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Saturday, September 30, 2006

Birding at sea

My friend Sean recently returned from a fishing/birding trip that traveled over 50 miles south of Long Island and New York City to the Hudson Canyon. While his e-mail and photos are quite a departure from my usual urban adventures, I think you'll enjoy the read:

The Hudson Canyon

(Photo credit - USGS)

Subject: Hudson Canyon Tuna Boat
From: Sean Sime
Date: 9/29/06 1:56 PM

Wednesday 1pm - Thursday 5pm, Hudson Canyon, NY waters

I spent 28 hours on the "Superhawk" out of Point Lookout, NY tuna fishing in the Hudson Canyon yesterday and the day before (as a "non fishing" passenger). After a summer of pelagics gone south this finally was an opportunity to get far offshore. The boat left port at 1pm and didn't arrive in the canyon until after dark.

-Click here for more info on the Hudson Canyon-

The first highlight of the trip was mid-afternoon when a Peregrine Falcon rode up the wake 5 feet off the water. This was about 10-11 miles offshore. Not what I was expecting at all.

Peregrine Falcon (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

The rest of the ride out was somewhat uneventful. The calm conditions and lack of wind probably meant birds were sitting on the water and staying out of sight. The only bird of note was an Audubon's Shearwater that the boat popped up shortly before sunset and a small passerine that looked like a warbler or vireo which circled the boat twice and flew off to the north. I didn't even see a Storm-Petrel on the first day.

Mystery Warbler

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

-What are Shearwaters?-

We anchored in the canyon and I decided to try to rest while the fishermen did their thing. The calm seas turned to 4-6ft and a rolling-every-which-way kind of seas. Unfortunately, it's hard to sleep when 60lb Yellowfin are being hauled into the boat somewhat frequently. At one point the mate came into the cabin to tell me there was a bird on the boat. This was the first Wilson's Storm-Petrel of the trip.

Fearing that the bird would be trampled by fisherman as it scurried about the deck I picked it up and let it rest on my knee. It stayed a while and eventually bit my hand and flew off.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Sunrise at sea (click to enlarge)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

After a series of cat naps and "FISH ON" screams the horizon finally became visible. At first light there were Greater Shearwaters in the air. Within minutes I counted two dozen birds heading south/southeast. “Greaters” continued to move through in ones and twos all morning. About 7:30am the first Cory's Shearwater of the day came by. An adult Pomarine Jaeger lumbered through as well, but wasn't interested in my chopped butterfish offerings. As an aside, I spent nearly the entire day chumming in one way or another (the crew gave me my own bucket!) and the only birds that ever came very close to investigate the boat were Greater Shearwaters and Storm-Petrels.

Greater Shearwater

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Cory's Shearwater (upper), Greater Shearwater (lower)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

Distant Pomarine Jaeger (Stercorarius pomarinus)

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

The tuna stopped biting at dawn so the fishermen switched rigs and fished for Tilefish for another hour or so. At that point we pulled up anchor and began to head north. The captain stopped twice to fish for Mahi-Mahi. At one of these stops a line of 5-6 terns flew by. The bird closest to me appeared smaller and more delicate than the Common Terns behind it. What stood out immediately was that it had very light primaries, lighter secondaries and showed only a darker tone in the carpal area, but not a black carpal bar and primaries like the common terns behind it. It had dark on the back of the head and white forehead which ruled out Forster's as they would have the dark eye "bullet." I don't think of Forster's as a pelagic species, but I wanted to rule out any other possibilities. It's wingbeats were deep, unlike Roseate Terns. The wings also bent back considerably from the wrist to the primaries. More so than the Common's near it and definitely more than what a Roseate would. It's head did not project as far from the leading edge of it's wings as the nearby Commons as well.

I believe the bird was a juvenile or first year Arctic Tern. As we continued north shearwaters continued to move across the bow in a NW to SE direction. Viewing conditions were difficult at times. Most of the small shearwaters stayed low to the water and would disappear behind swells. One thing I found interesting is that I did not see a single shearwater, jaeger, or petrel within 35-40 miles of shore.

Somewhere in the 50 mile range (while motoring home) I spotted a small pod of dolphin off the starboard side. I quickly tried to get glass on them to see if I could ID them. I never had a chance. What I saw flying above them was far more interesting. A large dark backed tern was loosely associating with the dolphin. The bird was uniform slate gray on the back and clean white underneath. It never fanned it's tail and my only glimpse of the head appeared light, but it was a quick look so I can't say with confidence what it was.

The bird was noticeably larger than a Black Tern and I was noticeably upset we couldn't stop. I guess the one's that get away are the same one's that keep you coming back. A short while later two young Pomerine Jaeger flew past the boat. At about 1pm I stopped seeing any pelagic species. The boat arrived at the dock about 5pm.

So the pro's and con's of a fishing boat are pretty obvious. The captain (although very interested in what I was seeing) was all about fishing. No stopping for birds. This particular trip spent most of it's time at night in the canyon. Although I was assured I was within NY waters I was not told exactly where we were going other than the Hudson Canyon. I never knew fishermen were so proprietary. There was a sign on the boat that said no GPS units (for those birders who are fond of them) and they would be destroyed if found.

All told I only had 2-3 hours of daylight birding in the canyon and another 2-3 once we started back before it fizzled out. I'm sure I missed plenty of birds because I could only cover either the back or front of the boat at one time. Sunrise at sea is pretty spectacular though.

I had one more non-birding experience which may have been the greatest part of the trip (only because I doubt I'll ever see this again). While coming back I spotted what I though was an Ocean Sunfish ahead of the boat. I jumped up to the bow to take pictures and was stopped dead in my tracks when I saw a tail fin pop up (some distance!) behind the dorsal fin. The captain saw it too and slowed the engines. The shark leisurely passed no more than 25-30 feet in front of the bow. Conservatively speaking this shark was 16ft long and 5ft wide in front of the dorsal. The fisherman went into debate about if it was a Mako or a Great White. I can't say, but about ten minutes later the shark reappeared and scared the daylights out of me and two other fishermen. It swam in unseen from the bow/starboard side of the boat and just before it hit the boat the shark spun around with incredible speed and the top part of the tail flapped out of the water, sending water everywhere. A bit more edgy than Shamu at sea world.


(Photo credit - Sean Sime)

All told it was a fantastic trip and one I won't soon forget.

Greater Shearwater (75+)
Cory's Shearwater (6)
Audubon's Shearwater (2)
Manx Shearwater (1)
Unidentified large shearwater (50+)
Unidentified small shearwater (7)
Pomerine Jaeger (3)
Wilson's Storm Petrel (16)
Probable Arctic Tern
Large dark backed tern

Small unidentified shearwater

(Photo credit - Sean Sime)


Yojimbot said...

sounds like a great trip! btw the peregrine is a juvenile.

TomBrooklyn said...

I never heard of a healthy bird that would let you pick it up and hold it. What's up with that?

PS: I live in Sunset Park just south of Greenwood Cemetary.

PPS: What's the deal on biking across the Marine Park Bridge with that shuttle thing? I thought the Marine Park Bridge had a pedestrian/bike path?


Rob Jett said...

Tom - stormpetrels spend the majority of their lives at sea, coming ashore just to breed. They rarely encounter humans, so haven't developed any fear of us. Wildlife in isolated areas, such as the Galapagos Islands, behave similarly.

The Marine Parkway Bridge construction was completed a few years ago. It's the Cross Bay Bridge where the bike/pedestrian path is closed for construction.

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