A Birding Moment To Remember

February 5, 2000 Hatteras, North Carolina

Brian Patteson’s team of leaders, clad in Grunden orange foul weather gear, cut up fish near the stern of the boat. The air was tinged with a fishy smell that was soon overcome by the diesel fumes from the idling motors of the Miss Hatteras. The cold, gusty winds whipped into our faces as we bantered loudly over the sound of wind and engines. The wetness of the ocean air seemed to sneak into the warmest of apparel and surprise the wearer with an unexpected shiver.

Several birders opted to stay in the warmth of the cabin as we motored out of Oden’s Dock and headed into the gray-green waters of the winter Atlantic. The rest of us positioned ourselves around the perimeter of the boat as well as on the upper deck. The latter was my choice on this February 5 pelagic birding trip out of Hatteras, North Carolina.

As always, I was full of anticipation. One never knows what the day will hold. Birding at sea–pelagic birding–is a gambling birder’s dream. It has more ups and downs than land birding. That is, there are less normal or average days. Good days can be really good and bad days can be really bad. All the best birding for an entire day can happen in the space of an hour or less. Birds on the open water are rarely if ever spaced out evenly. Food sources are concentrated in small areas and so are the birds. A boat can cover a large area of ocean in a day and never hit a good spot. And rarely, a pelagic trip will hit it rich. But this is exactly why birders head out into the ocean at all seasons and all sorts of weather.

My excitement increased as both Lesser Black-backed and Iceland Gulls joined the more common gulls and gannets at the back of the boat. Shortly, within the large groups of Bonaparte’s Gulls, someone found an adult Little Gull which many of us got to see fly across the bow of the boat. A Razorbill took off the water 50 yards from us at the 3 o’clock position. Ahhh. Life is good!

The good birds were a distraction from the cold ocean air and the rocking motion of the boat. Suddenly, a cry rang out from the front of the boat.

“SKUA!!! GREAT SKUA!!!

“Great Skua at one o’clock flying away above the horizon!” boomed the public address system on the boat.

One could see the commotion and feel the excitement as birders scrambled for positions along the starboard side of the boat.

“Where’s the bird?”

“That way! Over there!”

“Where? I can’t see it.”

“Still flying away! Now at water-level!”

I could feel the engines rev as we picked up some speed, but the bird was now only a speck above the horizon. Other birders were gleefully high-fiving each other and exchanging huge “Lifer” grins. This was a new species for many on board who kept life lists–lists of species that they had seen and identified in their birding lives. The atmosphere on the boat was certainly a happy one, but many folks had only gotten fleeting views of a fly-away bird. All birders were hanging over the rails, searching for another skua and dreaming of killer views of this great, hulking bird.

The Great Skua is the bully pirate of the sea, harrassing other birds and causing them to drop their food. It’s a bird with an apparent bad attitude. Skuas even pick on birds larger than themselves! It is a highly sought-after target on winter pelagics off the East Coast and today was no different. Many birders were aboard this boat with the intention of seeing a skua.

“SKUUUUUAAAAAA!”

That didn’t take long. Another bird was spotted at the 11 o’clock position flying much closer than the previous bird.

“ANOTHER SKUA AT 8 O’CLOCK!!! FOLKS, GET YOUR CAMERAS! THIS BIRD IS CLOSE!”

It was pure mayhem for the next few moments as birders scrambled through their packs and fumbled with film as the boat turned to gain a better vantage on the two skuas. Other birders jockeyed for position along the railing to see not one, but two Great Skuas. Excited cries could be heard from all over the boat. What a treat!

I glassed the first skua with my binoculars. I quickly found the second bird. It was much closer than the first bird and was at 9 o’clock along the port side of the boat. This bird was fairly close to the water. The Miss Hatteras continued to turn to get a better view of the skuas.

On the water in the same view as the skua was something that filled my mind with a million thoughts in an instant. The waves and the rocking boat made for difficult viewing. Was it an albatross?!? I didn’t dare let my mouth say the word. Any albatross in North Carolina waters was going to be a mega-rarity as there are no native albatrosses in the area. An albatross here might be thousands of miles out of place.

On a pelagic trip, it’s easy to make a misidentification. But if you wait too long to ID it, others may not see it. If you misidentify it, you face a
certain humbling experience. Still, it is better to get someone on a possibly good bird than to tell them about a positively good bird that’s already gone and out of sight.

“It’s probably a young Gannet” I cautioned myself with a great amount of restraint. “Why isn’t it a Gannet?” I asked myself with effort. But inside I was churning. The bill was wrong and head shape didn’t look right. It sat in the water differently, too. The combination of dark back and light head made a unique combination. If this bird was a Gannet, it would be a young bird.

Maybe 10 seconds had elapsed. Others were already snapping photos of Great Skuas. But my eyes were glued to the water. Suddenly the bird took flight. I groaned inside as it flew directly into the reflection of the bright sun. Although it hurt my eyes, I forced my eyes to remain open as it crossed the blinding light. The long-winged silhouette, however, was even more convincing than ever. As it neared the edge of the sunlit waters, the bird arced away providing me with a full ventral view of its white belly and underwings.

It was a sight I’ll never forget as long as I live. The hair on the back of my neck stood straight up as I could feel the cold chill of lightning flash down my spine. Adrenaline rushed to my face and caused my cheeks to feel burned. My caution was gone now as I let out a blood-curdling scream.

AAAAAAAL-BAAA-TROOOOOSSSSSSSS!!!!!! ALBATROSS!!! ALBATROSS!!!

More cries of albatross rippled through our ranks. The PA system crackled, “Yellow-nosed Albatross at 3 o’clock coming at the boat!”

I heard people gasp as the boatload of stunned birders watched the bird come with several yards of the boat. Was I dreaming? All movement now was in slow motion and the sounds of the boat and people seemed to fade. The crowd. The cries. The cheers. All of it seemed muffled and distant as I watched the hallucination before me. It was the albatross and I. We were alone. I watched in awe as this stiff-winged master of the air dipped one wingtip down and edged the gray waters. The bird raced through a trough created by the waves and then would rise slightly above the wave and catch the wind. Immediately the bird would effortlessly arc skyward and bank down again into another trough. It was simply unbelievable. It was music on the wing…

I could hear others around me. The word “Albatross” was being mentioned with almost reverent respect. It was a strange combination of some folks shouting and others almost whispering the name.albatross. Hoops and hollers came sporadically as the bird would make a pass at the boat. Others viewed the bird as if watching a ghost, as if it was some mystical aberration.

The clean white underwings were outlined by a thin brown edge. The underparts were white, too. It’s back was uniformly brown and the white of the primary shafts were distinct near each wingtip. The bird seemed small for an albatross. It was roughly the same size as Northern Gannet, but had a shorter neck and longer wings. Its dark bill was slender for an albatross
and the yellow line down the top of the upper mandible was dull yellow. The white head of the bird looked like it had been dipped into some dirty water as it was a pale ashy-gray.

Long wings angling down on either side created the illusion of a giant 7-foot sickle as the great bird sailed toward the boat and then lit on the water. Chickug. Chickug. Chickug. Only cameras clicking off picture after picture interrupted the silence of the spellbound birders. The Miss Hatteras kept turning, attempting to angle in closer to the albatross. The bird picked up, flew around, and landed on the water several more times.

Finally, it seemed that everyone let down their guard simultaneously. The crowd of birders exhaled. Yes. It was as if we had all been holding our breath the whole time the bird was present. And just as quickly as the bird had appeared, it disappeared without a trace. No one knows exactly where it went or which direction it left. It was magical anyway, wasn’t it?

The skuas were long gone, but a lone Glaucous Gull had appeared at the stern of the boat. Black-legged Kittiwakes, Northern Fulmars, and Red Phalaropes made a show later and further delighted a very happy bunch of people. Amazingly, I found myself feeling very tired after seeing the albatross and even weak in the knees. I never regained my composure. I felt both happy and yet shaken by the event. The encounter with a bird from afar had left me drained of strength. It was also a very soul-satisfying experience for me.

I will search again for another enriching moment. Another experience. Another encounter. Another bird. The travels. The journeys. The hunt. The shared joy of a find with other birders. The enthrallment of watching something wild and untamed and oh, so unpredictable. Ahh. That is birding!

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