Birds Farther than the Eye Can See

June 11, 2011

This week (4-11 June 2011) we have recorded 271 individuals of 22 species in the strip transect, a fairly typical crossection of the late-spring avifauna of the western north Atlantic. As expected, Wilson’s storm-petrel, arriving from sub-Antarctic breeding islands, was the most abundant seabird. We sited 47 Leach’s storm petrels this week– more than expected in this area. A wayward Leach’s storm-petrel even stranded itself on deck during the night, no doubt disoriented by the ship’s lights in the fog. The bird was successfully released after spending a few hours resting and drying its feathers in a cozy box. Many are not so lucky.

This Leach's storm petrel had a chance to dry off before going on its merry way.

The globally abundant sooty shearwater, another southern hemisphere breeding species,  was second in abundance. The third most abundant bird we recorded this week was Cory’s shearwaters (apparently of both recognized subspecies, Calonectris diomedea diomedea, of the Mediterranean, and C.d. borealis, which nests on Macaronesian islands).

While out at see, we can always count on the unexpected, and our first week did not disappoint. A bridled tern seen far offshore near Hudson Canyon south of Long Island, was a bit of a surprise, providing one of very few spring records of this bird in the New York Bight. Bridled terns are a subtropical and tropical species, most often associated with the Gulf Stream in North Atlantic waters. Another surprise near the Hudson Canyon was a great skua, a species that nests in sub-Arctic latitudes of the western Palearctic. It is considered a rare winter visitor to the New York Bight, though this may have more to do with the scarcity of observers at that time of year than with the actual abundance of great skuas!

By far, the avian highlight this week was not a seabird at all, but rather a lost passerine. An immature male yellow-headed blackbird visited the Henry B. Bigelow 70 nautical miles south of Montauk, NY. Yellow headed blackbirds are a visually striking western North American passerine that nests in marshes from the Rocky Mountain and Great Basin east to the western Great Lakes. Just what one was doing in shelf waters of the western Atlantic Ocean in June is anybody’s guess; however, its unexpected arrival was most likely a result of the “reverse migration” phenomenon – when young birds on their first migration go on a route 180 degrees from the route they ought to be taking. In any event, whatever the cause of its vagrancy, this unexpected and colorful songbird charmed everyone when he settled on the foredeck one afternoon. By the following morning, he was gone, whereabouts unknown, perhaps to become an exotic lunch for a hungry skua or gull.

from birders: Michael Force and Christopher Vogel

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