Sunday, March 16, 2014

Hatteras, North Carolina for Great Skua, December 28

Perspective on Search for Gray Partridge:  While I was writing the post about my search for Gray Partridge near Spokane, WA on December 25-27, I checked in eBird and found that 10 Gray Partridge were reported on Old Kuch’s Road near the western end of that road on December 31, 2013, about four days after my search of that area.  Apparently, Gray Partridge were in the area during my search.  However, I was not skilled enough or lucky enough to find them when I was there.  Unfortunately, this can be typical of searches for new birds during a Big Year, particularly late in the year.

To Hatteras:  Neil Hayward and I had been in communication about the Hatteras special pelagic trip for Great Skua with Brian Patteson.  Neil had obtained a motel room with two beds at the Hatteras Island Inn in Buxton and offered to share that room with me.  However, due to the late arrival of my flight to Raleigh-Duham, I would not have much opportunity to share that room.  However, Neil suggested that I come to the motel and call him upon my arrival.  I could catch a short amount of sleep before leaving for Hatteras to meet the boat.
There had also been a plan to chase a possible Grey Heron in Rhode Island on Sunday after the pelagic trip if the bird showed up again and was confirmed as a Grey Heron.  Neil had made tentative reservations to fly out on Sunday morning.  However, the possible Grey Heron turned into an immature Great Blue Heron.  A gray day had turned into a blue day.  Pun intended.

The drive to Hatteras was uneventful.  I was very awake and excited about the possibility of seeing and adding Great Skua to my list.  I had seen Great Skua once before on a Richard Rowlett pelagic trip out of Ocean City, Maryland on February 2, 1974, while living and working in Delaware after graduate school.   That was a long time ago!  It would be good to see one again.  I had gone on several of Brian Patteson’s January and February pelagic trips since that first sighting to look for this bird again, but had never succeeded.
Approximately half-way to Hatteras Island Inn in Buxton, I stopped in Plymouth, NC, at 2:00 am at a Hess Station Quick-stop to pick up food and drink for the pelagic trip and cup of coffee as insurance against feeling sleepy.  The instructions that we received from Brian Patteson were to be at the dock at 6:15 am.   I would not have a lot of time in the morning to pick up supplies.  In addition, on previous pelagic trips out of Hatteras, particularly early in the morning before the trip, I have not had success finding my preferred pelagic trip food and drink to keep my stomach settled, pretzels and 7Up or Canada Dry.  Consequently, I knew from experience going on Brian’s pelagic trips that I needed to stop on the way to Hatteras somewhere to find supplies for the pelagic trip.  I did not pick up any breakfast supplies at this stop, because I believed that Teach’s Lair would be open just before the trip to pick up coffee and some breakfast supplies. 

With supplies in hand, I continued an uneventful trip to Buxton.  As I crossed the bridge across the Alligator Rive, I noticed the moon in the distance.  It was a clear night and it was beautiful.  At the Virginia Dare Memorial Bridge across Crotian Sound, I stopped to try a photo through my windshield.  However, it is not a good photo, but gives the correct impression of a long lonely drive.  See photo below.
Small one quarter moon just above Virginia Dare Memorial bridge.

I arrived at the Hatteras Island Inn in Buxton outside of Neil’s room and called his cell phone at 4:22 am.  Neil let me in and fell into bed for another hour or so.  First I unpacked my gear needed for tomorrow.  Warm clothes, boots and wet gear and prepared to leave promptly in the morning.   Soon, I was in the bed with the lights out, but not for long.  It seemed like a few minutes but was actually about 45 minutes.  Neil was up grabbing his gear and heading out the door.  I checked the time and opted for about 15 more minutes of rest.  Then I was up and out the door heading for Hatteras and the dock.  I stopped at Teach’s Lair just before the parking lot for the docks to pick up some breakfast, coffee juice and some breakfast bars.  I was a little late.  It was about 6:20 am.  In the parking lot, I put on my boots, and grabbed all my gear and headed toward the docks.  When I got to the docks, I noticed that there was no boat in the usual place where Brian’s Stormy Petrel is docked.  My first thought was, I was late and they left without me.  Then, I realized that I had not asked where the F/V Skua, Brian’s smaller boat was docked.  Everything was dark except for some lights on a boat across from Brian’s usual docking spot.  I walked across to that dock and found a group of people standing at the steps down to the dock.  One of them was Neil Hayward.  I was in luck!  They had not left without me!  Captain (and birder) Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland (multi-skilled--crew, chummer, photographer, spotter and birder) were preparing the boat with lights on for our trip. 
Soon we were on the boat.  I put on my wet pants, and continued with my breakfast of bars, juice and coffee.  I had taken my seasickness medication, Bonine, at Teach’s Lair with my first drinks of coffee and juice and a breakfast bar.  As we headed out through the inlet, I finished my breakfast, most importantly my coffee, and met the others on the boat, seven total, including Nate Swick (outstanding birder and ABA blogger), Lynne Miller (of the ABA), Bruce Richardson (with lots of birding experience in Australia and the US), my Big Year birding buddy Neil Hayward, and of course, Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland.  At first there were not many birds, but as we got further outside the inlet, approaching the Diamond Shoals (according to Brian), Kate started chumming the mixture of fish parts and beef fat.  The gulls started showing up.  The first good bird to show up was an immature Kittiwake at about 9:00 am.  See photo below.
Black-legged Kittiwake, immature

Later, there was also at least one adult Black-legged Kittiwake.  Then, at about 9:20-9:25 am, a nice adult Lesser Black-backed Gull appeared in the wake to fight with the other gulls for chum.  The times are based on the times recorded when my photos were taken.  See photo below.
Lesser Black-backed Gull
darker gray than Herring Gull, yellow legs and feet

A few minutes before 9:45 am, a Manx Shearwater flew into the wake and took several turns past the boat.  I had first seen Manx Shearwaters in November on a Paulagics pelagic trip out of Lewes Delaware.  However, this was a much better and closer look, and I was able to get photos.  See photo below.

Manx Shearwater
dark above, very white below, white under-tail coverts
white triangle behind ear coverts on face
We were out far enough to see the “Tower,” an old oil drilling platform.  We started heading toward the “Tower” and then headed north.  At 10:52 am, according to Brian’s Patteson’s account, someone said “skua” coming into the wake and gulls but not very loud.  It was Nate who first spotted the skua, and soon the yelling “SKUA” was loud.  I never got on the bird, as the skua flew off into the distance as a speck.  Neil saw it as a speck in the distance and didn’t sound real confident that he had seen it well enough to identify it as a Great Skua.  I knew I hadn’t.  If this was the typical sighting of one quick flyby, I had blown it.  However, due to Brian’s diligence in chasing the skua with the very fast and agile F/V Skua and this Great Skua being a cooperative one, the bird hung around for about 20+ minutes.  It was easy to see the reddish brown or cinnamon color of the underparts and the buffy rufous speckling on the upper parts, which looked almost golden in the bright sunshine, on this Great Skua as it flew around us and back and forth chasing gulls.  Everyone got great looks, and many flight photos were taken as well as a few of the Great Skua sitting on the water.   See my photos below.  My Great Skua photos were taken from 11:14 am until 11:26 am. 

Great Skua

Great Skua
large bulky size, stubby tail, heavy bill
large amount of white a primary base
buffy to golden speckling on upper parts
reddish brown to cinnamon color

Great Skua
taking off from water

This was such a fantastic experience that I have included more photos than I usually do.  It was an exciting twenty minutes or more.  This was my best view of a Great Skua, and an absolutely outstanding experience.  The Great Skua was a life bird for Lynne Miller and Bruce Richardson.  Special thanks to Brian and Kate for making it happen.  I was ecstatic.  I’m sure that Neil was also.  We came!  We tried!  We succeeded!  What a last minute success on long Big Years for Neil and me.  I was particularly happy for Neil that Great Skua put him in position to break the record.  See photo below of two very happy Big Year birders.
Jay and Neil
Big Smiles after Adding Great Skua, photo by Neil
The rest of the day produced very good pelagic birding, but quite honestly was somewhat anticlimactic.  We were north of the inlet at Hatteras and continued chumming the whole way back.  We saw many Northern Gannets, quite well and close.  See photo below.
Northern Gannet

We saw at least one Northern Fulmar, light morph, perhaps two, a flock of Razorbills and a Sooty Shearwater, a special treat to see one in the winter.  See photo below.
Sooty Shearwater

Two Loggerhead Turtles were another special treat.  See photo below.
Loggerhead Turtle

We arrived back at the dock early while it was still light.  Below is a photo of the happy birders and crew--smiles all around!.
Happy Birders
Nate Swick, Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson, Jay Lehman (back),
Kate Sutherland (front), Brian Patteson, Neil Hayward
Chris Hitt, who lives in Chapel Hill near Raleigh-Durham Airport, invited Neil and me to come stay with him to celebrate Neil’s successful Big Year as well as mine.  Chris set the current record for a Lower 48 Big Year in 2010.  Chris has been tracking our efforts this year on his blog, Slow Birding. 

I headed back toward the Raleigh-Durham area to Chris’s house, stopping only for some gas and a cup of coffee.  Neil arrived later.  He stopped for a longer time for a phone call.  It was fun to sit with Chris and Neil to toast our Big Year successes.  I was really pleased to be able to toast Neil’s fantastic Big Year.  He is a really good guy and birder.  Thanks to Chris for his friendship and hospitality.
I had to break off early.  I still had one bird to chase for my Big Year—Smith’s Longspur in Arkansas at Stuttgart Airport in eastern Arkansas about one hour from Little Rock.  I had made reservations to fly from Raleigh-Durham to Little Rock, Arkansas early in the morning.  The morning would come too soon again!  I also had to return home to renew my driver’s license due by December 31. 

Great Skua raises the total to 732 plus two provisionals, Common Redstart and Eurasian Sparrowhawk as of December 28.   (See the final total for the year, 733 + 2 provisionals, reported on January 3, 2014.)         

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