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Seabirds at the edges

Dave Larson white-faced.jpg
DAVID M LARSON
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White-faced Storm-Petrel

Late summer, when water temperatures peak, is a great time to go looking for more tropically oriented marine birds and other critters in Cape and Islands waters. Case in point, a Brown Booby, more expected off Florida, was seen on Stellwagen Bank last week. And the Brown Pelican that’s been around over a month resurfaced in Eastham the other day. But some birders don’t wait for the good birds to come to them, they prefer to go to extremes in search of rare oceanic fare. Lucky for them, we have the Brookline Bird Club’s Extreme Pelagic Trips, two of which just ran, and racked up the rarities.

For more than two decades, the Brookline Bird Club, or BBC, has been leading these adventurous trips to the deep, warm shelf waters 100 miles south of Nantucket, which are still somehow in Massachusetts. It was here that they found the first individual of a near-mythical seabird, the White-faced Storm-Petrel, back in 2001, on a marathon trip out of Plymouth. The trips now leave from Hyannis, where the club commandeers a fishing boat called the Helen H. After 20 years of handling boatfuls of birders, Captain Joe Huckemeyer is as skilled at finding fancy offshore seabirds as he is at getting anglers on yellowfin tuna and the occasional marlin.

Thanks to two-plus years of pent-up demand due to COVID, the BBC was able to run back-to-back overnight trips down to the shelf waters between August 27 and 30. I have helped lead a few of these trips in the past, but am on a semi-permanent break due to chronic greenness about the gills. But I read the trip reports like it’s the sports pages, and these did not disappoint. On the way south, the birding often first picks up in the cool waters over the Nantucket Shoals, where they saw Arctic nesting seabirds like Long-tailed Jaegers and both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes, plus the expected local shearwaters and storm-petrels. While nice birds, these are but amuse-bouches before the tastier main course to the south.

Down at the shelf, depths plummet from 600 feet to over a mile deep, and Gulf Stream eddies can nudge water temperatures over 80. It’s a different world out there — floating mats of golden sargassum weed hide small tropical fish, while those apparent escapees from a Dr. Seuss book, the flying fish, can be seen gliding by. And that mythical storm-petrel, the white-faced? They saw almost 600 on these trips, setting a record high count for North America. These mysterious little ocean gnomes, who bounce along the surface like a butterfly on a pogo stick, breed mostly on remote islands in the Southern Oceans. Ours likely come from colonies off West Africa, where, like other petrels, they enter their nest burrows strictly at night to avoid predators.

Other pulse-quickening seabird sightings included a Black-capped Petrel, which breeds in the rugged mountains of Hispaniola, and several cryptic Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, visiting from breeding colonies in the Azores, and hiding among the more common Wilson’s Storm-petrels.

It’s not just about seabirds out there. I know from experience that the leaders on these trips sleep lightly, if at all, which is how they got one of the weirdest bird sightings of the trip, a rare and very out-of-place Prothonotary Warbler circling the boat 120 miles south of the Cape at 2:30AM. One leader was reportedly awakened by the flight call, which sounds like this. Would that wake you?

It’s not just about birds at all — the other marine life is at least half the appeal of these trips, at least for me. On this trip they saw a Sperm Whale; offshore bottlenose, Risso’s, white-sided, and common dolphins; hammerhead and blue sharks; and a huge Atlantic manta ray. Past trips have produced whale sharks, various bizarre beaked whales, blue whales, and sea turtles. Most of the sightings they made, ranging from moths hitching a ride on the boat to huge leviathans like the Right Whales, can be seen on iNaturalist.

The next BBC pelagic trip is in November, when they’ll ply the Nantucket shoals for cold water seabirds, but your next chance to get out to the continental shelf with the extreme birders won’t be until next summer. Luckily, this gives you plenty of time for things you likely already had on your to-do list, like mastering the subtle structural differences among North Atlantic petrels, and memorizing the flight calls of offshore migrating warblers. You better get started — I’d hate to see you embarrass yourself at the rail of the Helen H by confusing a Leach’s with a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. Can you imagine?

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.