Yesterday the Brookline Bird Club ran their first of two deep-water (i.e. canyons) pelagics of the summer. This trip was a one-day event (4am-9pm), while next month's is an overnighter.
Expectations were quite high for this one due to a multitude of Herald Petrel and White-tailed Tropicbird reports up and down the Gulf Stream over the past few weeks. Unfortunately we did not connect with one of these megas (or anything else significant bird-wise). These one-day trips are a real crapshoot since you really only get about 6 hours of birding at the edge of the continental shelf (over 90 miles offshore). In mid-July, when there's not much in the way of migration going on, you're highly dependent on rarities. In July of 2009 we were all thrilled by a Black-capped Petrel on this one-day trip. You can't win 'em all.
But while the birds were generally lacking, the other marine life was just amazing.
We started at 4am under beautiful clear skies and a light breeze, conditions that persisted throughout the day. The plan was to head as close as we could to a warm-water eddy that was positioned largely over Block Canyon (RI waters). There was not any truly warm water in the canyons to the east that we usually visit on these trips, so we would have to go further west.
As we passed just east of Martha's Vineyard on our way out we began to see a trickle of Wilson's Storm-petrels and the first shearwaters of the day: Great and Cory's. An immature Pomarine Jaeger made a quick pass overhead.
After that initial pulse of tubenoses, we entered the usual 'dead zone' of water north of the shelf edge. Upon arrival to the deeper, warmer water we saw an uptick in Wilson's Storm-Petrels. Our chum slick provided little in the way of birds.
Nice looks at a cooperative BASKING SHARK was a treat. This was the first time I was able to get a good look at the body of one of these...usually just the dorsal fin is seen well.
A little while later we spotted another dorsal fin and approached it, expecting another Basking Shark. When we got close enough to see the white spots on the dorsal fin, commentator Steve Mirick yelled "WHALE SHARK!" and we all realized what we were looking at. This beast, the largest fish species in the world, was grazing at the water's surface. Excitement mounted even more when the shark turned toward the boat and began to approach. This curious animal actually nudged the boat with its snout, gave a little splash, and then finally turned away! In the screaming words of Steve Mirick, "Holy f%$#&*ng sh*t!"
The whale shark encounter was incredible and more than made up for the slow trickle of birds. At the end of the trip we were all still a bit in shock over it. Certainly something that will sick with us forever.
Further along the shelf edge we set up another chum slick and watched as dozens of Wilson's Storm-petrels surrounded the boat. Keith Mueller, world class wood carver, had some fun by tossing out two hand-carved decoys attached to a rope: one a Great Shearwater with a fish in its bill, and the other an adult Great Skua. Both decoys were brilliantly done.
All was quiet until a few moments later when a TIGER SHARK was spotted feeding on the chum behind the boat. The shark disappeared for a few moments before re-appearing much closer to the decoys. By this point Keith was pulling in that rope as fast as he could! Lucky for him he got the decoys aboard before the shark made a pass at them. Tiger Sharks are known to be very aggressive and we were all wondering what would transpire if Keith had left those carvings out there.
A Loggerhead Sea Turtle was spotted by our astute team of leaders, and this creature also cooperated for a while before diving below surface.
We pulled up to one of the several Portuguese Man o' Wars we had on the trip.
On the way back we had our two best birds of the day, single first-summer LONG-TAILED JAEGERS that were several miles apart. Captain Joe did his usual great job of tracking these birds, allowing everyone to get fine views (and photos, for those equipped).
Overall, another success for the BBC 'Extreme' Pelagic series, highlighted by marine life rather than rare birds this time. It seems that we always see something worth remembering on these trips, even on the slower ones like yesterday.
I'm all geared up and ready for the August overnight trip, which I missed last year. That trip tallied 22 (!) White-faced Storm-petrels. By then I should have a DSLR setup so I'll be able to get some photos of flying birds for once!
I somehow forgot to emphasize the fantastic looks we had at many Leach's Storm-Petrels, which was the #2 bird highlight behind the LT Jaegers.