Last year’s trip to find Dovekies didn’t quite pan out, so I signed up for another pelagic adventure earlier this month (my 10th trip into the ocean to see birds and cetaceans!). We headed out of Lewes, Delaware in hopes of finding a few good birds and maybe a mammal or two.
The weather was better than I dreamed of for mid-February: nearly 50°F, calm winds, and partly-to-mostly cloudy skies. The seas were only 1-2 feet most of the day, and fog and rain held off until nearly sunset.
The trip started before sunrise, and as we bee-lined for deep water we started seeing flocks of scoters scattering here and there. Despite seeing hundreds of birds, I was unable to positively identify a single bird to species.
Unlike last year’s trip, this boat had hundreds of pounds of chum on board, so it wasn’t long before the leaders brought in a nice, big gull flock to join our adventure. Hundreds of Herring Gulls cycled through, along with good numbers of Great Black-backed Gulls, a few Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and a pair of adult Iceland Gulls. Later, a few Black-legged Kittiwakes would make brief appearances, but none joined the big group of gulls looking for handouts.
I spent almost all of last year’s trip glued to the bow, so this year I opted to try my luck on the upper deck. The upside was I could quickly move to any side of the ship without having to go through or around the cabin. The downside was it difficult (at first) to pick out birds on the water, and it wasn’t the ideal angle for photographing wildlife that was on or very near the surface. However, it was a fantastic vantage point from which to photograph our gull and gannet companions.
One thing that stood out through the entire trip was just how massive the ocean is. Growing up in the Midwest, I always just assumed that if I went out to sea there would be whales and dolphins to see anywhere I looked, but that’s just not the case. It was surprising just how difficult it was to even see a Fin Whale, the world’s second largest animal, when it surfaced relatively nearby.
Truth be told, I prefer marine mammal sightings over just about any bird I might see at sea. Luckily, we ended up with pretty good, albeit brief, looks at Common Short-beaked Dolphins, Fin Whales, and Humpback Whales. After the trip I learned that some saw Risso’s Dolphins. Had I known I’d missed them on the boat I’d probably have been gutted, so I’m glad I didn’t learn of that until several days post-trip.
Despite my love for marine mammals, the only reason I really signed up for this trip was to see a Dovekie. Dovekies aren’t really all that pretty. Just a little, roughly robin-sized black-and-white bird that hangs out in the open ocean all year. But I really wanted to see one. We kept heading farther and farther out. The water temperatures were plenty warm and deep, but all we saw were Atlantic Puffins. We couldn’t believe how many puffins there were!
As we pushed farther than planned, someone spied a Dovekie flying! But I missed it. That was not a good feeling. It was nearly time to turn around. But we kept pushing, and another cry of “Dovekies! Flying at 2 o’clock!” went out. And I missed them too. It was starting to look like I’d be making reservations on a January/February 2019 trip.
Then we hit the mother lode of Dovekies! First one, then two, then twenty, then upwards of 230 Dovekies! You couldn’t look in any direction without seeing at least a handful of Dovekies. To me, they looked like little fleas bouncing around the low swells. Many were gorged on fish, so they were not as aerodynamic as they might be in leaner times. They had to try to run up the small waves to take flight, which often only lasted a few yards before they crashed back down to try again. Before long we were hearing little pips and trills…I never dreamed of getting to hear a Dovekie!
In what seemed like an instant, but was probably more like 30 minutes, we had to turn around and head back for Lewes. I was sad to leave the Dovekies, but then my favorite North Atlantic pelagic species, the Northern Fulmar, put on an excellent show! A pair of birds spun circles around the boat for over a minute, causing me to run back and forth across the top of the boat hoping to get a photo or two that was in focus.
We ended up spending over 13 hours on the boat, and it was a much better trip than last year’s 8 hour jaunt out of northern New Jersey. I’m not quite convinced I’m ready to try an overnight pelagic, but I may just have to sign up for a 2019 winter trip after all.
The full trip list from Paulagics:
2 Northern Pintail
71 Surf Scoter
14 Black Scoter
85 scoter sp.
5 Red-throated Loon
24 Common Loon
16 Northern Fulmar
270 Northern Gannet
7 large alcid sp.
20 Atlantic Puffin
5 Black-legged Kittiwake
679 Herring Gull
2 Iceland Gull
5 Lesser Black-backed Gull
262 Great Black-backed Gull
2 Humpback Whale
3 Fin Whale
25 Common Dolphin
4 Risso’s Dolphin