Pelagic birding is one of my favorite ways to bird. Being out on the open water looking for good birds and enjoying the camaraderie of fellow birders is, to put it simply, fun. And when the pelagic is a full twelve-hour trip that is going fifty miles offshore, the weather cooperates with alternating clouds and sunshine, and the waves aren’t big enough to cause anyone to get seasick, well, you can’t get much better than that.
Except, of course, for seeing lots of good birds. Sadly, lots of good birds were lacking on our 2 March 2013 trip out of Freeport, New York. Oh, it wasn’t for lack of trying. We chummed from when we hit the open water to when we returned to the safe haven of Jones Inlet but never attracted the good gulls for which we were hoping. Sure, we got a couple of young Iceland Gulls that didn’t stay with the boat for long and, yes, a couple of nice Lesser Black-backed Gulls were cool, but no Black-legged Kittiwakes, no Glaucous Gulls, and nothing else other than Great Black-backed Gulls, Herring Gulls, and a few Bonaparte’s Gulls. More than one pelagic participant pointed out that we could have had that kind of gull haul by visiting a few parking lots and getting a little lucky.
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus and American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus
We scanned and scanned and scanned the sea with the hopes of spotting a variety of alcids but every bird turned out to be a Common Murre or, occasionally, a Razorbill. Don’t get me wrong, those birds are cool birds, but when you are out in a boat for twelve hours specifically searching for alcids and you only get two of the five species you would expect in New York it is kind of disappointing. No Atlantic Puffins, no Dovekies, no Thick-billed Murres!
Common Murre Uria aalge
Despite the lack of hoped-for species diversity we still had a good time. This was largely thanks to gannets. You can’t help but have a good time when Northern Gannets are in the chum scrum. I mean, how cool is this bird?
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus both above and, with a young Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus, below
The pleasant weather and good company made up a great deal for the sting of not seeing any Northern Fulmars or marine mammals of any kind, and a birder can be entertained by watching and photographing the action caused by tossing chum off the back of the boat for hours. And it’s a good thing too, because for long stretches that was the only thing to do!
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
American Herring Gull Larus smithsonianus
Northern Gannets Morus bassanus
Great Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Iceland Gull Larus glaucoides
Northern Gannet Morus bassanus
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Occasionally, one birder or another would yell something like “Alcid at 3 o’clock” and everyone would go running to the right side of the boat to see either a Common Murre or a Razorbill.
Common Murre Uria aalge taking exception to the large boat trying to sneak up on it
How desperate did we get for good birds? On the way back we convinced the captain to take the boat in close to the West End of Jones Beach in the hopes of seeing the Snowy Owl that has been occasionally sighted in the dunes there. We not only struck out on that but also on the Harlequin Ducks that were not near the jetties at Point Lookout. I made do with other common ducks in the fading light.
Long-tailed Ducks Clangula hyemalis
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
It seems wrong to complain about a full day out on a boat seeing great birds, hanging out with cool birders, and generally enjoying myself. But when you spend $185 and invest twelve hours you really hope for something spectacular, like a surprise albatross or at least a skua. Maybe I’m greedy, maybe I’m jaded, maybe I’m ungrateful. But not even a lousy kittiwake? Come on!