BIG YEAR. BIG SKUA.

By Neil Hayward, Accidental Big Year birder.

I’m at the UPS store in Anchorage. Scott Schuette is dropping me off.  It’s cold and I have no idea where I’m going. Again. This whole year I’ve been passed from birder to birder. It’s been fun! I’ve seen some amazing birds and met some pretty cool birders. But where am I going this time? I catch a brief glimpse of the label as Scott is wrapping me up in the cosy box. Did that say Cambridge, MA? Oh no. That probably means I’m going to Neil Hayward. I met him in Barrow and Adak. That nice man, John Puschock (not only a great birder, but apparently also a talented bassoon player) was looking after me, and he’d invited Neil to bird with us. Funny guy. Couldn’t understand a word of his funny accent. I’ve also heard that he sleeps in his car on some birding trips. That’s SO not going to work with me. Doesn’t he know I need a warm, cosy bed? Otherwise I find it really hard to focus the next day.

It’s an uneventful flight out of Alaska. I miss the days when you got free peanuts. But…Scott thoughtfully put some in my box for me to snack on during the trip. They’re white, and spongy though, and I have to say not particularly tasty.

I arrive at Neil’s the next day. His girlfriend picks me up and gently brings me inside. She’s called Gerri. I like her. She’s nice! I hope she’s coming birding with us!

“Mwaaah”

What the hell was that? Oh right. Neil has cats. I hate cats. Filthy, disgusting beasts.

Go away stupid cat!

Go away stupid cat!

It’s Christmas Eve, and Neil only has a week left of his Big Year. He’s just got back from Alaska – after seeing the Rustic Bunting in Homer. He looks so restless and anxious – he’s continually checking his email obviously hoping for another bird or two. He’s pretty close to the record. Which means his binoculars must be too!

Neil and Travis
“OK. We’re on. I’m going to Hatteras. Brian’s ready with the boat.”

Hatteras? Brian? We must be going on a pelagic. I know Neil still needs Great Skua. And so do I! That would be such a cool bird to see. I love pelagics. I’m lucky that I don’t get seasick (having no ears really helps) or sunburned. Although I do have to be careful with humans who are being seasick. (Being tied around their necks puts me in a bit of a danger zone, you know.)

Gerri and cats

Looks like Gerri’s staying here to look after those idiot cats. Meanwhile, Neil and I are ready to go to Hatteras. And it looks like he’s leaving his old binoculars (some sad Nikon Monarchs) at home. A chance for me to get one up on those old things!

I run ahead of Neil as we’re boarding the plane and start getting comfortable on the seat.

Travis on the plane
Plenty of room to relax here!

Wow – this is really comfortable. I should fly like this more… Well, that didn’t last very long. Apparently, Neil only booked *one* seat, so we’re sharing. The indignity.

We arrive in Raleigh-Durham at midday. It’s a 5 hour drive east through North Carolina to our destination on the Outer Banks – Hatteras. I gaze out of the window as Neil is driving. There’s no snow here – only gently-rolling green hills. It’s beautiful. There are cows in the fields, and wispy clouds overhead. I’m feeling sleepy…

I wake up as we’re nearing Hatteras. It’s quiet this time of year. The hoards of summer tourists have long since departed. The beaches are empty, save for the occasional dog walker. And the warm sea breeze now has a cold bite to it. But coming from Alaska, I’m not complaining. I’m looking forward to meeting the others on the boat. Brian Patteson, the captain, and Kate Sutherland, ace bird spotter. There’s also Lynne Miller and Nate Swick of the ABA, Jay Lehman – Neil’s friend and fellow big year birder. And Bruce Richardson from Texas. I bet it’s nice and warm there. Maybe Bruce will take me home with him? I bet he doesn’t have idiot cats?

We check into a hotel (yay! we’re not sleeping in the car!) and then head out to dinner. There aren’t many choices – like the tourists, many local businesses have left for the winter. We luck out and find a seafood restaurant, and sit at the bar. A beer later and I’m losing my vision and focus. With such a small body, the effect is magnified (by about 8x) and goes straight to my focus wheel. While Neil is reading through his National Geographic field guide, I’m trying my best to stay upright.

Hmmm. Beer. Feeling slightly unfocussed.
Hmmm. Beer. Feeling slightly unfocussed.

Two beds. We have two beds! I get a whole cosy bed to myself.

Travis in bed

Awesome sauce. Totally.

That is until Jay Lehman arrives at 4:30 *am* and kicks me out of bed! (I have to sleep on the floor. Me! On the floor! The horror…) Jay landed in Raleigh near midnight and drove through the night to get here. I feel sorry for the guy, but really – it’s the binoculars that have to do all the work. We need our sleep too!

Tomorrow starts early. We get out of bed (or in my case – off the floor) at 5:30 ready to be at the dock for 6:15. I take a nice brisk shower, clean my lenses and head out. While it’s still dark and we’re in the parking lot Neil even lets me practice my driving (still can’t quite reach the steering wheel. Or brakes. Or  the seat belt.)

Travis driving

It’s a beautiful day. The rising sun is shimmering off the vast Atlantic Ocean into which we’re slowly disappearing. The sound of gulls drowns out the engine – they’re everywhere. Screaming, begging, flapping around.

Kate Sutherland with gulls

Kate Sutherland with gulls

Nate’s busy updating the world on our skua status. I know the Leica folks back home will be watching my every move. Will Travis get the bird? Will he get good enough views to tick? Will Neil drop him in the sea?

We’ve been out for almost 4 hours now. We’ve seen some impressive birds, including…

Northern Gannet

Northern Gannet

Manx Shearwater

Manx Shearwater

and even a Loggerhead Turtle.

Turtle 3

I’m scanning the horizon. Ned Brinkley told me that Great Skuas will often sneak up on gulls from low on the water. They’re not curious about boats, and if you’re not paying attention, they can fly straight past and you’ll never know.

As I’m gazing way, way out behind the boat I spot a large dark bird. I’m looking straight into the sun, but even so, I can see white flashes in the wing. Skua! Skua! Why isn’t Neil seeing it? He’s looking in the same direction? Neil – it’s right there. Thankfully, Nate Swick spots the bird too and screams out. Skua! It’s distant, and flying away from us…

Can you see it?

Can you see it? (Note: red circle added later – not present during actual Skua viewing)

The bird turns and starts heading toward the boat. It’s not long before we’re all on the bird. There’s much excitement (Nate is even capturing my historic moment on video!) The Skua start harassing gulls, and even lands on the water. And before it leaves us, it flies straight past the boat, giving us some amazingly close views…

GRSK 02

Great Skua

Great Skua

Wow! What a great bird! And year bird #613 for me. I think it was Neil’s 749th bird or so. Which means he’s done it. He’s finally overtaken his old binoculars which are jealously stuck at home, being harassed by those stupid cats.

Happy Big Year birders - (From left to right) Jay Lehman, Travis and Neil Hayward

Happy Big Year birders – (From left to right) Jay Lehman, Travis and Neil Hayward

After that, it’s a slow ride back to shore, which gives us time to relax and enjoy the birds.

Sooty Shearwater

Sooty Shearwater

Brown Pelican

Brown Pelican

Thanks to Brian Patteson and Kate Sutherland for another great pelagic trip. It was a lot of fun.

Skua boat

Happy birders aboard the Skua!
From left: Nate Swick, Lynne Miller, Bruce Richardson,
Jay Lehman, Brian Patteson, Neil Hayward / Travis. Front: Kate Sutherland.

What a great end to the calendar year. I saw an awesome bird, really well. Neil and Jay got another great bird for their big years. *And* I didn’t get dropped in the sea.

So. Where am I going next? Who will I be birding with? Stay tuned…