It was a week ago, at about 8 PM, that fifty-something birders boarded the Starstream VIII in Freeport and headed out over the deep waters of the Atlantic Ocean. I was one of those birders. And that makes me very, very, very, happy.
Why? Well, I guess I should start at the beginning…
I was the fourth to sign up for the trip which means that I was also the fourth to board the boat, which meant that I had my choice of plum spots to sleep. You see, despite being a large, two-decked, boat, we were loaded up with birders. Quite a few birders had to pack onto the top deck, which ended up resembling a horrible perversion of a slumber party. Birders can be difficult enough to spend time with: imagining sleeping cheek-by-jowl with dozens of them is the stuff of nightmares. Instead of being on the top deck I was in the cabin on the lower level where I had claimed the longest bench as my own. (Last time I did an overnight trip I slept, or, rather, didn’t sleep, on a bench that was too short for me.) I figured with a long enough bench I would have no problem.
But before sleep we birders did what birders do when heading out to sea in the dark. We talked about past trips, birds we wanted to see, and birders who were not on board the boat. It was a fun time and I had high hopes for the morning when we would be over the deep waters off the continental shelf laying down a fish oil slick before dawn. There were three birds I really wanted to see. They were:
- Audubon’s Shearwater – This is the last regularly occurring shearwater in New York State that I had yet to ever lay eyes on. The time of year was right and I had high hopes.
- White-faced Storm-Petrel – This is the bird that most of the boat was hoping to see. Rare but regular in the summer, it would be a matter of chance if we would track one down or not. But it was the perfect time of year.
- Red Phalarope – The last phalarope for me to see, this bird was a long shot as it was a bit too early to expect one. I could dream though!
And, of course, there were more outlandish birds for which we hoped. Albatrosses. European Storm-Petrel. The list goes on and on. Birders are nothing if not dreamers.
When finally I settled down to sleep I quickly realized that though the bench I had claimed was plenty long enough it was nowhere near wide enough to sleep in any way that could even approach comfort. I slept fitfully and got maybe two hours of sleep all night. So when people started moving around a bit before five in the morning I figured I might as well get up too.
We lined up on the port side of the boat, facing east and the fish oil slick that was slowly drifting away from us. Occasionally, a storm-petrel would be visible as a disembodied white rump gleaming in the light from the boat. It was clearly too dark to see anything but we were absurdly eager. The number of birds we could see in the dark made us yearn for dawn.
But before the sun came up my dinner did. Which is unfair, absurd, and embarrassing. The water was as flat as we could have hoped for and somehow I couldn’t prevent myself from puking. Oddly, I didn’t even really feel seasick and as soon as I was done adding to our chum slick I was back and looking at birds.
a beautiful dawn sky
And what birds! We had three species of storm-petrel keeping us busy: Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, and Leach’s Storm-Petrel. The latter two species were a pleasure as I had only previously made their acquaintance during Hurricane Irene. Especially helpful was when the different species would fly or feed next to each other. This direct comparison was very helpful in sussing out field marks and getting a good feel for all three species.
storm-petrels feeding next to the boat
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel examining some chum
While we watched the storm-petrels I wandered off to throw up twice more and while I still didn’t have that “Please let the boat sink so I can be out of my misery” feeling I was starting to feel rather weak. You know, because of all the vomiting. Then someone yelled about an Audubon’s Shearwater and I got relatively bad looks at a distant shearwater but enough, I guess, to count it. Happiness! I celebrated shortly thereafter by throwing up again.
I had just finished wiping off my face and I put my camera down to gather myself when the scream of “shearwater” went up again. Hoping for a better look this time I scrambled out of the cabin and made my way to the rail where a very odd shearwater was making its way towards us flying low over the water. Its field marks just weren’t adding up for me at all and then it flared up off the water and there was about five seconds of near total silence before Doug Gochfeld yelled “Fea’s Petrel! Fea’s Petrel! That’s a Fea’s!” And, yeah, it was.
Fea’s Petrel above and below by Sean Sime, used with permission
A momentary pause is in order here. Back in 2012, Anthony Collerton, while doing his big year, had a bird that was almost undoubtedly a Fea’s Petrel. He reported it as such but the New York State Avian Records Committee decided that they couldn’t really rule out that it was a Zino’s Petrel. Fortunately for Anthony, either bird would count on his list but because of that decision that made the bird we were looking at a first state record. That is, assuming that the committee doesn’t do the same thing to this bird that they did to the last one. You’ll notice that the pictures above are by Sean Sime. Yeah, I picked a really, really, really, lousy time to put down my camera.
Despite my lack of pictures I was pretty psyched. Two lifers on one trip! And great looks at two species of storm-petrels that I had only seen poorly in literal hurricane conditions before! This was a heck of a boat ride!
We left our chum slick and started tooling back towards land at a slow pace, following the Hudson Canyon so the water would be deep and relatively warm. We spotted Cory’s Shearwaters and Great Shearwaters and a few more Audubon’s Shearwaters. I also managed to stop vomiting, so that was nice.
Great Shearwater getting off of the water
Then the yell came again: “White-faced Storm-Petrel!” Yes! Yes! Yes!
White-faced Storm-Petrel in New York waters
We got great looks at the bird as it ping-ponged across the surface like a pinball on meth. It was awesome. So freaking awesome!
Then I got tired and lied down and when I woke up two hours, a Bridled Tern, a Minke Whale, and a Loggerhead Sea Turtle had went by. Bummer. But I felt great! Just hungry, which wasn’t surprising considering at that point it was 2 PM and everything that I had eaten had been launched right over the rail. So I ate and I scanned and we didn’t see much else in the four hours we had left other than a Black Tern on the way into Jones Inlet. Regardless, three lifers in New York State in one day is an amazing result and I can’t wait to get back on a boat. Though next time I might look into some seasickness medication…