Amplifying Voices

Cape Hatteras Pelagic Birding
by Emily Myron -- February 23rd, 2012

The story of waves, albatross, and a fulfilling 12 hours on the ocean.

A good birder is always awake before the sun.

A good birder is always awake before the sun.

Our boat, the Stormy Petrel II is captained by Captain Brian Patteson. The flock of birds in our wake is the result of 'chuming' (throwing fish bits into the water behind the boat). This is an effective way to lure birds in for a closer look.

Our boat, the Stormy Petrel II is captained by Captain Brian Patteson. The flock of birds in our wake is the result of 'chuming' (throwing fish bits into the water behind the boat). This is an effective way to lure birds in for a closer look.

For the majority of the trip, we were followed by several species of gull (herring, greater black backed, and lesser black backed) and, occasionally, brown pelicans.

For the majority of the trip, we were followed by several species of gull (herring, greater black backed, and lesser black backed) and, occasionally, brown pelicans.

We were joined by a small pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins who danced around in the wake of our hull for a bit.

We were joined by a small pod of Atlantic Spotted Dolphins who danced around in the wake of our hull for a bit.

Over the course of the trip, we came upon about 40 loggerhead sea turtles, primarily at the boundary between hot water (off the gulf stream) and cold water. This particular turtle surprised us by swimming right for the boat and trying to bite it. We were able to move away and he continued safely on his way - after a few close-up!

Over the course of the trip, we came upon about 40 loggerhead sea turtles, primarily at the boundary between hot water (off the gulf stream) and cold water. This particular turtle surprised us by swimming right for the boat and trying to bite it. We were able to move away and he continued safely on his way - after a few close-up!

The turtle going on his way. Notice the barnacles growing on his back...

The turtle going on his way. Notice the barnacles growing on his back...

There were a couple hours in the middle of the day when the birds were fairly quiet, which made for a perfect time to nap in the sun.

There were a couple hours in the middle of the day when the birds were fairly quiet, which made for a perfect time to nap in the sun.

Jeff Pippen (our fearless leader) and Victoria Shelus on the lookout for something exciting (dont worry, it's coming!)

Jeff Pippen (our fearless leader) and Victoria Shelus on the lookout for something exciting (dont worry, it's coming!)

Life bird for everyone on the boat! This black browed albatross is a Southern Hemisphere bird - our sighting was the first ever in North Carolina and the first confirmed adult to be photographed in the lower 48 States!

Life bird for everyone on the boat! This black browed albatross is a Southern Hemisphere bird - our sighting was the first ever in North Carolina and the first confirmed adult to be photographed in the lower 48 States!

A herring gull is no match for our albatross!

A herring gull is no match for our albatross!

Behind the albatross, a Northern Gannet is diving into the ocean after something tasty. These birds were a favorite to watch soar, circle, and dive all day.

Behind the albatross, a Northern Gannet is diving into the ocean after something tasty. These birds were a favorite to watch soar, circle, and dive all day.

According to Jeff, the way to find something exciting is to scan groups of birds and look for the one who is different. Can you find it?!

According to Jeff, the way to find something exciting is to scan groups of birds and look for the one who is different. Can you find it?!

Victoria and I pleased with such an exciting (and, simultaneously relaxing) day.

Victoria and I pleased with such an exciting (and, simultaneously relaxing) day.

The day ended just as it started, bathed in the warm glow of the sun on the horizon.

The day ended just as it started, bathed in the warm glow of the sun on the horizon.

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.

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