Outer Banks Winter Adventures: Pelagic Birding in the Gulf Stream

By Molly Harrison | Wednesday, January 18, 2023

The Outer Banks is one of the best places for birdwatching in the United States. More than 400 species of birds have been spotted here, making this a favorite destination for birders from beginners to experts. Winter is an especially great time to see birds here, as the Outer Banks and surrounding regions are wintering grounds for many migratory birds, especially ducks, geese and swans. The fact that there are nine national wildlife refuges in this region of eastern North Carolina (three of them on the Outer Banks) along with Cape Hatteras National Seashore means that birds have safe places to eat, nest, breed and visit all year round, and that humans can easily enjoying watching them.

Photo: An Atlantic puffin photographed in February 2022. Photo by Kate Sutherland

But there’s another type of bird watching on the Outer Banks that’s even more off the beaten path than in the refuges, and that’s pelagic birding. Pelagic birds live their entire lives on the open ocean, and the proximity of the Gulf Stream, Continental Shelf and Labrador Current make Cape Hatteras a dynamic environment that attracts them. Serious birders know about this because it’s a great way to add to their bird-sighting life lists. But the trips are fun for birding novices too, and all it requires is a trip to the Gulf Stream onboard the Stormy Petrel II out of Hatteras Landing Marina or Oregon Inlet Fishing Center.

Captain Brian Patteson has been organizing and leading pelagic birding trips off Cape Hatteras since 1990, and his renowned company, Seabirding, is the most active pelagic bird watching operator in the eastern United States. In 1995 he moved to Hatteras full time so he could offer more trips. His co-captain, deckhand and naturalist guide is Kate Sutherland. At first, they ran their trips on chartered boats, but there was enough interest from birders for them to get their own boat, Stormy Petrel. Now they have an even bigger and very seaworthy boat, the 61-foot Stormy Petrel II.

Each trip to the Gulf Stream is staffed by two to five leaders who have extensive experience in identifying the species. The leaders and spotters are some of the best pelagic birders in the world, and they volunteer on the trips because they love the birds and sharing their knowledge with others.

Photo: Great skua is one of the pelagic species you might see on a winter trip. Photo by Kate Sutherland

Late January through February is an ideal time of year for pelagic birding off Cape Hatteras and to the north. In winter, good birding is closer to shore as well as in the Gulf Stream. Birds you might see on a tour from late January through February include red phalarope, great skua, parasitic jaeger, dovekie, common murre, thick-billed murre, razorbill, Atlantic puffin, black-legged kittwake and Bonaparte’s gull. Besides birds you might see whales, fish, sea turtles and other marine life.

Photo: This breaching Risso's dolphin was photographed in February 2022, which was rare because they are usually seen in warmer months. Photo by Kate Sutherland.

Other good times for pelagic birding off Hatteras are May through October, and the types of birds you’ll see in each season vary. Spring, summer and fall trips head out to the Gulf Stream. Getting there takes a couple of hours, and then most of the day is spent in or along the Gulf Stream, where you can see not only birds but also other sea life.

The trips are kept small, about 20 passengers each, so that each paying passenger gets the best experience.

Photo: Pelagic birding trips on the Stormy Petrel II leave from Oregon Inlet Fishing Center or Hatteras Harbor Marina.

Want to go offshore?

Winter Seabirding Trips on the Stormy Petrel II

Upcoming trip dates are February 4, 8, 11, 15, 18, 19, 25 and March 1. Some days have two trips, and there’s always a makeup day scheduled in case of bad weather. Trips cost $210 per person. The trip ranges from 8 to 10 hours.

Departures from winter trips are typically from Oregon Inlet Fishing Center, but that could possibly change and be from Hatteras Landing Marina in Hatteras depending on the weather.

Spring trips leaving from Hatteras are already booking up. Available dates are April 28, 29 and 30, May 5, 6, 7, 12, 13, 14, May 19 to June 3 and June 8, 9, 10, 11.

Captain Patteson also books Stormy Petrel II for private birding charters.

To find out more, visit seabirding.com or call Captain Brian Patteson at (252) 216-9163. Find out more information and see more photos on Facebook as well.


About the Author Molly Harrison
Molly Harrison is managing editor at OneBoat, publisher of OuterBanksThisWeek.com. She moved to Nags Head in 1994 and since then has made her living writing articles and creating publications about the people, places and culture of the Outer Banks. When not working she practices and teaches yoga and spends as much time as possible outside and in or on the water with her husband and two children.