on the high seas
a crisp day as the charter fishing boat approaches the Gulf Stream's
warmer waters. The wind calms to a hush, the sunlight glints diamonds
off the water, and the waves flatten a little as the boat gently bobs
up and down toward its destination. The ship's passengers are wired,
eager for the day's events. They mill about, talking shop and
dreaming about the possibilities the Gulf Stream holds for them.
the captain shouts. The passengers excitedly ready their gear. In the
distance, a Bermuda petrel ascends and drops toward the water.
Success! Cameras and binoculars cover excited faces. There are
high-fives all around. This is a fishing boat, but it is no ordinary
fishing trip, and these are no ordinary passengers. This is pelagic
birding, and its passengers are offshore for the chance at a glimpse
of rare and unusual seabirds.
the many sites on the North
Carolina Birding Trail
(NCBT), pelagic, or open sea, birding is an opportunity that draws
birdwatchers from across the United States to spot extraordinary and
scarce birds. The state's proximity to the Gulf Stream is key for
open-water birding success.
Gulf Stream hugs North Carolina's coast at a distance of 15 to 45
miles from the shore, making it relatively easy for boats to reach.
Gulf Stream is closer to North Carolina than it is to [most] other
places," says Country
Girl Captain Allan
Gerwin, curator of birds at the N.C.
Museum of Natural Sciences,
explains. "The Gulf Stream is a two- to two-and-a-half-hour boat
ride. You can have four to five hours of good birding in a day."
Many other East Coast locations require longer boat rides to get to
the Gulf Stream.
Simons, biologist at North
Carolina State University,
describes the secret draw for a multitude of pelagic birds. "The
edge of the Gulf Stream is where things are really happening,"
he says. "The birds are there because the food is there."
movement of the Gulf Stream's warm waters off the continental shelf
mixes up nutrients from the ocean's depths that support marine life,
such as squid and fish. In other words, the Gulf Stream provides the
perfect recipe for lots of bird food.
birds are really well adapted to traveling tremendous distances to
find food," Simons says. "Many can come from thousands of
birds aren't always in the Gulf Stream in search of food. Diamond
Donnie Lee explains, "Right after a big storm, especially one
coming up from Bermuda, we'll see birds land on our boat that have no
business being in the ocean. We'll find tiny finches landing on our
bow right in the middle of the ocean.”
also has seen birds that have been blown off course by storms. "There
are birds out there that are usually found in the Indian Ocean,"
he says. "They might just be lost."
the guidance of the North Carolina Birding Trail, omnifarious
ornithologists can find the best birding spots across the state.
NCBT is a collaborative effort of six organizations," says Chris
McGrath of the N.C.
Wildlife Resources Commission
(WRC). In addition to WRC, other trail founders include North
Carolina Sea Grant,
N.C. Cooperative Extension,
Fish and Wildlife Service
North Carolina, and the North
Carolina State Parks.
offers a series of maps linking the best birding spots across the
state. The maps are specific to the mountains, the Piedmont, or the
coast. The coastal map, which can be found at www.ncbirdingtrail.org,
has 102 birding sites, each accompanied by site information such as
habitats, species of birds, and general site description.
from all over the world plan trips to North Carolina to see birds
they don't normally see," says McGrath. The NCBT provides
information so birders can know what to look for when they arrive at
these birding hot spots.
such birders are National
Sea Grant Deputy Director James
and North Carolina Sea Grant Extension Director Jack
Thigpen. They gathered
friends for a vacation trip earlier last year from Hatteras, guided
by Brian Patteson, in search of a "good bird." Their group
included birders from Louisiana, Maryland, and North Dakota.
good bird is a 'lifer,' which is one that I have never seen in North
America before," says Murray, former North Carolina Sea Grant
extension director. "The rarer the bird, the better."
birders keep track of every bird species they identify on their "life
list," which can grow to hundreds, and in some very rare cases,
thousands of species.
"good birds" include the Bermuda petrel and the
black-capped petrel, both endangered species that birders have
spotted while pelagic birding off the North Carolina coastline.
shearwaters were also really cool," says Thigpen, who has a life
list topping out at 289 North American bird species. "I saw both
a Cory's and an Audubon shearwater. I added those to my list when I
is particularly impressed with the shearwater’s ability to take
advantage of the varying air pressure close to the water's surface.
It is a broad-winged bird with a horseshoe tail that can shear the
air with its wings like a knife or lope gracefully along the water's
use the waves to surf the air," he says. "Just watching
them maneuver was amazing."
keeps a mental note of his life list of more than 2,000 species, but
the chance of catching a glimpse of a lifer is still invigorating
enough to get him out into the waves. When talking about the great
shearwater, he says, "I still get excited when I see them. I get
seasick, but I'll go see these birds because it's worth it."
who has guided hundreds of pelagic birding trips as captain of the Stormy
is less fascinated by the
actual birds he sees than he is about their unique behaviors. "I'm
still excited to see some of the behaviors of even the more common
birds," he says.
won't be long now before the terns will be flying in. The young ones
will follow the adults. You can watch the adults catch fish and feed
it to the young right there over the water. I think that's pretty
birds are not the only animals spotted on pelagic trips. Foreman and
Patteson report seeing everything from sea turtles to sperm whales on
seen some pretty interesting stuff that a lot of people never get to
see or have never heard of," says Patteson. "Just last
weekend, we saw beaked whales. We don't see these animals every time,
but we see them regularly."
reports a bounty of beasts bobbing in the waves on his pelagic
birding trip. "I knew going on this trip that I'd be seeing some
bird species I'd never seen before, but I'd never thought that much
about what else I'd see."
spied four species of dolphin, three species of whales, and
loggerhead turtles on the trip. "These creatures were up near
the top of the water, and the whales and dolphins were swimming
close, curious about the boat." At one point, Thigpen watched a
humpback whale jump completely out of the water. “This mammal, as
big as a minivan, crashing back onto the water creates quite a sound
and sight," he says.
the advent of pelagic birding. much of the avian life of the open sea
was a mystery.
understood or knew who was using this part of the ocean before except
fishermen," says Gerwin. "We still have a lot of birds that
people are finding out there. Brian [Patteson] has even documented a
couple of birds new to the area that have never been documented out
captains, like Patteson and Foreman, will take birding-only trips and
will have a spotter with expert bird knowledge to point out "good
birds." These trips are great for beginner and expert birders
alike who prefer guidance on their trips. However, there are plenty
of fishing charters like Captain Lee's Diamond
Girl out of Morehead
City that are willing to take birders any time.
don't be surprised if we drop a line while we're out there," Lee
says. "I think we captains would find it mighty hard to be all
the way out there without dropping a line."
can be music to the ears of many birders. "I think catchin' fish
while you're out birding is a bonus," says avid birder Clyde
addition to providing birders with names to add to their life lists,
pelagic birding and the NCBT also give a financial boost to local
communities. "There are a number of ways that birding as a form
of outdoor recreation enhances the local economy," says McGrath.
"Birders stay at local hotels and purchase meals at local
restaurants," and that money goes directly into local
to a 2006 FWS survey, visitors spent over $160 million in North
Carolina and Virginia wildlife refuges. These visitors list birding
as their second primary activity, next to fishing.
businesses can capitalize on these "bird bucks." The NCBT
website lists "birder-friendly businesses" in site cities.
The website also has "birder calling cards" that birders
can print out and leave at businesses they stop by on their journey.
"This helps businesses market their facilities to birders,"
Foreman, wife of Alan Foreman and owner of Big
Al's Soda Fountain and Grill
in Manteo, welcomes birding business. "Sometimes the birders
will bring fish from their pelagic trips down to my restaurant and
we'll cook their fish for them," she says.
addition to providing a financial boost to landlubber businesses,
pelagic birding can benefit fishing charters because many birds can
be spotted in the fishing off-season. "The Gulf Stream waters
are always warmer, so we can book birders in the early spring, winter
and fall, when other business is down," Captain Foreman says.
of these species return to land only to breed. Some are in the ocean
from August to May while others are out there in the summer months.
You can find different birds out there every month," Gerwin
this fact, there are some better months for birding than others,
Patteson explains. "People want to go either during spring
migration or later summer when you have Caribbean nesters that
disperse and come up here. In January and February, the coldest part
of the winter, we have a few birds that come up then."
OF A FEATHER
concur that the birder populace does not resemble the typical
fisherman or sightseer. "Birders are so cute," Captain
Foreman says. "They always have a lot of pens in their pockets."
describes the reactions of birders when they spot lifers from the
boat as different from fishermen's reactions to fishing.
general, they're a lot more laid back than your typical fisherman,"
he says. "But one day we saw three rare species of petrels in
about a half hour: a fea's petrel, a herald petrel, and a Bermuda
petrel. Oh man, they high-fived and hooted and hollered when they saw
has also seen the differences between fishermen and birders. For
instance, he notices that birders provide a more diverse clientele.
often fly in from all over the country," he says. "Most
fishermen drive in because they are already on vacation."
attributes the distance traveled to birders' greater willingness to
push the limits of rough weather for the chance at spotting a lifer.
know they might never come back again," he says.
runs pelagic birding trips on the Stormy Petrel II all year round. For
more information on pelagic birding, trips, booking, and costs,
go to www.seabirding.com/
a publication of North Carolina Sea Grant. For
a complimentary copy, call 919/515-9101 or send an e-mail to [email protected].)