This past Saturday I joined 40 other birders on a 12 hour pelagic birding trip off the coast of Cape May County, NJ. This trip was organized by See Life Paulagics and was conducted on the 110 foot Atlantic Star. Weather throughout the day was great, with winds around 10 to 15 knots and swells around 2 to 3 feet for most of the day. During the morning hours, we were treated to great lighting and few clouds, as the rising sun illuminated the ocean all around us. During the noon hours, we had beautiful blue skies and calm seas. The later half of the day was quite different though with dark, gloomy weather persisting for much of the time making photography difficult.
Since this trip was so productive and because I was able to photograph many species throughout the trip, I have decided to break this up into multiple posts, each focusing on a different group of species that we encountered. For this post, I want to focus on three of the four alcid species we encountered during the day – Razorbill, Common Murre, and Dovekie.
As we left the harbor and began making out way out to sea, the first birds we began seeing as the sun rose over the ocean were sea ducks and loons. Surf and Black Scoters were flying all around occasionally joined by one or two White-winged Scoters. Red-throated Loons flew past in good numbers and ratty-looking Common Loons could be seen floating all around us. As we traveled farther and farther out, slowly the scoters started becoming scarcer and scarcer. Every knew that soon we could start seeing some true seabirds.
I had taken up a spot wedged against the railing, on the front left side of the bow of the ship. I knew that this was a great spot to be on the boat in order for me to be able to see anything we might encounter and also have the freedom to move around as much as I needed to take photos. Then at 7:00am, it finally happened. I was scanning out in front of the ship and two dark birds lifted off the water and flew to our left. These weren’t scoters. Their long, narrow black wings and long, plump body shape combined with the large blunt bill could only mean one thing – Razorbills! During the next forty-five minutes, we continued to spot Razorbills flying around us as the ship traveled farther and farther from shore. We ended up being able to spot 40 Razorbills, and almost all were seen only in flight.
At 7:20am, one of the guides standing near me on the front of the ship yelled ‘Alcid on the water, alcid on the water….two o’clock!’. At this point, the currently unidentified alcid was still a ways out, but the captain turned the boat and we were headed right for it. As we approached closer it was clear this bird wasn’t a Razorbill, but it was too large to be a Dovekie or Atlantic Puffin. Finally, the bird was close enough to see details on through binos and someone nearby yelled ‘Common Murre!’. I couldn’t believe it – the first floating alcid we were able to approach for the day was a Common Murre! We would ultimately see seven Common Murres in total.
After watching the murre for a few minutes, it eventually flew off and the captain started the engines back up as we began to continue our route farther out to sea. Just then, a tight flock of small seabirds came into view on the right side of our ship and crossed in front of us and continued out to our left. The early morning sun was shining on them beautifully and there was no mistaking them as Dovekie – our first really good look at this species at that point of the trip. This trip was, afterall, focused primarily on finding large numbers of Dovekie and tight flock of seven birds really got everyone’s heart racing. Almost everyone on board was packed onto the bow of the boat or on the upper front deck; all scanning for birds. The nonstop sound of camera shutters as well as ooo’s and ahh’s could be heard all around whenever we spotted a group of Dovekie.
The farther offshore we traveled, the more and more Dovekies we encountered. All around us small groups of Dovekies were flying around, while groups ranging in size from two to six individuals floated alongside the boat. If you lifted your binos and scanned any portion of the sea around the boat, you could pick up at least a handful of Dovekie at any given moment. It was incredible. By the end of the day, the official count totaled 700 Dovekie.
Amid the chaos of trying to watch (and take pictures of) every group of Dovekie and Razorbills and the occasional Common Murre flying or floating past the boat, someone yelled something I really didn’t expect to hear – ‘Whale blow, whale blow….ten o’clock!’. Sure enough, off in the distance to our left the spray of a whale blow could clearly be seen against the stunning morning sky. The captain turned the ship and we began to move towards the whale. Within a minute or two, the captain had positioned the boat very close to where we had seen the whale blow and then we waited. We knew the whale hadn’t made a deep dive so it should pop back up at any moment. Without warning the whale broke up above the water, towards the back of the boat and then retreated down out of view – a short and unsatisfying look for most people on board. But then, about a minute later the whale surfaced again, this time right in front of the boat, allowing everyone on board a wonderful, long look at this massive whale. The large size and obvious fin on the whale made for an easy ID – this was no doubt a Fin-backed Whale! Fin-backed Whales are the second longest whale on earth, behind the Blue Whale.
Check back soon for more photos from this pelagic trip!