Gulf of Mexico Pelagic Birding

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Trip Reports

May 23, 2004

This pelagic trip was into the waters of the Northeastern Gulf of Mexico. We left the port of Destin, Florida at 5am; winds were very light with clear to only slightly cloudy skies, and the sea was incredibly calm, with 1.3 foot seas at 100 miles offshore. A 12 hour tour netted a total of 8 - 10 species. As this area is very new to pelagic birding, probables are included.

Birds seen at sea:

Audubon's Shearwater (5)
Sooty Shearwater (Probable, 1)
Greater Shearwater (Probable, 1)
Wilson's Storm-petrel (3)
Band-rumped Storm-petrel (28)
unidentified Storm-petrel spp. (3)
Parasitic Jaeger, light phase Adult (1)
Common Tern (3)
Black Tern (8)
Bridled Tern (4)

Other birds seen offshore included several Laughing Gulls (at distances of up to 50 miles from shore), 2 flocks of probable Cattle Egrets (9 birds total), and several sightings of Barn Swallow. A Common Loon was seen in the Destin Pass as we made our way to sea, and a Gray Kingbird was chattering overhead at the docks.wilson's storm-petrel

Other wildlife observed included Bottlenose Dolphin (both the inshore, and a large pod (25+) of the offshore variety), 2 possible Clymene Dolphins, a Leatherback Sea Turtle (est 5-7 feet long), a 7-8 foot Hammerhead Shark, and many Portugese Man-o-War.

Overall, this was a very good trip, with many sightings occuring at or below the horizon due to extremely gentle weather conditions. Four of the Audubon's Shearwaters were flushed off the surface at a range of less than 100 yards.

August 22, 2004

band-rumped storm-petrelThe destination for the day was De Soto Canyon, a deep water area - over 1000 fathoms - starting about 60 miles off shore. This area has not been birded before. The tour left Destin Harbor at 5am, and as first viewable light was a little after 6am, no inshore species were seen on the way out. The trip to the canyon took 5 hours as opposed to 4 1/2, as a mechanical problem had forced a change in boats. Skies were clear, and the day became hot, with no wind. Seas were calm, with swells about one foot. As we approached and well within the canyon we laid out three chum slicks with popcorn, mashed herring, herring oil, and "catch trash" - the remains of fish brought in to the docks for several days. We stayed at each slick for 15-30 minutes, and motored to the next site to start a new slick. Then we turned around, and visited each slick as we came back out of the canyon.

Bird numbers overall were low. Despite a significant upwelling centered just to the west of the canyon, and a good temperature gradient present to the northeast of the canyon, we could no find blue water. The water was a murky green-brown, with many dead water hyacinths, a result of the influx of huge amounts of freshwater entering the Gulf due to heavy rains over the previous few days. This created a further vertical cline with two different water salinities, and birds were few and far between. Big game fisherman were needing to travel to 140 miles offshore to find fish, highly unusual.

Despite the low numbers, the birding was still good, and portends well for future trips into the area when water conditions are better.

Birds seen at sea:

Black Tern (15)
Common Tern (1)
Dark-backed (Sooty/Bridled) Tern (2, seen at distance)
Laughing Gull (1)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel (4)
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (10+)
Cory's Shearwater (4)
Red-billed Tropicbird (1), immature molting to adult plumage. The streamers were only just longer thanthe tail.
White-tailed Tropicbird (1), immature

Both tropic birds courteously flew slowly to, and over, the boat for us.

Numerous common terns and gulls were seen in-shore as we returned to the harbor, and a barn swallow was seen well off-shore.

A 25-30' Whale Shark was present in our first chum slick as we returned from the canyon. All on board had lengthy and excellent views of this, the largest living fish, directly along side the boat just under the surface. Mola mola fins broke the surface, again in our chum slick. Spotted dolphins surfed the boat's bow wave on several occasions, and bottlenosed dolphins were also seen.

June 2009

6am June 20 found 15 intrepid pelagic birders heading south at 17+ knots out of Orange Beach (Alabama) targeting the deepwater area off Alabama's continental shelf. Despite oppressive temperatures (95°F and a heat factor of about 105°F) and a poor forecast for encountering blue-water, cooperative seas (1-2 ft) and a fast boat allowed us to reach the locations we wanted to and havband-rumped storm-petrele an enjoyable trip. By around 9:00 we had passed the 100 fathom (600 ft) curve amagnificentnd at 10:11 found our first, true pelagic species in 700 fathom (4,200 ft) waters: one BAND-RUMPED STORM-PETREL and one STORM-PETREL "SPECIES." After slowing the boat to almost a stop and laying out a thicker fish oil slick and other chewables, we managed to attract five more storm-petrels close to the boat for definitive looks and photos. 4 BAND-RUMPED and 1 WILSON'S. Continuing on we turned northwest to the large Petronius production platform to check the outrigger bouys for resting seabirds. Surprisingly, the buoys were gone - we later found out they had been removed four years ago. Oh well. This sidetrip was not in vain, however, as the mate soon spotted one (or more!) feeding tuna schools. Several dolphins (the mammal) were also observed in the surface action and a single STORM-PETREL "SPECIES" was seen to be feeding in the distance as well. Two MAGNIFICENT FRIGATEBIRDS floated effortlessly in the wind over and near the platform. Later we ran over to some soaring white birds only to find 4 SANDWICH TERNS (location ~62 nautical miles fromshore!). Our maximum offshore distance was around 73 nm (900 fathom waters).

Additonal birds seen were a Brown Pelican and several unidentified terns, some of which were dark-backed and either Sooty or Bridled.

Birds seen at sea:

Magnificent Frigatebird (2)
Sandwich Tern (4)
Dark-backed (Sooty/Bridled) Tern (3, seen at distance)
Wilson's Storm-Petrel (1)
Brown Pelican

Kathy Hicks, a talented Alabama wildife photographer, took the wonderful photos which can be seen on this page; more can be seen here: pelagic birds June 20. And, many thanks to Steve McConnell for organizing the trip.

There may be another trip in 2011, please email or call 1 877 285 1170 if interested in coming along.