*Meeting time 5:15 am at Hatteras Landing Marina in Hatteras, NC for Hatteras trips from May to late June, 5:30 July to mid August, 5:45 for late August, 6:15 for Sept 13 & 14, and 6:30 for the October trip. Our winter trips meet at 0600.
Directions – Hatteras
Our boat, the Stormy Petrel II is located in Hatteras Village at Hatteras Landing Marina. The marina is nestled beside the Hatteras Inlet Ferry docks and is tucked behind a large storefront with Kitty Hawk Kites and several other shops. Unlike the other charter boat docks in Hatteras you will NOT see our marina from the highway. To get to Hatteras Landing, take NC Highway 12 south through Hatteras Village just past Teach’s Lair Marina and turn right where you see a sign for the “Villas at Hatteras Landing.” Proceed past the Villas and turn right by the trash dumpsters. Park where there is space on this side of the parking lot which is adjacent to (& facing) the Ferry lot. Please do not park in the spaces closest to the black & white “Tower” and storefronts. You will find the marina behind the complex. If you miss the turn at the Villas, turn right at the stoplight just ahead of the Ferry lot.
Where to Eat and Stay
For more information on Hatteras Island or Manteo, including more places to stay, eat, etc., please check out www.outerbanks.org , www.hatterasguide.com , or www.outerbankschamber.com . The website for the Cape Hatteras National Seashore is www.nps.gov/caha
Lodging – In Hatteras Village, try the Breakwater Inn (formerly Hatteras Harbor Motel) – (252) 986-2565 www.breakwaterresort.com (-please mention you are going offshore with us), Village Motel (252) 986-2522 www.villagemarinahatteras.com . In Buxton, about ten miles from the dock, we recommend the Cape Pines Motel www.capepinesmotel.com . Call (252) 995-5666 to make a reservation. Be sure to mention that you are going on our pelagic trip. Other motels in Buxton include the Cape Hatteras Motel – (252) 995-5611 www.capehatterasmotel.com , the Hatteras Island Inn – (252) 995-6100 http://hatterasislandinn.com/ , the Lighthouse View Motel – (252) 995-5680 www.lighthouseview.com , and the Outer Banks Motel – (252) 995-5601 www.outerbanksmotel.com .
Rental Houses – If you have a group coming down you might want to consider renting a house instead of staying in a hotel or motel, sometimes even if you do not use it for an entire week, it turns out to be more affordable & you have a kitchen! A few places to try are Outer Beaches Realty www.outerbeaches.com , Midgett Realty www.midgettrealty.com , Hatteras Realty www.hatterasrealty.com , or Dolphin Realty www.dolphin-realty.com , there is also a house for rent in Frisco https://www.facebook.com/CaptQuarter/ that sleeps four – Kim Martin manages this one.
Campgrounds – Be advised that camping during the summer and fall on Hatteras Island can be a hot, humid, and insect infested experience. Nevertheless, there is often a land breeze during the summer evenings. The National Park Service Campground in Frisco (first come, first serve basis…) is on a large dune with a nice view of the ocean, facing the prevailing southwesterly wind www.nps.gov/caha/planyourvisit/campgrounds.htm . There are also a number of private campgrounds nearby. Privately owned: Frisco Woods Campground (Frisco) (252) 995-5208 www.outer-banks.com/friscowoods/
Breakfast – Oden’s Dock and Teach’s Lair Marina have dock stores that open at 0500 for coffee and pre-made sandwiches / breakfast – see next paragraph for directions. We also have a grocery store in Hatteras that should be open in the evenings for food and drink purchases!
In the meantime, for fall and winter trips you’ll have to plan ahead, but hot coffee should be available at Oden’s Dock and Teach’s Lair Marina in Hatteras beginning around 0500. To get to Oden’s, don’t take the shortcut at the Hatterasman, but keep straight ahead. The dock store is behind the Breakwater Inn. Teach’s Lair is on the right side of HWY 12 just before you get to Hatteras Landing, where we are docked.
Lodging – For economy and convenience, try the Dare Haven Motel – (252) 473-2322 http://darehavenouterbanks.com/ in Manteo or the Comfort Inn in Nags Head (252) 441-6315 https://www.choicehotels.com/north-carolina/nags-head/comfort-inn-hotels/nc236?mc=llgoxxpx . For more upscale accommodations in Manteo, try the Scarborough Inn (252) 473-3979 https://scarboroughinnmanteo.com/ and in Nags Head, try the First Colony Inn (855) 207-2262 https://www.firstcolonyinn.com/ .
Breakfast – Dunkin Donuts has locations in Manteo and Nags Head, their locations open at 0500. 7 Eleven, on US 64 Business in Manteo is open before the trips. If you are coming from the beach, there is also a 7-11 near Whalebone Junction in Nags Head.
Binoculars are essential on these trips. We use 7 or 8 power binoculars because they are easier to scan with due to their inherent depth of field and wider view. Spotting scopes are not allowed because they are only of use if mounted on a shoulder stock, and even then are only useable during the calmest conditions. Scopes also take up valuable space on the boat.
Tripods and monopods are not allowed. If you are a photographer, we suggest a telephoto lens 300-400 mm in focal length. DSLRs are still the best bet, especially if you hope to capture images of birds in flight. Big heavy 500 or 600mm lenses can be hard to handle at sea, and if you bring one be careful show consideration for others as they truly can get in the way. They are helpful for photographing some of the smaller birds, but 400mm or less is better all around. Shutter speeds of 1/1000 second or higher are typically necessary for truly sharp photos, so you may have to use an ISO rating of 400 or more on your digital camera. Even if you don’t have a DSLR and a long lens, you may still be able to get some good photos or video of the seabirds and other marine life we encounter. Remember to stay on the lower deck for stability, whether shooting video or stills.
Winter – Dress warmly, but in layers. Some trips may be bitterly cold while others are quite pleasant. Sunshine or clouds makes a big difference. Even if we are having a balmy spell on land, the cold water temperatures offshore can still make for a cold trip. We might also have much warmer water just a few miles offshore than what we have around the dock or close to the beach. A good two piece rain suit (no ponchos please) and waterproof footwear are essential on these trips.
Spring/Summer/Fall – Layering is suggested. Spring and fall trips may start out on the cool side, but all of our North Carolina trips go to the Gulf Stream, where the surface waters often exceed 80 degrees F in the summer. Shorts and sunscreen are the usual attire on these trips. There is always a chance of getting wet, so be sure to wear something that will dry during the day. A good two piece rainsuit (no unsecured ponchos please – they flap wildly in the breeze!) is helpful should we encounter rough weather or showers.
All Trips – Remember to wear soft-soled shoes on board. If you are wearing hiking boots or sandals with dark sloes, be mindful of where you put your feet. Do NOT put your feet up against the white gelcoat on the side of the boat if your shoes leave a mark! Sunglasses are essential on bright days.
Prevention of Seasickness
Be sure to take any seasickness remedies before you get on the boat. Dramamine, Bonine and Marezine are all available over the counter. Scopolamine (“the patch”) works well for some but requires a prescription. If you weigh less than 150 pounds, you might want to try using half a patch to lessen side effects. (Remember to wash your hands after handling the patch.) Alternatives include ginger root pills and “sea bands” – wrist bands that work by accupressure.
Perhaps the best prevention for seasickness is a good night’s sleep before the trip, followed by a good breakfast, frequent snacking, and a positive attitude.
Here is a link to a blog post by one of our leaders, Nick Bonomo, about seasickness. Good to peruse!
Food & Drink
You need to bring all your food and drink along. During the summer, a cooler is highly recommended. In all cases please try to consolidate food and drinks into as few coolers as possible to maximize deck space on the boat. Coolers should be kept outside to free up cabin space. Styrofoam coolers are not appropriate for these trips as they are too fragile to endure a day at sea.
What to Expect On Our Pelagic Trips
When you go on one of our pelagic trips, you can be assured that we will do our best to make it as productive as possible. We will use our many years of experience (which includes understanding the movements of currents) to find the best places to go birding on any particular day.
Generally, on the East Coast, we have to travel a lot farther to reach the edge of the continental shelf (where the real pelagic birds occur) than one has to go off the West Coast. Off North Carolina’s Outer Banks, this means that we usually spend at least two hours running at full cruising speed to reach productive waters. (Note – off Virginia Beach the shelf is even wider and we may run for twice as long.) When we reach a productive area (usually, but not always at the shelf edge) we slow down to a pace at which we can scan for birds. When we spot birds (or cetaceans, or other marine life for that matter) we make an announcement over the boat’s P.A. system to alert folks on deck, and if possible, try to get the boat in a better position to see what has been spotted.
During the winter, we do a lot of chumming which attracts some species (including gulls, gannets, fulmars and Great Skuas) quite close to the boat. During the warmer months, we don’t use nearly as much chum, but we are often chumming, often by dripping fish oil to make a slick and or melting a frozen chum block behind the boat. We’ve found that it doesn’t take a large quantity of chum to make a big difference during the warmer months. Chumming works best on windy days during the spring, summer, and fall and the scent alone might enable us to have a good look at some of the tubenoses here.
We also take note of cetaceans and other marine life during our pelagic birding trips, and may take a few minutes to study some whales or dolphins, but we don’t tend to stay around for a long time waiting for them to resurface, nor do we follow a particular group or animal for long periods of time. Nevertheless, our trips have yielded some very interesting encounters with various cetaceans, and we have been able to document the occurrence of some rare visitors to our waters.
Although the emphasis of our trips is clearly on birds, what we strive for on our trips is a well-rounded experience with all of the offshore wildlife, be it birds, whales, dolphins, fish, sea turtles, or something else.
The weather has a big impact on how we run our trips too. On calm days we might do a bit more riding around and it might be possible to catch up with a bird or a feeding flock of birds for a closer look. On rough days it is often a matter of getting the birds to come closer to us by chumming them in. Our boat, the Stormy Petrel II is very comfortable in a big sea and has good stability on the drift.
Winter Trips – Over the last several years about 70% of our scheduled pelagic trips from January to March have made it offshore. About 35% of these trips went on the Sunday weather date. In the case of extremely bad weather (like a northeaster or strong cold front) a trip may be cancelled the day before. You may call (252) 986-1363 the Friday before a trip to check on trip status. If there is no message to indicate the trip has been canceled or postponed until Sunday, you should plan to show up as scheduled on Saturday morning. Experience has taught us that weather forecasts are often unreliable, particularly 24 hours prior to a departure, so the final decision about whether or not to go will usually be made by the boat captain the morning of the trip.
All Other Trips – Plan to show up at the dock where a decision will be made on the morning of the trip unless really severe weather such as a strong low pressure system threatens the area. In this case, call (252) 986-1363 to find out if the trip has been cancelled or postponed.
Regardless of the season, don’t automatically assume that a trip will be cancelled just because the weather service is forecasting something like 6 or 8 foot seas or 20 or 25 knot winds. Taken in combination, say 20-25 knot winds with 6-8 foot seas, that might be enough to prevent us from going. But if you take those forecasted conditions out of context, say for example a 6-8 foot sea with light and variable winds (i.e., a gentle swell), or a brief period of 20-25 knot westerly winds during the morning (behind us), you might end up with a dreadful misconception of an otherwise pretty day. Remember also, that some weather systems are hard to predict, and we have many years of experience in dealing with this. So, have a little faith. Not much is worse than canceling a pelagic trip and having the weather turn out to be beautiful. Also, don’t figure that we won’t go if it is raining. We often do. Downpours usually let up and the birds are out in the rain!
In the event that a trip is weathered out or if you have additional time, you will find excellent birding onshore near both departure points. Jonathan Cooley, located in Dare County, runs Native Birding Tours. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his phone number is (704) 677-6384. His website is https://nativebirdingtours.com/ – check it out! There are several eBird “Hotspots” nearby. John Fussell’s book, A Birder’s Guide to Coastal North Carolina provides excellent information about birding the North Carolina Outer Banks, and the North Carolina Birding Trail is another good source for sites and info. If you would like some help birding on land while you are on the Outer Banks, try getting in touch with Jeff Lewis in Manteo. His email is email@example.com and he would love to take you birding!
Getting the Most Out of Your Pelagic Trip
When it comes to getting the most out of a pelagic trip, two words come to mind: preparation and participation. Time and time again, we find that those birders who have done their “homework” before heading out, and those who take an active role in scanning and calling out birds that they spot, are the folks that see the often tough birds on these trips: the high, distant tropicbirds, the fast moving rare gadfly petrels, and the rapidly disappearing skuas.
Lets talk about preparation first. While it is true that relatively little is known about pelagic birds compared to many other species, quite a bit has been written about their identification and habits. Peter Harrison’s guide to seabirds was all that we had for many years, but most of the modern North American field guides do a pretty good job covering the pelagic birds nowadays. For the enthusiast, I highly recommend Steve Howell’s Petrels, Albatrosses, and Storm-Petrels of North America. You can get it from Buteo Books and other sources. It is well written and Steve captured many of the images right here on trips with us off Cape Hatteras. There are also a variety of other books you can get to read more about gulls, jaegers, terns, and other groups of seabirds. A nice one is Oceanic Birds of the World by Howell & Zufelt published in 2019.
Next, pour over the our trip reports and images at seabirding.blospot.com This will give you an idea how the birding here varies from day to day and from year to year. Also the images show better in electronic format than they would in print because there is inherently more dynamic range looking at a lit image.
Now that you have studied all of the illustrations and read other relevant ID material online or in journals, don’t open your books when you’re birding at sea. Instead concentrate on looking at the birds. Take notes. Pay careful attention to size, shape, structure, flight style, color, plumage, and behavior, and use these features to help you make an identification. Burn an impression into your mind and maybe take some photos if there is enough time, and then consult the books and the trip leaders. Just don’t get so wrapped up in it that you forget to call out the bird! That brings us to our next topic: participation.
In order for us to have a good pelagic trip, we need active participants. Even three to six leaders cannot always spot all of the birds, even if they’re constantly looking in different directions. Participants ask questions, and that takes our attention from the sea. But that’s good, as we like to answer questions. But, if no one else is paying attention to the ocean, a Bermuda Petrel could fly down the side of the boat and be missed, particularly on a day that is windy and rough. When customers are looking, we see more birds and more people see the birds.
As for questions, again don’t be bashful. Lots of people never ask us about the rare gadfly petrels until after we have actually seen one, and then they aren’t sure what they saw because they didn’t know what to look for beforehand. Some of this knowledge isn’t in the books, but we have it. Ask us for it. People also often spend a lot of time puzzling over Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (and in doing so, miss other birds), because they are unaware how different a Leach’s or Band-rumped will look when we finally run across one. If you are puzzled by these birds, as we all were at one time or another, ask us what to look for, and we will do our best to explain it to you. On the other hand, it pays to study each species carefully to get a feel for it, so that you know something different when you see it.
Finally, as I usually say before each trip, you are not going to see every bird that is called out today, and neither am I, but if you look hard, and you know what to look for, you might find something special.
Additionally, we bring additional reference material that is relevant each trip, including an extensive personal collection of photographs taken at sea on previous trips, many of which are available for viewing here at our site.
What’s in a Name?
Bird taxonomy is constantly changing. These days there is a trend toward splitting, that is naming species by turning subspecies into “new” species. What’s interesting is that some of these “new” species are not new at all. They are birds that were considered separate species long ago, but were then judged to be conspecific a few years ago when lumping was the trend in bird classification. Thus, a few species which were described many years ago and then lumped together, like the Baltimore Oriole and Bullock’s Oriole, are once again given full species recognition. In the area of seabirds, we are also seeing more splits these days, and this can make it hard to keep up with what is and is not being seen offshore.
A good case in point are the gadfly petrels, known in Latin as the Pterodromas. In the early Nineties we discovered that a small Pterodroma with dark underwings was an annual spring visitor to North Carolina Gulf Stream waters. At that time the bird in question was called the Soft-plumaged Petrel, and it was comprised of three subspecies in its Atlantic range. A proposed split by W.R.P. Bourne to break the Soft-plumaged Petrel into three species was under consideration, but had not been accepted. In their radical reclassification of birds by genetic evidence, Sibley and Monroe listed these three forms as separate species and called them Soft-plumaged Petrel, Cape Verde Petrel, and Madeira Petrel. The latter two names were particularly poor choices because they both refer to birds that breed in the vicinity of Madeira, and the former also breeds at the Cape Verde Islands and not at Cape Verde, which is a peninsula on the coast of Africa. Meanwhile, we deduced, from a number of clues that I won’t discuss here, that the birds that we were seeing were what Sibley and Monroe called the Cape Verde Petrel. An article by Mike Tove in the Birding discusses how these birds were identified. Because they thought Cape Verde Petrel was a poor name choice, the American Ornithologists Union adopted the name Cape Verde Islands Petrel, which was met with considerable criticism because it was cumbersome and it still did not work well because some of the population breeds in the Desertas, which are nearer to Madeira than the Cape Verde Islands. Meanwhile, the Europeans, urged by Bourne, adopted the name Fea’s Petrel (in honor of its discoverer) for the Cape Verde Islands Petrel, and Zino’s Petrel for the very similar and very rare Madeira Petrel, which we have seen just once here off Hatteras in Sept. 1995. Now it looks like Fea’s Petrel has two cryptic species, the Desertas (or Bugio) Petrel and the Cape Verde Islands form, which is called Fea’s because of priority based on discovery.
If that’s not enough to confuse you consider this. The bird that we called Trindade (or Trinidade) Petrel was known for many years as the Herald Petrel because along with similar looking birds breeding in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, however, as they were all considered to be the same species. Prior to that the birds were called South Trinidad Petrels. Now genetic studies at Round Island in the Indian Ocean show us that those birds are mostly a hybrid swarm that came about by a colonization by mostly Trindade Petrels, a few Kermadec Petrels, and even fewer Herald Petrels beginning less than 100 years ago.
I hope now that you understand the reason for all of the recent name changes that made it seem like there were possibly seven or more species of petrels that have been found off Cape Hatteras when there were only five. If you thought it was just a conspiracy by pelagic birding trip operators to lure unwitting customers to the Outer Banks, now you know the real story.