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Birds section header
Pelagic Found
TUESDAY, SEPTEMBER 23, 2008

My three-day pelagic with Tom Stephenson was great, but now I needed to see some birds in New York, and I was running out of time. Certain pelagic birds like Audobon's Shearwater depend on warmer water, and as fall progresses they become less and less likely to be seen. I found a boat in Point Lookout going out to the Hudson Canyon, but weather was not cooperating and last week's scheduled tuna-fishing trip was cancelled due to rough conditions. In fact, the Marine Forecast for offshore had been looking pretty grim. There was a short window for relatively calm seas on Sunday and Monday, so that was my chance. After that, we'd be into late September or October and I'd likely miss a couple of birds I was hoping for.

There are a few boats that go out this time of year for tuna, and I found one in Belmar, NJ who's website showed an overnight for Sunday, leaving at 5pm. I couldn't raise them on the phone, so I drove down and found their boat docked. The guys on board said no, they don't go out on Sundays...that was last year and no one had updated the website. I spoke to a few other captains and got a couple of schedules for trips, but nothing that would leave in sooner than a week. Resigned to waiting and hoping for the best, I got in my car. I did one quick check...I knew that the Jamaica did tuna trips, and I wanted to see what her plans were. I was in luck...she was leaving that day at 5. I got directions from a couple of old salts on getting to where she was docked (about 20 minutes away) and raced down there. Thankfully she was still there, and had a space for me. So at 5pm we steamed out of port and headed for the Canyon.

The Jamaica is a fast boat, and we cruised at high speed out to sea as the sun went down. I stood up in the bow so long as there was any light, and spotted a couple of Gannets and a few Wilson's Storm Petrels, but this was tough birding...basically like birding from a car cruising down the freeway. You'd spot the bird and maybe get one or two photos and/or a few seconds view before you were past it - the photographic equivalent of trap shooting. At dark I went down below and found all the fisherman sleeping in anticipation of being up all night in the Canyon. The bunks were by the engine room, with just a red bulb illuminating the room...sort of like being in somebody's basement in the 70's, if that basement were next to a revving Mack truck. I got some sleep, and woke up around 3am to find us idle in the Canyon, with all the fisherman working their jigs and bait over the sides. The water has a noticeably different blue color, and you can see down ten or twenty feet, just enough to give you a sense of the vast deep you can't see below that. A red moon rose through the clouds and made it a little easier to see out over the water. I stayed up for about an hour, straining my eye for and movement that might be a storm petrel - as I'd seen on the Viking, a few birds came in to the lights, and I got a couple of ID-able photos, but they were all Wilson's (as opposed to Leach's, Band-Rumped or White-Faced, all much rarer). I got a couple more hours sleep and then was up at sunrise and on the upper deck scanning for birds.

Weather was good, with tempatures in the sixties and seas at 3-5 feet. The night's fishing had been a total bust, so at around nine the captain decided to salvage the trip by picking up some Mahi-Mahi, which cluster around fisherman's buoys. We would go to one buoy, fish for ten minutes, pull up and go to another. This wasn't a bad way to see birds. I had several shearwaters cruise the boat, including Corey's, Greater, and one Manx. At one point I was amazed to be continuously scanning, looking in all directions, and then suddenly have a Corey's Shearwater right next to the boat. This is one of the several disadvantages of a tuna boat as opposed to a dedicated pelagic birding trip...the more eyes looking, the better chance you have. Often a bird just appears briefly, and if you're not looking that way, you just don't see it.

Interspersed with the shearwaters were a number of storm petrels, which I examined with as much care as I could in case there was something other than a Wilson's out there...I had gotted some practice at this with Tom on the previous trip, so I had a least some idea of what to look for. Despite my efforts, though, nothing out of the ordinary fluttered by that I could discern. The camera is a great tool out on the water, and I photographed everything I could so I could look at the bird after it had passed...once again the images kept me honest, so even birds that I thought might be flying differently or that looked longer winged, in fact showed the marks of yet another Wilsons.

My other useful tool was my GPS logger, which takes a GPS data point every ten seconds. When I get home I download the data and then attach it to the photos by the time that they were taken, thus confiming that I was in fact at the Hudson Canyon, and not some other spot of the captain's choosing. I've been told that if the crew finds you with a GPS they'll destroy it, and I've read as much on one boat's website, so I was careful to keep it discreetly hidden on my camera bag. The fishermen are proprietary about their fishing spots, and I imagine that the distinction between locating birds and fish might be lost on them if the GPS was discovered.

The three "best" birds of the day would up being two Pomarine Jaegers, one adult with long tail feathers, the other without, that both came in close to the boat, and (much to my relief) an Audobon's Shearwater. I hadn't see the jaeger with it's adult tail feathers, which stream out behind and then turn at a 90 degree angle to create a bulge at the end, and that was exciting to see. The Audobon's was a last-minute special, which I got just as we were getting ready to leave the Canyon. It flushed in front of the boat and then settled as we passed, allowing me to get a few shots that show it's characteristic white lores, one of the marks that disitinguish it from the similar Manx Shearwater (the lores are the areas between the eyes and the bill).

The surprise of the day was a passerine that came flying by the boat around noon. At about 100 miles offshore, I wasn't really looking for a Red-Eyed Vireo, but that is what it turned out to be. Hopefully it made it's way back to dry land.

We were back in port at 4pm, and I wove my way to the car, sea-legged and dry-mouthed from the rolling boat and the Scopoderm I use to prevent sea-sickness. It wasn't as spectacular a pelagic as the one I took with Tom (no whales, for example), but I'd seen a couple of new birds and spent another night offshore, and that's a good trip.