Pelagic Trip: Sept. 25, 2016

I recently had the privilege to take a pelagic (open ocean) birding trip with the Marine Science Center out of Ponce Inlet [map]. This is the same organization that heads the pelagic trips for the Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival. The festival trips tend to stick to the western side of the Gulf Stream. In recent years, we’ve not even ventured that far. Instead we stuck to the near-coast waters. The trips that head out over the summer and fall are longer-ranging. The goal is usually to head out to the middle of the Gulf Stream. This increases the odds of seeing pelagic birds that never venture near to shore.

We headed out early in the morning, well before sunrise. There were thunderstorms well ahead of us, and the lightning as the storms crept up from the horizon was beautiful.

At one point soon after sunrise, we had a flock of mixed seabirds along the horizon-line. I could make out some shearwaters and terns, but did not get a decent look at the Black-capped Petrels that others reported. This would have been a life bird for me, but I could not differentiate them from the terns and shearwaters, so I did not claim them.

The headlining species for the trip was the Cory’s Shearwater. If you recall from my New England trip, I saw this species as a life bird during a whale watch; however the numbers on this trip were much higher, and we came across group after group, resting on the sea.

A few Cory’s Shearwaters resting on the ocean.

There are two subspecies of Cory’s Shearwaters – one that nests off Africa and another that nests in the Mediterranean. Both were present here, thousands of miles away from their breeding grounds. Like many shearwaters and other pelagic predators, these birds range far and wide.

Shearwaters have a distinctive flight pattern where they soar and then tilt to one side, perpendicular to the water. They’ll often skim one tip close to the surface.

Along with the Cory’s, we had a good number of the smaller Audubon’s Shearwaters. I still find it surprisingly difficult to photograph birds from a boat, so below you’ll see my best attempts at getting an Audubon’s Shearwater.

Audubon’s Shearwater.
Audubon’s on the left, Cory’s on the right (in the mid-ground).

We had a few other notable encounters, including a Prairie Warbler, a Hooded Warbler, and even a Barn Swallow – all well out to sea. There was a Brown Booby and several Jaegers (we saw all three jaeger species).

We ran into a few pods of dolphins, mostly Atlantic Spotted. The first large group we saw seemed to be a mixture of adult and adolescents. I suspect they were males, but I don’t know for sure.

Young Atlantic Spotted Dolphins (notice the lack of spots).

On other trips, we’ve let the dolphins ride the bow wake, which they seem to love. I noticed that on this trip, the captain slowed or stopped the boat whenever the dolphins approached. I don’t know if there are some wildlife protection laws now being followed, or some conservation “best practices”, but some of the dolphins seemed to be hanging around the bow, waiting for us to move. We did eventually move once most of the dolphins dispersed. I noticed a few seemed to sneak in while were were under way (I didn’t say anything).

Here’s a short video of them around the bow of the boat. If you listen closely, you can hear the squeaks and whistles as they communicate with each other.

One reason I say these were males is because a short time later, another pod came racing toward us. This time there were single adults, many with a calf alongside. I assume these were females and their babies. As with previous SCBWF trips, the moms seemed to be trying to display their babies to us. They would push the babies along one side and up toward the surface wherever we were hanging over to look. I was so excited to see this, I forgot to take any photos or video! Sorry.

On the way back to shore we had some Sooty Terns and a few Bridled Terns, as well. These species are very rare to see from the coast. Our final treat was a flyby of a Sabine’s Gull, the only life bird on the trip for me.

For eBird purposes, the trip was divided into 9 legs (and one list for the inlet). I’ve used and edited the shared trip lists here (which probably overcount some of the species I personally saw, but it’s close enough). Here are all ten lists, if  you’re interested (Note that the photos in the eBird lists here are not mine, but mostly taken by Douglas Richard):

Leg 1:
Leg 2:
Leg 3:
Leg 4:
Leg 5:
Leg 6: (No birds on this leg)
Leg 7:
Leg 8:
Leg 9:

We had several hundred (!) hatchling and washback sea turtles on board that we were supposed to release into Sargassum (floating seaweed) one we got out into the Gulf Stream. Unfortunately, we could not find any suitable size patches or lines of Sargassum for the turtles, so the poor things had to make the trip back to shore. There will be another attempt to get them out from another location.

I love these pelagic trips, so it is with some concern that I learned the boat we were on (that’s been used for every Florida pelagic trip I’ve done), the Pasttime Princess, is to be sold. This was its last trip, at least in this incarnation. Michael Brothers (from the Marine Science Center) said these trips, including the SCBWF, will continue in some fashion. Still, it was sad to say bye to the Pasttime Princess and the crew.





SCBWF 2015 : January 26 : Pelagic Birding Boat Trip

The 18th Annual Space Coast Birding and Wildlife Festival ended as it usually does with an all day pelagic tour on the Atlantic Ocean, east of Ponce Inlet. After a day of calm and sunny weather, another cold front whisked through the Space Coast and threats of gale force winds and high seas left the trip in doubt. The captain of the boat, The Pastime Princess, determined that if we stayed relatively close to shore, we’d be spared most of the high seas and some of the wind. It was decided that we’d head north, parallel to the coast, and see what we could see. It was just too treacherous out on the water much further out.

This change in plan meant that many of the birds we might see – shearwaters, skuas, etc. – would be blown out to sea. But in return we ended up with a few surprises we might otherwise have missed.

Each year we are hopeful that we might see Northern Right Whales, since the waters off north Florida are part of their calving area. We had some hints of them last year, but nothing definite. This year, we definitely had whales, but it turns out one of them at least was a Humpback Whale! The others were likely a species of beaked whale. We had numerous spouts and even some flukes shown when the whales dove.

Humpback Whale!

The wind was brutal, so I tried to stay on the side of the boat most protected, which was sometimes a challenge as the captain turned the boat to get closer to either a whale or a group of birds. If what we were looking at was into the wind or on the windward side, it was tough to keep the binoculars or camera still. The seas, surprisingly, were not that rough close to shore. We only had a few incidents where the boat pitched enough to have to really hold on.

Our goal was to find some shrimp boats. The shrimp boats have thousands of following birds waiting for the nets to be brought up so they can grab what they can. We came upon several boats in the course of the day.

A typical small shrimp boat.

To entice the birds away to an “easy meal”, one of our boat’s mates would ladle chum – in this case a mixture of popcorn, fish and fish oil – over the back of the boat. As you can imagine, the chum smells horrible, so it’s best to be careful near the stern while someone’s chumming.

Hello, ol’ chum!

While the view our the front of the boat looked like this:


The view at the stern of the boat looked more like this:

“Mine! Mine! Mine-mine! Mine!”

Besides the numerous gulls, we saw thousands of Northern Gannets in the course of the day. It takes 4 years for gannets to achieve adult plumage, and we saw all 4 stages in about equal numbers. Gannets dive straight down into the water to grab fish, their streamlined bodies ideally suited to the task. They are also graceful flyers, with long wings allowing them to glide great distances to find food with minimal effort.

Northern Gannet at dawn, showing nearly full adult plumage.

Brown Pelicans also followed our boat and took advantage of our chum. Normally these pelicans dive for fish (unlike their cousins, the American White Pelicans, who sit at the surface and scoop up fish). I learned that unlike the gannets and other diving birds, which dive straight in, Brown Pelicans turn their bodies and head at the last second before striking the surface, minimizing the shock to their necks. This may be an adaptation to compensate for their large heads and bills in proportion to their bodies.

Adult Brown Pelican resting after getting a nice meal of fish parts and popcorn.

Gulls have adapted to be opportunistic predators and scavengers. They rush in to grab whatever they can as soon as possible. This is why gulls are often present in large numbers at garbage dumps. Sometimes they bite off more than they can chew (metaphorically – most birds cannot chew).

I don’t think this Laughing Gull knows or cares that it probably cannot swallow this fish head.

Whenever there are gulls feeding, you’re sure to find jaegers. Jaegers are swift-flying predatory seabirds that chase other birds to get them to either drop or regurgitate their food. We had jaegers (both Parasitic and Pomarine species) throughout the day, though I personally only identified a handful of Parasitic Jaegers. I had a hard enough time trying to get my binoculars on these birds, never mind my camera, so kudos to those that got some great jaeger shots this trip!

Eventually we turned out of the wind and headed back to the inlet and to port. Another fun pelagic trip in the books, and I am really looking forward to doing it all over again!

The species list might look a bit thin to some, but I’m glad for each and every species and individual bird we saw this year.

  • Northern Gannet
  • Double-crested Cormorant
  • Brown Pelican
  • Great Blue Heron
  • Great Egret
  • Snowy Egret
  • Little Blue Heron
  • Cattle Egret
  • White Ibis
  • Turkey Vulture
  • Osprey
  • Bald Eagle
  • Black-bellied Plover
  • Piping Plover
  • Greater Yellowlegs
  • Ruddy Turnstone
  • Sanderling
  • Parasitic Jaeger
  • Bonaparte’s Gull
  • Laughing Gull
  • Ring-billed Gull
  • Herring Gull
  • Iceland Gull
  • Great Black-backed Gull
  • Forster’s Tern
  • Royal Tern
  • Black Skimmer
  • Belted Kingfisher

In all, I had a lovely time at the festival this year. I met some new people, learned new things and most importantly saw a variety and number of birds I’ll be thinking and talking about all year.