The first Black-capped Petrel appeared nearly two hours into the trip, well off the bow of the boat, zipping along the ocean’s surface like a missile. It was mostly a blur, but it gave us a taste of what was to come.
Petrels are in the seabird family, which includes some of the most impressive and endangered species on Earth. They live their lives on the open sea, weathering the harshest elements, flying hundreds of miles at a time, feeding on fish and coming to shore only to breed.
Seabirds won’t come to you. If you want to see petrels, shearwaters, skuas and jaegers, you have to go to them.
The best place to do that is off the coast of North Carolina, where the islands that make up the Outer Banks jut far out into the ocean. Here, the warm Gulf Stream that attracts seabirds comes close enough to reach in a long day’s boat trip.
We set off before dawn on this clear Saturday in mid-October aboard the Stormy Petrel II, a 61-foot fishing boat piloted by Brian Patteson. The bird-obsessed captain has done as much good for seabirds along the Atlantic Coast as anyone. Every year, he makes 40 to 50 trips to the Gulf Stream, ferrying hundreds of birders out to sea for a precious look at the birds collectively called “pelagics.”
On every trip, Patteson and his crew count the birds and submit their data to Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird list, which helps scientists track the health of the species. Patteson and his assistant, Kate Sutherland, also compile their own data over time to help them analyze how the pelagic populations are faring in the long run.