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IFO Report: Tubenoses of North Carolina

by Alvaro Jaramillo  

Tubenoses… sounds like a 80s New Wave band? Or we could fancy it up and call them the Tubinares, now they sound upscale, perhaps  European? Well, they can be European, they can also be from the south, the very far south. I am talking Antarctica and the southern oceans! These guys are the seabirds with tubes for their noses, not gulls, terns, gannets, penguins, cormorants, puffins or any other of the myriad of seabirds, but the “top shelf” seabirds, the group that includes the petrels, albatrosses, storm-petrels, fulmars, and shearwaters.

What is so special about the tubes you might ask, well it is unique in birds, and gives them a certain look when up close. The tubes may be there to partially have better aim at finding food, as many of the species use smell as a way to find it, but it also may be to forcefully eject salt water as they get that all important salt balance right. These two characteristics get at the fact that these are ocean going birds, and for all of them the ocean is their life, land is only a place to keep your eggs dry. They only come to land to nest, and at no other time; they eat, sleep, preen,
rest, migrate, and any other activity you can think of, on water. Some of the bigger species have several years of immaturity before they are ready to come to breed, and for these many years they roam the oceans learning to know the sea, to be a seabird.

Black-capped Petrel

There are seabirds, and then there are seabirders. To say that seabirders have a romance with the tubenoses is an understatement; it is a great passion, and sometimes borderline obsession that develops. You see, when you see a petrel arcing high up over the waves, in a stiff wind, as if nothing mattered, as if nothing can stop it, you realize that as a human you are so limited. That while freedom and ability to do something amazing is within our reach, nothing we can do can ever be as effortless, poetic and poignant as watching a shearwater, petrel, or albatross out on the open ocean. Tubenoses are not chock full of color like a tanager, but they have nice lines, and they handle their environment with grace, style and mastery. I will stop there though and clarify, that yup I am one of these people who loves seabirds. So it was with great happiness that
last year my friend George Armistead upon his hiring as events coordinator at the ABA mentioned some magic words to me: Hatteras, tubenoses, teach, next year! Whoa, what? The ABA was bringing back the Institute for Field Ornithology (IFO), workshops and this was going to be the first. Three pelagic trips and land birding near Cape Hatteras, to explore and learn about the tubenoses of the North Atlantic. Was I in? George had me at pelagic….

So there we were, plan in place, with Nate Swick to offer backup and before you knew it the IFO was full! The North Atlantic Tubenoses IFO happened in early June and it was a heck of a good time. In Norfolk, VA the early arrivals met up for drinks the eve of the tour, we met new faces, re-acquainted with friends, and planned the next day’s activities and exchanged birding stories of course. The questions came up, on what seabirds had been seen recently, what was the weather looking like, the latter question of particular significance as a tropical storm had gone over just the previous day. Not a huge storm, but enough to drive a few Magnficent Frigatebirds, and Brown Boobies to shore. Folks also asked me how many times I had been out here on these boats, and some were a tad surprised when I said none!


Great Shearwater

Yep, I was a Hatteras virgin. Although I have spent tons of time leading my own pelagics in California, Chile and have traveled in the southern Atlantic, I had never made it to Hatteras and how sweet it was. Apart from the fact that I would be as excited and eager to see even the commonest birds on this trip, like others who had never been out there, there was a longer term reason for my involvement here. Next year George and I are doing it all again, but in my home turf of California, so keep looking out for those announcements and hop aboard quick as this year’s was maxed out quickly.

One thing I had not realized was that Hatteras is not close to any place. You really have to want to get there, and make an effort. For the birder this is not an issue, as the birding along the way is super. We stopped at various spots, including Bodie Island, Oregon Inlet, and Pea Island. The birding was good, great looks at various terns, shorebirds, and surprisingly out of season Common Eider and American Pipit! Ironically the pipit may have been the rarest bird of the trip, as they should not be anywhere near here during this time of year. There were
Lesser Black-backed Gulls, some messy looking ones, along with very nice Least Terns, Black Skimmers and American Oystercatchers, all birds I see as emblematic for the Atlantic/Gulf coasts. For the westerners extra exciting were the American Black Ducks, White Ibis and common species such as Northern Cardinal, Blue Grosbeak and Eastern Towhee to name a few. But this was icing, as we had come for tubenoses, not just regular noses!

Wilson’s Storm-Petrels

Our first encounter with tubenoses was not in the field, but indoors! Part of what makes an IFO different than a birding tour, is that there are classroom sessions to give background, context and preparatory information to help understand and identify what we see in the field. This makes for a richer, and well-rounded birding experience and you do come out knowing a lot more than when you came in. This is particularly useful on pelagic trips, as often you do not have much time to get on the birds, and you can’t chase them down or call them in as you might on land. In addition sometimes there is trepidation about pelagics, particularly for beginner or intermediate birders, so it was helpful for some
to have this additional information to add a certain comfort level to these ocean going outings. Also to our favor of getting ample experience with these seabirds was that we had booked a total of three pelagic trips with Brian Patteson on the Stormy Petrel II out of Hatteras. This was a lot of time at sea, and part of the key to success out there is time!

To sum it up we had some great birding offshore. The first trip was a great one with a wide variety of sightings, a nice species list and pretty nice weather. The second day was flatter and dead calm, almost windless but not as good for birds save for some better views of some species observed on day one, but additionally some sightings of marine mammals and Loggerhead Sea Turtle! The final trip was at first an iffy one, weather was windy and nasty the day previous and it was unclear if it was going to be messy out there. Brian looked at his weather resources and decided that very same morning that it was a go!

We lucked out as the weather was really favorable and we saw some superb birds out there, this was the best day yet. It wasn’t luck really; this was Brian’s ample experience out there which we were lucky to have on our side.


Loggerhead Sea Turtle

Having had a lot of experience in the Pacific, including Easter Island, I had seen the “real” Herald Petrel out there many times. But I had never seen the Atlantic version which often is separated as the “Trindade Petrel.” I told George, if I see that sucker I will write up a proposal to the AOU committees to consider separating the two species based on the recent and historical data we have on these birds. Well on day three a quick fly by of a dark morph Trindade Petrel had me partly wishing I had not said anything, but elated on the other hand as it was a lifer for me! So I stuck to my promise, and now this proposal is going through the South American committee and will be sent to the North American
committee soon, so we can resolve this taxonomic issue.

Staying with the taxonomic issue I had a sort of double lifer involving one species! Serious, I did. Having never been to this part of the ocean the Black-capped Petrel was a new one for me, and we saw this local specialty on all three of our trips. Some years ago Brian Patteson and Steve Howell noted that this species comes in a paler white-necked version, and a darker necked/faced version. They also saw that the wing molt, which is timed according to the breeding season, occurred at a slightly different time in these two types suggesting that they bred at slightly different times. Hmmm, all very peculiar, and suggestive that there is more to learn about Black-capped Petrels. Well just recently a new paper was published looking at the genetics of Black-capped Petrels and they confirm that the two types differ genetically by an appreciable margin, and the suggestion is that there may in fact be two species in the Black-capped Petrel. If so, one of these may be unnamed, so a new species to science! Great for us was that on our second and third day we saw the darker version of the Black-capped Petrel, so if there are two species, we saw both!! So that is how you get a sort of double lifer.


Bridled Tern

They were memorable trips, with awesome birds, and a great crew of birders, and real crew with Brian and Kate Sutherland as first mate, chum-master! Over the three trips we had amazing views of some nice seabirds, including a Great Shearwater that we could have hand fed, Bridled Terns that went by so close you could practically smell them. A surfing Bridled Tern that we all though looked hysterical hanging ten (or actually hanging 8) on its longboard. There were Audubon’s Shearwaters, a distant Manx Shearwater, Pomarine Jaeger, Cory’s Shearwaters, as well as the above mentioned petrels. The other set of regional specialties are the storm-petrels, and we saw more than our fair share of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels behind the boat. Some were amazingly close and came in to the joy of the photographers on board. The Band-rumped Storm-Petrel was rarer but observed on each of the trips, and some were pretty nice views. By the molt pattern and overall look, we decided we saw the possible split, “Grant’s Storm-Petrel.” There is a complicated and unresolved situation of potentially several different species involved in what we currently call the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel.

“Grant’s” Band-rumped Storm-Petrel

The birds are what we came for, but we were thrilled by the flying fish, the Long-finned Pilot Whales, offshore Bottlenose Dolphin, Atlantic Spotted Dolphin and some distance beaked whales which we never were able to see well unfortunately. Birds, whales, turtles, fish, fried fish…it was quite the trip! We made new friends, re-acquainted with old ones and just had a fun time while learning and enjoying one of nature’s wonders, the Gulf Stream!

 The California version of this IFO will happen next year in August, and it promises to be birdy and educational. We will have the classroom sessions as well as three pelagics, perhaps two from Half Moon Bay and one from Monterey Bay. This year the IFO filled fast, so keep that in mind when the official announcement is made. 


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