S Padre Is June 4, 2016 TRIP REPORT:

We kicked off the 2016 Texas Pelagic season from South Padre Island with about 2-3 foot seas as we cleared the jetties. There was a large squall line about 30 miles to the north of us that was moving away from our location. To our north lightening flashed in the far distance from the huge line of thunderstorms that extended from north of Port Mansfield hundreds of miles to past Houston according to weather radar. This was part of the same huge low pressure system that has been rotating counterclockwise over Texas for more than a week bringing record rainfalls and flooding to large parts of the state. This was fortunate for the time being but the trip was still somewhat weather challenged. As sunrise approached we found ourselves in a half and half weather pattern. To the south of us the skies were clear. As we progressed eastward towards the shelf edge the skies to the west of us gradually clouded up as another band of storms formed gradually heading in our direction.

The only birds we saw over the shelf were a few Royal Terns and a couple Black Terns. No shrimpers were present because the shrimp season hadn’t started yet, so there was little reason to linger anywhere over the shelf. We didn’t spot our first seabird, a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, until we were well beyond the shelf edge at 10:14 am. This was followed by another half dozen storm-petrels some of which were close enough to ID as Leach’s and Band-rumped, while others stayed just a bit too far out to be sure if they were either Leach’s or Band-rumpeds.

We had a bit of excitement at 10:24 when a wheeling and arcing shearwater put on its best imitation of a Pterodroma petrel. The winds had starting gusting to over 20 mph then as a band of showers were approaching us from the west. So this Cory’s Shearwater did it’s best to take advantage of the lift to arc high left and right as it crossed our bow. I don’t ever recall seeing Cory’s Shearwaters exhibit this flight style but then I guess I haven’t seen them in high winds before.

We cruised out 55 miles to about 2,700′ of water before turning back west towards the shelf edge. We had a few light showers but nothing that prevented us from continuing to look for seabirds for more than a couple minutes.

I was manning my lookout station on the upper deck bow with Phyllis scanning ahead when I luckily had a whale blow than surface directly ahead in my binocular view at 10:57. Phyllis saw it too and so did Captain Bobby. It was brownish in color and I thought I could make out white markings on its head. It was a Mesoplodon species or possibly a Cuvier’s Beaked Whale. We slowed down to wait around for a few minutes to see if it surfaced again, but it didn’t, which is typical for beaked whales.

After reaching about 1,500 foot water depth we turned to the north to contour along the shelf edge. We continued chumming and eventually drew in a couple more Storm-Petrels. We did manage to keep some of the Storm-Petrels investigating our chum for some time but birds were still scarce.

Around 1pm a dark storm front loomed to the west so we turned south then west to try to avoid the worst looking parts of it. We spotted a couple waterspouts before we reached the rain front. By now the winds had shifted first out of the north than out of the west so we were once again fighting a head sea of about 3 feet on the return cruise. We continued through the heavy rains for about 90 minutes. The rains eventually tapered off to light enough showers where it was possible to continue searching for birds without getting too wet.

We found more black terns on the cruise back in and then suddenly I spotted a huge shark right in front of the boat at 3 pm. I yelled to Captain Bobby to stop as we cruised right over it. Within a few minutes the shark surfaced again and then several more times until we were able to determine it was a Great Hammerhead by the distinctive and definitive shape of the dorsal fin. The distance from the dorsal fin to the tail fin was about 6 feet which would make this shark about 10 feet long!

So the part everyone’s really wanting, What did we see?

Cory’s Shearwater – 1
Leach’s Storm-Petrel – 1 or 2
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel – 2
Unidentified storm Petrels – 5 or 6

Royal Terns
Laughing Gull
Black Tern
Least Tern

Mesoplodon species Beaked Whale (Cuvier’s) – 1
Inshore Bottlenose Dolphins – 6

Great Hammerhead – 1 about 10′ long
Flyingfish – many:
Sailfin flyingfish:  iridescent greenish blue and silver
Margined flyingfish – 2 very big ones I spotted in deep water were the dark iridescent blue and silver 
Sea hare, sea slug or aplysia (a marine gastropod mollusk) were flapping through the turquoise water near the jetties

So why so few pelagic seabirds? It’s hard to know for sure but it’s been our collective experience that trips that are run after big storm activity in the Gulf sometimes don’t see very many birds. It’s possible the seabirds move out away from areas where these storms occur. This past week there had been wave after wave of huge storm fronts moving offshore from the Texas coast and sweeping eastward across the offshore waters. A seabird can easily cover many hundreds of miles in a day and may find locating food easier in areas without lots of storm activity. These storm fronts may also disrupt surface circulation patterns that can localize birds along boundaries of current loops. Sometimes the weather just doesn’t cooperate. And on this day even though the seas ranged from 2-3 ft on the way out, to 3-5 feet during the mid-day, to 1-2 ft by the end of the trip, it was a very confused wind and wave system. We started the day with SE winds of less than 10 knots, experienced higher gusts during storms and then the winds shifted to north and finally west. This produced a 3′ westerly wave chop over 3-4 ft southeast swell, which made for a rough ride at times.

Once again our leaders did an outstanding job spotting birds and providing commentary on the seabirds and marine life we were observing. I want to thank our leaders in alphabetical order: Dwight Peake, Eric Carpenter, John O’Brien, Kelly Smith, Mary Gustafson and Petra Hockey. Also the captain and crew of the recently renovated Osprey: Captain Bobby and the Mates Dillon, Fabian and Clay did a fantastic job as well.

The next Texas Pelagic is on July 23rd from Port Aransas. This could be an exciting trip! There hasn’t been a Pelagic trip run out of Port A in 12 years. It has proven to be a good location in the past, but securing a boat for pelagic birding has been a problem since it is such a popular fishing destination. Following that there are still 3 more Texas Pelagics from South Padre Island. The complete schedule can be found here:
https://texaspelagics.com/2016-schedule-2/ I hope you’ll join us.

Also if you’re interested in keeping with future trip plans and trip reports you can now sign-up for our newsletter on the home page of our website. Just look in the right-hand column and fill in the form.

Good Seabirding,
Gary Hodne
Texas Pelagics


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