Texas Pelagics"It's Not Just Birding, It's an Adventure"
Pelagic Birding Did Explore in “Ninety-Four’ by Dwight Peake and Mark Elwonger
For the better part of the twentieth century, pelagic birding in Texas was limited to documentation of dead or dying birds that washed or were blown ashore. These records, sometimes spawned by hurricanes, suggested that there might be interesting birds beyond the Gulf horizon, but few birders had the time, energy and financing to go offshore in earnest search of birds.
As birding became established as an acceptable pursuit and birders became organized, people began going offshore, particularly on the west coast. Trip organizers in California, Oregon and Washington would regularly return with new records for the North American List, and interest on the west coast intensified. In the early 80’s, however, it was still difficult to get offshore in Maine to see petrels, shearwaters, or even Atlantic puffins. But when memberships in urban Audubon societies grew, and people became competitive about boosting their “species lists”, whale-watching and pelagic birding became established on the east coast as well.
In Texas, charter boat operators at Port Aransas took note and it became possible for birders to pool their resources and hire a boat for a day to explore the near-shore snapper banks and rigs. These regularly produced new and interesting records for Cory’s Shearwaters, Masked Boobies and Pomarine Jaegers, and served to whet the appetite of previously landlocked Texas listers. They also introduced us to the hours of boredom often associated with such ventures, as well as the occasional bouts of “mal de mer”. While operating one or two of these tours a year for the various Audubon Society chapters, it became evident that a) birders had to compete with fisherman for good charter boats, who were keen to fish at the times when birding was thought best, and b) it was a good 70 miles to the 150-fathom line from Port Aransas, and the catamarans used by fishing charter operators were stable but quite slow. It was just not practical for a 10-knot boat to canvas the depths beyond the shelf.
In August 1991, Ronnie Carroll attended a charter fishing boat trip out of Port Isabel into the waters off northern Mexico where deeper water is closer to shore than off Texas. Upon seeing band-rumped storm-petrels and bridled terns, he recognized the real potential for birding beyond the Continental Shelf in Texas. Carroll organized a pelagic trip going offshore from Port Isabel in September 1992, and despite the high cost ($250 per person) to the participants , this trip was very successful. Carroll chartered the Scat-cat for a 20 hour trip later in the same month and explored waters at the edge of the Continental Shelf off Port Aransas and again saw Bridled Tern and Audubon’s Shearwater.
Following Carroll’s lead, David Bradford led a Scat-cat trip in October, 1992 which spent a short time at the Shelf edge and an Audubon’s type shearwater was again spotted. The foresight of past TOS president Dr. Robert Benson enabled Carroll and Dwight Peake to be volunteer bird observers in the Gulfcet project of Texas A&M. Sponsored by the Minerals Management Service of the U.S. Dept, of the Interior, the project would survey the waters beyond the Continental Shelf in the Northern Gulf of Mexico for marine mammals; there numerous pelagic bird records, including Brown Noddy and White-tailed Tropicbird, reinforced the need to go beyond the Shelf if one desires to see pelagic species.
A pelagic trip out of Galveston in May1993 again demonstrated that the Continental Shelf is too wide there to allow routine deep water pelagic trips, but the brief time spent in 1000 foot water produced Bridled Tern. In August and September of 1993, Carroll arranged more trips from Port Mansfield using fast 25-knot/hour marlin boats. These trips were highly successful and large numbers of Audubon’s shearwaters were seen with Band-rumped Storm-Petrels. The shelf is much closer to shore at Port Mansfield as well, allowing for more time in deep water. But they were still very expensive birding trips ($250 per person), due to the small group size and the cost of the boat and fuel.
Birders on the central coast in 1993 had been in contact with Hustler Marine Inc., an oil rig crewboat operator, and nearshore reports of sooty shearwater and masked booby began to trickle in based on local fishing and dive charters. So, by building on a mailing list begun by Carroll and Bradford, Mark Elwonger organized a series of trips from November to January out of Port O’Connor. Each of these three trips was canceled due to rough seas, and not due to lack of participation. The word began to spread, and with the help of local Audubon newsletters, the T.O.S newsletter, and A. B A.’s “Winging It”, we began our mailing list development in earnest.
Our first mailing of 1994 was to about 160 Texas birders, and resulted in full booking of the next three trips. The tension of our first trip in May was broken after a long, quiet, anxious wait when, six hours after leaving port, we encountered our first Band-rumped Storm-Petrels. This was a turning point for pelagic binding in Texas. We then saw dolphins, two whale sharks, tuna schools, and a Greater Shearwater!
Our next two trips began in 3-5 foot seas, with occasional six-foot swells. Going out against the chop, the seas were a bit rough for some, who took temporary solace leaning over the rail. In July, the seas settled down a bit and we managed another successful trip with good looks at storm-petrels and shearwaters. In August, however, the seas remained somewhat rough all day; while participants were not disappointed we concluded that if the forecast is for 4-6 foot seas to last all day, the best policy would be to cancel (for full refund) at the dock.
We were due for good weather in September, and we got it. The first major norther’ of fall had blown through 36 hours earlier, leaving blue skies and high pressure in its wake. Best of all, the sargassum lines that were lacking on the last two trips were back, and so were the dark-backed terns. There was even a sighting of rare Clymene Dolphins. Peake said “on the basis of recording nine pelagic species, this was the best pelagic trip yet for Texas”.
The 65-foot long Chip XI is a fast and safe twin-diesel cruiser, U.S. Coast Guard certified with AC and all electronics. It has a walk-around cabin with complete railing and canopied seating on a large back deck. It is operated by licensed captains and professional crews. It will do 17 knots per hour in calm seas and can manage about 12 knots in 3-4 foot chop. The ability of this boat to reach the continental slope in less than six hours means that now birders can spend at least six hours per trip beyond the 150-fathom curve, and perhaps longer on calm days. This is, we believe, the most economical and practical pelagic birding currently available in Texas.
Besides the Bobolink, Savannah Sparrow, Waterthrush, American Coot, Red-necked Phalarope, Masked Boobies, Sooty Terns and Cory’s Shearwaters, our first four pelagic trips from POC resulted in the submission of fourteen records to the T.O.S. records committee. These are birds with less than twenty accepted sightings within 200 miles of shore, and include:
Greater Shearwater – May
Sooty Shearwater – Jul
Audubon’s Shearwater – 16 in May, 7 in Sep
Leach’s Storm-Petrel – 4 in May, 4 in Jul, 7 in Aug, 1 in Sep
Band-rumped Storm-Petrel – 26 in May, 9 in Jul, 4 in Aug, 6 in Sep
Bridled Tern – 18 in May, 20 in Sep
Pelagic birding is not for everyone. There are long periods of monotony, tedium and boredom. Seas can be rough, especially when heading into the wind. And, particularly in the 2-3 hours before daybreak, some folks lose their equilibrium and become seasick. You and your binoculars can get soaked in salt spray. You can lose your balance and fall down hard. In a medical emergency, it can be hours before you can get treatment. So why do it? Because there’s a great sense of anticipation and discovery. Because pelagic birds are neat and interesting to watch.
And because it’s fun!
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