Out in the open ocean and usually far from land, another world of birds awaits the eager explorer. Governed by tides, food and sometimes storms, pelagic birds are prized simply because we don’t see them very often and so, when we do, their aura captivates. Saturday 29th August 2015 was the day for the eagerly awaited Pubnico Pelagic and, although none of the potential mega rarities found us in the patchy fog, everybody enjoyed what we saw, well how can you not enjoy it when you can almost smell the breath of the Great Shearwaters!
Muster time was 5am, yes it is early but you want to be out sampling the best of the morning as post midday most trips tend to fizzle a bit, perhaps not least because the watchers themselves are running out of adrenaline by then. Sailing from Dennis Wharf the first hurdle to scale was the descent by metal ladder to our trusty vessel. I am so bad at heights these days that I once missed half a dozen birds in Ecuador because the canopy walk did for my legs. The fear came on as I got older, like excessive nasal hair and girth. There was no way I was missing out here though so I clenched and thought of Leach’s Storm-Petrels, it worked and I was soon on deck with the others, some of whom had a fair few more miles on the clock than me!
Fog came and went as we headed out, pausing at the islands offshore to see a few birds before hitting the open ocean heading for German Bank. As we picked up the pace a hummingbird overtook us heading south. It would be nice to think that it is sipping on some exotic flower now or at least hit cover before bumping into Erika, our hoped for hurricane that has petered out over Florida but might yet rally.
As fog closed in so the first Great Shearwaters came past, giving us a look over to see whether we were worth hanging about around. A Northern Fulmar did a similar thing before a Cory’s Shearwater came out of the fog and across the bow, the first tick for some, better views would happen later. As we all willed the fog to recede a hefty, dark bird passed the stern and a grabbed shot by one of the more alert aboard showed it to be a skua sp. My trip hopes were for Great, a North America tick, the majority probably fancied South Polar after Great Skua had been seen on the previous year’s trip.
The shots on the back of the camera appear inconclusive but electronic detective work with Photoshop might yet put a name to the beast, but can we tick it? There is the moral dilemma that might yet present itself. I saw the bird but not through bins, others at the back were closer but probably also failed to register a glass assisted view. Personally I’ll wait until I get a good view but I’d never sit in judgement of those desperate to tick it!
Soon the Great Shearwaters were around the boat constantly and their presence tempted a Pomarine Jaeger to join. The jaeger flew right around us, very close at times and repeatedly tried to steal the chum morsels that the Great Shearwaters had snatched. For those of you who do not know what chum is, fish parts and fish oil are involved and it is chucked out behind the boat to attract the sea birds. The nature of the boat meant that we were able to get very close to the birds, often no bins were required they were that close.
In the week before the trip there had been some very exceptional seabirding off Massachusetts, not to mention three Audubon’s Shearwaters off Bon Portage, an island just east of our location. This information meant that we had collectively hardwired our brains to hope for just a small slice of the rarity action, so, when a black shearwater was seen on the sea a tentative ‘Audubon’s’ shout went up but no, the curly white behind the eye was, amongst other features, diagnostic of Manx Shearwater, not to be sniffed at but not an Audubon’s.
We progressed around German Bank, roughly three hours from port, and had more Cory’s come in, what may have been a second Pomarine Jaeger and a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels danced on the gathering slick. When the Leach’s did show up the bird dashed around like it’s ass was on fire, showing the not so subtle flight, size and plumage differences from Wilson’s. Cameras clicked throughout and many an SD card filled as we took advantage of the views and proximity of the birds. Only the Red Phalaropes remained outside most lens’ range, hard targets in the swell at times.
The constant chumming kept a cluster of birds in the wake, gulping down their morel before flying back to the boat for the next one. The Great Shearwaters arrived like novice skiers, legs moving all directions while the eyes stayed on the ball. The Northern Fulmars were less graceful, hitting the ocean and ducking under to grab their share. I took along a cat food, Rice Crispy and Olive Oil mix which went into the drink in one go. The petrels danced on it but the other birds gave it a wide berth so, if you buy locally caught fresh fish and find Rice Crispies inside, you can keep them.
When the Great Shearwaters start to lose interest in the fish heads it’s time to head home so we did. The sun came out as we cruised back and some dozed, some birded and some started sifting through their digital memories. Apart from the rarities failing the hit their cues everything went very well and kudos to Ronnie for organising everything, it was a great pelagic trip. The thing with pelagics is that you never know what you will come across and even if you don’t hit the big ones there is always the hope that next time…
Below are a selection of images from the trip, some good, some bad and some a bit indifferent.
The rarer Cory’s Shearwater. Normally they prefer warmer water but as we’ve messed up the ecosystem the upside is that they are easier to see in Nova Scotia – result!
Northern Fulmar, rumour is that Pacific and Atlantic are different species, certainly the very dark birds of the Pacific might be.
Pomarine Jaeger – fantastic views.
Leach’s Storm-Petrel, I know, awful shots but I was at the back when it came close.
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, nice.