Black-capped Petrel - Off Hatteras inlet, c.30 miles offshore, Cape Hatteras, NC. May 25th, 2011. Distinctive, perhaps unmistakable (?), with black cap, broad white nape and broad white rump contrasting with uniform dark brown upperparts and tail. Listed as Endangered by Birdlife International.
Rarely has a bird inspired me as much as the Black-capped Petrel, a large Pterodroma or 'gadfly petrel' that is pretty much unmistakable given anything like a decent view. Chance encounters with this species well outside of its range (Caribbean and Gulf Stream off the south-eastern US) have twice given me some of the most exciting moments I've ever had in birding. The first was a multi-observer sighting from land within a feeding 'frenzy' of Black-vented Shearwaters off the Palos Verdes peninsula, Los Angeles County, CA back in September 2001. Quite naturally, with no other documented records from California or the Pacific, the record was rejected by the CBRC. The second, again a multi-observer record, was discovered on the BBC dedicated pelagic aboard the Helen H about 77 miles south of Martha's Vineyard. This bird was seen by all on board and photographed reasonably well. Some of my digi-bin shots can be seen here, and it's already been accepted by MARC constituting the 4th state record.
During late May 2011 I finally had an opportunity to travel south to North Carolina with my good friend Brian Kane to take part in the famous pelagics trips organized and led by Brian Patteson off Cape Hatteras. As might be expected, the trips were well organized and very professionally led. The boat, the Stormy Petrel II, left the dock at about 0530hrs and returned at around 1630hrs. We were scheduled for three consecutive days, but the first on May 24th was 'weathered out' due to high winds. My friend Brian had to miss the third trip on May 26th due to an unexpected stomach issue which may have been a nasty case of Cliff Bar revenge, though we'll never know for sure. Either way, it was disappointing to see him missing a pelagic trip especially since he'd done most of the organization of our tour as a whole. His absence was certainly felt that day, though fortunately for him he did get to see arguably the best bird of the two trips that we completed - a White-tailed Tropicbird on May 25th. On a personal level, the only disappointment or perhaps frustration, was watching a smallish, compact pterodroma with dark underwings tanking across the horizon at an incredible speed with fast, high arcs interspersed with fast glides - very exciting, but well beyond an acceptable level of identification. However, I do think there's a very good chance that this bird was a Fea's/Zino's Petrel, now being recorded annually off Hatteras thanks to Brian Patteson and his extensive Seabirding Pelagic Trips.
Black-capped Petrels are virtually guaranteed on Brian Patteson's excursions in late May and June and we were not disappointed. Over May 25th and 26th, we probably saw over 100 individuals with the most on the 25th. The following image selection shows a variety of individuals ranging from dark-types to really quite light birds, with some in various states of molt. All of these record shots were taken with a Canon Powershot A560 through Leica 8 x 42 binoculars over May 25th and 26th, 2011.