BBC Extreme Pelagic

White-faced Storm Petrel Extravaganza

Brookline Bird Club Extreme Pelagic to Hyrdographer’s Canyon - August 29-30th/2010

Flying into Logan Airport I napped dreaming of White-faced Storm-Petrels dancing across the deep blue sea. After the usual airport hassles I headed towards Cape Cod managing to get out of Boston between rush hours. I made a stop in the Sandy Neck area to look for Salt-Marsh Sparrow and was rewarded with several decent looks at both adult and juvenile birds. This very localized species had eluded me on a couple of previous attempts. After a nice dinner I bedded down in a hotel in Hyannis to get a few hours sleep.

Brookline Bird Club runs several great pelagic trips every year including a late summer trip to Hydrograher’s Canyon which is undoubtedly your best chance for seeing White-faced Storm-Petrel in North American waters. In 2007 they documented the first ever Macronesian Shearwater - Puffinus baroli in North American waters. This is the northern expected limit of many Gulf Stream specialties such as Band-rumped Petrel and Audubon’s Shearwater. I had tried to talk several birding associates into going on the trip with me but there was a surprising lack of enthusiasm. I suspect that won’t be the case in 2011.

At 0400 I got up and headed down to the dock in Hyannis. The “Helen H” generously described as “comfortable” on the BBC website was loaded up with birders a few from around the content and many from the Boston area. By 0500 we were off to sea. Now this is a two day trip and the bottom deck is rigged up with a bunch of metal births in numerous rows. I quickly picked a birth based on the edge of the boat under a big light. I lay down for a nap and fell asleep. A couple hours later I awoke with a start and sensed something happening above.. I tore upstairs to see everyone focusing on a
Skua in the water beside the boat.

Great Skua - Nantucket Shoals, Mass.USA
Great Skua - Nantucket Shoals

I quickly realized it was not a relatively routine South Polar Skua but a magnificent example of a Great Skua always a great find any where in North American waters. Excellent looks were had by all. We continued to steam out to open ocean and soon started running into some other pelagic birds including Great Shearwater and a pair of juvenile Jaegers one a Long-tailed and the other a Parasitic. Nice comparative views were had as they flew over the boat side by side.

Great Shearwater,Natucket Shoals,Mass.,USA-1

Great Shearwater, Nantucket Shoals,Mass.,USA
Great Shearwater, Nantucket Shoals

As we approached Hydrographer’s Canyon we started encounter numbers of
Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. These austral winter visitors seemed to be enjoying the wonderful late summer weather stocking up before their long journey back to the Southern Ocean. Wilson’s Storm-Petrels seem to have a particular fondness for popcorn and beef fat. Watching their antics is great pastime during the duller parts of a Northern Atlantic pelagic. Despite their abundance in the north east Atlantic they are a bit tricky to photograph especially capturing dark eye on the dark face. I have hundreds of bad Wilson’s Storm Petrel pictures.

Wilson's Storm-Petrel, Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USA-aa
Wilson's Storm-Petrel,Hydroghrapher's Canyon,Mass.,USA-i

Wilson’s Storm Petrels -enjoying popcorn

Hydrographer’s Canyon was now underneath us and it wasn’t more than a few minutes before the call came - and panic ensued!!!! And there off the port side pogo-sticking towards the ship was my first White-faced Storm-Petrel. Well it was by no means certain to see this bird and I was well aware that a trip out of North Carolina had failed to see a single bird in three days at sea the weekend before. I revelled in watching this amazing creature and we followed it for about 15 minutes before it bounced off across the waves and out of sight. Celebration ensued as several very experienced ABA birder’s were on board hoping for a sighting of this elusive prize.

White-faced Storm-Petrel,Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USA-d

White-faced Storm-Petrel #1 , bouncing beside the ship, Hydrographer’s Canyon

Over the next several hours we were treated to at least four more
White-faced Storm-Petrels. Fantastic looks were had and good photographic opportunities abounded. Although a primarily a bird of the southern oceans, small breeding populations exists in Macronesia with north Atlantic colonies on the Cape Verde Islands, Canary Islands and the Savage Islands. The birds found in North American waters are felt to be mostly juveniles presumably from these colonies. Although unique in there bouncing flight seemingly hopping from wave to wave like a pelagic kangaroo mouse they do share several similarities to Wilson’s Storm -Petrel. First they both have yellow webbing in between otherwise black feet - a most singular trait to this pair of species.

White-faced Storm-petrel2-Hydrographer's Canyon, Mass

White-faced Storm-Petrel showing yellow webbing of feet

AWilson Storm-Petrel- Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras-NC, USA

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel showing yellow webbing of feet

The other characteristic shared by these two species and unique in Storm-Petrels seen north of the equator is that their feet dangle back well beyond their tail. These birds which share a fairly similar style of feeding must benefit from their long legs and yellow feet although it isn’t readily apparent to me how. The other north Atlantic Storm-Petrels have a very different flight and feeding style with longer narrower wings and much more rapid flight with little of the fluttering seen in the Wilson’s & White-faced Storm Petrels. These species are a far greater challenge to photograph at sea.

White-faced Storm-Petrel,Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USA.-a

White-faced Storm-Petrel showing feet dangling well beyond tail

AWilson Storm-Petrel- Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras-NC, USA-ab

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel showing feet dangling well beyond tail and broad wings

White-faced Storm-Petrel,Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USA

White-faced Storm-Petrel showing feet dangling well beyond tail and very broad wings

Over the afternoon we were treated to views of both Leach’s Storm-Petrel and another Hydrographer’s Canyon specialty (at least for New England waters)- Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. The leaders which included Marshall Illif and Jeremiah Trimble had shared with us the emerging information on the Band-rumped species complex which may contains four cryptic species tentatively designated as Grant’s, Monteiro’s, Madeiran and Cape-Verde Storm-Petrels. This complex group molt and breed at differing times on various islands in the Azores and Macronesia. It is thought that many of the western Atlantic Band-rumped Petrels are presumably Grant’s but the situation is very complex. Excellent accounts of the current state of affairs in this group can be studied in Robb and Mullarney’s excellent book “Petrel, night and day: A Sound Approach guide”. Steve Howell et al’s recent publication in American Bird’s is really the state of the art in identification of this group at sea -“Occurrence and identification of the Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (Oceanodroma castro) complex off North Carolina”.

Leach's Storm-Petrel,Hydrographer's Canyon, Mass.USA.Leach's Storm-Petrel,Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USA

Leach’s Storm- Petrel showing forked-tail, vague brownish rump stripe, long wings and white carpal bar extending to leading edge of wing

aaLeach's Storm-Petrel-Gulf Stream off Cape Hatteras-NC,USA

Leach’s Storm-Petrel showing forked-tail and very limited white extending around from rump to under-tail coverts

Band-rumped(Grants?) Storm-Petrel,Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USAbbcbrspma0681

Band-rumped Storm Petrel showing unforked tail, longish wings and vague carpal bar not reaching leading edge of wing as well as white rump wrapping around to flank & under tail coverts more so than Leach’s, a bit less so than Wilson’s

Wilson's Storm-Petrel,Hydroghrapher's Canyon,Mass.USA-a
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel showing short broad wings and extensive white flanks and off course-feet protruding beyond tail

For any birder’s keenly interested in Storm-Petrel identification British seabirding guru Bob Flood and Ashley Fisher will soon be publishing a Multimedia Guide to North Atlantic Seabirds with the first part of the series(Storm-Petrels & Bulwer’s Petrels) set for publication imminently. This is a highly anticipated work and the inclusion of undoubtedly excellent video footage of the storm-petrels in of itself will make this an excellent and unique resource.

I was busy scanning through a small flock of Storm-Petrels when I came across a clearly orange bird fluttering around in the middle of the flock. After a double take it finally dawned on me that no this wasn’t an Orange Storm-Petrel but an immature clearly very lost
Baltimore Oriole about 100 miles further off shore than it wanted to be. It quickly landed on the boat and subsequently various birder’s heads. It was captured and one of the local birders released it in a nice wooded area after our return to shore. The other non seabirds seen at sea that day were a Red-headed Woodpecker a most unusual pelagic species and a sizeable flock of Hudsonian Godwits.

First fall male Baltimore Oriole-Hydrographer’s Canyon

After considerable storm-petrel study we encountered a single
Puffinus shearwater on the water. It was a good size with a quite dark face and dark blackish-brown plumage. As it flew the white under tail coverts were noted to be entirely white confirming the initial impression that this was a Manx Shearwater.

Manx Shearwater,Hydrographer's Canyon,Mass.,USA
Manx Shearwater-Hydrographer’s Canyon- with diagnostic white under tail coverts

It couldn’t have been more than a couple minutes later that another Puffinus shearwater was observed ahead on the water. This bird looked smaller had a whiter facial area with a white eye ring and on flying clearly had dark under tail coverts clinching the identification as an Audubon’s Shearwater.


Audubon’s Shearwater winging its way away from the boat and showing diagnostic dark under tail - Hydrographer’s Canyon

The Audubon’s Shearwater was the fourth species of shearwater for the day (others-Great,Cory’s,Manx) and along with the 4 species of storm-petrel, the Great Skua, several jaegers and a large number of Fin Whales everyone was feeling quite satisfied. After a decent burger from the grill I headed for the “hole”. It had been a warm day so the sleeping quarters down below were very hot and stuffy. My choice of bunks was not good as I never considered that they would leave the 1000 watt light at the head of my bed on all night. Apparently a “safety precaution”. It was a restless, hot and uncomfortable night but it was definitely a small price to pay considering.

I was very happy to have shower in the morning and looked forward to another great day of pelagic birding. We had spent the night at Welker Canyon and in the morning began to work the shelf edge back to Hydrographer’s Canyon. It wasn’t long before we started to encounter more White-faced storm-Petrels. It seemed like we were rarely out of sight of this species and we encountered at least 17 White-faced Storm-Petrels over the day making an incredible 22 birds over the two days, smashing any previous North American totals and probably about equal to the total for east coast sightings for the last decade.

Two of the 22 White-faced Storm-Petrels seen on the BBC Extreme Pelagic

Interestingly it would appear that most of the White-faced storm-Petrels observed in North America are juveniles based on there fresh plumage in late summer. On the second day we observed what was likely a molting adult White-faced storm-Petrel. It was suggested at the time that this might be the first documented record of an adult White-faced Storm-Petrel in North American waters. I have been unable to confirm or refute this possibility.


Molting adult White-faced storm-Petrel- Hydroghrapher’s Canyon,Mass.,USA

Fin Whales
were seen in big numbers this along with a school of rare Spotted Dolphins and some large Atlantic Manta Rays with Remora Fish guardians were interesting sightings. To soon it was time to head back to shore and we bid goodbyes to the last White-faced Storm-Petrel and headed west.


White-faced Storm-Petrel #22 heading off into the sunset

The trip back to shore produced a few interesting surprises. Another
Skua sp. dropped by briefly and we came across a few Cory’s Shearwater’s as well as small flocks of both Red and Red-necked Phalaropes. A couple of Lesser Black-backed Gulls flew past and the numbers of gulls and terns increased dramatically as we approached Nantucket and subsequently Hyannis.



Common Terns greet us as we approach Hyannis

We arrived back at Hyannis at 1830 on Sunday night. I appreciated that this was probably going to be remembered as one great pelagic trip with completely unprecedented numbers of White-faced Storm-Petrels
undoubtedly one of the most desired of all North American pelagic species. I have a suspicion that the
Brookline Bird Club will have little difficulty filling the “Helen H” for their appropriately named “Extreme Pelagic” for August,2011.

Kirk Zufelt
World Pelagic Birding Headquaters
Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario