July 23, 2016; Port Aransas; TRIP REPORT
The July 23rd Texas Pelagic was the first trip from Port Aransas since 2003 over 13 years ago and it was FABULOUS! This was our first time onboard the Kingfisher boat in Port Aransas and I knew right off the bat that the boat exceeded my expectations. As soon as we cleared the harbor Captain Marvin throttled up the Kingfisher and we could all tell the Kingfisher was moving faster than we usually do. My GPS confirmed that we were exceeding 16 knots just as advertised. That’s only a couple knots faster than we we’re used to but it is definitely noticeable on the water, and over the course of 16 hours it means we can cover a lot more water and make it to the shelf edge faster.
Calm 2 foot seas made for an easy and fast ride towards the shelf edge. In the predawn hours a distant thunderhead flashed bright with lightening and rain storms were off in the distance but as the morning progressed these all dissipated. We were already over 40 nautical miles offshore around daybreak and David and I were betting on what would be our first seabird of the day. Neither of us were right though as it turned out to be a Leach’s Storm-Petrel at 6:53am. Then the first flying fish started scattering from the boats bow and by 7:24 am we had a nice flock of 12 Cory’s Shearwaters obligingly sitting on the water. From all the photo’s already posted to the Texas Pelagics FaceBook group I appears that most or all of these were Scopoli’s Shearwater which is likely to be a future split from the nominate Cory’s Shearwater that is more typically found off the East Coast of the US. The seas were gradually getting smoother as the morning progressed and remained in the less than 2 foot range all day. The morning continued with single seabirds or small groups of seabirds about every 5 to 15 minutes. Audubon’s Shearwaters, lone Band-rumped Storm-Petrels, a small flock of 4 Cory’s and 5 Sooty Terns, etc.
Then some distant splashing at 9:50 am had us wondering if it might be a tuna school, but Brad thought it was mammals and sure enough shortly a nice pod of about 30 Clymene Dolphins (formerly considered as a Short-beaked variant of Spinner Dolphins) came leaping towards the bow for an extended bow ride. These small dolphins are one of the least known cetaceans and are considered rare throughout their range although in the Gulf of Mexico their population is estimated at 5,500 individuals. They have been seen twice before on Texas Pelagic trips although not in a very long time.
At 10:25 Mary and I simultaneously yelled out “whale blow”. Soon it was obvious it was a Sperm whale resting on the surface and as we moved cautiously in its direction we could see the long back and fin and the bulbous snout of the whale. It stayed on the surface for a few minutes than its characteristic arched back signaled it was preparing to dive and the tail fluke raised up out of the water to propel it down to the depths for a return to hunting giant squid.
From 7:20am until 2:00 pm we had consistent seabird and mammal activity every 5 to 15 minutes which kept our enthusiasm high. With the faster Kingfisher boat we got as far offshore as 110 miles all the way to the 500 Fathom Hump around 11:30 am at the mid-way point of our journey. It was here we laid out another big chum slick even with no birds in sight. We cruised out a few more miles than made a U-turn and doubled back over the chum. To our delight it had attracted 5 Band-rumped Storm-Petrels that continued to circle the boat for an extended close range view for everyone.
At 1:00 pm we spotted a large pod of Short-finned Pilot Whales. They gradually made their way over to the boat to investigate us and stayed around for a good long while allowing everyone good viewing and photography opportunities. Shortly after the pilot whales we came across one or two flocks of 10+ Sooty Terns. During these observations Kelly spotted a Parasitic Jaeger chasing a Sooty Tern. But even more surprising was Arman’s photograph (that he posted a couple days later) revealing a Common Gallinule flying by in the same frame as the Jaeger-Tern chase melee! Not what you’d expect 100 miles offshore but last year we found a Sora being chased by a Jaeger. There was some question whether we had one or two jaegers, but the photo evidence now points to only one Parasitic Jaeger.
Seabird activity gradually tapered off around 2:30 pm as we neared the shelf edge on our cruise back into Port Aransas. It wasn’t until 3:43 pm that we spotted our first 2 Laughing Gulls of the day. Even though we strung together cruising past seven anchored shrimp boats we didn’t manage to add any more pelagic species around them. It wasn’t until we were closer to land at 6:40 pm that we finally found our 10th pelagic species of the day two Magnificent Frigatebirds.
I always have high expectations for our trips and was asked a couple times during the day if this trip had exceeded my expectations. It was around 11 am after the Sperm Whale when I decided the seabirds and marine mammals were putting on a great show that the expectations hurdle had been exceeded, and the trip just kept getting better from there. We had at 10 pelagic species including the unidentified “all dark” shearwater. We just can’t seem to break the 10 species record, yet!
I want to thank our leaders who I depend on and who do a great job of finding the seabirds and helping everyone out; in alphabetical order: Arman Moreno, Brad McKinney, Dwight Peake, Eric Carpenter, Erik Bruhnke, John O’Brien, Kelly Smith, Mary Gustafson and Randy Pinkston. And thank you to all our pelagic seabirders who come out on our trips so often to help make these trips possible. And to all our new pelagic people I hope this experience has broadened your birding horizons and opened up the great world of oceanic seabirds and marine life to you. I hope you’re hooked on pelagic birding and will consider joining us again in the near future.
Also thanks to Marvin, the captain of the Kingfisher and the crew Glen and Poacher for doing a great job of getting us out onto the open Gulf.
There are three more Texas Pelagic trips scheduled for this year, all from South Padre Island on August 27th, September 17th and October 8th. All the details are on my website www.texaspelagics.com , I hope you’ll all decide to join us on at least one of these trips.
It’s not just birding, It is an Adventure!
Also if you’re interested in keeping up 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.
FINAL TRIP LIST :
PELAGIC SEABIRDS SEEN: 10 Species and 103 individual seabirds.
Cory’s Shearwater – 26
Audubon’s Shearwater – 5
Leach’s Storm-Petrel -2
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel – 22
Magnificent Frigatebird – 2
Masked Booby – 1
Sooty Tern – 35
Bridled Tern – 1
Parasitic Jaeger – 1
All dark Shearwater (Sooty?) – 1
Storm petrel Sp – 6
Onychoprion sp. – 1
Brown Pelican – 10
Laughing Gull – 63
Black Tern – 205
Royal Tern – 3
Sandwich Tern – 5
Common Gallinule – 1
Least Sandpiper – 1
MARINE MAMMALS: – 1
Sperm Whale – 1
Short-finned Pilot Whales – 65
Clymene Dolphins – 30 +
Bottlenose Dolphins – 6
Flying Fish – many
Here is a map of the trip track as recorded by my GPS.
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