Flocks of Auks

It’s been some time since I’ve been out on the sea, and even longer since I’ve been on a boat out of New York. I joined the Long Island birding community relatively late, and that had some drawbacks. Various rare birds reported on the listserv were unknown to me, and I have never been on a pelagic tour within my home state. Paul Guris of Paulagics has been running these trips for years, continually working with birders to fill in the gaps in our understanding of seabird distribution in mid-Atlantic waters. I finally signed up for a winter outing early this year, but I was too late and got placed on the waiting list. Nature herself threw me a bone, threatening the trip with a winter storm that forced it to be rescheduled. Folks understandably dropped out, and I was lucky enough to get on the roster.

After a long, busy week at work, I awoke early on Saturday to board the Brooklyn VI at Sheepshead Bay. We set sail well ahead of sunrise, motoring out to sea to put some distance behind us so we could start birding as soon as it got light enough to see. I got to catch up with some friends (including, but not limited to, Mike, Jay, Pat, and the Dougs) and meet some new ones, though lots of people were catching some extra sleep. The conversations on pelagic trips are predictably eclectic, covering changing taxonomic science, current politics, and unusual birding stories from the past. The crew in the galley worked to provide coffee and breakfast for those in need of a morning kickstart, and others prepped the chum at the back of the boat. The cabin was surprising warm and calm, but the gradually brightening sky drew us out to the deck where our watch began.

Birding at sea can be difficult. A seemingly featureless, constantly-shifting expanse is not a forgiving area to work with. Uneven distributions of food sources also mean that avian activity often comes in pockets. We fortunately crossed paths with some birds relatively quickly, taking note of gulls, gannets, scoters, and Razorbills. Suddenly an alcid flew by with a thinner bill and different body posture: a Common Murre. For a stretch of our journey out, we came across more murres than Razorbills. Paul explained that seabirds can be very particular about the waters where they spend the winter, and murres typically stick to a band between 20 and 25 miles from the coast. He also informed us that we would be keeping a close eye on the sea surface temperature. Dovekies, the tiniest Atlantic auk, prefer waters around 45°F where their copepod prey thrives. Within moments of a report that the temperature was looking good, the call went up that we had company. I looked to the starboard side and saw two tiny birds paralleling the boat. Black-and-white bodies buzzed like bumblebees just above the waves as the Dovekies pulled ahead of us and crossed the bow. This was my main target for the trip, a long-awaited lifer and my first new bird of 2017.

Sunrise meant it was time to lay down a chum slick. The deckhands began to toss chunks of fish and fat off the stern in the hopes of attracting a crew of attendant birds. When the gulls get going off the back of the boat, more unusual species are often drawn in to examine the scene. It didn’t take long for our offering to draw some attention. Gulls began coming in from every direction, and some individuals dropped into view from high overhead to get in on the action.

At first, most of our newfound followers were expected species. There were plenty of Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls tagging along, swooping low into the chum scrum to snag bites of breakfast. There were countless individuals with a wide range of variation, providing a wonderful opportunity to study these common birds at length. Say what you will about these squabbling “seagulls”…they really are masterful flyers and wildly adaptable opportunists. I spent the quieter portions of our adventure watching them float effortlessly behind us as they waited for more free food.

We continued further and further out to sea, scanning waves all the way to the horizon as we went. Razorbill activity picked up again once we got out past the 25-mile “Murre Zone.” Lines and small groups of these blunt-billed seabirds were seen floating and flying along throughout our 14-hour tour. Considering that the murres prefer the nearshore waters, I find it somewhat surprising that this species is the alcid most commonly seen from land in New York.

I had heard tales of the Northern Gannet show that often takes place on winter Paulagics. These majestic predators are sometimes drawn to the chaos surrounding the chum, plunging into the wake to feed. Surprisingly, we only had a handful of individuals that flew close to the ship, and I only saw one dive into our chum slick during the entirety of the trip. We still got some great looks at some of these large seabirds as they circled our vessel. My photos pale in comparison to the shots I’ve seen from previous outings, but they are huge improvements on my previous efforts. I’ve always been a big fan of these dramatic divebombers!

Every trip and every year is different. This season evidently has been a great one for Black-legged Kittiwakes in the coastal waters of the Empire State. Most birders on board were hoping to see some of these graceful gulls, but I lost count of how many we encountered. We were followed by these classy little seabirds for most of the day, and some of them were quite close and cooperative. Several adult birds wheeled about in our wake early in the morning, providing lifer views for many of the boat patrons. For me, this sighting was a state bird. It’s always nice to get reacquainted with a cool species closer to home.

We caught sight of a full flock of kittiwakes hovering over some distant splashes, dipping down to snatch morsels from the sea. As we approached, we could see dorsal fins breaking the surface as a pod of Short-beaked Common-Dolphins pursued their prey. The dolphins came over to the boat as we drew close, and some of them could be seen swimming alongside our bow. Marine mammals are always amazing! Watching these guys swim upside-down just below the surface was a treat, and we even enjoyed some breaching action as they kept pace with the ship. What’s more, I managed to catch video footage of the dolphins leaping from the waves. We got some distant glimpses of whale spouts and briefly saw a pair of Harbor Porpoises, but this was easily the cetacean highlight of the day.

We Know The Way!

The further we traveled offshore, the more Dovekies we found. Seeing even one of these diminutive alcids from land is cause for celebration, but they are quite common in the appropriate habitat far from land. At first, most of the birds we saw were flyby flocks zipping past, but we eventually bumped into some Little Auks bobbing like bath toys on the waves. Watching them take flight was hilariously adorable, as they often literally bounced off waves that they failed to clear during the initial launch sequence. Too cute!

We didn’t see any Iceland or Glaucous Gulls that are occasionally drawn to the chum slick on these winter tours, but we did get a visit from an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull. This handsome European species has gotten much easier to find in New York recently, but it was still a welcome addition to the day list and my personal year list.

I finally got the good looks at Dovekie that I was hoping for when one popped up right next to the boat. It dove repeatedly, making photography a challenging prospect, but I managed to get some passable shots. The last Atlantic auk to join my life list was well worth the wait. It fascinates me that these minuscule creatures spend the majority of their lives traversing the cold, unforgiving waters of the North Atlantic. Seeing a new species in the wild always provides me with an appreciation for their life history. Also: aaawwwwww….

About 50 miles from the South Shore of Long Island, we found ourselves in the preferred winter habitat for a bird I know very well. Anthony, who was one of many hoping to add the species to his state list, invoked my status as former “puffin man” and called on me to deliver. I was eager to reunite with my old neighbors, but I guess the years since my time on Project Puffin have left me a bit rusty. I was not the first person to find one of the birds, and indeed when a candidate was finally located I struggled to get a visual due to a combination of distance from the boat, small target size, and darker coloration compared to other alcids. Thanks to good directions from many helpful birders, I finally laid eyes on an Atlantic Puffin for the first time since 2014. Thus, my 100% success rate on all puffin-searching boat tours still stands. We saw about half a dozen young pufflings floating on the open ocean, and I couldn’t help but feel sentimental. At least I managed to refrain from launching into the entire natural history spiel from my boat tours! This bird will always have a special place in my heart, I suppose.

The weather on this trip couldn’t have been much better for this time of year, and it only improved throughout the day. Light waves gave way to flat calm seas, and some cloud cover rolled in to make seawatching a little easier on the eyes. It wasn’t even all that cold out on deck. We really lucked out with this voyage, for conditions and wildlife alike.

As the day grew grayer and the afternoon wore on, we started to make our way back north. Kittiwakes continued to accompany us en route, providing great study opportunities. Several first-year birds, with bold black patterns on their flight feathers, flew over to inspect the boat. We were even treated to a bathing pair, one adult and one youngster, flapping about on the water ahead of us.

Paul had caught sight of a distant Northern Fulmar very early in the day while we were still moving at high speed, but no one else got to see the bird. It was one of our hoped-for target species, and some were starting to get anxious about finding one. Fortunately, a stocky silhouette stiffly flapped its way into view, sweeping through our wake in wide arcs several times. This tubenosed bird was yet another lifer or New York first for many of our team. Even though it was less confiding than most of the other species, we still got acceptable and extensive views of the fulmar before it disappeared from sight.

Paul and the rest of the leaders wanted to spend a little extra time in the “Murre Zone” with some better lighting, so we slowed as we approached the 25-mile mark to take a look. Sure enough, a mere three-tenths of a mile from the promised zone, we encountered some more murres. Having a knowledgeable and experienced crew really makes all the difference with a birding trip on the high seas. The Paulagics team has it down to a science, and their impressively efficient planning ensured that our 14-hour tour was a wild success.

As the sky darkened and birding became impossible, beers were cracked and we all retreated to the cabin. Snow began to fall only after it was too dim to see, and we made it back to the dock in Brooklyn at around 7 PM. Anita, Paul’s wife, was peddling Paulagic gear, and I couldn’t stop myself from buying a beer koozy decorated with a Little Auk. I DID finally “got Dovekie,” after all. I also excitedly put my name down for the August trip, which is already starting to fill up. I’m looking forward to getting back out on the water again soon, but my first priority was to get home and warm up. A bowl of chili and a test-drink with my new Dovekie gear made for the perfect end to a perfect day on the water.


Year List Update, January 14 – 104 Species (+ Fish Crow, Common Murre, Dovekie, Black-legged Kittiwake, Atlantic Puffin, Lesser Black-backed Gull, Northern Fulmar)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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