Finally at sea!

Back in 2006, I was living in upstate New York. After growing up in the Midwest I was finally close enough (~5 hours) to the ocean to take a pelagic birding trip! Naturally, I signed up for a winter trip out of Lewes, Delaware (I was afraid to drive to NYC) as soon as I could. As luck would have it, that trip was cancelled.

Fast forward to 2015, when we moved from Missouri to Maryland. Again, I’m finally close enough (~2.5 hours!) to the ocean to take a pelagic birding trip! I was the first person to sign up for the January 2016 trip out of Lewes, Delaware…which was canceled due to 10 feet high seas on the day of the trip! Luckily, it was a pretty warm day for January and my friend Kate and I had a pretty decent day of land birding.

I thought about signing up for a summer pelagic trip, but we were planning to move last spring/summer, and I wasn’t sure if I’d have time. Plus, I really wanted to see a Dovekie. I eagerly awaited the release of the 2017 pelagic trip list, and I was a little relieved when I saw there was no winter trip out of Lewes, Delaware. I figured out that Belmar, New Jersey was the closest winter trip to me, so I signed up for that one.

This year, the weather could not have been more perfect. Temperatures were in the low 40s, winds were light, and I’ve been on kayaks in choppier lakes than the north Atlantic was that day.

Still, in order to get there on time I had to wake around 3:00 AM, drive 3.5 hours to the coast, then stand around until it was time to board. Luckily, there were a good number of birds to watch in the harbor, and I even met someone from Cornell who was familiar with my name through eBird!

The harbor was full of Brant and Mute Swans, with a few American Black Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Bufflehead milling around the edges. Someone pointed out a distant Peregrine Falcon perched atop a nearby bridge, and a Boat-tailed Grackle was spitting sound from atop a moored boat. All this before we even left the dock!

Needless to say, I was pretty excited to be standing up front along the bow railing as we departed. However, I was quickly reminded just how hard it is to pick out birds sitting on the water even in a tiny 2 feet swell. And most birds in flight stayed pretty far away, so it was tough to ID species I have limited experience with (and none in the past several years).

A group of White-winged Scoters took off as we approached.

A group of White-winged Scoters took off as we approached.

Black Scoters flying well off our bow.

Black Scoters flying well off our bow.

Luckily, the trip leaders were excellent in calling out birds and giving directions as to where the bird was/was heading. We even lucked out and had a Razorbill just sitting off the port side of the boat a few minutes into the trip!

The best look I had at a Razorbill all day.

The best look I had at a Razorbill all day.

It was quickly apparent that this trip would not be like the boat trips I’d taken in California, Alaska, or even Ireland. We would often go long stretches without seeing anything but the odd Herring or Great Black-backed Gull. The trip operators were not able to procure any chum for the trip, but they did bring a large box of beef suet on board. Unfortunately, that was used up pretty quickly.

On the plus side, when we did have suet to throw overboard it brought in a lot of gulls, including a potential Thayer’s Gull (I feel like it was an Iceland Gull, personally). I briefly glimpsed a very distant Black-legged Kittiwake, but just barely.

My first Iceland Gull in 2833 days, but who's counting?

My first Iceland Gull in 2833 days, but who’s counting?

Great Black-backed Gulls were kings of the wake.

Great Black-backed Gulls were kings of the wake.

No matter how many times I see them, I will never tire of watching Northern Gannets plunge into the ocean like giant lawn darts.

No matter how many times I see them, I will never tire of watching Northern Gannets plunge into the ocean like giant lawn darts.

The real highlight of this trip for me was the marine mammals. A couple Harbor Seals popped up near the boat early in the day. Later, I missed seeing a couple Harbor Porpoises, but about halfway through the trip I saw a Fin Whale surface a couple times! I couldn’t manage a photograph, but it was pretty cool to see my first Fin Whale since July 6, 2006!

A Harbor Seal slowly swam past the port side of the boat, but I was stuck on starboard. When I got around to the stern this was all I could see of the seal.

A Harbor Seal slowly swam past the port side of the boat, but I was stuck on starboard. When I got around to the stern this was all I could see of the seal.

I was lucky enough to see several pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, which became life mammal number 92! Most of them were swimming within about 50 yards of the boat, but some even went bow-riding for a bit.

These Short-beaked Common Dolphins were way too fast for me to get a solid photo, but at least I got something!

These Short-beaked Common Dolphins were way too fast for me to get a solid photo, but at least I got something!

Of course, I took my GPS with me on this trip to get an idea of how far out we went. Turns out we did a total trip of somewhere around 70 miles, getting just barely over 28 miles offshore at our farthest point.

New York City is just off the map to the north.

New York City is just off the map to the north.

As we were disembarking the Peregrine Falcon went screaming after a Bald Eagle, the rat of the sky. It was a fitting end to the day. All in all, it was a great trip. I ended up with a lifer mammal and added about 20 species to my 2017 list!

Cumulative list for the day:

Species Total
Brant 500
Canada Goose 11
Mute Swan 40
American Black Duck 14
Surf Scoter 1
White-winged Scoter 4
Black Scoter 10
Bufflehead 9
Common Merganser 3
Red-breasted Merganser 11
Red-throated Loon 8
Common Loon 12
Northern Gannet 35
Bald Eagle 1
Common Murre 9
Common/Thick-billed Murre 2
Razorbill 4
large alcid sp. 3
Black-legged Kittiwake 1
Bonaparte's Gull 4
Ring-billed Gull 4
Herring Gull 28
Iceland Gull 1
Great Black-backed Gull 18
Rock Pigeon (Feral) 7
Peregrine Falcon 1
European Starling 25
Boat-tailed Grackle 1
Harbor Seal 2
Fin Whale 1
Short-beaked Common Dolphin 14+

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