Chasing the Pirates

I eagerly anticipated this Sunday.  After being wait-listed on a 6-hour pelagic, I actually got an email that said I made it onto the boat!  I was excited - this would be my first boat trip specifically for seabirds.  I immediately called Julie and told her I'd be spending all day in Cape May, first - birding in the morning, and second - the boat from 1:00-7:00.

The day arrived.  It was dismal.  Gray skies with showers on and off most of the morning.  If Cape May birding wasn't so awesome, I would have been disappointed.  But I just dealt with the rain and got whatever shots I could.  So that's my disclaimer:  All these shots are with gray, dreary light.  It is what it is.  Here's a collection of my favorite shots from the morning before boarding the boat (click on the picture if you need an ID).  *I will provide more story on the actual pelagic trip further in this entry. 

Vesper Sparrow - Bird #313 of the year! bird #299 for NJ.

Ok... onto the pelagic trip.  For those who don't know, pelagic trips are when a group of birders will get on a boat and head away from the coast with a specific goal of finding birds that rarely venture inland.  Most of these birds live at sea besides their nesting period - and that's usually done in the high Arctic, far away from most human interaction.  This particular trip was a short one at six hours and was held during Cape May's big bird festival weekend.  

I arrived at the marina not knowing what to expect.  The director of the Cape May Bird Observatory gave me my registration packet.  I have briefly talked to him about putting together a herp presentation for them, so fingers crossed...  

After some instruction, we boarded and set off through the canal.  I had already seen many faces I knew either personally or through social media connections.  Richard Crossley was on the boat.  He has authored/co-authored many books and is what I would call a rockstar birder.  I used the opportunity to introduce myself.  By the way, very nice guy and ridiculously informative!

Richard Crossley and Me

We worked our way through the canal toward the Atlantic and picked up multiple species on the way out:  Brant, Great Egret, Double-crested Cormorant, Common Loon, multiple gull species, and even a Great Cormorant and Purple Sandpiper (not pictured) at the end of the jetty.

So we were on the open sea.  Gulls were all around.  Royal terns worked there way down the coast.  But the most exciting thing for me was the dozens of Northern Gannets.  I absolutely love these birds.  Their faces are cartoonish.  I have managed to see a few from land in the past few years, but seeing them up close is a totally different experience.

Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet

We weren't having much luck for a while with other pelagic birds, not that I minded.  I was surrounded by like-minded people, was full of anticipation, and most importantly wasn't feeling seasick!  We were alerted to a whale about three miles from our location and the leaders decided to chase it.  Hell yeah!  I've never seen a whale.  When we arrived to the possible location we all scanned the water.  ...I didn't even know what I was looking for to be honest.  

Then its back arched up above the water and blew out air in a spray a dozen feet from the water's surface!  It broke the surface for a few seconds, then disappeared like a ghost beneath the surface.  We watched for about fifteen minutes.  We were treated to it breaching maybe 6-8 times.  It was quite amazing.  My trip had already been made with the gannets; I hadn't even accounted for a possible mammal lifer.

Humpback Whale

Toward the back end of the trip, the boat headed to "The Rips."  The Rips is an area where the Delaware Bay meets the Atlantic Ocean at the tip of the Cape May Peninsula.  There is a huge sand ridge there making it very shallow in spots.  It is famous for both birding and fishing.  The birds go nuts there in what looks like a feeding frenzy at a bait fish smorgasbord.  On the way, we passed a Brown Pelican - so cool!  (My photo sucks, so I'll include an old one.)

Brown Pelican - our Sunday bird was much further out

When we arrived, the scene was intense.  Hundreds, maybe a thousand - I don't know, of gulls and terns were all along the water.  They were noisy.  They were fast.  It was a spectacle.

Gulls and Terns

Gulls - mostly Herring.

The trip leaders started looking for jaegers.  I have to admit something... They announced their first few Parasitic Jaegers and I felt overwhelmed.  The birds were insane, and I thought there's no way I'm going to find these jaegers among this cacophany of sight and sound.  A third year gannet flew by.  *Look at the blurry bird in the background.  In these first 15 minutes, I certainly didn't know what I was doing.

Northern Gannet with Parasitic Jaeger in background (upper right)

The leaders were great.  They started picking out the jaegers and they announced it over the speaker like a sports commentator doing play by play.  Without their help, I don't know if I would have ever picked up the search image.  But I did.  I was on my first jaeger and watched it chase down a tern until it dropped its catch.  The acrobatics were incredible to watch.   It's something any bird-enthusiast should make an effort to observe.

Parasitic Jaeger chasing a Forster's Tern

Forster's Tern

Herring Gull

We watched 6-8 (if I had to guess) Parasitic Jaegers chase around terns for an hour and a half.  I could have did it all damn day.  In fact, for the last half hour I did something I NEVER do.  I put my camera down and just used my binocular to try and locate the jaegers myself.  What a great experience.  I can't thank the trip leaders enough.  

Oh, and since I'm such a stat-junkee, the Parasitic Jaeger is bird #314 of the year.  That puts me one bird closer to last year's record of 319.  Even more exciting, that was New Jersey life bird #300!

Despite the weather and poor photographic conditions, Cape May did not disappoint.  I ended the day at 79 species, with a bird lifer and a mammal lifer.  Add to that some new experiences and meeting new friends, and I couldn't have asked for anything more.  This pelagic trip may have started a new addiction for me... just what I need!

...step into the outdoors.

On the way back to shore...