 30 to 40 bobbing past and several that exhibited some really odd behavior...turtles swimming on their backs with flippers out of the water. One even craned its head out of its shell above water and opened its mouth showing its beak. I guess this was some sort of threat display because it proceeded to approach our boat and bite at the hull! Weird. I hope some turtle experts can offer some interpretation.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Black-browed Albatross off Cape Hatteras

Black-browed Albatross; pelagic off Cape Hatteras on Feb.18, 2012
Full Adult; the first adult of the species photographed in the US?

With 1st-cycle Great Black-backed Gull; I wonder how often these species meet?
With Northern Gannets; another unusual juxtaposition!
In flight; notice how close we are to the shoreline in the background. Also note the molting flight feathers.  I have read that albatrosses have to take a year off from nesting to molt.

During the ~45-minute view, it mostly sat on the water. This is the only glimpse of the underwings I captured
Overexposed and cropped photo shows a dark iris; an indication the bird is from the nominate race/subspecies and may be from the Falkland Islands off Argentina (rather than Campbell Island)

My first photo of the bird at 4:40 pm; imagine if it had disappeared after this shot

And the second capture; nice and blurry like most of my pelagic photos

Bob Fogg aboard the Stormy Petrel II (captained by Brian Patteson) with the Albatross in the background.  Bob spotted the bird fly into the wake (apparently they go for chum)

Jeff Pippen taking an iPhone photo of the bird to be sent instantly to his lawyer for safe keeping.  Jeff led a group from the Nicholas School of the Environment at Duke University that fortunately included me!
And in case anybody wants to see some HD video (be sure to watch in 720p!):

Sorry about the shakiness, the boat just wouldn't hold still.  This clip is better for shake than many of the others I took (too much zoom), but just to be safe, you may want to pop some dramamine. 

Huge thanks to Captain Brian, 1st mate Kate and spotters Bob and Dave for a fantastic trip.  It was a phenomenal day even discounting this bird (lifer #1550 and my 5th of the day!).

For more on the context of this find and details about other cool birds and non-birds seen on the trip, check out my follow-up post.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Deja vu? Western Tanager! (again)

When I heard from Ali that there was a Western Tanager visiting a feeder in Durham, I couldn't resist going to see it.
Western Tanager in Durham!
This one was a female, so not quite as pretty as the one down in Pinehurst from last month, but it is the first one documented in Durham County.  Pretty Cool!
motion blur

These birds don't linger on the feeder and shooting through a window on a low-light cloudy morning makes it tough to get a crisp photo.
See you later!

I wonder when it might migrate west?

A big thanks to Della Zimmerman and her mother for hosting!

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Birding Bald Head

When John Voigt invited me down to Southport to lead a couple of field trips for the Carolina Bird Club, I enthusiastically agreed.

Later I found out that the trips I would be leading would be to Bald Head Island, a place I hadn't visited since I was about 9-years-old and had never birded.  Sounds like a recipe for disaster, but luckily Derb Carter, who had covered the island for the Southport Christmas Bird Count, emailed me some basic instructions and advice on birding spots (thanks Derb!)

Bald Head, for those of you have never been,  is a pretty special place. It is unique for the North Carolina coast in that cars are prohibited, meaning that the principle modes of transportation are bicycle and golf cart. We rented several 4 or 6-passenger Pebble Beach buggies and rallied them about the island.  Like slowing driving a Prius with the windows down, this is a great, quiet way to bird!
Golf carts!
While I'm not familiar with the history of development at Bald Head, clearly much care has been taken to respect and preserve the natural landscape.  The maritime forests are the most ancient and luxuriant I have seen except for perhaps Cumberland Island down in Georgia (another rare triumph in coastal preservation). But I digress...on to the birds!

Despite the beautiful forests, many of the common winter land birds are difficult if not impossible to find. No chickadees, titmice or nuthatches were to be found either day.  Yellow-rumped Warblers were, of course, rather abundant.

Yellow-rumped Warbler

And in one of the many flocks of "butterbutts" we managed to find a Black-and-White Warbler.  Pretty cool bird to see in January!

And we did find this Towhee that seemed to be missing its tail.
Eastern Towhee sans tail
But one doesn't make the trip to Bald Head for land birds. One highlight was the roosting waders we found around a pond on Middle Island (thanks to Derb for the tip!) I estimated 40 Tricolored Herons (the most any of us had ever seen in one place), 20 Black-crowned Night-Herons and White Ibises, with a few Little Blue Herons and Snowy Egrets mixed in.

The most noteworthy bird was probably an immature Common Eider at the southwestern end of the island.  On Friday when it was rough, we also spotted a Jaeger here out in the chop harassing terns and Bonaparte's Gulls.  

A nice surprise was that we were allowed to cruise all 18 holes of the golf course both days.  This gave us a chance to see a Common Gallinule and nice little variety of ducks including Redhead, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, Bufflehead, Hooded Merganser and best of all three Blue-winged Teal.

Lesser Scaup at the Bald Head golf course

A huge thanks to the Bald Head Island Golf Club for being the most birder-friendly golf course I've ever known!

The ferry rides also provided some decent birds, most notably a Black Skimmer on the Saturday trip, as a well as a gorgeous sunset Friday evening.  Unfortunately leading these trips makes me doubly forgetful about trying to get photos.

The birding was awesome and I got to meet some really fantastic birders and wonderful people.  We ended up with 70 or so species each day with a two-day total of 82.  

On the Sunday I went out with fellow "young" trip leaders and bird bloggers, Robert Meehan, Nate Swick and Michael McCloy for some target birding.  Mark Kosiewski even drove down from Pittsboro to meet us. Here's a team photo Mark took at Greenfield Lake in Wilmington:
Lots of birding going on here!
We found some Great Cormorants at Masonboro inlet (NC bird #299) and then visited Bruce Smithson's yard to see his resident Black-chinned Hummingbird (lifer #1545 and more importantly NC bird #300!). Bruce's feeder also had a female/immature and an adult Ruby-throated Hummingbird visiting regularly, which made for nice comparisons with the potential vagrant.
Black-chinned Hummingbird candidate (not that you can tell from this photo)

Immature Black-chinned hummers are essentially unidentifiable in the field, but this one looked and behaved much differently than the Ruby-throated and there has been little doubt about its identity.  Hopefully Susan Campbell will get to band it and confirm this soon!