Cape Hatteras Pelagic Birding
by Emily Myron -- February 23rd, 2012
The story of waves, albatross, and a fulfilling 12 hours on the ocean.
Each year, the Nicholas School Naturalists (a student club) and Jeff Pippen (club faculty adviser) embark on a journey to Cape Hatteras in hopes of seeing something spectacular on the open seas. Join us (as well as some serious birders from Texas, Arkansas, and New Mexico) for 12 hours on the Stormy Petrel II, captained by Brian Patteson. The pictures probably tell the story better than I can, so I’ll just give you a taste of what the day was like for us.
5:30 am: Up before the sun, armed with snacks, ample water, and enthusiasm.
6:30 am: Already on the water and enjoying a beautiful sunrise. I can’t remember the last time I was awake to watch the sunrise (let alone over the ocean), and it was spectacular.
7:30 am: Learning the subtle differences between different species of common gulls. We attracted birds to our boat by throwing chunks of fish and meat off the back into the wake. This ensured that we always had a flock flying behind the boat. The trick is finding the bird that looks different – those are the interesting ones!
8:30 am: First of 2 Dramamine-induced naps. (The water in the morning was really quite choppy, and a lot of folks were feeling somewhat queasy. Fortunately, as the day wore on, the seas calmed and everyone was able to enjoy themselves).
11:30 am: Over the course of the day, we saw about 40 loggerhead sea turtles. We found them primarily at the union of cold Atlantic waters and warm Gulf Stream fingers (here nutrients and sea life tend to concentrate). Most sightings were from afar; however, one turtle was acting really strangely. He reared up vertically in the water (flailing similarly to a drowning human), then swam right toward the boat and proceeded to try to bite the boat and flounder around. We maneuvered away and the turtle swam off safely. We were unable to think of a good reason for this behavior.
1:30 pm: Afternoon lull – lunch and nap time!
4:30 pm: ALBATROSS! The birders on the boat went nuts! We were lucky enough to see an incredibly regal looking black-browed albatross among a flock of gulls. This species is found in the Southern hemisphere, making this find even more exciting. This bird was the first confirmed albatross ever seen in NC and the first confirmed adult to be photographed in the lower 48 States! (or so us amateur birders were told…) This was a life list bird for everyone on board (and a good reason to start a life list if we didn’t already have one).
5:30 pm: The sun sinks over the horizon as we head back to the marina. While an incredibly exciting day in terms of wildlife (birds, turtles, dolphins, and whales…o my!), it was also very relaxing. It is amazing what a day on the ocean can do to lift one’s spirits and relieve the mid-semester stress. I can say that I returned to Durham renewed and excited to move forward with my Master’s Project and the job hunt because, after all, days like this are why I do what I do.