Birders earn their wings on boat Hobby provides its participants with top-flight challenge.

August 21, 1991|By Bruce Reid | Bruce Reid,Evening Sun Staff

ABOARD THE O.C. PRINCESS -- "Petrel," yells Wayne Klockner, over the roar of the boat's turbo-charged engines.

A small dark speck blows by the boat. Most people would have trouble identifying it as a bird, let alone a specific kind.

Despite the fleeting glance, Klockner and other seasoned birders aboard identify the speck as a Wilson's storm-petrel, the first sea bird species recorded by a tour group that had paid to view the natural wonders up to 70 miles off the coasts of Maryland and Virginia.

Soon, after the 90-foot-long O.C. Princess steamed off the continental shelf and into the warmer offshoots of the Gulf Stream last Saturday, the Atlantic was teeming with birds, fish, whales and dolphins.

The offshore trips are an example of what the hobby of bird-watching, or birding, has become. Many birders are on a highly competitive, costly pursuit of nature's rarities.

"Bird-watching is no longer something for little old ladies," said Mark Letzer, 26, a financial analyst from Cockeysville and one of

75 people who paid $75 each for the 12-hour excursion. "This is a serious sport."

Hundreds of shearwaters, gull-like sea birds, were feasting on small fish fleeing schools of hungry tuna. Dozens of storm-petrels, smaller sea birds whose name is derived from their appearance of walking on water like Saint Peter, were there, too.

Bottlenose dolphins danced in the boat's wake. Jet-black pilot whales, which grow to about 23 feet, loafed on the surface.

A 40-foot whale shark, which can grow up to 60 feet and is the largest fish in the world, swam nearby.

The trip's organizers used satellite photos to locate warmer waters, where some sought-after species congregate. But the hottest tip of the day was radioed to Monty Hawkins, skipper of the Ocean City-based O.C. Princess, from Mark Hill, captain of the fishing boat Magic Marlin.

Hill said "The Lumps," an area about 60 miles off the Virginia coast, was "eaten alive" by marine life and fish. Hundreds of birds were there too.

Even for the birders who had been on "pelagic" trips for many years, Saturday's excursion was a birding bonanza.

The lure of the unexpected attracts the birders. Some of them are seeking new species for their "life lists" -- a compilation of birds they've seen in their lives.

"You can just come out here and forget the rest of the world," said Gene Scarpulla, 43, an assistant watershed manager for the city of Baltimore who organizes the offshore trips.

Klockner, 38, who works for the Nature Conservancy, a private environmental group, has been on offshore birding trips since the late 1970s.

"There's something addictive about it," he said. "You're out of sight of anything man-made."

Saturday's excursion was the second trip for Scarpulla's fledgling tour company, Atlantic Sea Birds Inc. Scarpulla has scheduled one in late September and another in late November.

Similar trips were run from Ocean City in the past, but no such trip had been organized before this year since 1986.

The American Birding Association lists 48 pelagic, or offshore, birding trips offered on both coasts of North America -- from Newfoundland to Key West, Fla., in the Atlantic Ocean, and from British Columbia to San Diego in the Pacific.

Sea birds that can be seen off the mid-Atlantic states are themselves well-traveled, spending the majority of their lives roaming the oceans. The Wilson's storm-petrel, for example, breeds on islands in the Antarctic Ocean and other southern waters. It migrates north across the equator into the Northern Hemisphere.

The wide-ranging white-faced storm-petrel, including one spotted about 70 miles off the Virginia coast Saturday that was greeted by cheers from gleeful "life-listers," breeds on islands off the west coast of Africa and off Australia and New Zealand.

The tiny black and white bird glided inches from the surface, dangling its feet and appearing to hop on the water.

Seafarers and fishermen of old used to catch and eat sea birds on their long journeys, putting them in cages and feeding them corn to rid their bodies of oil.

Hank Kaestner, 46, director of spice procurement for Hunt Valley-based McCormick & Co., was one of the more experienced birders on the trip. The Timonium resident, who travels the world to buy spices, and watches birds along the way, has logged about 5,200 species on his trips.

He saw three species Saturday he had never seen before, including the white-faced storm-petrel.

Kaestner said the offshore trips are particularly appealing because so little is known about the species that inhabit the open oceans.

"There's no way you can keep track of what's out here. It's so vast," added Letzer, the financial analyst from Cockeysville.

Sue Utterback, a 40-year-old accountant from Dayton, Ohio, said, "Unless you get sick, everybody loves being out here. . . . Whether you actually see the things you want or not, it doesn't seem to matter."

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