Twelve Men in a Boat

Every year in August we go off to sea off Pubnico by the grace of a friendly Captain and the energetic efforts of Ronnie d’Entremont. The object is to see what we see but we always hope for the good stuff, the birds that are probably in Canadian waters daily but that have nobody around to appreciate them. This year, our jaunt was a little different in that it would be 36 hours long and involve getting as far offshore as possible. The inspiration for this type of ‘hard core’ birding has been the tantalising reports from ocean research vessels where Barolo Shearwater, White-faced Storm-Petrel and Audubon’s Shearwater have featured in eBird checklists we’d all like to be on. The length of the trip meant that the invite list was small, very small actually. We had to cater for sleepers inside, eight bunks, and those who slept on deck (me and three others!). Any more and it would have been dangerous.

We mustered a little after 4pm on August 3rd, all anticipating the potential of the trip. Daring to think that we might get at least one of the rarely reported sea birds that we know are out there. The assembled baggage, beds, chairs and paraphernalia required took up much deck room, along with two fish bins of Herring and ice, a bucket of Mackerel (retired) and five chum buckets with a fish meal/fish oil/Rice Crispy mix all ready to be heaved in at the appropriate juncture. Offshore fog was hinted, a hint that soon became a reality as we steamed towards Brown’s Bank overnight. Despite the fog, senses were keen and we’d had Leach’s Storm-Petrel, a Northern Fulmar and Great Shearwater well before lights out.

Sleeping on deck was pretty loud as the eager diesel engine powered us on through the fog. Sleep was fitful for that reason, plus the soaking we got from the fog but we were all bright eyed as dawn approached and were ready for a day of intensity. We had run a drip feed of fish oil which put out the scent for those tubenoses far and wide and that meant we awoke to healthy numbers of both Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm-Petrels around the boat. It wasn’t long before the jaeger yell went up and two lightweight birds flirted with the now being delivered chum, Long-taileds. They hung around for a while, mostly off the back but a couple of times performing for the cameras with the sun behind them. One bird lacked the short, stubby central tail feathers, but the other was growing a pair as it were. Long-tailed Jaeger is hard to get in NS waters and so we all hoped the tone was set for the day.

Normally the Atlantic is pretty constant in sea temperature, but in recent years there has been a surge further north of warmer water, water that holds the rare sea birds. As we made our way south, eventually ending up 125 miles from port, the pleasant nature of the atmosphere suddenly became clammy. We had hit a warm bubble and the lenses on our optics soon steamed up. The petrel count rose, so many came so close, but the shearwaters were well down in number. A handful of Great and a couple of Cory’s were all that we could attract. No gulls, not terns, no Phalaropes.

We moved and we chummed but the avian content varied little, even when we hit very deep water. We were looking so hard that our eyes were starting to deceive us, even a distant plastic bottle got called a Portuguese Man’O’War until we turned around and went back for a more forensic look! We turned back for home skirting George’s Bank and made for several deeper holes but the only new birds we saw were the occasional Manx Shearweater, still the petrels stayed with us all the way more or less.

Somewhere on Georges the hot sun and lateness of the day lulled all into that post-adrenalin euphoria that tends to creep up on you. Some dozed, some chatted, then the shout “Skua” went up and a scabby South Polar Skua flew over us and landed with the increased flock of attendant Great Shearwaters. We crept up alongside as best a large Lobster boat can do and all got their views and photos. Not ten minutes later the same yell from the same dup of voices saw another bird do the same thing, this time one that was a bit better dressed. My hope was for a Great Skua, the Bonxie, but no, just the two South Polars, oh well.

As the day closed out we all turned in as our Captains, Chris and Gerald, saw us safely home. Ronnie’s dulcet tones around 5:30 actually woke me up although I may also have been in a self-induced coma. We were wetter than before but glad to be back. The disembarking process was smooth and all were soon on their way.

Despite the lack of a list of rarities as long as your arm this was, we all agreed, a great trip. The stars were the two Long-tailed Jaegers, the South Polar Skuas added excitement too as did the many species of cetacean we encountered including so many Basking Sharks that we stopped looking at them! It was very much worth getting out there and, for me, the petrels were a highlight. So many and so very close. Whether we get to do such a trip again depends on the availability of Captains and their vessels and for this trip we owe Chris and Gerald our sincerest thanks. Thanks also to Ronnie, you picked the right window there I think. On the dock at the end Gerald called us hard core, and when I said that, had we word of an Ancient Murrelet 200 miles offshore, that most present would just get back on the boat now and go if they could, I think that confirmed it for him.

In analysing the trip, could we have done more? I think the lack of gulls was a major factor in the number of confident petrels that stuck with us, I liked that. I think we needed to know where the draggers were fishing, they pull the birds in as part of their fishing process so our being in proximity to them at some point might have worked in our favour for seeing skuas and jaegers, maybe even shearwaters. I think we need to sort out a better method of chumming and to perfect the drip feed which I am sure contributed. If we do another long trip we need to go post southern storm, further and into even warmer water. A lot of starts have to align to be successful, this time we stuck a toe in the water of deep sea pelagic trips, next time perhaps we go ankle deep. For a real shot at the good stuff we need a fast boat too, of the sort dedicated pelagics use but that we don’t seem to have around southern Nova Scotia. I wonder the options of chartering off Massachusetts and going into Canadian waters from there, any takers?

To some photos then, I’m pleased with the odd one but not that many are what I’d call good. I’ve split them up by types rather than slip them between the main text. Next I’ll be back to doing a few posts regarding the British Columbia trip as and when visitors and birding allow.

The Petrels

Leach’s Storm-Petrel, they were very abundant and came super close. Not that easy to photograph as they motor some but I did manage my best ever shots. Others have way better ones, I need to work out what I am doing wrong.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, bouncing around us all of the time, when the chum slicks went out they quickly organised into line dancing groups.

The Shearwaters (we only saw one Sooty).

A very dusk-faced bird above, not seen one quite like that before.

Cory’s Shearwater – I tend to think they are more albatross than shearwater but there you go. I would guess at around 35 birds total, all checked for signs of being Scopoli’s.

Great Shearwater was low in numbers at first but then became ever-present later in the trip. It was only late on that I pointed a camera at one.

The Jaeger/s (I missed the Pomarine)

Two Long-tailed Jaegers together was a real treat. Lightweight as a jaeger they spent more time chasing each other than trying to rob other birds. The early morning light was quite fierce so the shots are a bit unrealistically lit.

The Skuas

The first South Polar Skua looked like the result of a fling between a Chicken and a Pigeon!

This one was much more on the money, when I first saw it I hoped for a Bonxie, still waiting.

Cetaceans and fish

Above, Common Dolphins. Lots out there and very spectacular.

Above, Long-finned Pilot Whale, below, Harbour Porpoise.

Above, one of many Basking Sharks, below and Tuna going bonkers.

We also saw a couple of Humpbacks, a Minke, some White-beaked Dolphins and a Sunfish.

Additional – when one of the pelagic crew posted an album on Facebook, there was an Audubon’s Shearwater in there. It went past once, I think all saw it as it would have been one of the first small, black and white shearwaters seen. Just shows you how much digital photography can help in such circumstances. Not the ideal way to add an Audubon’s Shearwater to you life list but…


3 thoughts on “Twelve Men in a Boat

  1. I doubt we would get captains as good but a trip out of MA on a fast boat is an intriguing idea.

    Nice take on our amazing trip!


    • Thinking about it we would still need to sail a long way to get to NS waters. Looks like the willing Captains and their Lobster boat is the best way, we just need to tweak our methods a bit.


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