New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Pelagic Trip to Block and Alvin Canyons (Part 1)

                           Full Moon and Cool Waters

<<Trip maps and pre-dawn photos can be seen at this link... Trip maps and pre-dawn photos >>

  I wasn’t planning on attending the July Canyon Pelagic Trip sponsored by Brookline Birding Club because I was approaching a deadline for few promised commissions. Two weeks ago, my friend Tom Robben mentioned to me that they had a few openings for the trip. He gently persuaded me into contacting Ida and sending my deposit…..which of course I did without too much hesitation and coaxing from Tom (I can always find excuses to spend a day birding on the ocean). With the mailing of the check, I had to pick up my pace a bit if I were to satisfy those promised commissions. With a few additional late-night and weekend hours, I was able to finish them but not without complicating this a bit more (which I will demonstrate later).

  Tom met me at my house at 11:15 pm on Friday night and off we went into the night for a three hour plus ride to Hyannis. I am sure like most of us who had to travel, a quick nap in the few remaining hours before heading out is probably all the sleep we (enjoyed); if any at all! Even though it was late in the evening I was a bit concerned about traffic heading to and on the Cape. Being prime summer vacation time, and the heavy summer traffic on the Cape being very well known, the traffic was surprisingly light. We made Hyannis in great time; in fact we were the first ones there. The night was beautiful; clear and light winds. Being a fisherman and (former) waterfowler for most of my life my only concern was the very bright and very full moon. With the added opportunity of a bright evening sky, it has been my experience that fish and birds will take advantage and feed during the evening and (as far as birds go) roost during the day, resting and digesting. But as I mentioned earlier, any day birding on the ocean is a welcomed experience regardless of the outcome.

  Within minutes, people began arriving including many great and notable birders from CT.: including John Oshlic, Tina Green and Nick Bonomo.  After warm greetings and a few short tales, we began boarding the Helen H (see pelagic trip report from June below). Tom, myself and Chris Pagliaro also from CT huddled on the pulpit and began swapping stories and talking about the upcoming day. Everyone was cautiously anticipating one or more of the hopeful rare warm water sea birds of the canyon edges: Black-capped Petrel, White-faced Storm-Petrel or a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel. My warm water pelagic hopeful was a bit more ambitious: a White-tailed Tropicbird (insert laugh here)! The Tropicbird is one of the three tropical species I would like to note in New England waters. The other two pelagic species are the Magnificent Frigatebird (my favorite sea bird), and the Brown Booby. I have seen all three species in the Caribbean and Costa Rica, but the three species stand as a New England ocean quest for me. There is a bit of irony to my sea bird ambitions. This year I missed the Frigatebird photographed at Old Harbor, Block Island by two days, and I photographed a Brown Booby on the Gale Francis in 2001 at Coxes Ledge. The bird landed on the upper deck railing and allowed me to get so close, that I literally began to  pet the bird as it sat there preening mere inches from me (watch for this story, it will be posted in the future on this blog). As it turns out, that Brown Booby was the third documented record sighting in Rhode Island. With one of my pelagic trinity photographed and noted, and another missed by only a few days, maybe the third species wasn’t reaching too far?

Brown Booby-Gale Francis May 2001...

Frigatebirds and Brown Boobies on shrimp boat- off Puntaranas, Costa Rica...

As we cast off and headed into the darkness, the anticipation of the day and the slight tease of dawn on the eastern horizon kept my eyes wide open. With the possibility of a quick nap in the remaining time (waiting for first light) fading as quickly as the night sky, it was time to start looking for birds! As the Helen H passed the mouth of the harbor, Captain Joe hit the throttle and the Helen H began to surge. With the 18-20 knot headway the wind surge over the bow strongly suggested to us that maybe we should find a seat on the bow benches giving us time to get use to the strong force of the headway. The dawn over Nantucket Sound was spectacular!

The dawn sky...

The sky filled with a palette of brilliant oranges, yellows and magenta. From the pulpit we began to see the first birds in the sky; Greater Black-backed and Herring Gulls. A single Common Tern flew across the bow heading outbound towards the s/east. More gulls appeared and then the first of 2 Gannets. Within a few minutes of passing the s/east tip of Martha’s Vineyard, the first pelagic species began appearing; a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Greater Shearwater, Cory’s Shearwater, a pair of Manx Shearwater and the second and last Gannet of the day a third year bird.

Gannet...

  Passing Martha’s Vineyard, a few more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Cory’s Shearwaters and the first Jaeger of the day: a huge dark morph Pomarine. The bird flew east, and was lost in the sun as the Helen H tried to follow the bird.

Pomarine Jaeger...

  Within a few minutes of the Jaeger, a single Manx Shearwater passed nearby off the starboard bow of the vessel.

Manx Shearwater...

 For the next hour or two, the birding was quiet as we passed over the “quiet water zone” North of the Canyon Ledges. For a better explanation of these areas, check the BBC pelagic site ( BBC Content: 2011 Pelagic Schedule ).  As we settled into the “lull” in the trip, our adrenaline began to surge with the sighting of distant “blows” of whales on the near horizon. Discussions filled the decks with back-and-forth’s trying to identify the blow shapes as “columned” being Fin Whales and/or “more funnel-like” for Humpbacks. The whales soon surfaced and revealed their identity: Fin Whales. At one point, one of the giant Fin Whales surfaced near a passing tuna sport fishing boat, showing its large size in ratio to the vessel.

Fin Whale and tuna boat...

   Continuing in a southerly direction and four hours into the trip, a single fin was spotted off the port bow about 200 yards distant. Approaching the fin revealed the first of two massive Basking Sharks, the second largest "fish" in the ocean. The shark was approx eighteen to twenty feet long and stayed very near the vessel for all of us to enjoy. The shark “basked” on the surface and then would sound a few yards down, only to re-appear again. We had great looks of this shark for fifteen minutes and it approached the Helen H very closely. From above on the pulpit, we could see the grey color to its skin, detailed with the unwanted scarring most likely from squid bites and parasites.

Basking Shark...

   The birding was still slow with only an occasional Wilson’s Storm-Petrel or Greater Shearwater passing by the vessel. In the distance more whale blows were seen, and identified as Humpbacks, a Sperm Whale and a few more Fin Whales. Over the load speaker came a call of a giant Atlantic Manta off the starboard side; the first of two giants we saw that day. It was also huge appearing as twelve feet across its “wings”. The Manta had a very “bronzy” color to it, igniting quite a bit of discussion from the “experts on the upper deck” regarding its sub-species classification. It was an exciting find none-the-less! The highlight of the day (in my opinion) came within a few minutes of the Basking Shark and Manta. I noticed a large fin protruding from the surface of the sea. As I pointed to the object, an announcement came over the speaker of another Basking Shark. When Captain Joe expertly positioned the Helen H close to the shark, it became clear by the “spirited” announcement from the upper deck; this was not a Basking Shark, it was a WHALE SHARK, the largest "fish" in the sea! “HOLY COW” was exclaimed by many on the vessel; it was enormous!! You could see its spotted skin, huge tail fin and its triple ridges on its back. At one time the shark approached the vessel so close it actually bumped its head along the hull leaving a long swatch of blue paint along the side of its enormous head. This was a real thrill for everyone on the vessel including one of our hosts Steve Mirick! For wonderful images of this whale highlighting its massive size and scale of this fish, see Nick Bonomo’s blog Shorebirder ( Shorebirder: 16 Jul - BBC 'Extreme' Pelagic; WHALE SHARK, LT Jaegers+ ).

Whale Shark tail fin...

Whale Shark...

Whale Shark showing its characteristic three dorsal ridges...

 As we said our good-bye’s to this awesome fish, we continued southerly. The birds were still sparse at this time with only a few Wilson’s Storm-petrels showing once in a while. Interestingly, we hadn’t seen a single Greater Shearwater in over two hours, giving more indication to the probability of their nocturnal dining. A pod of dolphins appeared and Captain Joe steered towards them. Within a short time, the species was identified: Grampus (aka-Risso’s Dolphins). Their large size was clearly evident, as well as the number of nearly white adults. It was an amazing site to see these beautiful nearly “fore” white dolphins steaming through the sea just below the surface occasionally breaking the surface for everyone to see.

Risso’s Dolphins...

  After a short steam we approached deeper waters in the 500 foot range. Along the route we spotted more Risso’s Dolphins and two Blue Sharks basking on the surface. Soon after, a chum line was started and almost immediately a few Wilson’s Storm-petrels and Greater Shearwaters appeared. A few Leach’s Storm-petrels were sighted at the tail end and edge of the Wilson’s, keeping a distance from the vessel typical of this species.

Leach’s Storm-Petrel with Wilson’s Storm-Petrels...

Again, and excited announcement came over the loudspeaker of a possible Sea Turtle off the starboard side about a hundred yards out. Not sure if it is a Leatherback, Green or Loggerhead Turtle but it was swimming directly towards the vessel. As it approached closer, it was identified as a Loggerhead Sea Turtle and a fairly large one. The turtle swam closer to the vessel and at one time “peeked out” at the Helen H only to sound and disappear into the depths- another great sighting.

Loggerhead Sea Turtle underwater...

Loggerhead Sea Turtle “peeking”...

   The chumming produced very little except for the good number of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and a few outside Leach’s Storm-Petrels. We all got a bit worked up with the possible sightings of a Band-rumped Storm-Petrel and a White-faced Storm-Petrel, but the sightings went un-confirmed.
Heading to deeper water the only birds seen were the Wilson’s and a few Leach’s and Greater Shearwaters. Along the trip however, we saw many Portuguese Man-Of-War Jellyfish, which although transparent, are quite beautiful both in shape and ambient reflected coloring.

Man-Of-War...

  Finally we reached our destination of the Canyon Slope at 1,000 feet; unfortunately no birds. Captain Joe searched valiantly with all his experience and knowledge, but there were no birds there. It was announced that the water was approx. 5 degrees cooler than they would have liked. Maybe the cooler water temps in conjunction with the full moon explained the lack of avian species in the area. In fact we didn’t see any “roosting” birds on the water all the way out, never “kicked” any off the water. The birds were rafted someplace, just not there. With the last hour of available birding time remaining, they decided to run another chum line. All at once the numbers of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels increased until there were approx 50 or more feeding off the stern of the Helen H.

Feeding group of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels...

Closer views feeding Petrels...

Close-up Wilson’s Storm-Petrel...

  The numbers of Wilson’s increased and occasional call outs of “Leach’s” could be heard shouted from the upper and lower decks, of course typically they would be on the outer peripheral of the feeding Wilson’s along the chum slick.

Leach’s Storm-Petrel...

   To enhance the birding experience, I wanted to entertain everyone on board with something that I have been doing for a very long time. Since I am a professional bird carver/avian artist and have been carving for my profession for over thirty-five years, it has become a part of my birding experiences of all types and locations. This will be explained fully in Part Two of this blog report (below). While the feeding activity of the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels continued along the chum line, a shadowy figure appeared 50 yards off the stern in the shape of a large fin. Suddenly I could hear Quint singing “Farewell Spanish Ladies” (from Jaws) in my head as a large shark showed itself in the chum line. It was a large Tiger Shark, the first one that I have ever seen, and a real beauty. It peeked over at us a few times, and then sounded only to re-appear again, this time closer to the stern. I hurried my pace with what I was doing and then it disappeared from view.

Tiger Shark...

  Our time was about up, but the generous Captain Joe gave us “just a little more time” to see if something would happen. Although not much did, I enjoyed watching all the Storm–Petrels feeding on the chum slick off the stern of the vessel. There continued to be a good showing of Storm-Petrels, but where were all the Greater Shearwaters…..they were nearly absent? The boat headed in and a bit east at a slower pace just in case birds were found. Along the way, a small raft of 36 Greater Shearwaters were found taking it easy roosting on the water. Soon another group of nearly 50 birds, also Greater Shearwaters were found roosting on the water. Things were starting to look up; unfortunately it was late in our search, and we had to steam home.

It seemed like we had traveled only a short time and distance when all of the sudden the entire surface of the sea at the stern of the boat was covered with Greater Shearwaters. Where did they come from, why now? More and more Greater Shearwaters appeared which included a single Manx Shearwater.

Group of Greater Shearwaters...

   At this point, there were approx. two hundred Greater Shearwaters in the water gorging themselves on the tossed over offal offerings from the very seasoned mates who were “on top of things”! The birds were so close to the vessel they were literally below your feet. The chorus of their feeding calls intermingled with the sounds of the frantic splashing of the diving birds. Because of the very clear water, you could see the swirling shapes and outlines of the Shearwaters as they disappeared below the surface of the sea.

Close-up Shearwater periscoping...

Diving Shearwater...

  Since Captain Joe had given us an extra hour on the water, it was now time to say good-bye to our Shearwater and Wilson Storm-Petrel friends and head home. With a six hour plus ride home, the throttle was pushed strong and the Helen H headed north for port. After twelve hours on the sea it was now time to sit, relax and reflect on the day, and what a day it was! It was slow by birding standards, but not by pelagic fish and mammals. Tom and I sat there and talked about the day, of course now with much reduced energy. The seats along the vessel were packed side by side with everyone apparently doing the same thing, and a few eye lids drooping a bit. I mentioned to Tom, that the only thing that we didn’t see that day was an Ocean Sunfish. Ironically within a half an hour, a call came out over the p.a. system “we just saw a Mola-Mola off the stern of the vessel”!

   Heading into the cabin for a little “power–nap” everyone was quiet. Many were entering their findings in their journals, some were reading, some were looking through their cameras of images from the day, and most were grabbing some much needed sleep. I fell asleep for about an hour and a half, when it was announced that dinner was being served. After a long day on the water with a cold sandwich and a few slices of dried mango, a hot dinner of baked ziti, meatballs and salad sounded delicious….and it was! After everyone finished their supper about two and a half hours into the trip, the call of “Long-Tailed Jaeger” passionately exclaimed over the loudspeaker. The bird flew out into the distance, and Captain Joe was right on it. The bird landed on the water, and soon was a hundred feet from the bow. The bird took off and landed several times and flew out ahead of the vessel for quite a while.

Long-tailed Jaeger...

 After the Jaeger grew tired of us, it headed west and soon disappeared. For the next few hours, a few Cory's Shearwaters were spotted but not much else. Soon another call of Jaeger could be heard over the p. a. system, and sure enough, another Jaeger was visible off the port side of the vessel about two hundred yards out. The announcement said another Long-tailed, but then a little "back-and-forth" discussion about the bird, some thought a female Long-tailed or a male Parasitic because of the overlapping size.

Long-tailed Jaeger #2...

Long-tailed Jaeger #2 heading into the setting sun...

   The day ended just as it began. We again marveled at the multi-colored palette of colors from the sun, this time falling into the sea. The drive home for many of us would be long, but it would be done with a smile on our faces and stories in our hearts. Thank you again to Ida, Steve, Marshall, Jeremiah and Naeem; you did it again!!

Setting sun...


 Click here to go to Part 2 of this trip report

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT

Pelagic Trip to Block and Alvin Canyons (Part 2)

                           Full Moon and Cool Waters

            Part 2- “Wood, Oil Paint, a Little Rope & a Tiger Shark”

   When Tom gently suggested that I go on this pelagic trip, my mind began to race. As I mentioned in Part 1, I was busy trying to finish up a few promised commissions by the date of the trip, and I hadn’t considered going on it for that reason. But as I stated above, I don’t need too much coaxing to go on a pelagic trip. My biggest concern was if I were to take the time off for the trip would I still be able to finish the birds in time? I had planned my time carefully starting with the carving and completion time including the normal drying time needed for oil paints. But, that was only the beginning of my dilemma. As usual, I had to complicate it.

   I have been carving bird and duck decoys and carvings since the mid-1970’s. My specialty was and is waterfowl and shorebird decoys, at first for hunters and now for collectors. I stopped waterfowl hunting in the mid 1990’s but still carve decoys everyday of my life. Although my decoys now sit on collectors shelves a few of them do actually make it on the water now and again; some for affluent waterfowlers, some for my new found purposes. Over the last decade, besides the collecting aspect of the decoys, I have developed another function for my decoys. I began to use decoys as “photographers decoys” to lure birds into closer camera range. I had made mostly waterfowl and shorebird decoys over the span of my career, but that was also evolving. About seven years ago, Jen and I took our first trip to Costa Rica. In fact we became engaged there under a torrential downpour in a mountain cloud forest.

   My photographic expectations were humbled by the fact that many of the birds I wanted to photograph spent most of the time hiding from the heat in the upper reaches of the canopy keeping a distance from my camera. I was a bit disappointed when I returned home with only a few bird images way below my expectations. Throughout that year, It dawned on me to try decoys to possibly use and hopefully try and bring the birds closer. I made a few Toucan and Quetzal decoys to bring with us the following year on our return to Costa Rica. Our first experience with the new decoys opened my eyes to carving and deploying tropical bird decoys. Simply, I hung them up in a fruiting tree and the birds came to them! From that point on, I was greatly inspired. They worked so well, that I have carved many tropical species decoys for friends in Costa Rica who now use them for their studies and research. Since I have been birding and bird carving for a very long time, and enjoy birds through feathers, wood and oil paint, my new aspiration is to photograph birds in their natural environments associating with their wooden counterparts which I have carved. This is the subject for my next book which I am currently working on.

   As with any art, it begins with inspiration. When Tom suggested I go on this trip, a very profound and clear inspired revolation came to me; this made my life pleasantly complicated!  For fun, (and of course for my reference), I decided to carve a single decoy to take with me on the pelagic trip. My plan was to float the decoy in the chum slick when the boat was nearly stopped so the tide would carry it out away from the stern of the vessel. Of course, I wanted to get permission from the trip leaders, and I wanted to make it clear that I didn’t want to disrupt the normal routine of the trip. If it was going to create a problem, the decoy would remain in the bag.

   But for now, what species should I carve? On most summer pelagics, the two most common species that visit the chum line are Wilson’s storm-Petrel and Greater Shearwater. The shearwater is also an old friend; a bird I have seen just about every cod fishing trip I have ever been on at Coxes Ledge and Stellwegan. If I carved a Greater Shearwater decoy for the trip, I could also use it when I am codfishing. This made my decision easy; I would carve a Greater Shearwater.

  The inspiration materializes- Since I decided that I was going to carve a Greater Shearwater decoy, I searched through my Greater Shearwater image files and located several reference images that I had taken. For any art recreation, especially when it will be reproduced realistically compared to interpretively, accurate reference is essential. I had many images from many angles of this species that I photographed fairly close from the rail of cod boats which I used as carving reference for the decoy.

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   With the reference for this species accumulated, what was I trying to accomplish with the decoy? My idea was to photograph the decoy in the company of real birds so I would have both of them together. But, one decoy would not be enough to attract shearwaters, nor would a dozen. The chum line and offal would do that. My biggest hope was to set the decoy where it would be in a good position to find itself in a group of sitting shearwaters. But I also wanted to initiate a response from the other shearwaters. I have seen Greater Shearwaters many times squabbling over a fish or food item. In fact, on the June pelagic (below) I watched a group of feeding shearwaters feeding on a school of squid (which happens to be an important and favorite food item of this species). When a bird would pop back to the surface with a squid in its bill, it would swim quickly or fly away from the other birds to insure that its catch remained with it. Using this natural behavior as a “concept” this decoy should have a food item in its bill. Although a squid would be ideal, it would be too difficult to carve, and would be vulnerable to breakage. A fish would be best!

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   On (successful) cod trips, the fish are cleaned by the mates on a ride in. The skins and frames are tossed into the water off the stern. This of course invites large numbers of hungry gulls and Greater Shearwaters as well. I am amazed at the thievery displayed by the gulls towards each other as they squabble and fight over scraps of offal tossed into the sea. I have also seen this between Greater Shearwaters and Gulls with Shearwaters. To have a gull or another shearwater try and steal the carved fish from the bill of the decoy would be quite exciting. I have seen this many times over the years. A Herring or Greater Black-backed Gull would drop in next to one of my Common Eider or Scoter decoys that had a carved wooden mussel in their bills. The aggressive gull would tug, pull and twist at the mussel so hard the wood splintered from the force of the gulls bill manipulations. I have even carved a few decoys showing this interspecific kleptoparasitic behavior such as this pair of Common Mergansers and Double-crested Cormorant fighting over an American eel.

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The decoy making procedure:

Drawing the pattern-

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  Choosing the wooden block. For the carving of this decoy I chose local basswood (Tilia Americana). The design of this decoy was “hollow carved” which means the center of the decoy would be “hollowed-out” (similar to a “scooped out” coconut or winter squash). The reasons for hollowing a decoy is simply to: reduce the weight of the decoy for proper floatation, acclimate the wood and allow it to breath with drastic temperature changes. If the decoy was solid construction, the wood would crack or check because of swelling and shrinking when the wood adapts to the humidity in the summer, and dryness in the winter. The actual hollowing would be done when the decoy was all shaped before it was epoxied together (later demonstration). On this step, the decoy block was cut in half and screwed back together with two wood screws from the bottom of the decoy. The two screw holes would be covered when the decoy is glued together later in the process.

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The side and top views of the body and head are cut on the band saw

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I do much of my preliminary carving on the band saw such as the “roughing-out” step as shown.

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After the decoy is “roughed out” on the band saw, I smooth out the shape with a pneumatic sanding drum.

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The shaping of the decoy continues with more accurate shaping of the head and preliminary carving of the major feather groups: primaries, tertials/secondaries, side pockets, scapulars and mantle.

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With the decoy generally shaped including the feather groups, the screws are removed and the two decoy halves are separated. The inside wood of each half is removed using a drill press and a fostner bit completing the “hollowing” process.

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The decoy is then epoxied together with marine epoxy and then re-sanded along the seam to remove the excess epoxy when it cured (usually overnight).

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When the body and head is completely sanded, it was time to address the details. The glass eyes were set and positioned correctly. Greater Shearwaters have a very forward eye set angle (meaning the eyes when viewed from the front) have an angled forward look to them. Re-creating this look is important to capture the natural look of this species. When the natural eye set angle has been accomplished, along with the eyes expression, the eye rings are sculpted with epoxy putty and set aside to dry. The bill details are created at this time. Most sea birds such as Albatross, Shearwaters, Fulmars, Petrels. Jaegers, Skuas and Frigatebirds have a very unique bill construction. Some of these species have “tubular projections” around the nares or nostrils such as Fulmars and shearwaters. Others such as Skuas and Frigatebirds have slits in the bill exposing the nares. All have one feature in common: their bills are made of external plates that cover the bill’s sheath. The bill on the top surface of the top half of the bill or “maxilla” is called a “culminicorn”, on the side of the maxilla is the “latericorn” and the side of the lower bill or “mandible” is the “ramicorn”. These are clearly defined and articulated on the decoy. The “nail” of the bill is called the “maxillary unguis” on the maxilla, and the “mandibular unguis” on the mandible, also shown on the bill carving.

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The decoy is now completely carved and sanded.

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The fish is carved and epoxied into place. I originally wanted to carve a sand lance for this decoy, but it would have been too large for an actual sand eel, so I chose a “generic” fish species that resembled a large sand lance. To strengthen the vulnerable and weak points of attachment of the bill and fish, the tail of the fish was “pinned” with a small brass pin and epoxied into the body of the decoy. The fish was also epoxied in the open gape of the bill, with a brass pin that passes through the maxilla, through the fish into the mandible. When the epoxy and filler was dry, the entire decoy was sealed with a light coat of lacquer sealer.

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Because the decoy was screwed together and now epoxied together, the remaining screw holes need to be filled to prevent water from entering the decoy. Instead of simply filling the open screw holes with epoxy filler, my signature technique is to add a decorative “natural wood” bottom plate and carved keel also from natural wood. I like to select beautiful woods from the bird’s range which adds an appropriate natural detail to the decoy. An example being a Wood Duck. Since an important food item for Wood Ducks are acorns, I would select a beautiful piece of oak for this detail on a Wood Duck decoy. If you follow the migration route of the Greater Shearwater, it skirts and passes the coasts of western Africa and Eastern Brazil. I needed to select two appropriate wood species for the “wooden theme” of this decoy; one for the bottom plate and one for the carved keel. For the bottom plate I selected Balsamo (Myroxylon Balsamum) from eastern Brazil, and for the keel: Sapele (Entandrophragma cylindricum) from western Africa. The decoy is now ready to paint!

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Painting the decoy: With the decoy being sealed, it was then primed with Japan sign painting oil paints. The basic shades of the birds plumage were “blocked in” which is called “Grisaille” painting. I began painting the fish using iridescent oil paints. When the fish was completed I then painted the bill, head, chest and mantle adding soft blended edges to the intermingled areas of its plumage.

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The balance of the plumage was painted with its individual feathers of the primary/tertiary/secondary remiges, greater secondary/lesser/medial coverts, scapulars and mantle, lower tail coverts, flanks and side pockets simply painted and blended. It was then set aside overnight to “tack-up” before the feather details were patiently reproduced.

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The details were painted with a small detailing sable brush.

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The completed Greater Shearwater decoy, rigged and ready to deploy.

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I  read a few Pelagic Birding Reports of a Great Skua dropping into a chum line and making off with a hunk of beef suet or a fish frame. I decided to make a second decoy just in case a Skua was seen (again) and maybe could be enticed to the stern of the boat with a carved mate. This is the adult Great Skua decoy I carved for the trip.

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I had cleared my idea of using the decoys with Ida and Steve, and their reactions completely surprised me; they were more excited about it than I was! When the Helen H began running a chum line and slowed to a crawl for the first time, and watching all the Storm-Petrels feeding just off the stern, I decided it was time to try the two decoys out for the first time. (Looking back to the construction steps) balancing the decoy is as important as the carving and painting procedures.

The decoy should be balanced for proper flotation which means not too deep or too high in the water (causing an un-natural silhouette or profile), and also level flotation free from listing to one side or the other. But most importantly: since the decoy would be thrown off the stern of the
vessel, it needed to “self-right” or “turn itself over” in the event that the decoy ended up on its back. If the decoy didn’t “turn over” it would have to be pulled in and tossed back hoping that it would land correctly. All of these features will be addressed with a ballast weight of the correct amount of lead on the bottom of the keel. I make wooden molds in many sizes and shapes and pour my own lead. I just select the correct one and secure it to the bottom of the keel.

Each decoy has a short line secured to the bow of the keel on one end, while the other has a trotline clip (used in sword fishing). The clips are “clipped” onto “loops” on the main trotline, a quarter inch dia. green nylon rope. I figured that I wanted the decoys to sit about 50 to 75 off the stern, but I had 150 feet of rope with me in case I wanted to send them out farther. The rope of course was secured to the rail, and the decoys were tossed into the sea!

(Back to the Petrels)- I made sure the decoys “self-righted” before I packed them for the trip. This was accomplished in my bath tub. Since salt water is lighter than fresh water, the decoys would float a little higher in the sea. Everything worked perfectly. I tossed the Shearwater decoy into the sea, and it turned over beautifully. It began to drift out into the feeding Petrels perfectly. Suddenly an announcement came over the pa system from Steve stating that everyone should go to the back of the vessel because something interesting is going on. At that point, Steve was standing above me and he asked me to float the Skua too! Tom heard that and went to the bow and retrieved the decoy for me; Thanks again Tom! I pulled in the Shearwater decoy, and added the Skua to the second loop in the rope and tossed them both back into the sea. Both decoys turned over and drifted out into the Storm-Petrels. I had an “ear to ear” smile on my face! Here were my two decoys that I just finished a few days before, now floating in the sea nearly 100 miles out from shore surrounded by at least 50 feeding Wilson’s storm-Petrels.

   Thinking this was about as good as it could get, someone shouted “Shark” and everyone saw the swirling dorsal fin and tail of a large Shark just a short distance off the stern in the chum slick. The Shark raised its head out of the water several times (see image in Part 1 above) and appeared to be checking us out. Its identity was announced; Tiger Shark, a very aggressive species. I snapped a few quick images and the shark sounded only to resurface again, with its head out of the water again. At this point all the images of sharks attacking floating objects seen on the nature shows became a reality, especially for this very aggressive species. The chum slick had attracted this large shark, and it occurred to me that a few small pieces of floating beef suet weren’t going to satisfy this large fish’s appetite being described as an “eating machine”! Only a hundred and fifty feet away from this awesome shark were my two floating decoys. I immediately thought about my options; not many. Maybe I should leave the decoys out since they weren’t making any commotion on the water. Maybe the Shark would not pay any attention to them. As I thought about this, the shark sounded and someone noticed that the shark was heading in the direction of my decoys. Are you kidding me?? I began to pull the decoys in as fast as I could, causing a wake behind them. I figured that if he was going to grab them anyway, I was going to make it work for them! Within seconds the decoys were at the side of the boat and the shark re-surfaced a bit closer this time. That was an experience I will never forget and hopefully never repeat!! Indeed, a great story for my book! To me, that was worth a long day and many miles of travel. Thank You Ida and Steve!

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Completely satisfied with the decoys and seeing them with all those Petrels, I reeled the line in and put the decoys away. I managed to take quite a few images as well, and I considered every aspect a complete success! Even though no Greater Shearwaters were present, I would have other opportunities, even if it is off the stern of a cod boat.

I put the decoys back in their bags and then in the large sea bag I carried them onto the boat in and stowed them in the cabin. On the trip back I was still thinking (and smiling) about the decoys and the Storm-Petrels. When all the Shearwaters suddenly appeared, I was enjoying them so much it never occurred to me to grab my shearwater decoy and try it again. Suddenly it dawned on me. I looked up to the upper deck and asked if I could have just a couple of minutes to send out the Shearwater decoy just to see if I could capture a few images of my decoy among the hundreds of Greater Shearwaters along the sides of the vessel. I was given a thumb’s up, and off I went. What seemed like only a few seconds, which in reality may have been five minutes, I ran down into the cabin, unpacked the shearwater decoy, grabbed the rope cradle and snapped the clip on the trotline loop while I was running down along the railing to the starboard stern. I was frantically unwinding the rope form the cradle fearing that the birds would suddenly take off dashing my opportunity in a flurry of flapping wings. The decoy was tossed into the sea for a second time, and it began to drift away from the starboard corner of the stern. I missed the angle just a bit and the decoy drifted to the side of all the concentrated Shearwaters. I was also tangled in the rope as I was trying to feed more line out to hopefully get the decoy farther out into another group of feeding birds. Matt, the first mate, noticed that the decoy was not where I wanted it to be, offered his assistance and said “let me help you”. He read the tide perfectly, and within a few seconds, he re-positioned the decoy so it was proudly swimming among the frenzied feeding Shearwaters. The birds continually surrounded my decoy, and I kept taking images as fast as the auto-wind on my camera would allow me to. Matt, if you are reading this, Thank You….I really appreciated your help!

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   Now that I am home writing this blog report, my mind is already in high gear deciding on the next pelagic species to carve. So I made a list of the species: 5 Wilson’s storm-Petrels, 2 Leach’s storm-Petrels, 2 Fulmar, and maybe a Cory’s Shearwater. I have already carved the Skua, I should have a Pomarine and Parasitic Jaeger or two. Future pelagic trips to NC, the Keys and Calif. are planned so that means at least 5 Tropicbird decoys will be needed. Then the trips to Maine which means a few Puffins, winter on the Cape means a few more Razorbills, Thick-billed Murre, and Dovekie, late winter/early spring “gulling” in Mass. means a bag full of Bonapartes/Black-headed/Little Gulls. Jen and I will be going back to Costa Rica next year, so that means a few perched Frigatebird (which I have already started) and another use for the Tropicbirds….....and the list goes on and on!

   For now: I want to take this closing paragraph to Thank Ida and Steve for their generosity in extending me the opportunity to “offset” their schedule just a bit to allow me to float my decoys. I greatly appreciate the time I was given for this. This opportunity greatly increased my pelagic trip experience, and of course enhanced my art experience profoundly!

Thank You Ida and Steve!!

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