In most coastal areas, bird distribution off shore is generally much less understood than than that of land birds. The reason is simple, the cost and logistical difficulties of getting off shore is a challenge, requiring much greater planning and effort than merely peering into backyard brush for migrants. The water off Florida’s gulf coast is very shallow with a gradually sloping shelf with little structure. The Loop Current is a good 70 miles off shore, so it requires more effort to get to deep water than in many other areas. Further complicating things is the fact that the local birders are mostly winter visitors so the summer months are a bigger mystery still. On June 20th, I joined 3 other intrepid explorers to sample the Gulf of Mexico waters off of Sanibel Island near Fort Myers, Florida to see what we could find & learn about early summer offshore birding here. My friend Dennis Peacock & I drove down to the Sanibel area marina where our hosts & friends David McQuade and Tammy Powell McQuade waited aboard their 30′ Robalo, the „Kaity May“. I was traveling light and boarded only with my beloved Leica 7×42 Ultravid HD-PLUS binoculars around my neck and the V-Lux (typ 114) camera slung over one shoulder with a small cooler of snacks and drinks in my other hand. We were ready to tackle the gulf!
As we cruised under the Sanibel causeway bridge heading west, we noted the common inshore species like Brown Pelicans, various terns including: Least, Sandwich, Royal & Black Skimmers, Double-crested Cormorants & Laughing Gulls. There were no unexpected birds in this near shore zone but we kept our eyes peeled for surprises just in case. With the comparative dearth of information on pelagic birds offshore in summer here, none of us knew what to expect & it is easy to make significant discoveries. Pelagic trips are a lot like treasure hunts. You know unusual birds are out there, but finding them requires a bit of luck as the path of your vessel has to intersect that of a cruising bird in an endless sea. We remained ever alert and vigilant and relied on Captain David, to stack the odds in our favor with his knowledge of local wrecks, reefs and currents that would offer upwellings of nutrients good for attracting these roaming seabirds.
The inshore waters offered mostly Brown Pelicans and Magnificent Frigatebirds sailing overhead, species easily seen from shore in summer and expected. We’d have to trek almost 20 miles toward an offshore wreck before we’d find our first true „pelagic“ species (birds that typically only come ashore to breed). Tammy spotted two distant birds ahead of us and cranking away, and David deftly gave chase. The birds split apart so we stayed with the closer of the two. A powerful flyer cruising straight away, it showed occasional flashes of white near the wing tips offering promise of „something different“. As it rose to harass a Frigatebird we knew we must be looking at a jaeger as few other species would be so bold. With calm seas the twin 250 hp motors sped the 30 foot „Kaity May“ until we were directly below the bird, and able to positively identify it as a Pomarine Jaeger.
In June, adult Jaegers will be up on their high arctic breeding grounds. Like similar sized gulls, it takes these larger Jaegers up to 3 years to reach full maturity, and some of these non-breeding, younger birds stay south to take advantage of the abundant bait fish in the Gulf of Mexico. Within moments, we had a second „Pom“. Both were birds approaching their first birthday in their second calendar year, and showed noticeable molt in the flight feathers. The true pelagic birding had begun!
Our next pelagic species showed almost immediately following the first. Two dark-winged „tropical“ terns were quartering away some 40′ off the starboard bow 100 yards out. As before, David expertly pulled up right below them so we could confirm these as Sooty Terns; a light-bellied adult bird with dark juvenile bird trailing. These pelagic Tern species are very difficult to see from shore without some dramatic event like passage of a tropical storm or hurricane typically. Nomads, Sooty’s seem to wander tirelessly on long wings showing a distinct shallow wing beat that seems more energy efficient than the deep rowing flaps of other tern species.
(ID note – See how the darker juvenile (right) appears larger?.. These terns have longer flight feathers in their first plumage than in adult plumage, much like some raptor species – eagles & buteos as examples. These longer flight feathers offer more surface area and act almost like training wheels, more surface area offering loft at the expense of maneuverability. After, surviving their first year of life and mastering the art of flight, they can graduate to the slimmer more maneuverable adult model wings!)
As we approached the wreck (near 30 miles off shore), David called „…small bird crossing the bow, 12 o’clock..“ Outside of migration a „small bird“ out here is typically a Storm-Petrel or a flying fish cruising just over the water called errantly. This time it was indeed a storm-petrel, though. We watched it as it flew and were able to ascertain it was a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel (the species David had seen the most out here). Another great find, Band-rumpeds of course show a white band that crosses the rump as the name suggests, but also show a light carpal bar that extends most of the way up the the wing on a diagonal between the body and wrist. It has a very mildly forked tail and it’s feet don’t trail behind the tail. The last characteristic is flight style. Band-rumpeds tend to fly more steadily than the other most common species (Wilson’s & Leach’s).
We’d been cruising for 2 hours mixing some birding and photography as we pulled up to our first waypoint. We were greeted over the wreck by a playful pod of Pantropical Spotted Dolphins that came to visit and check us out.
We shut down and drifted here, appreciating the dolphins for a few minutes until Dennis spotted another distant Storm-Petrel. This bird had a fluttery flap and kept dropping to the surface of the water fluttering just above and patting its feet. This is classic feeding behavior for a Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. The twin engines roared back to life and we sped toward the distant Wilson’s. We sped to where I’d sworn the bird had landed but as we reached the area, we saw neither a perched bird nor the bird slipping away. With no swell it seemed impossible that the bird had eluded us, but none-the-less that is precisely what had happened. We drifted for many minutes certain the bird would surely reappear, but it never did. We’d have to settle for the more distant views and no images this time.
It was nearing 10 AM and we’d already collected a half dozen mylar balloons from the surface & tallied 3 Pomarine Jaegers, 4 Sooty Terns, and two different Storm-Petrels. I’d envisioned that the Whale Shark seen on this wreck on David & Tammy’s last visit would reappear, but sadly not this time. I couldn’t complain though as our tally had already exceeded my expectations, and we had a lot more area to cover. We were just over 30 miles off shore in about 80 feet deep water. Weather allowing, we were planning to go out past the 75 mile mark and get into 150 foot deep water. Looking at the conditions, it didn’t seem weather would effect our trip at all.
The lack of wind meant for glassy seas and a comfortable ride, but it also means many pelagic species like shearwaters or „pterodroma“ petrels that depend on wind to stay aloft would likely be sitting, reducing our likelihood of finding one. Ever alert to anything bobbing on the surface, we’d already retrieved the aforementioned balloons and checked many empty crap trap floats before we’d finally find a good bird resting. Three hundred yards ahead of us a small bird was perched atop a styrofoam float. We glided in knowing we were about to get great views of our next hoped for species.
Bridled Terns are smaller than the superficially similar Sooty Tern & lighter-backed with less extensive dark coloration under the wing tip. While they may be capable of sitting on water, I’ve never witnessed it, and the species is famous for finding even the tiniest bit of flotsam to rest on – a cooler lid, a small board… So much so that pelagic birders in the gulf stream purposely look for floating debris to locate this species! In flight they do indeed appear a lot more buoyant, with a snappy wingbeat than the larger Sooty Tern, and while I don’t know this for fact, I have always assumed this flight style is much less energy efficient than the Sooty’s shallow methodical pump. Anecdotally, I can provide only that I (and most others I know) regularly find Bridled’s at rest on flotsam and almost never see Sooty’s resting.
The small styrofoam buoy offered just enough surface for the bird to perch on but this was still more than was available anywhere nearby so it seemed a highly desirable perch. Another Bridled came in as we watched and brutally harried the perched bird repeatedly. They would call at each other and the perched bird would chase off the intruder after it passed, quickly spiraling back to it’s prized perch much like a hummingbird defending its favorite feeder.
It was an amazing behavior and study, reinforcing just how prized & important these perches were for these birds. Especially, if they would waste invaluable energy to defend and/or fight over a single tiny float like this. In addition, we were treated to amazing views of the birds as you can see from the image above. All of the Bridled Terns we saw were in the same plumage as this bird, non-breeding plumage, and like the Pomarine Jaegers we’d seen approaching their first birthday – in their second calendar year of life. Look closely at the raggedy edge to the wing and note the the longer feathers are the old immature feathers and are especially worn and faded. The newer, solid gray adult feathers are shorter just as in the Sooty Terns above. By summer’s end this bird will have clean, fresh flight feathers and a narrower adult wing. It is treat to see this bird at all, given it’s typical behavior, but views and images like this are amazing opportunities for study that are rarely encountered!
Seen in profile the tern does not appear too different (structurally speaking) from the nearshore species, but head on at close range like this they show a more bulky head, with more prominent ridges over the eyes, and then there is that bill. Many pelagic species like tube noses (petrels, shearwaters, etc.) have special adaptations that allow them to drink salt water and discharge saltwater. Not certain if the wide-based bill and prominent nostrils seen here are due to this or not but suspect that may be the case. I’m by no means a seabird expert, and look forward to learning something each time I encounter these seldom seen species. Part of the adventure!
Continuing on we’d encounter more Band-rumped Storm-Petrels close enough to note feather wear on the wing (also note the straw-like tube on top of the bill). We’d see schools of Bonita chasing bait fish, sharks & Loggerhead Turtles, and as always would excitedly react to flying fish lifting off the water’s surface!
We’d get MUCH closer views of Pomarine Jaegers in flight and lounging on the water’s surface at close range.
Have you ever noticed that Pomarine Jaegers show whitish tarsi and black webbed feet. Much like tall white socks under black dress shoes!
One of the 7 Pomarines we’d see was a subadult looking very much like the breeding birds with the dark cap, light face and dark breast band.
However, the full breeding-plumaged birds though would show the prominent spoon-shaped long central tail feathers (rectrices) and a fully-dark cap, and cleaner dark collar than this bird which is getting oh-so close to it’s full adult plumage.
On more than one occasion a freshly fledged juvenile Sooty Tern would offer a view of its upper surface, getting us excited that we might have located another one of our sought after target species, a Brown Noddy. However, when they’d level off they’d flash white underwings and pale under tail coverts revealing their true identities.
It was 3:30 PM and the weather was still phenomenal, glassy seas allowing the Kaity May to still cruise easily with minimal resistance. We’d reached 78 miles out and 160 foot deep seas before turning back inland. Our day was already an enormous success but as we motored back east toward Sanibel, we planned to check a few more reefs & wrecks so felt confident we could add even more surprises. As we headed inshore near top cruising speed, an all dark bird lifted off a float about 100 yards out. „Noddy in flight heading away!“ I called, pointing off the starboard bow. David had begun pursuit when Dennis yelled „STOP! there’s another still sitting on the other buoy…“ we broke off the chase as the Kaity May dropped off plane, quickly gliding to idle speed.
Brown Noddy is yet another pelagic „Tropical tern“ species and this was a new Florida year bird for Dennis & a new Lee county life bird for David & Tammy. Both are significant milestones as David & Tammy have the highest all-time, recorded Lee County list of 272 species, and Dennis has seen more birds in Florida than any other observer in 2015 with 330 species recorded and counting (the next closest are David & Tammy at 296)! They are lovely grayish brown birds with a frosted gray forehead that blends into the central crown, graceful in flight and difficult to see. This day just kept getting better!
…and occasionally glanced skyward, but otherwise just sat and allowed us to photograph it. After we tired of it, we left it and its float behind, heading once again toward the east and Sanibel. The 30 mile wreck showed no sign of the disappearing Wilson’s Storm-Petrel or my hoped for Whale Shark. Continuing east we now found ourselves among the more commonly nearshore species like Royal & Sandwich Terns, Brown Pelicans, with Magnificent Frigatebirds on high.
We’d had an amazingly productive and successful day and had no real reason to want for more, but were still discussing birds we still might add on the way in, perhaps to keep us from getting complacent as we approached the 10 hour mark on the water. I said, „I’ve found that Parasitic Jaegers are more common in shore, and had a Great Shearwater within sight of the beach once.“ David added, „…and boobies prefer the shallower water as well…“ We’d cruised almost back to shore and could make out the taller buildings and trees back on Sanibel now just 7 miles away, when I spotted a large dark bird lifting off the water and climbing toward some spiraling Frigatebirds. It was quartering away 400 yards off the port bow. It had long wings & flew with languid, arcing flaps, quickly rising to 80 feet up. „SULID!“ I yelled, and one last time, David was on the throttle and the Kaity May was once again in pursuit at over 40 mph! This time though we were not gaining on the bird still flapping away as David adjusted tack to my instructions. Happily, the bird stalled and plunged back to the water, allowing us to close the gap.
As we approached the bird lifted off once again, still 100 yards on the port (left) side. Despite the slow wingbeats it was amazing to see how deceptively fast this bird truly was maintaining its distance despite our 40 mph pursuit. Happily, the bird turned to the right (presumably to chase bait fish) giving us our first definitive views and it was now on course to fly right by the boat. Afternoon storms had blown up over the land and we were experiencing our first chop of the day making it real difficult to hold the camera steady. I was bouncing as the boat shuttered over the slight chop at top speed and the Masked Booby flying even faster. As the bird passed close behind the boat, I was at max zoom and the bird was swinging in and out of the viewfinder frame. I did my best to anticipate the next pass and depressed the shutter release half way when I caught glimpse of the bird’s dark body. The camera auto-focus responded immediately and I heard the familiar „beep“ confirming focus. I trusted the camera in this case and immediately depressed the shutter release fully, rattling off a burst of 12 frames in a second. The bird was only wholly in the frame in three of the resultant images, the best of these highlighted below. This is quite possibly the best image I will ever take of this elusive species and my favorite (and certainly most challenging) image of the day!
Sulidae (commonly referred to as Sulids) is the family of birds containing the Northern Gannet and the similar Boobies. The Masked Booby is named due to the blue ring of skin or mask encircling the base of the bill and eye. A full adult would lack the brown and be fully white with contrasting black flight feathers. However, these breeding birds are likely still on their breeding islands far to the south right now as well. This subadult, like the Jaegers and Bridled Terns before, was wandering away from typical breeding areas, but not an expected bird by any means (according to eBird this is only the second record for this species in the areas we’d explored). An incredible finish to what was already an amazing day!