Gulf of Mexico
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
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.
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
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.
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
an enjoyable trip. By around 9:00 we had passed the 100 fathom (600
ft) curve and
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)
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
There may be another trip in 2011,
please email or call 1 877 285 1170
if interested in coming along.