We had a choppy ocean for our 2019 Alabama pelagic trip.
I find Alabama to be a fine state for birding. The dullest portion of the year is mid-summer, but that is brief and the state is still full of breeding birds. For about 10 months of the year, birds are moving into and around the state making each birding day different and fun. The Alabama coast is small but very birdy with Mobile Bay, Dauphin Island and the Bon Secour Peninsula providing diverse coastal habitats. Where Alabama falls down in relation to nearly all other states with a coastline is in opportunities for pelagic birding. To put it bluntly, pelagic birding in Alabama stinks.
A set of factors combines to make pelagic birding not so fun for Alabama birders. First, deep water lies way way off the coast of Alabama. Between the birdy inshore water which can be birded thoroughly from the beach and true pelagic waters with a chance for storm-petrels and shearwaters, there is about 50 miles of shallow continental shelf which birds call "the dead zone". So, to get to water where you even have a chance for interesting pelagic birds you have to take a boat 60 or more miles south of the Alabama coast. That means you have to undertake all day boat trips for a few tens of minutes birding in deep water. Louisiana sticks way over to the east, riding under neighboring Gulf states, such that Alabama is pinched by the Florida and Louisiana borders. There is only a narrow little strip of water to search for Alabama pelagics. So pelagic birding in Alabama is typically long long hours with a relatively small chance of seeing interesting birds even when you arrive. If you want to see pelagic birds in Alabama, however, you have no choice but to suck it up and get on the boat.
We had an enthusiastic and durable group for out pelagic trip.
Fifteen intrepid state listers climbed onto our charter boat and headed out at 6:30am on Sat, Aug. 10. It was calm at the dock but as we passed under the bridge at Perdido Pass we could see some modest-sized thunder storms ahead of us to the south. As luck would have it, me missed a direct hit by a thunderstorm all day but the storms gave the water some chop. We bounced and rolled all day on the boat. It wasn’t what any captain would call a rough day but it certainly wasn’t calm either.
As the skyline of Orange Beach faded behind us, we started to see feeding flocks of terns but every bird ended up being a Black Tern. We ran into these little guys all the way out to the deepest water, and unfortunately, they were never joined by our target terns—Sooty or Bridled.
We started the pelagic portion of our trip about 60 miles out where there are now a few deep-water rigs. We were hoping for Brown Boobie or maybe a tropical tern perched on the structures and were surprised to find a big flock of Lauphing Gulls and a few Royal Terns. I had always thought that these inshore birds were very rare more than about 30 miles offshore. It seems that the human structures have attracted some offshore populations.
Band-rumped Storm-petrel was one of two deepwater birds that we found on our pelagic trip.
We only had about 45 minutes of so to look for pelagic birds in deep water so we went a couple of miles south of the oil platforms and created a big fish oil slick by pouring have a bottle of the menhaden oil I brought. We then dripped oil as we chugged further south before turning around to drive back up the narrow slick to the big patch we had created. It worked. As we came back to the big oil patch there was a storm-petrel flying above it. The consensus was likely Band-rumped given impressions of rump patch and flight but nobody got a definitive look. Fortunately, Jordan Broadhead has gotten really got at getting photos of moving birds from a moving boat and he got an impressively clear photo that confirmed Band-rumped. We moved out and swung around again there was another storm-petrel over the slick. This bird was doing the classic patterning on the water while fluttering its wings. It looked smaller and shorter-winged than the first bird with a more distinct carpel bar. Everyone was thinking Wilson’s and Jordan came through again. His photo clearly showed feet projecting past the tail (a field mark that as far as I know no one saw in life). It was a Wilson’s Storm-petrel. Our third pass by the slick produced our third storm petrel. This bird gave us a better look and everyone was confident that it was a Band-rumped, which was confirmed by Jordan’s photos.
Wilson's Storm-petrel was the second of the pelagic species that we saw on our trip.
That was it—for the moment, for the area past the oil platforms, and pretty much for the day. We spent another fifteen minutes cruising deep water with only a few Black Terns spotted. We watched diligently on the way back but we only saw two additional noteworthy birds—a Magnificent Frigatebird at about the 50 mile point (Jim Holmes’ ebird lists have exact positions) and oddly a Yellow Warbler flying strongly about 50 miles out.
All in all, it was a tough day of seabirding. There were very few birds of interest. The three storm-petrels were all seen within about a 15 minute period, so there was 15 minutes of fast action and 11 hours and 45 minutes up bouncing around in the boat. Even when we spotted good birds, not everyone saw them. The boat was rocking enough that it was very hard to maintain balance and the birds stayed mostly a hundred feet or more away from the boat and and were constantly moving. I kept kneeling down to get steady enough to view the birds and my knees are black and blue today from the effort.
There have been so few pelagic bird trips in the history of Alabama birding that is hard to really predict exactly what is waiting offshored. This year, with so much water coming down the Mississippi and Alabama rivers, there is no bluewater (at least no within range of day trips). We saw patches of water hyacinth out at our maximum southern location, so even 60 miles out is being flushed with river debris. Maybe normal or drier years are the better years to plan pelagic trips.
I wish we had seen a few more deep-water birds, but I’m glad we did the trip and I’ll definitely do it again. Getting out to deep water, however, is the only way that you have a chance to see a bird like a storm-petrel in Alabama.