So, as long-time readers may remember, my winter present from the Inimitable Todd was a pelagic trip out of Cape May with the fine folks at See Life Paulagics. The trip was to take place in March, but it got nixed by a restless ocean and rescheduled to last weekend. Up until just after noon on Saturday, we weren’t sure if it was a go or not, so everything was a bit seat-of-pants.
Since we’d already had the swanky-twee b&b experience, we decided to get kitchtastic (and cheap) this time around and stay at Wildwood. As it turned out, it was Paint Your Pool and General Spring Clean Weekend for just about every one of Wildwood’s iconic retro motels, but that just meant that the room we finally managed to secure was very cheap. And smelled of paint, and didn’t have an alarm clock, but hey – it wasn’t like we were going to be spending a lot of time there! The boat was due to leave at 6.
Now, once upon a time, I got up at 4 am to listen to the high-test wacky talk radio on the Born-Again Christian radio station out of Buffalo for an hour before heading out to milk cows*. But these days, with my citified lifestyle and all, 6 in the morning is a bit of a challenge. This is a major failing in a birdwatcher, and goes a long way to explaining the paucity of Rails on my life list. But for this, I could do it. Even without an alarm clock. My new cell phone has an alarm clock, anyway.
So at five we were up, rapidly dressed – and ran into our first hitch. You see, in anticipation of being way the heck out to sea, we’d brought cold-weather gear made by the fine folks at Under Armour(tm). Well, we thought we had. Turns out, I had, and the Inimitable Todd had ended up with one of my skirts that happened to have much the same texture as an Under Armour shirt and had made its way into his drawer by mistake. That wasn’t likely to do him much good on the boat, so he had to go with just a t-shirt and waterproof windbreaker. Not auspicious.
The first bit of the boating was enjoyable. The sun was coming up as we left Cape May, and with it all sorts of bird activity, including my year Foster’s Terns and a Black-crowned Night Heron lurking on a jetty.
As we passed out of the harbor and into open ocean, we** started chumming – a strange practice in which one takes fish that someone went to all the trouble to pull out of the ocean, freeze, and put in a box, and then one opens the box, thaws the fish, and throws it back in the water for seagulls to eat. Quaint are the ways of birders. The chumming quickly drew a cloud of gulls – mostly Herring, with a handful of Laughing and Ring-billed closer to shore and occasional Lesser Black-backed. It turned out to be a very good day for Lesser Black-backed Gulls, actually – we saw them in all four different age-group plumages and in substantial numbers. I’d missed them the past few winters and was happy to see them, despite the fact that I’m not a gull person normally. Gannets put in a lot of close passes too, in their many plumages. We saw a number of Bonaparte’s Gulls, as well, but they kept their distance and didn’t give up any surprises, like turning into a Little or Black-headed Gull or anything.
Also keeping their distance were the Scoters – mostly unidentified, though I did get a lock on a distinctive male Surf Scoter for my first life bird of the trip and others more deft than myself at working out where three o’clock is on a boat got White-winged Scoter as well (fortunately, I already had White-winged Scoter, so I didn’t have to throw myself overboard or anything.) A couple of Long-tailed Ducks made a much closer approach, but flew by so fast that only their bold pattern and distinctive voices made them ID-able; nevertheless, ID’d they were. Life bird two.
Perversely, things quieted down more the further out we got, until by the time we got to where the scallop-boats were working we had nothing much to look at but the Gulls and Gannets and a peppering of distant Loons – both Red-throated and Common, many of the latter approaching breeding plumage. Fortunately for me, I can look at Gannets pretty much all day. I did feel sorrow about the plight of the Inimitable Todd, who was near to perishing with cold. People take warning; even putting the laundry away properly may turn out to be important some time.
I’d been looking at Gannets for some hours, and drifted into a state where I was more only half-looking at Gannets and with the other half of my brain listening to more experienced birds regale each other with World Series of Birding Advice, 700th-bird stories, and strange tales of things they’d observed birds eating, when suddenly something low and brown streaked down the side of the ship and a great cry went up. A Sooty Shearwater! I’d barely glimpsed it, and certainly would have had to do some wrestling with my conscience if it hadn’t been good enough to take an interest in our chum and circle back three or four times for clear views before it winged off. Life bird 3.
And then we went back to Gulls, Gannets, and distant Loons. At one point, we saw a Heron making hard for land; there was some banter about calling it a Western Reef-heron, but it proved to be a Great Blue.
It was, by all accounts, a slow pelagic; in a way, I think that was a good thing, because it gave me a chance to learn the ropes and prevented the Frozen Inimitable Todd from missing any once-in-a-lifetime photo ops. (I’d like to assure those readers who don’t like suspense that the IT did eventually recover.)
On our way back into harbor, things got a little bit lively again, with a number of Brant, a Great Cormorant, and to finish things off an Osprey and Merlin in close proximity across from the dock. Getting off the boat, I discovered to my dismay that I could barely walk or talk and needed a strong cup of coffee and half a muffin to revive me; it would later emerge that I’d also managed to get a nasty sunburn, because looking at Gannets had distracted me from all thought of refreshing my sunscreen.
I can’t wait to go again!
*I didn’t drink or do drugs in high school, I had to get rid of all those extra brain cells some way! What are you looking at me like that for? Also, being incandescent with rage before leaving the house is an excellent way to stay warm in the milk pit on a winter morning.
**by “we” I mean “the experienced professional chumming dude with thick gloves and a suitable knife, and certainly not me.”
Mallard Anas platyrhynchos
Common Loon Gavia immer
Red-breasted Merganser Mergus serrator
Forster’s Tern Sterna forsterii
Osprey Pandion haliaetus
Ring-billed Gull Larus delawarensis
Black-crowned Night Heron Nycticorax nycticorax
Herring Gull Larus argentatus
Laughing Gull Larus atricilla
Greater Black-backed Gull Larus marinus
Red-throated Loon Gavia stellata
Northern Gannet Sula bassanus
Surf Scoter Melanitta perspicillata *LL
Bonapate’s Gull Larus philadelphia
Lesser Black-backed Gull Larus fuscus
Long-tailed Duck Clangula hyemalis *LL
Sooty Shearwater Puffinus griseus *LL
Great Blue Heron Ardea herodias
Brant Branta bernicla
Great Cormorant Palacrocorax carbo
Merlin Falco columbaris