Lifers indicated in bold
One Sunday night, a team of intrepid birders assembled at a harbor on Sheepshead Bay. This team included Paulagics operator Paul Guris, Field Guides tour leader Tom Johnson, Doug Gochfield, Macaulay Library staff member Jay McGowan, Stony Brook professor Doug Futuyma (who, co-authored the textbook I used for my principles of evolution class), Gail Benson, Peter Paul, Sean Sime, fellow young birder Adrian Burke, and, of course, myself. The plan was to motor out to Hudson canyon, a submarine canyon at the edge of the continental shelf, overnight to get there at dawn, bird in the area for as long as possible, and then return to port around 9 pm. Once at the canyon, we would set up a chum slick in hopes of attracting petrels, shearwaters, and storm-petrels. We would also keep an eye on the skies for terns, jaegers, and the highly coveted South Polar Skua. Our main target is the White-faced Storm-Petrel, a seabird of the southern oceans that has only recently occurred regularly off the continental shelf in the North Atlantic. We were also given the usual ground rules: only biodegradable material goes in the toilets unless it comes out the way it went in, stay out of the cabin if you get seasick, etc… but most importantly, no bananas, an old superstition that bringing a banana on a boat is bad luck. With the rules set and our sleeping arrangements figured out, we boarded and set sail for the open sea…
I could barely sleep through the night with the pitching and tossing of a moving boat, only drifting in and out of consciousness. Just before daybreak, I heard the flight calls of what I thought sounded like a Solitary Sandpiper. Then I saw the shape of a bird flying through the boat’s lights, most likely a storm-petrel. Could it be a White-faced? Since everyone else was sleeping and I didn’t have a camera handy, I had no way of confirming my suspicions.
We had barely reached the 1,000 fathom line (1 fathom is 6 feet for anyone who was wondering about the conversion factor) before we had our first Leach’s Storm-Petrel of the trip. Once we set up the slick, we had 3 more Leach’s, followed by a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, four Black-capped Petrels, several Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and an Audubon’s Shearwater at 6:30. Unlike the oceanitid storm-petrels of the Southern Hemisphere like Wilson’s and White-faced, the storm-petrels of the northern hemisphere are a different family: the hydrobatids. These storm-petrels spend less time dancing on the surface of the water (or hopping like kangaroos in the case of White-faced) and instead spend more time flying over water; Leach’s flies more erratically, almost like a nighthawk and Band-rumped more smoothly. Because of their shorter legs, hydrobatids have to sit on the surface of the water and slurp food from the water unlike Wilson’s which can pick food off the surface. A third hydrobatid, European Storm-Petrel, is rare in North American waters.
Later, many of the same birds were present at the chumslick, as well as a flock of Red-necked Phalaropes that flew over. A pod of Pilot Whales was also in the area.
Later, while we were on the same chum slick, the fishermen also using this boat caught a Blue Shark, which we all got to watch them reel in, measure (8 feet long), and release back into the ocean. I had no doubt this shark was attracted to the boat by the same chum slick we were using to lure seabirds in with, as sharks are among the ocean’s most successful opportunists, a trait that has helped them survive everything from the Great Dying to the K-Pg mass extinction. As for Blue Sharks, they are among the most successful of the pelagic sharks, wandering the oceans from the arctic to the Antarctic in search of any opportunity the ocean provides from schools of fish to krill swarms to even whale carcasses. They are also often at the scene of shipwrecks and have occasionally attacked humans
Moving towards the mouth of the canyon, about 6,000 feet deep, we began to set up the second chum slick of the trip and then drifted. While the usual cast of seabirds trickled in, a pod of Risso's Dolphins approached the boat, providing good views and many photo opportunities. Unlike Bottlenose Dolphins, Risso’s is a deep water species not often encountered from land, instead favoring the edges of continental shelves and submarine canyons. They dive deep to hunt for organisms that live deep in the oceans, a particular favorite is the Greater Argonaut (Argonauta argo).
We were all focusing on the dolphins when Tom Johnson yelled "TRINDADE PETREL!!" at around 9:25, stirring excitement among the group. Like most of the people on board, this would be a lifer for me, and one that had flown completely under my radar. Fortunately, I did not have to race to one side of the boat or another as I had with the Phalaropes in Montauk, as the petrel circled the boat many times giving everyone on board great looks, obviously attracted to the chum slick, staying for about four minutes. I would later find out that Trindade Petrels are a Southern Hemisphere species most common in the , this was the third record ever for New York; previously seen by a cruise ship in NY waters in 2012 and before that astonishingly from upstate in 1933 at Boyer Creek Farm; both under the name Herald Petrel, until it was split in 2013 into Herald and Henderson's in the Pacific Ocean and Trindade in the Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Note: If you're pronouncing "Trindade" as "Trin-DAYD," that is incorrect. Johnson said the correct pronounciation is "Trin-da-GEE," also remarking that a pelagic operator* in North Carolina had a custom shirt that said "Who's your Trindaddy?"
After the Trindade Petrel moved on, I remarked that I was only one away from ABA 500 for life. What would the lucky 500 be?
The Trindade Petrel wasn't the only tropical seabird we recorded on the trip, as shortly after we spotted two Bridled Terns (yup, the same species I barely saw in the last post) being harassed by an unidentified jaeger (Long-tailed? Pomarine? Parasitic is the least likely of the three to occur offshore, and I had even seen them from land in Cape May and Long Island). Another birder asked me if the Bridled Terns were my ABA 500, which I said was not, referencing the Great Gull Island bird, which other birders said they felt pretty stupid for chasing. If any family of birds were to live the pirate’s life, it would be the skuas and jaegers. Skuas, the barrel-chested marauders of the family, mostly terrorize oceans of the Southern Hemisphere**, although Great Skuas, the unholy offspring of Pomarine Jaegers and wandering South Polar Skuas from generations of hybridization, breed on islands in the northern Atlantic, moving south in winter; South Polar (the one we were looking for) breeds in the Antarctic and prowls the oceans of the northern hemisphere in the austral winter. The more lightly-built jaegers, by contrast, breed in the arctic tundra and winter at sea in tropical and subtropical waters (Long-tailed winters in the same Southern Hemisphere waters prowled by skuas). Both clades will viciously chase and harass other seabirds until they regurgitate their last meal. On land, jaegers and skuas raid the nests of birds, eating the eggs, chicks, and sometimes even adults of waterfowl, terns, ptarmigans, shorebirds, and most famously penguins. Even mammals know better than to approach a jaeger nest. While frigatebirds, the pirates of tropical seas, patrol subtropical and equatorial seas, nowhere is safe from a skua. Around 10:00, an immature Pomarine Jaeger appeared and repeatedly circled the boat, even catching a piece of fish that was tossed up to it. “That,” I said, “was ABA 500 for life!” With 500 for ABA life achieved, I was now ready to get 500 for year.
Moving along the eastern wall of the canyon, we were still in fairly deep water when we encountered a second Pomarine Jaeger, 105 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, more shearwaters, BCPE, and Oceanodroma, an unidentified cetacean, and a pod of Striped Dolphins. These are also an offshore species, but unlike the Risso’s we’ve observed, these were more acrobatic.
Around noon, we started to head inshore from the 500 fathom line towards an area with recent reports of cetaceans and fish, hoping to find more seabirds. At this spot, we saw over 50 pilot whales, 8 Risso’s Dolphins, and a Portuguese Man o’ war, as well as many of the same birds we’ve been seeing. Pilot whales are yet another genus of deep water dolphins, and they also dive deep to hunt for prey. Two species are recognized: Long-finned in the North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere, and Short-finned worldwide. The only way to identify the individuals to the species level is by the length of the flippers, which we were unable to get looks at. I have wanted to see either species long before I picked up birding, but unfortunately, our camera broke while trying to save it from the pitching and tossing of the boat. However, the most impressive sighting was a flock of 470 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels! Since the camera was broken, we could not get pictures of the flock
Around 13:15, the fishing crew caught a Mahi-mahi around a lobster buoy, and around 13:38, we stopped to drop the final chum slick of the day. Shortly after, we attracted the tubenoses back, as well as a small shark of uncertain species (Doug said it was possibly another Blue, but I think it was a mako based on the length of the caudal lobes compared to one another, most likely Shortfin, the more common of the two species).
We began to run inshore at 2:00 pm, though still in the canyon, where we saw, in addition to more tubenoses and pilot whales, 3 offshore Bottlenose Dolphins. Bottlenose Dolphins have two population types: inshore and offshore. Inshore populations, which I’ve seen in Cape May this year, typically stay within a fixed home range within 3 km of land, while offshore communities prefer to live >4km from land and travel wider areas in search of food.
As we ventured closer to land, many of the same Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and shearwaters were present, although we had good looks at another Audubon’s Shearwater, at one particularly birdy spot we got our first Sooty Shearwater of the trip. As we entered Nassau County waters, tubenoses became scarce and gulls and terns increased in abundance, although we had a close Cory’s Shearwater in the Queens stretch of the trip, not normally seen in the county. We finally got back to Brooklyn around 9 pm. I was thrilled to have made it on my first real pelagic trip (the ones I’ve done previously don’t count because land was always in sight, although I had some good shearwaters on a whale watch boat in San Diego). This was definitely not the last pelagic I would do, but it’s going to be an uphill battle to convince my dad to go on another one. In total I got 7 ABA lifers, three/four mammal lifers (depending on the ID of the pilot whales), and two fish lifers on this trip. The biggest miss of the trip was South Polar Skua, and I left the Brooklyn VI with several unanswered questions: what species of jaeger was chasing the Bridled Terns (of the three, I needed Long-tailed)? Is the superstition that having bananas onboard causes bad luck invalid because we found New York’s third Trindade Petrel (I saw Doug and Tom eating bananas on the way back)? Could I have actually seen the only White-faced Storm-Petrel of the trip before we even started birding? Part of what makes birding fun is the species that go unidentified as much as the ones you can identify…
To be continued...
*I think Brian Patteson had the "Who's your Trindaddy?" shirt, but I forgot who Johnson specifically said it was
**Great and South Polar are the only two skuas to venture into the northern hemisphere, although the carcass of a presumed Brown Skua from Bermuda may represent the first record of this species from the northern hemisphere
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