Sunday, September 18, 2011

Cape May pelagic trip

[Click on image(s) to see larger version(s).]

Yes, it's been a week, but I am finally getting around to summarizing the pelagic trip that a large number of the Cape May regulars enjoyed on Sunday, 11 September. Thanks to the crew of the Atlantic Star for their efforts in enabling us to find interesting birds and in greatly enjoying the non-avian show the sea provided us. Also, tremendous thanks are owed Tom Reed for doing the vast majority of the organizing of the event after it became clear to me that my various and sundry writing commitments would not allow me the time to do so.

We departed around midnight from Wildwood Crest, passing right by channel marker #475 enabling us to briefly ogle the adult female Brown Booby that has squatting rights there. On most any other pelagic trip off New Jersey, Brown Booby would probably have been the highlight of the trip and we hadn't yet gotten out of the back bays!

First light saw us on Wilmington Canyon, with a spreading slick of oil and fish bits awaiting the first birds of the morning. As per usual out there at the appropriate season, Wilson's Storm-Petrel was first and as the light got stronger, the many photographers on the boat began taking aim. Such close good views enabled all to even note the yellow webbing on the feet of the storm-petrels!

Great Shearwaters came into the slick, too, providing numerous excellent photo ops immediately behind the boat. A smattering of Cory's Shearwaters made appearances, but none came in close.

We finally left the slick behind, and struck out for a temperature break (abrupt change in temperature of different water masses; in this case from 73 degrees to 76 degrees), a feature to which White-faced Storm-Petrel is attracted. Though we worked this break for quite a while both in the morning and the afternoon, we went unrewarded with what may be the Holy Grail of storm-petrels. However, once we got into the warmer water, we were rewarded with a flock of six Bridled Terns, most of which were young-of-the-year (as below). We would end the day with 10 Bridleds.

And, now, for a quick aside about landbirds. With the overnight winds being light and from the east, we did not expect much in the way of landbirds, and were not disabused of that expectation. However, the photographers certainly appreciated the few warblers noted, as they provided much better photo ops than one typically gets at the Higbees dike, being longer in duration and more predictable in flight path. Not predictable, just more predictable. I think that the landbird flight was comprised solely of one Northern Waterthrush, one Yellow Warbler, one Common Yellowthroat (an imm. male), and two Yellow-breasted Chats (one female, one male). The latter two species were particularly appreciated, as neither species takes part in morning flight, so photo ops for the two in flight are fairly scarce.

Our first marine-mammal experience of the day would be the most interesting and most fun! Off in the distance, we noted a large pod (>350 animals) of Short-beaked Common Dolphins, so motored our way toward them. And, so typical of the species, once the dolphins noticed the boat, they motored, er... finned their way toward it. Our captain (Chris Kanya) kept the boat at speed so that the dolphins would be able to bow ride, but also turned large circles enabling the dolphins to ride the wake, providing entertainment not only for the land-lubber mammals present, but also for the dolphins. Watching them cavort on the bow and in the wake, it is impossible to not believe that they were having fun. Particularly, as they left a large fish boil on which they'd been feeding in order to do so.

In the deep water (>1300 feet) we ran across a couple pods of pilot whales (either Short-finned or Long-finned), many of which were lounging about the surface. While ogling them, three Minke Whales were seen fairly well as they travelled by.

A will-o'-the-wisp large fin went through a tortuous ID process going through shark and ray before finally settling firmly on Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola), a very odd species that typically spends its time at the surface, feeds on jellyfish, and is the largest species of bony fish in the world (adults regularly exceed 2200 lbs).

A bit before noon, we started the long run in to shore (advertised return time of 6 pm), leaving the deep water and zig-zagging across Wilmington Canyon in hopes of finding more of interest. We were not disappointed, and the highlight was the dark juvenile Long-tailed Jaeger that put on a good show, but did not allow close approach. We still do not know what was projecting from its mouth.

On the run in, we began seeing Loggerhead Turtles, with our final tally being something around 24 of 'em! One of them did not perform to spec, that is lift its head, note the boat, and disappear under water never to be seen again. In fact, in all my time at sea, I have never had as good a look at a sea turtle as provided by this individual, which we were able to watch as it swam around just beneath the surface right next to the boat. This first picture provides what is a fairly typical view of the species...

... while this "friendly" individual was so close to the boat that I could not keep the whole critter in the field of view, and this picture represents the entire field of view at the time!

All in all, a lovely day, with nicely calm seas, a good smattering of birds, and an incredible show put on by fish, reptiles, and mammals.

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