Pelagic Birding

You may know the true observer, not by the big things he sees, but by the little things; and then not by the things he sees with effort and premeditation, but by his effortless, unpremeditated seeing—the quick, spontaneous action of his mind in the presence of natural objects.

John Burroughs, 1905

I had the good fortune to do something this past weekend that I have never done – go on a pelagic birding trip off the coast of North Carolina. I went with a group organized by the North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences that included some museum staff, educators, and some members of the public interested in birds. The trip was aboard the Stormy Petrel II, a 61 foot charter boat run by Brian Patteson of Seabirding. Though I have been to sea several times on a variety of vessels, this is the first time I have gone off the Outer Banks, and the first time with the primary purpose of seeing birds and other marine life.


A beautiful sunrise to start the day (click photos to enlarge)

The day started early with a gorgeous sunrise, which is a good sign if you are heading offshore in winter. It was cold, and I had put on everything I brought with me, just in case.

Cormorant flock leaving the roost

Large numbers of double-crested cormorants were starting their day as we headed out

Birds made their presence known even before we left the dock with a sharp-shinned hawk gliding over us as we listened to our orientation for the charter. I was reminded of the incredible abundance of life on our coast as huge numbers (many thousands) of double-crested cormorants began leaving their evening roosts as we departed the dock.

Brown pelican adult

Adult brown pelican in early morning light

A beautiful golden light flooded the scene when the sun cleared the low clouds, making everything glow. Brown pelicans were among the first birds to accompany us as we headed through Hatteras Inlet.


First mate, and birder extraordinaire, Kate, throwing out some chum behind the boat

It didn’t take long to realize that the excellent reputation I had heard for the birding (and other) knowledge of Brian and his crew are well deserved. Brian and his first mate, Kate, both have extensive knowledge of the area and its abundant wildlife. They quickly picked out rarities among the hundreds of birds surrounding us and could do so at incredible distances (on a boat that was rocking fairly significantly at times). The John Burroughs quote above is for the museum staff, and some of the birders aboard, but especially for Brian and Kate. It is always a joy to be out in the field with people that are both knowledgeable about the area, and passionate about what they do.

Birds following the boat

Birds following the boat

As we got offshore and began to throw chum off the stern, the bird assemblage grew in numbers and diversity. At first it was mainly several species of common gulls, some pelicans, and northern gannets, then some rarities, that are seldom seen from shore, started to accompany us.

glaucous gull 1

Glaucous gull is a new species for me

One of the first was a new species for me, an incredibly beautiful glaucous gull. This large white gull is an immature bird with some faint mottling and a black-tipped bill.


northern fulmar 1

Northern fulmar rocketing by the boat on outstretched wings

Next was a species I had seen a decade ago when I was lucky enough to spend time in the Arctic aboard a Russian icebreaker on a climate research and education mission. Northern fulmars are somewhat gull-like in appearance. They have thicker necks and can be recognized at great distances because of their flight pattern – rapid, stiff wing beats, or long periods of soaring, often in an undulating pattern above the waves, with stiff wings, and often turning with wings held perpendicular to the ocean. They are fast, efficient fliers, built for taking advantage of the uplift from ocean waves. They can be variable in color, but we mainly observed the lighter color form.

northern fulmar 3

Fulmars are one of the tubenoses, recognized by a hollow ridge on top of their bill

Fulmars belong to a group known as tubenoses along with albatrosses, petrels, and storm-petrels. These pelagic species must drink sea water, and therefore are adapted to rid themselves of excess salt via active salt glands. The tubular structures on top of the bill are thought to help direct the excretions from the salt glands away from the eyes. The tubes also play a role in the well-developed sense of smell that these birds use to find food in their vast ocean habitat. A keen olfactory sense is rare among birds, but tubenoses use both sight and smell to locate food. They are known to fly back and forth into the wind tracing the source of a food smell.

northern fulmar 2

Northern fulmars are a long-lived species

Many pelagic species are long-lived and take years to reach breeding age. Northern fulmars may be one of the champions in this regard. They generally do not breed until they are 8-10 years old, and may live 40 or more years. One reason they may live so long is that both chicks and adults have what seems like a very effective deterrent to predators – they can eject a foul-smelling stomach oil up to several feet. This can be particularly effective against avian predators as the oil can mat the feathers together, causing the death of the predatory birds.

the change

At “the change”, where warm waters (bottom) meet colder waters

Not far offshore we reached what the captain called, “the change”, a zone where two water bodies of different temperatures converge. It was immediately noticeable by a distinct line between water of two colors – a brownish tint to the colder inshore waters of about 50+ degrees F, and the clear, blueish-green waters with temperatures around 70 degrees F. This zone creates a concentration of sea life and sea birds.

razorbill flock

A flock of razorbills

In addition to the fulmars, we started seeing scattered small flocks of razorbills streaking just above the waves. Razorbills are in the group known as alcids that also includes Atlantic species such as puffins, murres, and dovekies. This group, also known as the auks, all have short, somewhat stiff wings that they use in pursuit diving for their oceanic prey of small fish and marine invertebrates. They tend to fly low over the water with rapid wing beats.

Atlantic puffin taking off

An Atlantic puffin

We did see a few Atlantic puffins, although most at a bit of a distance. A few kept leaping out of the water, flying low for a short distance, and then plunging back into the waves. The abundance of gulls, especially larger predatory species such as great black-backed gulls, was apparently enough to make these small birds very nervous about being exposed on the surface.

black-capped petrel 1

Black-capped petrel

At one point a shout went out from the bridge – “black-capped petrel off starboard”. This is a species not often seen this close to shore, so it was a great find on our cruise.

sooty shearwater

Sooty shearwater

We also saw a couple of shearwaters, another type of tubenose. A manx shearwater made a quick pass and a sooty shearwater stayed with us for several minutes, joining the feeding flock behind the boat. They exhibit what is called dynamic soaring, alternating between arcing above the water and dipping and soaring just above the wave tops (“shearing” off the top of the water).

loggerhead sea turtle

One of several loggerhead sea turtles we saw

The abundance of life in this zone included many species other than birds. We saw several sharks, including a couple of very large hammerheads, plus a number of sea turtles.

mola mola

Ocean sunfish fin sticking out of the water

A highlight for many was the appearance of a huge ocean sunfish, Mola mola. These bizarre-looking fish are the largest of bony fishes in the sea, reaching up to ten feet in length and 5000 pounds.

spotted dolphin underwater next to bow

Atlantic spotted dolphin next to the boat

spotted dolphin leaping back into water

The dolphins enjoyed riding the bow wave

While cruising back and forth within sight of the Diamond Shoals Light, we were entertained by a pod of Atlantic spotted dolphins, Stenella frontalis. These beautiful creatures of the Gulf Stream frolicked next to the boat for many minutes, riding the bow wave and occasionally leaping out of the water to the excited shouts of everyone (even those that were experiencing the scourge of rough waters, seasickness).

Pelican guest

Look who is coming aboard!

We also had a close encounter of the pouched kind…a juvenile brown pelican landed on the top deck of the boat and sat up there for quite some time before flopping down on the head of someone trying to recover from her queasiness on the rocking boat.

Pelican guest 1

This pelican hitched  ride with us for a couple of hours

Kate helped the bird off the boat not once, but twice before it got the message that this cruise was for paying passengers only. It was an incredible adventure for everyone. The museum staff had prepared everyone well for the journey with information on hat to bring and how to best avoid seasickness. They also had given great information on some of the species we might expect to see. I ended up taking more photographs than I ever have in one day, many taken while trying to capture the amazing dives of the elegant northern gannets that accompanied us all day (more on that in the next post). For more information on the trip, including a species list, you can visit Brian’s blog. For a good overview of the importance of this area to marine life, I highly recommend the book, Gulf Stream Chronicles, by the late Dave Lee, an ornithologist at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. Dave worked for years helping to document the bird life and other marine species found off the Outer Banks and helping reveal how rich this ecosystem is in ocean life. Below are just a few more images from an amazing day in the critically important waters off our coast.

Juvenile brown pelican landing in water

Juvenile brown pelican landing behind boat

brown pelican adult at sunrise

Brown pelican in the golden glow of sunrise

common loon

Common loon

spotted dolphin wave riding

A dolphin surfaces next to the boat

glaucous gull 2

This glaucous gull followed us most of the day

northern fulmar

Northern fulmar riding the wind above the waves

Black-legged kittiwake

Black-legged kittiwake

Mass of birds behind the boat

Mass of birds feeding on chum behind the boat

northern gannet

Northern gannet (more on this species in my next post)




Snow on the Beach

I have never been one of “those” people…you know who I mean, the bird chasers. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoy birds, love to watch them, photograph them, and learn about them. But the idea of dropping everything and heading out to see a rare bird was not in my repertoire…until now. My young birder friend, Lucas Bobay, posted something on his blog last week about making a trip to the Outer Banks to see the newly arrived Snowy Owl. He and his friends were out there in what looked like miserable conditions of wind and rain, but they saw it. I could sense their excitement in his words. And, it is a bird I have always thought would be cool to see. So, I decided to head out Tuesday and see if I could find it. Turned out to be an adventure.

I got a late start and was driving down through Cape Hatteras National Seashore a little after lunch when I reached the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet. Some portable stoplights and lots of yellow trucks emblazoned with the DOT insignia indicated some road work was going on. I’ve always enjoyed going over that iconic bridge because of the elevated view of the ocean and marshes bordering the inlet. As I sat at the stoplight near the far side of the bridge, I heard an announcement on NPR – “The NC DOT has declared a state of emergency and closed the Bonner Bridge over Oregon Inlet for safety reasons, effective immediately”. Say what? But I’m on the bridge! It is one of those things you aren’t quite sure you hear correctly and then it is gone. I looked around and everybody seemed to be doing normal things – no Gull Little running around yelling “the bridge is falling, the bridge is falling”. I switched stations hoping to hear the announcement again…nope, just some music and news. The light turns green…do I turn around?; did I hear what I thought I heard? I debated turning back at the far side of the bridge and trying to return to the mainland but decided, what the heck, I’m retired, and there’s a possibility of seeing a Snowy Owl. So, on I drove.

First sighting

First sighting (click photos to enlarge)

After finding the beach access ramp number I had read about online, I walked out toward the ocean with high hopes. No owl….I scanned to my left toward the Point…nothing. Looking down the beach to my right I saw three people walking several hundred yards away. I looked with the scope and saw a small white blob on the beach – my first Snowy Owl! I gathered my gear and starting walking when I saw the owl take flight and head my way. I stopped and it landed a few hundred yards away between me and the walkers. They continued…I stayed put. The owl flushed again and flew right past me and landed on a log on the beach. As I sat up the camera the walkers stopped higher up on the beach to view the owl through their binoculars. They then veered off to the parking area and I was alone with the bird. And what a magnificent bird!

Snowy Owl 1

Snowy Owl at Cape Hatteras (cropped image)

Snowy Owls are at home in the far north of the Arctic. In winter, most stay near their frozen homeland, with some migrating into southern Canada or occasionally the northern U.S. But once in a while, a Snowy Owl migrates farther south. The last time one was seen in North Carolina was 2001. And now, this one. The usual thought is that birds migrating this far out of their normal range are young ones that are seeking a winter food supply in years when their prey base in the Arctic (lemmings) is scarce.  And this happens only once every few years. But this year seems to be different with Snowy Owls showing up all over the East Coast (and now at least three reported in NC). Kenn Kaufman has written on this year’s unusual migration in a nice article published this week in Audubon Magazine (

Snowy Owl cleaning its feet

Snowy Owl cleaning its feet

The owl landed about 50 yards from me. I took a few shots with the big lens and started to ease a little closer, taking a step, or at most, two, when it looked away. It was swinging its head around keeping an eye on every gull that called or flew anywhere near. Over a span of about 30 minutes I was able to creep a few yards closer. The owl finally looked straight at me and I decided that this was close enough. I did not want to spook it. Over the next hour or so, it began preening its gorgeous plumage, especially the feathers on its feet.

Snowy Owl stretch

Snowy Owl stretch

It stretched a few times and turned its head frequently looking at all sorts of things seen and unseen to my meager human eyes.

Looking intently at something

Looking intently down the beach

At one point, the owl straightened up, opening its eyes wide and staring at something for several seconds before settling back to a more restful pose. I could not see what had caught its attention, although I had seen a Peregrine Falcon when I first walked out, so maybe that had flown by again.

Snowy Owl profile - wing stretch

Stretching a wing

I was glad the owl seemed to accept my presence. While I am sure it knew I was there (try as I might I could not make myself look like a seashell washed up on the beach), my lack of motion, plus the fact that there was just me, probably allowed it to go about its normal routine. I felt truly privileged to spend so much time alone with this bird in such a beautiful setting.

In the scene

Close to sunset, a young man walked out onto the beach with his dog. The owl acted a little nervous and then flew a short distance with the lighthouse now in the background. I waved the young man away and he walked up to talk after seeing the owl. He didn’t know about it or how rare it is to see a Snowy Owl in these parts, but he seemed to appreciate it and thanked me before walking off down the beach.

Dolphin bonus

Dolphin bonus

When it was time to leave, I turned around and walked away from the bird towards the water. I wanted to walk way around the owl back toward my car so as to not disturb it. As if it had not been good enough just to be with the owl, a pod of dolphins swam by at that moment in the low angle light of the setting sun. A great day indeed.

The next morning was overcast and drizzly and I found the owl about 3/4 of a mile in the other direction down the beach. When I walked down, there was another birder. We were soon joined by two more folks interested in seeing this rare bird. The owl made few short flights, including two where it seemed to be chasing some grackles that were foraging on the beach. But there was no breakfast for the owl while we watched.

digiscoped owl

Photo taken with iPhone through spotting scope

I didn’t even take my camera out that morning due to the weather but had brought a spotting scope. I used an adapter purchased specifically for this scope and my iPhone and took a few shots. I still have a lot to learn about “digiscoping” apparently as most of the images turned out pretty “soft”. But it was still fun to try.

One person left and one of the remaining folks then walked out toward the owl and flushed it. I briefly discussed with her why it is important to try not to unduly disturb the bird: it is in unfamiliar territory; it may be a young, inexperienced animal; undue disturbance could cause it to use more of its energy reserves and disturb its hunting success, etc. She seemed to understand, but then walked back out towards it hoping to get a closer picture, and flushed it again. This is a common problem, one that I admit to being guilty of myself from time to time – trying to get just a little closer to an animal, and then spooking it. It helps to have a long lens, and it pays to closely observe the animal. My rule of thumb is that if I change the animal’s behavior, then I am too close. If that happens, I either back away or just stand still until the animal resumes whatever it was doing. This bird is such a rarity and is in a fairly accessible location (even with the bridge now closed) and word has spread rapidly about it via various list serves (and even through blogs like this).  I worry a bit that the owl may be bothered to the point of it having some negative consequences. So, please try to respect this, and any other wildlife you encounter. It is best to view from a distance, using a scope, if possible, and as long a lens as possible for photography (borrow or rent one for special occasions like this). If you are lucky enough to go try to see the owl, don’t “rush and flush” it. Be patient, spend some quality time with it, observing it, and appreciating the beauty of this exquisite visitor from the far north.

Tomorrow, I will post a few more images. For now, I leave you with this short video of the owl doing what Snowy Owls do when they are taking in the view of their new terrain…