The surprises and challenges of birding with a skipper of few words, a spotter with cracked ribs, and a sea alive with little-known birds
By Mark Hedden | Published: 4/22/2011
The Stormy Petrel II motored in the lee of North Carolina’s Outer Banks, the first time we’d been outdoors and out of the wind since we’d come to the area the night before. Common Terns took advantage of the calm to hover and splash-feed. Great Black-backed Gulls hulked on the shoreline like wiseguys in dark overcoats.
As we came around the point, the calm evaporated. We could see big, foamy breakers ahead, rolling over the sandbar.
Tour leader Brian Patteson, who was up in the wheelhouse driving, and whose voice over a public-address system sounded a little God-like (if God sounded a little like actor Bill Paxton with a Virginia drawl), told us we should sit down. It was going to get rough.
I stuck my head into the small cabin, but its benches were crowded with other birders, all men, lethargic as paratroopers far from the drop zone, snoozing, staring into space, studying the pages of field guides devoted to shearwaters, petrels, storm-petrels, and other tubenoses. (Taped to the wall, where proper paratroopers would have hung a cheesecake shot of Betty Grable, was an object of pelagic desire: a photo of a long-winged seabird known as Fea’s Petrel, rarely seen off the eastern United States.)
Lying unconscious in the middle of the birders, like a gently felled tree on a pyre of a dozen mismatched pillows, was noted field-guide author Steve N.G. Howell, the trip’s chief spotter. His head and shoulders disappeared into the hatchway of the lifejacket locker. His Teva-clad feet stuck out into the room.
White bird in the distance
I grabbed a portside bench, was drenched by a wave, then crabbed back to the stern and huddled with four or five other birders. One spotted a white bird in the distance. We all got on it, lost it, re-found it. We guessed among ourselves as to what it was. A tropicbird maybe? A gull? A tern? In the end, we narrowed it down to a white bird in the distance.
Pelagic, or open-ocean, birding is not casual birding. You have to mean it.
Everyone on this trip who wasn’t crew had driven three hours to get to the dock. Many had flown from much farther before the drive. We all had paid $165 for the day, rented hotel rooms, eaten in restaurants, and risen at an hour inappropriate to decent society. Some had been on the boat for multiple trips. (A discount was offered.) Some knew they would probably be in for hours of seasickness and came anyway.
Beyond such logistical complications are issues of comprehension and skill. Pelagic birding is like hawkwatching: it can be difficult at first to make the leap from what you see in the field guide to what you see in the field (or, uh, at sea). Unlike hawkwatching, the birds are lower and fly faster and less predictably, and you view them from a boat that is moving forward, heaving up and down, pitching, yawing, and occasionally spinning.
If you haven’t been on a pelagic trip before or haven’t been in a while, it can feel like sitting in a class for which you haven’t taken the prerequisite, until you realize no prerequisite exists, and the only way to learn is to do it.
Little small talk, lots of birds
Brian Patteson’s comfort at the helm of his boat reflects years of seabirding experience.
He grew up in the western piedmont of Virginia, where he could drive an hour and find himself 4,000 feet above sea level, but he went on his first pelagic off Hatteras in 1987, and he’s been running his own trips since 1992. His boat, the Stormy Petrel II, is a 51-foot Kennebunk-built vessel with twin diesels and a walk-around deck. “She’s sea-kindly,” he says. “She doesn’t beat people up.”
You can find Patteson’s schedule, along with photos and trip reports, on his website Seabirding Pelagic Trips.
It may be the most guide-dependent type of birding around, which is why it was a relief when Howell, yawning and stiffly slipping his binocular straps over his shoulders, came on deck.
The stiffness, and the need for all the pillows, were the result of a fall several weeks before on a cruise between Cape Horn and the Cape of Good Hope. He’d broken several ribs. They would probably have healed if he hadn’t been working on this run for the last 17 days.
Known for his books on hummingbirds, molt, and gulls and the definitive guide to the birds of western Mexico as well as countless articles, Howell could have been guiding anywhere for a healthy per diem. It said something that he was part of the volunteer crew, as he had been for the last six or seven springs.
Howell is also known for terrible wordplay. Regarding the fall, he said that he’d been lucky; he could have been a “para-pelagic.”
Part of his motivation was that he was working on a book about tubenoses. Another part was that open-ocean birding was the “last frontier,” a way to explore a piece of the world that hardly anyone knew hardly anything about.
A confused sea
We were in water about 200 feet deep, and as if on cue, the first serious bird of the day — a Greater Shearwater — cruised by, identifiable by its black cap and bulk. Two or three Cory’s Shearwaters (dusky on top and tannish in the mantle) followed. Then a single Wilson’s Storm-Petrel appeared. Patteson’s voice came on the loudspeaker. “It’s kind of a confused sea today, so just take your time walking around the boat. Grab a hold of a handrail if you need to.”
A few minutes later he said, “Hang on. We’ve got the most birdlife we’ve seen all spring up ahead. We’re going to try and catch up with them.”
We moved to the bow and stared at the horizon, leaning into the acceleration as Patteson pushed the throttle forward. The few flecks in the distance became many flecks, and the many flecks condensed into a cloud. “Maybe there’s a whale carcass underneath,” someone said.
Someone else said, “I think it’s a bait ball” — a spinning cyclone of small fish swimming together for protection from larger predator fish.
It was hard to estimate how many birds were ripping around in the wind, landing, bobbing, taking off. Many appeared to be in two places at once. Patteson throttled back.
“It’s a beehive,” someone said.
The beehive seemed pure chaos at first, but the hurly-burly sharpened the eyes. Tails and bills and wings and feet began to codify into different species through repetition. What was a puzzle 20 minutes before became identifiable at a glance — Cory’s Shearwater, Audubon’s Shearwater, Black-capped Petrel.
When something less common came along, like a Sooty or Manx Shearwater, Patteson or Howell called it out and narrated its path (“Ten o’clock, moving right toward twelve o’clock, low above the horizon…”) until people got on it.
Compared with other trip leaders, Patteson can seem taciturn, but when I saw him call out birds that he had spotted through a pair of sunglasses, through a pair of binoculars, through a salt-smeared windshield, while steering the boat, I understood the lack of small talk. And when he commented on something, you paid attention.
“To see this many Black-capped Petrels, you might get the impression they are a common bird,” he said over the loudspeaker. “They are not. We just happen to be in the heart of their range during optimal conditions.”
“It’s the rarest bird here,” Howell said.
We drifted along with the beehive until the birds scattered. Patteson said the skipjack tails were the first he’d seen this year, and that the fish were indeed working a bait ball. The skipjack were inadvertently helping the birds by chasing the smaller fish to the surface.
Patteson, who went on his first pelagic off Hatteras in 1987 and has been running his own trips since 1992, offers as many trips a year as weather and bookings permit, along with charter and commercial fishing trips. (Fishing makes the birding possible, he said, and vice versa.) As a result, he and his crew have found themselves at the cutting edge of understanding the wheres, whens, and ID hows of deep-water birdlife.
Three or four gadflies
The seeming commonness of Black-capped Petrels was one of the things that drew Patteson and other birders to the region, but before 1993, other gadfly petrels had been recorded only a handful of times. Now birdwatchers will sometimes see three or four rare gadflies in a day.
Fea’s Petrel, for example, now averages a half-dozen sightings a year. Trindade Petrel (formerly, and sometimes still, considered to be the Atlantic subspecies of the Herald Petrel) has been recorded on Patteson trips more than 65 times.
Bermuda Petrel (a.k.a. the Cahow) was thought to be extinct for over 300 years but is now recorded most springs. This means that the coastal shelf off the Outer Banks is the most likely place to see the bird (excepting the remote, rocky isles where the species breeds). Only about 300 Cahows are thought to exist.
Howell and Patteson have become so familiar with Black-capped Petrels that, where others have found randomness, they see order. The bird’s plumage is often dismissed as “variable,” yet they have developed a theory that it can be categorized into light-faced, dark-faced, and intermediate forms, something that may indicate different breeding populations and possibly even different species.
They have seen enough Cory’s Shearwaters to know that while the birds off Hatteras were once thought to be almost exclusively of the borealis subspecies, a significant number of them can be identified as members of the Mediterranean-breeding diomedia subspecies, which is on the cusp of being considered a separate species, the Scopoli’s Shearwater. (Identification comes down to size, wingbeat, and the presence or absence of “whitish to white tongues” in the outermost primary feathers, a distinction that seems custom-designed to erode the confidence of less-able pelagic birders.)
In addition to the four species of storm-petrels that have been recorded in the area — Wilson’s, Band-rumped, Leach’s, and White-faced — they have also seen Black-bellied Storm-Petrels and European Storm-Petrels.
“When we got into this, we didn’t think some of these birds that we see would be regular visitors,” Patteson said. “Part of it is probably the result of us making more trips. But part of it is the result of learning how to identify these birds before they slip away unknown. We have the confidence to ID birds that 20 years ago would have just been left as question marks.”
Fuel-efficient engines have also made it possible to spend more time exploring the most productive areas of the ocean.
Patteson and Howell have written several journal articles about their discoveries and identification techniques. Patteson has also published a number of pieces with trip leaders and spotters Kate Sutherland and Ned Brinkley, editor of the journal North American Birds.
11 great reasons to go birding at sea
Species spotted by the author and 20 other birders aboard the Stormy Petrel II off Cape Hatteras, North Carolina, on June 6, 2009.
1. Long-tailed Jaeger
2. Greater Shearwater
3. Cory’s Shearwater
4. Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
5. Audubon’s Shearwater
6. Black-capped Petrel
7. Sooty Shearwater
8. Manx Shearwater
9. Leach’s Storm-Petrel
10. Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel
11. Band-rumped Storm-Petrel
Late in the morning, after the crew started to chum with fish oil and various pieces of fish byproduct, a flock of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels gathered in the boat’s wake, foot-dabbling, hovering, flying around like slow-motion swallows. I followed them with binoculars and the naked eye, trying to catch sight of their feet, which I understood to be diagnostic.
Out on the edge of the Wilson’s mob, someone spotted a Leach’s Storm-Petrel. From the upper deck, Howell tried to get people on it. “A big guy,” he said loudly. “Flying right to left. Flies crazy. Looks like he should be in a padded cell.”
I got on it and followed it through a crowd of Wilson’s. Through binoculars, I followed another Leach’s and then another one, both of which, for all I knew, could have been the first one looping back, but suddenly I got it. It wasn’t the extended feet you looked for but, when near a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, the larger size, and when not near a Wilson’s, the lankier wings and more erratic (read crazy) nighthawk-like flight.
Also, it was the skittish way the Leach’s kept to the back of the crowd, as if they wanted to be the first to exit if spooked. Before we left the dock, Patteson had said that if a Leach’s was close, he wouldn’t announce it over the PA, as it might scare off the bird.
When I asked Howell how to tell a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel from a Leach’s from a Wilson’s, he said, “A Band-rumped looks like a Leach’s on Valium: slower wingbeat, doesn’t lift its wings as high.”
I sat down on the starboard side, leaned my head back to watch for birds that looked either deranged or drugged and deranged, and mulled over the way a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel touching the water looked like a kid coming off a swing.
Then there was chaos. I heard the sound of boots on deck and people rushing to the starboard rail, but mostly it was Howell on the upper deck, screaming.
“Swin! Ho!” he was yelling. “Swinnnnn! Hoooeeee!”
The way he was yelling, I did not at first think of birds but of whalers and Moby Dick, and I was disoriented and panicked over my lack of understanding of cetacean anatomy.
Then he yelled, “Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel!” and the world re-oriented itself.
Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel is a bird of the northwest Pacific that breeds on small islands off Asia, although honestly I’d never even heard of one.
Patteson and Howell had seen it, and there were two previous records in Gulf Stream waters near the eastern seaboard, making it a rare-enough sighting that the unflappable Howell, trying to explain where the bird was, looked positively flapped, his headset askew, his face red, the veins in his neck popping.
Most of us didn’t know what the bird looked like or what field marks to look for or how to pick it out from the other birds, and everyone was at the rail, yelling, “Where? Where? Where?”
Howell did his damnedest to get people on it, giving directions (“Two o’clock, two-thirty, three o’clock”) and descriptions (“It’s a big, dark storm-petrel with no white”) and distances (“A hundred yards out, below the horizon”). Still, everyone was yelling, “Where? Where? Where?”
Finally, Howell yelled, “Right the heck there!” although in exasperation he did not say “heck.”
The bird got lost, found.
When it disappeared again, everyone went quiet, those who hadn’t seen it silenced by the prospect of a once-in-a-lifetime rarity slipping away.
After a time, someone spotted a large, dark storm-petrel up ahead, and Patteson started to follow it. People moved to the bow, braced themselves against the rail. The bird was easier to find this time, dropping down the front of waves and then popping up over their backs. Almost everyone got on it. But then it banked, and we could all see the white above the tail that made it a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, not a Swinhoe’s.
“Heck!” Patteson said over the PA, although he didn’t say “heck” either.
We drifted for a while. Howell came down the ladder. After a minute, he said, “You know, an anagram of Swinhoe is ‘Oh, swine.’”
Perhaps noticing the despair in the faces of all who had missed the bird, he said, “Brian has a good sense of the ocean. If anyone can re-find it, he will.”
A few minutes later, Patteson throttled up and tried a different direction.
Mark Hedden is a writer and birding guide in Key West. He blogs occasionally at www.boneisland.com.
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