I had heard about these amazing pelagic birding trips and wanted to try one myself for quite some time. A boat trip that goes many miles out into the ocean in search of sea birds that spend the majority of their lives at sea, sounds like an amazing time to me! I grew up going fishing in the Delaware Bay with my father and I truly love being out on the water. With my new found love of bird photography this seemed like a no brainer. I booked my first trip with Sea Life Paulagics for November 17th out of Lewes, Delaware and I was counting down the days, hoping the weather would hold out.
As you can see in the photo above we had a gorgeous morning to start off the trip and after a 3 hour drive that had me waking up at 2am this was a welcome sight. The amazing birding began before there was even enough light to take the first photograph with my first sighting of a Great Cormorant on the way out of the port. By the time we were cruising by this beautiful lighthouse there were a few Northern Gannets already flying by the boat along with the occasional Red-throated Loon and a few small groups of Scoters.
Just after the flurry of action in the beginning things started to slow down quite a bit. For a few hours there wasn't much happening, just a few Herring and Laughing gulls were following the boat picking up the occasional chum being thrown out. I took this time to enjoy some of the fellow birders and got a chance to get to know the owner and guide Paul Guris who was incredibly knowledgeable and could not have been more nice.
Slowly things started to pick up and before I knew it there was a great group of birds following the chum that was being used to bait them closer to the boat. There was a good mix of gulls including Herring, Laughing, Great Black-backed, and Lesser Black-backed with the occasional Gannet hanging around for a while. Having this group of birds was key to seeing some of the more interesting birds I was told, as it helps to attract them to see what all the fuss is about. I was about to find out how true that was.
I was a complete novice on this trip. I have been photographing birds for a bit over five years now and I still have so much to learn. I'm getting much better with identifying more common birds to my area with ease and even starting to get some of the more rare birds down. This being my first pelagic trip I knew I wouldn't have a clue about the identity of most of these birds that live out at sea and I'm so glad I chose to go with Sea Life Paulagics. Paul and his crew of "leaders" were scattered throughout the boat and as soon as any bird of interest would show up in their binoculars they would call out, even using radios to communicate with each other to let everyone know what was coming and where. It was a perfect trip for any birder, beginner or advanced and the knowledge and ID skills that the crew possessed was astounding.
One of the first interesting birds to come along was a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull. This bird was flying behind the boat for multiple periods of 15-20 minutes at a time and I would not have even known it was there had it not been for Paul pointing it out to me. He began to explain some of the subtle differences between this bird and the many juvenile Herring Gulls that were flying all around it. Paul pointed out the difference in the overall color of the underside of the wings, the contrast in the tail as well as the barred (striped) pattern on the tail indicating that it was a first-year bird. After going over this a few times and really comparing this bird next to all the others I was able to start seeing it myself. After an hour or so when this particular Lesser Black-backed Gull would fly away and then return I was able to pick it right out of the flock, what a learning experience!
As the trip went on, it was a 12 hour trip by the way, more and more interesting birds started showing up, most of them I was seeing for the first time in my life. They called out a Black-legged Kittiwake that made two quick passes behind the boat, once coming close enough for me to get a decent shot. Getting a decent shot was really fun too while trying to keep a flying bird in the frame with a 400mm lens while on a constantly rocking and rolling boat! A group of Bonaparte's Gulls flew by disappointingly far away so that I could barely make them out through the camera only to have another one make a closeup appearance a while later and stare right down at me.
When we reached about 30 miles out (I think that's what I heard) we came upon a scalloping boat that had a large flock of birds already following it. Since our trip was all about seeing birds the captain kindly drove directly behind that scallop boat while chumming like crazy and did their best to steal as many birds as possible. It was a success! Leading up to this point I had gotten a few far away and not to decent photos of the Greater Shearwater. After this boat maneuver we ended up having so many of these beautiful birds all around us I almost got tired of taking photos. Left, right, above, even below in the water, Greater Shearwaters were flying everywhere as gulls swooped in and Northern Gannets dove from above, the action was intense and there were photographs to be had everywhere. It was one of the most exciting birding experience of my life!
After about an hour or so of the intense action things started to mellow out as we headed back to port. At this point we still had a good number and variety of birds following the boat but the light had gotten a little worse for photography so I just watched these amazing birds follow the boat. It baffles me how the Greater Shearwater can be flying into the wind, up and down with the waves, keeping barely inches off the surface and keep up with the moving boat all while barely flapping it's wings, what an amazing flier. Getting the chance to see these birds up close and to watch their flying skills it is easy to see how so many different birds have adapted to life on the ocean.
Getting the chance to watch the sun rise and set from out on the water was another great perk of the trip. Once it was dark I went into the cabin to rest my eyes for a bit, not to mention my feet, it's not easy standing on a rocking boat all day but you really don't notice it until the end. I got the chance to meet some great people, enjoy a day on the ocean, and see and photograph some amazing birds, it was a perfect trip. I highly recommend looking into a trip with Sea Life Paulagics and maybe I'll see you one one since I'll definitely be doing this again.