For the Birds Radio Program: Ocean Birds

Original Air Date: Aug. 27, 1997

This is about a trip Laura made last week to the Atlantic Ocean. (4:04) Date confirmed.

Audio missing


Last week I went to Ocean City, Maryland, for a birding trip out into the ocean deep. An excursion far from shore like this is called a pelagic trip. My boat left shore at 1 am Sunday, and the 30 or so birders aboard immediately set up sleeping bags and slept until first light. When I got on, I gazed at the moon for a long time before the boat took off in the sparkling water. Then I, too, fell asleep.

When the sun came up, I looked out to see three birds of a species I’d never seen before. They had long, slender wings like dainty albatrosses. Their bills seemed gull-like, but with tube-like structures running along the upper mandible, putting them into a group called tubenoses. These odd beak structures are actually glands that filter excess salt from their blood. The trip leader called out on the intercom that these were Greater Shearwaters—lifers!

There were about 20 small birds skimming the waves on either side of the boat—delicate little creatures with swallow-like wingbeats. I’d seen Wilson’s Storm-Petrels before. This is a pelagic species that spends a lot of time near shore, and I’d added it to my lifelist four years before when taking a ferry from Long Island to Connecticut. So it wasn’t new, but was sure a welcome sight for tameness and graceful daintiness.

After such a lovely awakening, reality jolted me when the rocking boat threw me into one of the guard rails, bruising my leg and arm. The heady feeling I had from adding a new lifer was already starting to be overpowered by a sick feeling in the pit of my stomach. I’ve never been seasick before, so I hadn’t taken any precautions before the trip. I tried eating a nectarine in hopes that it would settle my stomach, but no such luck, and before I knew it, the nectarine was beating a speedy path into the ocean. I was sick, and throwing up, for six long hours. It was pretty funny, because a storm-petrel followed in my wake, eating nectarine bits as fast as my stomach could eject them. Even in my miserable state, I marveled at the grand cycle of nature, which can send nectarines grown on a tree rooted into solid ground in the American tropics into the stomach of a water bird in the Atlantic Ocean, over 50 miles from any land.

Through my bleary eyes, I added two more new shearwaters, Cory’s and Audubon’s, during the course of the morning. By mid-afternoon, I was feeling much better, but by then we were hitting a low point bird-wise, going over two hours in mid-afternoon without seeing a single one.

As we started drawing closer to land once again at the end of the afternoon, someone spotted a White-faced Storm-Petrel, a crowd pleaser even for this group of jaded listers because it was a first state record off the Maryland coast. To boost my lifers to five, we also spotted a host of tiny phalaropes spinning like tops in the deep water to churn up insects and microscopic fish. Most of them were Red-necked Phalaropes, which I’ve seen in Minnesota and Wisconsin, but there was at least one Red Phalarope, my last lifer of the day.

We drew into shore an hour later than scheduled with a trip list of only about 10 species from out beyond shore, but fully half of them were lifers. I’ll go on pelagic trips again sometime, but in the future I’ll prepare myself for seasickness ahead of time. And just in case, I think I’ll leave the nectarines at home.