Going Off the Deep End

I have been eagerly anticipating the August overnight trip to the continental shelf with See Life Paulagics since I signed up at the end of the January expedition. The final few days of waiting turned out to be a bit of an emotional roller coaster, starting on Friday morning when I awakened to a text from Brendan asking how “devastated” I would be if the boat didn’t sail. Knowing this cryptic message could only mean one thing, I braced myself as I checked the marine forecast at the Hudson Canyon. Surprise, surprise: gale force winds and seas of up to 16 feet were predicted for Sunday night into Monday. Brendan had chosen the right word for my reaction.

We discussed whether or not the trip would be rescheduled, but with Labor Day coming the next week I was concerned that the Brooklyn VI would be otherwise spoken for. After several hours of feeling sorry for myself, I got word from Mike that an email had been sent out asking who would be free if the trip moved up a day to get ahead of the weather. For some cosmically comical reason, the missive never showed up in my inbox despite my address being on the mailing list. No matter! I reached out to the trip coordinators to let them know that I was still a “yes.” Although some planned participants had to drop out due to the date change, there were plenty of eager folks on the waiting list ready to replace them. The trip was back on! I packed my things and headed into the city to meet Brendan and Anthony, who was kind enough to drive us to the docks in Brooklyn. We boarded the Brooklyn VI after sunset and set sail for the continental shelf. After catching up with Ben, Jay, and my other friends, I laid down for the night to sleep under the stars.

I’m not sure how much proper, REM sleep I got, but the rocking of the boat and the breeze off the ocean made my night on the top deck exceedingly pleasant even when lay awake. Several hours in, we hit an especially large wave which sprayed a few drops of seawater across my exposed face. I smiled, starting to drift off once more. Then it happened again. And again. Eventually the drops became a full plume of salt and mist, and every wave sent a new one washing over my sleeping bag. Our speed and angle of travel combined with the direction of the wind and water to create ideal conditions for soaking the upper level of the ship. I glanced over at the glowing phone of a fellow dampened passenger. 4 AM, close enough to sunrise that it wasn’t worth trying to sleep anymore. I pulled myself together and moved my gear to the shelter of the cabin, relocating to the leeward lower deck to wait for dawn and our inevitable slowdown.

When we finally came to a stop, the crew began to toss out chum in an effort to get a slick going before first light. Brendan pointed out a few storm-petrels fluttering through the gloom, but soon the boat lurched into motion again. Paul informed us that the sea surface temperature wasn’t as high as he was hoping for, so we headed out into the depths beyond the edge of the shelf in search of warmer water. Apparently it’s been an unusual year in our region as far as water temperature and food distribution go, and some of us began to grow concerned about our odds for successful birding. We eventually found a suitable pocket of heat about 140 miles offshore, and the chum started flying just as day began to break over the eastern horizon.

For the first few minutes after we set up shop, I was worried that we had started too late. There were no birds anywhere to be seen, and all the talk of poor conditions this summer made me nervous. We bobbed up and down as the breeze blew strongly, carrying the pungent odor of the oil and meat floating behind our boat. Right on cue, the storm-petrels began to arrive from downwind. Their powerful senses of smell led them right to the buffet we’d provided, and we watched as the tiny shadows floated over to pick their breakfast from the chum slick. The first to arrive were Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, an abundant and familiar species that is easily found just off the coast.

Every bird that passed was inspected thoroughly by the birders aboard the Brooklyn VI. Storm-Petrels are quick flyers and very similar to one another at first glance. We took great care to inspect the flock for Leach’s and Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, but both species turned out to be present in some numbers. I became acquainted with Leach’s Storm-Petrels during my time in Maine. The long-winged, fork-tailed birds bred on Eastern Egg Rock, and I was able to hear their chuckling, purring cries when they came to their burrows on dark nights. The boldness of the wing stripes and the shape of the white rump patch are some of the best ways to distinguish the Leach’s from the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, my first lifer of the trip. Bandies also have a squarer, less notched tail and a more direct flight pattern compared to the erratic, nighthawk-like trajectory of the Leach’s. Although individuals came and went as they ate their fill, all three birds were visible at the chum slick throughout most of the day.

Early in the morning, I was watching a pair of Band-rumps approach the ship from the starboard stern. When I lowered my binoculars and prepared to point them out, I noticed a small, pale form bouncing along the waves towards us. My brain shorted out, my words got stuck in my mouth, and time seemed to stall as I heard the bird’s name shouted from all corners of the vessel: WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL!

This creature was the primary reason I’d signed up for the August Paulagic, my number one target species on this voyage. The White-face is one of the most sought-after rarities in North America, a bucket list bird of the highest order, and it looks and behaves very differently from most of its relatives. Its method of flying is utterly unique, holding its wings out stiffly as it cruises just above the surface and pushes off the water with long legs. Birders in the United States can only hope to see this species in deep water near the Atlantic continental shelf from August to September, and there is no guaranteeing an encounter with one of these bizarre wanderers. The storm-petrel followed our slick as it ping-ponged off into the distance, disappearing just as quickly it had arrived. Satisfied by my first meeting with this dream bird, I just had to buy a celebratory cap at the end of the trip. I’ve needed a birding hat for a long time, and now that I’ve seen the stylish White-faced Storm-Petrel I feel worthy of adorning my head with its likeness.

The little storm-petrels aren’t the only birds that make their livings out on the high seas. Great and Cory’s Shearwaters were drawn to the scent of chum, and a few Audubon’s Shearwaters were spotted gliding by in the distance. I would’ve liked a closer look at the smaller black-and-white birds, but I saw enough field marks on my own to separate this latest lifer from its similar cousin the Manx Shearwater. Most of the larger birds we saw were far off on the horizon line, tracing curved paths over the swells.

While following the flight of a Great Shearwater, we noticed another bird heading towards our position. Its plumage looked broadly similar, with a dark-topped head and a white band across the base of the tail, but the way it moved put even the talented shearwater to shame. Several other birders recognized its wheeling, roller coaster flight path from afar, loudly calling out its identity as a Black-capped Petrel. Due to the cooler sea temperatures off New York compared to recent years, I wasn’t confident that we would see this rare southern soarer on our outing. We were treated to incredible views as the bird arced up above the ship, expertly riding the wind as it circled to inspect our offering of chum. Although it never stopped for a bite to eat, several more Black-capped Petrels looped around us multiple times. After a few hours of drifting and chumming, we finally headed back to the border of the shelf.

We put out a new chum slick when we reached the beautiful blue water where the continental seabed drops off. The three main storm-petrels, some shearwaters, and another Black-capped Petrel all visited us one last time before turned the boat around and charted a course for home.

I usually do my best to stay awake throughout any given pelagic trip. Nobody wants to be the unlucky birder who sleeps through an unexpected rarity encounter. Even so, my exhaustion was starting to catch up with me, and the top deck was once again drenched by spray from the oncoming waves. I decided that there was no harm in taking a nap while we passed through the relatively deserted inshore waters. The only bird of note prior to my siesta was a jaeger too distant to identify to species, and catching a few hours of rest during the afternoon certainly did my body good. After I awakened, I found that the calmer seas resulted in an inhabitable upper level. We passed a pair of flyby shorebirds shortly after I emerged, and photos revealed that they were Red-necked Phalaropes. I was offered a brew during the final leg of the trip, and I kicked back to chat with my friends and soak up the setting sun. As we approached New York City, I saw my first and only cetacean of the day: a Humpback Whale that surfaced directly in front of the Manhattan skyline.

We returned to the dock after nearly 24 hours at sea. I was completely wiped, but the full day on the water was well-worth the long hours and challenges of birding by boat. With multiple new life birds, a few more reunions, and plenty of good times with good friends, the 2017 August Paulagic was a roaring success. Special thanks to Paul, Anita, Sean, and the rest of the crew that helped bring the trip together in the face of scheduling adversity! I can’t wait for my next journey to the continental shelf in search of the species that call those deep waters home. You never know what you’ll find when you’re that far from land. Until then, I will dream of White-faced Storm-Petrels bouncing from wave to wave on their journey across the globe.

Year List Update, August 27 – 361 Species (+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, Cory’s Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Audubon’s Shearwater, Great Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel, Red-necked Phalarope)

About timhealz

A recent graduate (Cornell '14) and lifelong explorer cataloging my thoughts and travels.
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2 Responses to Going Off the Deep End

  1. Pingback: Feels Like Fall | Studying Life

  2. Pingback: 2017 Top 10 Lifers | Studying Life

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