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Fw: Feb. 5, 2000 N. C. Albatross
- To: "carolinabirds" <email@example.com>
- Subject: Fw: Feb. 5, 2000 N. C. Albatross
- From: "John S. Wright" <firstname.lastname@example.org>
- Date: Fri, 11 Feb 2000 06:30:16 -0500
- Sender: email@example.com
Something from Birdchat that readers might enjoy!
John S. Wright
Greenville, NC 27858
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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!