Sunday, December 03, 2006

My First Pelagic

The alarm woke me at 4:30 this morning and I was quickly on my way to the Belmar Marina on the NJ coast for my first pelagic birding trip. This trip was run by Seelife Paulagics, a well-known coordinator of pelagic trips in NJ.

I arrived at the boat, the 65' Suzie Girl, and much to my surprise there was a pretty large crowd. I expected maybe 15-20 people, but there were close to 40 birders! I met some friends and took a spot on the top deck where the view would be better (but the ride a little rougher). It was still dark, but the water appeared calm. The air on the other hand was VERY chilly. Luckily, I had worn many layers to keep out the biting cold.

The early morning sea

We headed out at a quick clip and daylight arrived. Many birds started to appear: Herring Gulls, Great Black-backed Gulls, many flying Common Loons and lots of Northern Gannets of all ages. We had great views of all of these birds, but I was really anxious to see the truly "pelagic" birds. To hold our attention in the meantime, groups of Common Dolphins rode our wake and jumped in and out of the water. They were truly acrobats of the sea and they were wonderful to see so close.

Our fearless leader and all around funny guy, Paul Guris

As gull flocks would appear, the crew threw out chum (aka fish parts and fish blood) to attract the gulls. It worked well - the birds ate it up like me at a buffet. They hung around for a long while and after 2 hours of cruising along, a leader shouted "KITTIWAKE!" There behind the boat was a dainty-flying Black-legged Kittiwake - a bird I have never seen before. As quickly as it arrived, it disappeared.

Some Great Black-backed Gulls following us

The birding slowed down a bit and we headed for the deeper waters of such spots as the "Glory Hole" and the "Mud Hole". Pelagic birds like these deeper areas where nutrients and plankton attract bait fish that the birds feed on. Around lunchtime, a call of "SHEARWATER!" awoke the crowds. A Manx Shearwater was cruising just off the side of the boat. It quickly joined 2 others that were floating on the sea among a group of Bonaparte's Gulls. As our boat approached, the birds took to the air eliciting another shout - "LITTLE GULL!" The all-dark underwings of the Little Gull were immediately noticeable. The bird circled our boat for a few minutes, but was interrupted by another shriek - "FULMAR!" Ah yes... a bird I really wanted to see, the Northern Fulmar. The stocky, gull-like bird cruised low over the water and stayed with the boat for a good while. Moments later, one more excited yelp came - "PHALAROPES!" Two Red Phalaropes were coursing over the sea. I believe it was Peterson who said, "If you see a Sanderling at sea, it surely is a Phalarope." This couldn't have been more true.

Some excited birders look on and take photos

The excitement of new birds came in a quick burst and, all of the sudden, I had 5 new life birds. The rest of the day was kind of slow. We ended up going out over 60 miles and it took several LONG hours to get back. I was able to squeeze in a short nap and chit-chat with some fellow birders. I regretted not bringing a book. The important thing is that I never got sick! In fact, I don't think anyone did. The water was wonderfully cooperative, the crew and leaders worked their butts off and we saw some great birds. We missed a few target species like Dovekie and any Jaegers, but it was still awesome. I can't wait for my next pelagic.

An extremely tired group of birders


LauraHinNJ said...

Glad you didn't get sick and saw some good birds. The weather was perfect today!

Susan Gets Native said...

What the heck was up with thata guy laying down??? Too many birds knocked him flat?

The other Suzie Girl

Beth said...

I doubt those birds could even compare to you at a buffet. I'm glad you had a good time and congrats on the five life birds.

Anonymous said...

You're a brave man! Last time I did that trip I was sicker than sick almost the entire time--it required a conscious decision to open my eyes when somebody shouted 'puffin'!
But it sounds like the weather was great and the birding even better; you really can't beat Paul's trips.

Patrick Belardo said...


That guy laying down is Adrian Binns - a well known trip leader and photographer. He slept for a long time!


We were extremely lucky with the weather. It makes me wonder if the patch was keeping me from puking or the water was just that calm. I just realized I stole your Peterson quote. I couldn't remember where I saw it and therefore, I didn't transpose it correctly. I'll fix it later.

mon@rch said...

Glad that no one got sick and how perfect all those lifers you got! Bravo!

Mike said...

Sounds like an awesome trip. I figured your trip list would be very similar to the one I pulled last January, but you spotted some notable departures. Congrats on your lifers.

The See Life trips are pretty great. It's just too bad that our east coast pelagic trips have to take us so far from shore. The last five hours of the day, when the light has faded and all the good birds have been spotted, is murder!

Jeffrey said...

Congrats on your first pelagic. I'm sure your hooked now. (BTW it gets better in August--take one then) Here in Massachusetts, I've seen Band-rumped and White-faced Storm Petrels, Bridled Tern, South Polar and Great Skua, and all three Jaegers on pelagics organized by the Brookline Bird Club in late August out to the Continental Shelf. They're awesome. Love your site!

Patrick Belardo said...


Thank goodness no one was sick. I think one person could have caused a chain reaction.


Right you are about those last hours. Torture!


I think I need to come up to Mass.! It's not too far. I will most likely take one next August. Thanks for reading!