Friday, September 12, 2008

The Lost Pelagic

It was time to try for fall pelagics, those birds that spend most of their life over the ocean. The annual fall NY pelagic trip was cancelled because of high prices, so I had to make my own by tagging along on a tuna-fishing boat. These boats typically go to offshore canyons where the water depth plunges to many thousands of feet, and this is where you'll often find large congregations of aquatic life, including fish, cetaceans, and, most importantly, birds.

On Tuesday night I packed up the car and met Tom Stephenson, and we drove the three hours out to the end of Long Island. We arrived early and had a beer before proceeding to the Montauk docks. At midnight the office opened, and we registered for the trip, and then boarded the Viking Star along with 12 fisherman and 5 crew. We steamed out of Montauk at 1am.

At 7 the next morning we wake up in our bunks, and have a little breakfast. The bunks are in a single open cabin, and the overhead flourescents are kept on 24 hours a day, but somehow the motion of the boat made sleeping easy. It's a beautiful day, sun shining and calm seas, and we climbed up to the upper deck to start our bird watching day. The fishermen are already up, with a dozen rods set up for tuna on the lower deck. The water is sparkling as we troll through the rolling seas. Practically the first bird we have is a big, gull-like bird, cinnamon brown, that comes cruising up behind the boat. I start photographing at the same time I yell "Skua! Is that a skua?!". Tom confirms it: it's a skua, and it soars twenty feet over our heads, slowing flying up the length of the boat. It hovers right above us and then, having checked us out, soars back out to sea. It's an auspicious start to the trip.

The next good bird pulls a similar comes cruising up behind us, and then soars right over the upper deck. Similar to the skua, but not quite as heavy bodied, it's a Pomarine Jaeger. Again, a great bird to see and very exciting to have on the trip. I'm feeling great when I ask one of the fisherman when he thinks we'll get to Hudson Canyon. He says we're not going to the Hudson Canyon. I get a bad feeling in my stomach. I approach the captain and ask where we're going. He says we're headed to Atlantis Massachussetts. The fishing is better there, he says. So despite my calling Viking four times and asking each time about where we were going (and being assured it would be in NY), we're out of NY waters and will be for the whole trip. Nothing on the trip will count for my big year, including the skua and the jaeger.

After a little wrangling with myself, I settle my mind and accept my fate, and decide to just make the most of it and enjoy what we see. And we do see a lot! Although the numbers aren't high, it seems like every bird we see is a new species. We have Wilson's and Leach's, Corey's, Greater, Manx, and Audobons Shearwaters, and (on the second day) another good look at a Pomarine Jaeger, this time chasing a Herring Gull for it's food. Jaeger means "hunter" in German, and these birds defenitely fit that description. Although it's quite a bit smaller than the gull, it manages to hector it until the food the gull is carrying drops from and is swiftly picked up by the Jaeger.

Another great moment happened on the first night. The fisherman are fishing around the clock, and at about 3:30am I hear a shout that there's a swordfish on. Having never seen a live swordfish, I get up and watch them reel it in, and then watch the bloody business of killing it, cutting off it's sword, and packing it off to the ice chest. A few moments later, one of the men calls out, "Bird guy! Bird guy!" I figure that's me, so I go around to midships and find that there's a Wilsons Storm Petrel that's just run into the boat. The Storm Petrels are attracted by the fishing boat's lights, and apparently this sort of thing isn't that uncommon. I pick it up the way I've seen banders handle birds, and I bring it inside and wake up Tom. We both get good looks and I take a few photographs before we let the now fully awake Wilsons fly back out over the water.

In addtion to the birds, we saw lots of cetaceans. We estimated over one hundred fin and humpback whales over the three days, as well as numerous pods of dolphins. We had a pod that none of the crew could ID...subsequently Angus Wilson IDed them as either Nothern Bottlenose Whales or Cuviers Beaked Whales from my photos. Several pods had calves with them, and one or two fin whales came within twenty feet of the boat. At one point we could see six different groups of whales all around the boat, all spouting.

On the third day we motored back to Montauk, and for a couple of hours we were back in NY waters. Unfortunately, we didn't see anything new in that all-too-brief window, so the net of the trip for my big year was a zero. But I didn't regret doing the trip at all. Tom and I got a lot of practice looking at Storm Petrels, watching Shearwaters and even IDing whales. It was great to be with Tom, who is a sharp and very experienced birder, and, as it turns out, an excellent travelling companion. We both were happy to have had more experience on the water with these rarely seen but rewarding birds, and I'm looking forward to my next trip offshore, which will have to be sometime in the very near future.

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