Sunday, January 15, 2017

Puffins, Dovekies, Razorbills and Murres

A Winter Pelagic out of Brooklyn

Until yesterday I had never managed to go out on a Winter Pelagic birding trip in New York State waters.  That's not to say that I hadn't tried to go out - in fact I'd booked on at least four or five boat trips that had been cancelled due to weather - I'd just never actually managed to get out there.  So the omens were good for January 2017, with Paul and Anita Guris organizing a trip on January 7th out of Brooklyn ... which was to course cancelled due to weather (!).  Luckily this time though, the boat captain gave us an alternate date, and despite the threat of another snow storm, at 3am on Friday morning I was driving to Sheepshead Bay Brooklyn in search of a boat and a whole bunch of similarly judgement-challenged birders planning to spend a brisk January day out on the Atlantic Ocean.

The plan quite simply was to motor out fifty miles into deeper water, hopefully arriving in an area frequented by working scallop dredges and other fishing boats by first light.  Then we'd lay a chum slick and 'tow' a bunch of gulls around with us while we looked for other species.  The trail of gulls would make us look like a fishing boat discarding by-catch and hopefully attract other, rarer species to join the gulls.  Well that was the plan anyway ....

Black-legged Kittiwake (2 shots)

By 7:30am, the sun was up, and even though it was cold, gray, and cloudy, there were birds to be seen around the boat.  We did establish a chum slick (diced Menhaden and Beef Suet) and had a bunch of gulls behind the boat all day.  Most were Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls but we did have a single Lesser Black-backed Gull and a lot of Black-legged Kittiwakes stay with us for part of the day.  The gull flock was also supposed to attract Northern Gannets and NORTHERN FULMAR, and both species did show up in very small numbers, but neither species stayed long  The Fulmar was a State Bird for me (#392) and one of my main reasons for coming out on the trip, so I was very happy to see a couple of them even if they didn't put on the kind of show we were hoping for.  The gulls were also supposed to attract Great Skuas, an almost legendary bird in the Western North Atlantic.  Almost every birder on the boat wanted this species, and all but a tiny handful need it for their New York, ABA, or even Life List.  I definitely need it for New York and would love to have seen one, but despite hours or scanning, today was not our day.

While the Skua did not cooperate, the Alcids most definitely did.  As the sun came up we were treated to many fly-by Razorbills and quite a lot of fly-by Dovekies.  Dovekie, a starling sized puffin relative, are really very hard to see from shore.  Experienced sea-watchers in New York might get a couple of distant ones zip by in their scopes in the average year, but for many of the riders on the boat this was a highly desired state/ABA/Life bird.  And we saw lots and lots of them ... I'm guessing perhaps 75 Dovekies, with the captain making an effort to get the boat close to several individuals on the water for photographs.

Nice as Dovekies are, they weren't my target bird.  I'm one of the lucky ones who gets to see Dovekies most years while sea-watching at Montauk, but the same could not be said for ATLANTIC PUFFINS which never come close to shore.  I've waited a long time to see a puffin in New York (a species I've seen only in Maine, Canada, Iceland, and in the UK) and as the day wore on with no sightings I was starting to get stressed that this might not be the day I got them after all.  Then around lunch time, the boat slowed and voices were discussing a bird visible from the bow.  When I heard the words "dusky face" I knew what the bird was and, after a tense few minutes trying to get on the bird, Atlantic Puffin joined my New York State list (#291).

Dovekie (above) and Atlantic Puffin (below)

While birds were the main goal, and it being Winter we weren't expecting much else in terms of vertebrate life out in the cold sea, we did actually see a few non-bird highlights.  Best for me were a pod of BLUEFIN TUNA mixed with a pod of Short-beaked Common Dolphins.  Others apparently saw a whale spout (I missed it) but I did get good views of a couple of Harbor Porpoises ... a species I'm always happy to see.

By 2:30pm, with only a couple of hours of light ahead, it was time to come back in and once again admit defeat in the search for Great Skuas.  On the way in though we had to pass through the 'Murre-Zone' and would add another bird that would be a lifer or state bird for many on the boat.  Common Murres are remarkably loyal to a band of water 23-25 miles offshore in New York in the Winter.  I've seen them before in this zone, and as soon as we motored into the right area, we started to see Common Murres and saw in the end perhaps ten of them.

Common Murre (3 shots)

Darkness overtook us before we reached land, and as we pulled into the dock in Sheepshead Bay, we arrived to several inches of fresh snow that had fallen while we were out at sea.  Not the most fun drive back to Manhattan, but it was a very fun day at sea.  Two state birds (Atlantic Puffin and Northern Fulmar) and four year birds (Lesser Black-backed Gull and Common Murre) made it worthwhile.  I took the opportunity to book myself on two additional Paulagics (June and August) and I guess I'll keep doing the Winter ones and hoping one day for a Skua.  I will get my New York State list to 400 one day (392 currently) and who knows, maybe Great Skua will be that 400th bird.

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