23 October - Seabird Update

Big Year birder Christian Hagenlocher is quite a guy – and he never stops surprising me. After we finished our ‘Least Storm-petrel’ pelagic with Laura and Dave Povey, we sat down and began talking about our onward plans. While talking about our differing, but still unfolding plans to find Great Skua in the coming months, he Googled away on his laptop. I’d whinged that the best of the ferries out of Maine had shut down for the winter. “Hey John, there’s a cruise from NYC to Nova Scotia leaving New York tomorrow.” Sure enough, there was  - and it was surprisingly cheap (less than a hundred bucks each per day). The bad news was we’d have to get to the San Diego airport pronto to make the red-eye special, and then hang around NY airports and harbour stations from 5AM to mid-afternoon. But of course we made it, and took a virtual sightseeing route through the big apple with NY friends of Christian. With great excitement and anticipation, we set sail out of Brooklyn past the Statue of Liberty just on sunset. The next day at sea (yesterday, 23rd) looked to be a corker – we calculated that the ship would pass over at least one of the radical canyons between New York and St John at a descent time of day. What we hadn’t figured on was that the big winds and seas would lead the Captain to change the itinerary due to likely difficulty in docking at St John. So we swung right (just in time to miss some good undersea canyoning), where-after, in increasing swell and seas, we slowed from 24 knots to 17 knots. All of this ultimately meant that we’d run out of daylight a half hour to hour before reaching the only canyon we were sure to cross that day – a 1,000m deep beauty. Unfortunately, dreams of cold rich upwelling generating sea-bird bonanzas were not to be realised.

Still, even though most of the day’s sailing was in shallow 70m deep water, we couldn’t complain about the daily haul of both seabirds and ship-attracted passerines. Christian will post a discussion of the results on his blog in the coming days, and the passerine story will be especially interesting. But presently I’ll summarise from my perspective by saying we saw lots and lots of seabirds – predominated by hundreds of both Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, crazy numbers of Northern Gannets, occasionally in dive/feed mode, large numbers of Parasitic Jaegers and a few Pomerine Jaegers. Near and dear to both of our hearts however were the skuas. We had a number of distant birds, as well as one definite South Polar Skua reasonably close, and two even closer Great Skuas – our target bird for the trip. When I spotted the two they were less than 30 metres from the front of the port side of ship (we were at midship) flying away and to the left, at some stage splitting up - one apparently peeling off to the right, never to be seen again. My first binocular view was of the left bird at no more than 50 metres distance; both presented the beautiful cinnamon colour I’d hoped for, with the left bird more noticeably in wing molt. It was easy to see the diagnostic spotting on the mantle. Unfortunately for Christian however, in the heat of battle, with the numerous seabirds and gulls both in the air and rafting at that location, he wasn’t able nail the bird. In most instances we’ve had no trouble getting one another onto birds – the problem this time was that at one stage Christian thought I was referring to a bird on the water, and wasted precious time sorting through numerous sitting birds. Through that process I delayed raising the camera for probably ten seconds after my initial sighting, by which time the bird I continued to monitor was much further away.  So not the super photos I’d wished for - for this iconic species (in a big year sense). For extra confidence re identification I sought and received the 'thumbs up' from Atlantic seabird guru Brian Patteson from following images. Whew.

Depending upon developing circumstances I may hop off the ship itinerary and do my own thing, but Christian, at least, will have more opportunities in the next few days to cross paths with more skuas, and is undoubtedly in with a chance at something equally special.

The 'Great One' 

Numerous rafting, as well as feeding shearwaters and gannets characterised several seabird 'hot spots' Christian and I passed through. Note same Great Skua passing over raft of shearwaters.

Christian photographing an exhausted Blackpoll Warbler. The luxury cruise ship provided 
a tenuous resting opportunity for migrating birds.

What rarity code is "Passenger Pigeon"?