Pelagic Birding off Cape Hatteras, NC

by Brian Patteson of Seabirding Gulf Stream Pelagic Trips

The close proximity of the warm Gulf Stream current, cooler Labrador Current, and the edge of the continental shelf make the waters off Cape Hatteras some of the best for seabirds in the western North Atlantic.  Consequently, just 20 to 30 miles offshore there is a crossroads in the ocean for birds which breed in the Arctic, the Antarctic, the tropics, and the eastern Atlantic.  Such close proximity makes it possible for boat trips here to see both large numbers and a good diversity of pelagic bird species over the course of a 10- to 11-hour trip.  Over the past five decades many hundreds of dedicated birding trips have revealed numerous surprises about the distribution of our pelagic birds and important discoveries continue to be made each year.

The pelagic seabirds that occur off Cape Hatteras come from all over the Atlantic Ocean and breed during different seasons.  A trip on any day of the year could conceivably yield interesting sightings and a diverse list of species.  Nevertheless, certain times of year have proven to be more consistently productive than others.  For a chance to see most of the summer visitors, the period from mid-May through September is usually the best time, and most trips during this time frame average seeing 8 to 12 true pelagic species. Exceptional trips in late spring or late summer might find 15 or more species of pelagic seabirds. The list of seabirds recorded over the years is long and includes nearly all of the seabirds seen in the western North Atlantic. 23 species of tubenoses have been seen here, including five species of Pterodroma!   

Most trips encounter Black-capped Petrel in good numbers, and this is remarkable considering it is a threatened species with a small total population. Black-caps are occasionally seen on trips to deep water off the mid-Atlantic and southern New England and are regularly found in the Gulf Stream south to Northern Florida, but only on longer voyages- often overnighters.  It is possible to see Black-capped Petrels within two or three hours of leaving the dock in Hatteras.

Black-capped Petrel by Brian Patteson

Black-capped Petrel by Brian Patteson

Cory’s, Greater, and Audubon’s Shearwaters, Band-rumped and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and Bridled Terns are seen on most trips during spring and summer.  Several other species seen in good numbers at certain times of this period include Sooty and Manx Shearwaters, Leach’s Storm-Petrel, Red-necked Phalarope, all three jaegers, South Polar Skua, and Arctic and Sooty Terns.  Rare and uncommon species seen most years include Trindade Petrel, Fea’s Petrel, Bermuda Petrel, European Storm-Petrel, White-tailed and Red-billed Tropicbirds, and Brown and Masked Boobys. A numbers of “Mega-Rarities” have been seen over the years including a few that have not yet been confirmed elsewhere off the East Coast- Zino’s Petrel, Bulwer’s Petrel, Cape Verde Shearwater, Swinhoe’s Storm-Petrel and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel!

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel by Brian Patteson

Band-rumped Storm-Petrel by Brian Patteson

Cold water temperatures between January and March bring another mix of pelagic birds to the continental shelf off Cape Hatteras.  These frequently include Northern Fulmar, Manx Shearwater, Great Skua, and a variety of alcids.  The continuing presence of warm water in the Gulf Stream (usually in excess of 70 degrees) can be good for large numbers of Red Phalaropes and even modest numbers of Black-capped Petrels, the latter of which is breeding in the Carribean at this time.  Most winter trips all but ignore the Gulf Stream and focus on the colder Labrador Current, however, as the key species are mostly in the cooler water and along its interface with the Gulf Stream rather than the Gulf Steam interior.

South Polar Skua by Brian Patteson

South Polar Skua by Brian Patteson

Bridled Tern by Brian Patteson

Bridled Tern by Brian Patteson

Pelagic birding trips off North Carolina during winter did not really get going until the mid 1990’s, although there had been over two decades of winter trips run from Ocean City, MD and Virginia Beach, VA prior to that.  After running trips from the latter two ports for many years, doing winter trips off Cape Hatteras during January, February, and March was a revelation.  We found that we did not need to go very far offshore at all on some days to see birds that we traveled 40 to 60 miles out to find up north.  Great Skua had become more difficult to find regularly off VA and MD since the development of the 200 mile Exclusive Economic Zone had forced big foreign fishing trawlers and their attendant gull flocks off our shelf.  But off Cape Hatteras, we began to see skuas on most of our winter trips quite close to shore among the gulls and gannets.

White-tailed Tropicbird by Brian Patteson

White-tailed Tropicbird by Brian Patteson

Trinidade Petrel by Kate Sutherland

Trinidade Petrel by Kate Sutherland

Razorbill, which we often saw in small or modest numbers on trips farther north, is sometimes abundant off Cape Hatteras, with hundreds seen on a number of trips.  On March 14, 1998, we tallied 549 Northern Fulmars on a trip from Hatteras, and on Feb. 5, 2000 after watching a couple of Great Skuas, we found a Yellow-nosed Albatross just three miles off Avon, NC!  In February 2012 we found a Black-browed Albatross right outside Hatteras Inlet and two years later we found another Yellow-nosed on the north side of the Cape.  Neither Dovekies nor Atlantic Puffins are usually as common here as they are farther north, but other species and spectacles, including enormous numbers of Northern Gannets and gulls (often including Little Gull among the abundant Bonaparte’s), make Cape Hatteras a great destination for winter pelagic birding.

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We occasionally run trips at other seasons and there are always some pelagic seabirds to be found although diversity can sometimes be low in late fall and early spring.  Of all the species that we see, Black-capped Petrels can be seen off Hatteras on any given day of the year. Unlike most pelagic birding organizers we operate our own vessel for these trips. Having the boat is a great advantage and gives us a degree of flexibility that would otherwise be impossible. It is no problem for us to run private charters and we can run our trips with small groups. At sea, we can quickly position the boat for nice looks at birds and other marine life, and we are always in control of our destiny.  All of our trips are limited to partial capacity of the vessel so as to ensure there is plenty of room on deck and a chance to get help from our guides.  We also chum steadily to keep birds close and for easy observation and photo ops.

Anyone with an interest in seabirds should make a trip off Hatteras at some point. Seeing the Black-capped Petrel and the Gulf Stream is well worth the trip!

Visit the Seabirding Pelagic Trips website for tour schedule.

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