A stalwart band of CT birders headed off to Hyannis on 22nd for the (almost) annual Brookline Birdclub Overnight Pelagic trip to the deepwater canyons and continental shelf 100 miles south-east of Cape Cod.
The marine forecast was for rough seas but downgraded quickly to a forecast that amounted to 4-6ft waves and a 15-20 knot wind out of the NE. It was going to be rough. We were just glad we were going!
Hopped up on Bonine, we left at 6am. The sail out was quiet, but reaching the cold water of the Nantucket Shoals, several Cory’s and Great Shearwaters made an appearance as did two brief Parasitic Jaegers and a distant juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger provided far from satisfying looks.
The ride out to the shelf edge was again quiet, save for the odd phalarope and accompanying Wilson’s Petrel and a single Leach’s Petrel that powered by the boat. Cory’s and Great Shearwaters were seen and as we neared the deeper and warmer water, the expected Audubon’s Shearwaters began to be seen in rather unusually high numbers. Audubon’s like the deep and warm water and are a sign that we are in the “zone” for the offshore specialties.
It was while watching Audubon’s, that the hoped-for shout of “White-faced Storm Petrel” went out and despite the increasing wind and swells, this bird showed really well for everyone around the boat. It would be the only one of the trip.
By now, the increasing wind and gathering seas had begun to hamper our passage eastwards along the canyon walls and we were not able to cover as much of this part of the ocean as we would have hoped. The 2012 trip had been able to get out farther to the east and it was this area that had yielded the Barolo Shearwater, good numbers of Band-rumped, several White-faced and the Red-billed Tropicbird.
Still we ploughed on, stopping to chum. The rough seas made for an unpleasant afternoon for a lot of participants…nothing is worse than trapped in an aluminum can bobbing in the ocean a 100 miles offshore!
More Wilson’s and Leach’s appeared and then the first of only a handful of Band-rumped’s appeared in the slick. Audubon’s began to wrack up into double-digits as did the amount of people chumming – the pitching and rolling rendered a good number of participants seasick and retired them to their bunks. A couple more Band-rumped’s performed, but they were few and far between, with Wilson’s and Leach’s predominating as usual.
Then, about 3pm, I noticed Marshall and Nick looking quite intently in one direction. Out on the far horizon, a very distant bird was arching across the horizon. It looked interesting…distant shearwater..maybe…or something else? I went over to join them and we got on the bird and Marshall, in his excited feverish way, bellowed out “Get on this bird!”. The bird rose up, and Marshall shouted out “it’s a pterodroma”, and as it banked, I saw a white tail and I blurted out “Black-capped Petrel!” The pitching of the boat and distance made viewing difficult and only a few people were able to get on it. As the bird dropped against a backdrop of the sea, it became obvious to the three of us at least, that it was quite grey-looking and didn’t seem to sport much of a noticeable dark cap. Obviously troubling, it didn’t quite have the look of a distant Black-capped that we were all familiar with..“It might not be a Black-capped!” Marshall uttered as he attempted to direct people to a bird that was quickly getting distant and difficult to see. I am sure at that point, all – well..at least my thoughts entertained the notion that this grayish pterodroma, with pale underwings and no obvious collar MIGHT be a Cahow! In those few seconds, despite the distance, Ian Davies managed to grab a couple of shots that when blown up clearly showed a Black-capped Petrel. A great bird for Massachusetts!
As the light waned, several people retired to partake in the baked ziti dinner. Several of us remained on the top deck, still scanning as dusk encroached. To his credit and diligent scanning Marshall again picked up a bird on the horizon, and shouted out “Black-capped Petrel. Distant. Going left!” We managed to keep on the distant bird and while looks were better in that it was identifiable, even at this range, it was far from satisfying. People downstairs, being made aware that something was going on by the muffled commotion and assumedly choking on their ziti, scrambled to get out of the cabin. Amazingly enough, the bird turned and began to come toward the boat…closer…closer, until it was clear it was making a beeline for us. Finally the bird came in and gave one close pass along the starboard side for photographic purposes and gave everyone a great look as it banked and veered away!
A rough night ensued- tethered to the ocean floor like a cork in a bucket! I slept hardly a wink and dawn greeted me feeling really crap! Not quite nauseous, but definitely felt better, a fact reinforced when I saw what Ian Davies looked like! He looked like I felt. He recounted how, minutes earlier, he had managed to lift his head from puking to see a distant, and third Black-capped Petrel slink silently across the horizon before most had awoken.
I had taken up a sole position at the front of the boat when out in front I noticed a gleaming white bird up ahead. I knew instantly what it was going to be and just as I opened my mouth to shout, someone from the stern bellowed out “TROPICBIRD. 11 ‘O CLOCK”. We motored up on the sitting bird, getting great looks. Obviously a Red-billed on bill size, it suddenly took flight only to be engaged by a Pomarine Jaeger that appeared out of nowhere. The birds put on a great fly-by, but I failed, through sheer photographic incompetence to secure good images!
We gradually made our way back towards Nantucket shoals. At some point, I decided to take a break, and awoke to the alarming slowing of the boat. Running upstairs, I was greeted with the news that a South Polar Skua made a pass down the side of the boat, but despite it being close and a huge dark bird, it somehow suddenly vanished into the ether! You schnooze, you lose!
The last bit of excitement, came when we chased down a juvenile dark, Long-tailed Jaeger, that put on a great show trying to out run us.
All in all, another productive, amazing pelagic despite not being able to explore as far east as we had wanted to. Thanks to Ida and the Brookline Bird Club for organizing this trip!