Last October Daisy, Desi, and I, joined by my parents, had a grand ol’ time whale-watching aboard the American Princess. We made a repeat visit this past Saturday (14 June) minus my parents but in the company of our long-time friend Bonnie and her son Javi, who is a year older than Desi. It was a gorgeous day to be out on the water with the sun shining and a nice cool breeze out of the northwest preventing us from getting too hot. Unfortunately, that very same breeze kept seabirds too far offshore, so the shearwaters and storm-petrels I was hoping to add to my Queens list were sadly lacking and the ocean was largely empty as the picture above shows. Happily, there were gulls and terns about to entertain me (and the kids) while we scanned and scanned and scanned and scanned and scanned and scanned for any sign of our hoped-for marine mammals.

Common Tern

Common Tern

Great Black-backed Gull

Great Black-backed Gull

Then my favorite part of the trip happened. We had been watching the gulls at the back of the boat but that activity had grown boring because all that was around was several Herring Gulls. I had started scanning the open ocean again when suddenly I heard Desi say “”There’s a Laughing Gull! I know it because it has a black head!”

Sure enough, there was a Laughing Gull. Not a rarity by any stretch but the first bird I can recall Desi identifying based on physical field marks, as opposed to the sound that it made. Awesome!

Laughing Gull

The first-ever bird that Desi has identified by its field marks – a Laughing Gull!

Despite my thrill about Desi identifying a gull we were still at sea and still without a whale, a dolphin, or any pelagic species. We tried following the bait fish.

bait fish

We saw plenty of fish but nothing seemed to be eating them, at least that we could see.

We tried following feeding flocks of terns to see if anything else was feeding with them.

Common Terns

We saw plenty of Common Terns like the ones above, and a few Least Terns, but had no luck finding anything else feeding with them.

I did consider myself lucky to spot a very distant Northern Gannet, though the picture I got of it isn’t even worth sharing. (Instead, check these out from a different boat ride.)

Though we had left Riis Landing at shortly after 1 PM and weren’t due back until 5 PM we were still without a single sighting of a whale, a dolphin, or much of anything by 4 PM. Spirits were low and even the gulls and terns weren’t keeping the kids entertained. It looked like it was going to be a glum ride back to the dock. Then, out of nowhere, a shout, “Dolphins dead ahead!”

Pandemonium erupted. Everyone rushed to the front of the boat and, sure enough, dolphins! Bottlenose Dolphins!

Bottlenose Dolphins

a couple of the Bottlenose Dolphins cutting through the water (above) and another in front of a cruise ship (below)

Bottlenose Dolphin with cruise ship

It was difficult to make sure that Javi and Desi could get a good view, what with the crowds of people holding their iPhones up to take pictures, but by paying attention to which way the dolphins were going we often managed to stay ahead of the crowds as they shifted from one side of the boat to the other. Both boys were impressed and gave the dolphins a variety of names, from Ben to Shadow, and were sad when we eventually had to leave them behind and head back to the dock. There was at least one woman who had tears in her eyes from the sighting and a second who had a momentary panic when she realized that she had been paying so much attention to getting pictures of the dolphins that she had lost track of the two small girls she was supposed to be watching. (They were quickly found on the other side of the boat.) I was pleased to discover that I had managed to get this shot.

Bottlenose Dolphin

Bottlenose Dolphin  (Click it to make it bigger.)

All-in-all, despite our lack of whales (and my lack of seabirds) I think the trip must be considered a success. After all, we saw dolphins! And these faces certainly look happy.

Daisy Desi Bonnie Javi

Desi, Daisy, Bonnie, and Javi

Written by Corey
Corey is a New Yorker who lived most of his life in upstate New York but has lived in Queens since 2008. He's only been birding since 2005 but has garnered a respectable life list by birding whenever he wasn't working as a union representative or spending time with his family. He lives in Forest Hills with Daisy and Desmond Shearwater. His bird photographs have appeared on the Today Show, in Birding, Living Bird Magazine, Bird Watcher's Digest, and many other fine publications. He is also the author of the American Birding Association Field Guide to the Birds of New York.