New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Monday, December 17, 2012

"Three Days of Winter Seabirding on Cape Cod"- Rare, Uncommon, and Favorite Winter Visitors"

"An Old World Egret, Eight Species of Gulls, Four Species of Alcids, and a few Surprises"!

     Part One- First Day-Tuesday, December 4, 2012- Heading up to the Cape-  Well, Christmas, Hanukkah and the Holidays are right around the corner. I have been locked in my studio trying to finish my Christmas commissions for the last month which is keeping me in a bit more than I like for this time of year. Since I have been extra busy carving and painting, as a result this report is well over a week overdue. But after spending the better part of a week downloading, editing and then uploading the images to this report, I am finally ready to begin writing it.

     December 3, is Jen and my Anniversary. When Jen and I got married, I suggested many places for our Honeymoon such as Costa Rica (where we got engaged), Alaska, Newfoundland (all right I admit, that was for me), Florida Keys, etc. To my great surprise, she chose Cape Cod! That was wonderful; Cape Cod in the winter is very special place, and great for seabirding too!! Every year for our Anniversary, we spend three or four days on the Cape. All Jen asks for is a fireplace in our room, a great trade-off for spectacular birding! Three days on the Cape; we were both looking forward to it!

     Reading the daily Massbird reports, the Little Egret was still being reported at Kalmus Beach in Hyannis. Besides the "mega" rare Egret, one of my favorite Gull species the Black-headed returned to Ocean Avenue Beach area as well. At least two (but possibly three) were being reported right in their usual location in the marsh on the north side of Ocean Ave., on the beach by the outflow at the small jetty and near Kalmus. We planned on leaving early on Tuesday morning, and I was hoping that the Egret would hang around for a few more days so we could see it.

     Looking ahead at the weather, the marine forecast was calling for increasing northerly winds with gusts up to thirty knots and partly sunny for Wednesday and Thursday; perfect for seabirding. Although not the Force 9-10 winds I was hoping for, but better than a flat sea!

     Monday morning I had to make a run down to Branford (CT) to West Marine to pick up some marine epoxy. I had a few decoys that needed to be glued up before we left so they would be ready to work on when we got back from the Cape. Branford is only a few minutes east from New Haven Harbor, so while I was in the area why not get an hour of Gulling in? It was early December, just about the time to start searching for Iceland Gulls. If there weren't any white-winged gulls around, then my second favorite Gulling activity would be fun: searching for Appledore banded Gulls or Massachusetts DCR wing-tagged Gulls.

     I pulled into the parking lot at the West Haven boat ramp, and the area was full of Gulls. They were on the pier railings, the docks, the beach, the boat ramp, in the water off the ramp, on the roof of the WTP, and of course filling the air. I pulled up to the guard rail by the pier, and began looking for white wings throughout all the Gulls. After searching through over four hundred Gulls, I couldn't find a single Iceland Gull. I began looking at the legs of the Gulls standing on the pier railing, and about halfway down I spotted a silvery band on the right leg of a second winter Herring Gull. The Gull had lifted its left leg, so I couldn't see if it had a colored numbered sleeve on that leg. I took a few pictures of the Gull just before it took off and joined a cloud of swirling Gulls flying around the Harbor. A few more pictures were taken of the Gull as it took off from the railing. The Gull never dropped its left leg enough to see if it was wearing colored marker sleeve. It flew up the shoreline towards City Point, and I lost sight of it as it flew over the houses flying into the city of New Haven.

      On the LED screen of my 60D I reviewed the images of the Gull as it was flying off the railing, and sure enough it was wearing an Appledore numbered marker. Unfortunately, the number was obscured under the shadow of its tail; I couldn't make out the number. Hopefully the Gull would be hanging around this winter so we could find it again.

     Day 1- Hyannis, Kalmus Beach-

     By Tuesday morning, the marine forecast had changed to southerly winds at 10 to 15 knots, completely different than the forecast a day earlier. Also, they were calling for rain showers on Wednesday, where did that come from?

     At 9:30 am we pulled into the small pull-off at the end of Ocean St. across from the parking lot at Kalmus. Jen and I glanced over into the marsh but didn't see the bird. The sun was very bright, but no where could we find a white bird in that golden marsh. I looked over to a birder that was walking towards the edge of the marsh and our car. I recognized him immediately, it was John Marshall a CT birder that I run into often in the field in CT. But interesting enough, Jen and I also ran into John last year in the same area for the Yellow-legged Gull in the Kalmus Beach parking lot.

     John mentioned that he had just seen the Egret a few minutes before, and one of the Black-headed Gulls. The Gull was standing in the mud right in front of our car, and John also told us that the Gull just took off as we were taking the corner off Ocean St. As we chatted for a second, John pointed over, and said "It looks like the Egret has just flown back in"! And there it was. The Egret had landed about sixty yards away in the center of the marsh, it was great to see it! It slowly walked in the opposite direction, we hoped that it would come back again, this time closer to us-

     After ten minutes, the Egret suddenly lifted up and started flying towards us flying right down the creek-

     This time it landed much closer to us. This was quite exciting!-

      The Egret walked down the creek towards us chasing small fish and getting closer to us all the time-

      With Black Ducks-

     The Egret stopped along the creek between two grass hummocks and began preening, often shaking its feathers giving it a very unfamiliar Egret puffy look-

     Jen and I spent about an hour watching this wonderful bird. We were both very pleased that the bird was still there, and we had a chance to see it.

     Before we left, John mentioned that he wanted to look for the Black-headed Gull and then travel to P'town for the Thick-billed Murre at MacMillan's Wharf.  I suggested he try the marsh and beach off Ocean Ave. When Jen and I left the Egret, we also drove over to Ocean Ave. to look for the Gull(s). We stopped on the road overlooking the marsh, and asked John if he saw the Gull. He just smiled and said "Two of them", and guess what, "they just flew out of the marsh as you were driving down the road." That figures!!

    We went up the road and turned around. Heading back towards the beach, Jen spotted a single Gull in the distant cove by the rocky point just east of the parking lot. Looking through the binoculars, there was one of the Black-headed Gulls.-

     I walked down the beach and was able to approach the Gull fairly close; it was an adult-

     After five minutes of watching the Gull, it suddenly took off......

      .....and flew back to the north flying over the houses-

     I walked up to the rocks to see if I could follow the Gull and see where it was going. While I was watching the Gull disappear over the houses, I caught a movement to my right. I looked over just in time to see a second adult Black-headed Gull flying out from the back side of the rocks-

     It flew east along the back of the houses along the seawalls and landed on a small rocky outcropping at the western edge of Kalmus Beach.-

     Jen and I drove back to Kalmus where I hoped that I could find and photograph this second Gull. I walked down the beach to the rocky outcropping, but the Gull was gone. I noticed that a  Herring Gull decided to roost on the hood of our Sonata. A second Gull decided it would like to do the same thing, but the first Gull drove it off...leaving a little memento of course on the hood of our car.

      Looking over to the marsh, the Egret was very close to the road, in the corner by the inlet culvert-

     It flew up and down the creek a few times following and chasing schools of fish.....

     .....and finally flew off deeper into the northwest corner of the marsh disappearing into the taller grass.-

     John left earlier for P'town and we decided to do the same. Jen and I enjoyed watching the Egret and even though the only variations to this bird (other than its range) as compared to our Snowy Egret being grey lores, yellow/grey legs and a few small plumes on the back of its head, this bird was really special. We were glad that we were able to see it. The added bonus of the two Black-headed Gulls completed the morning.

     Provincetown, MacMillan's Wharf- If you have read through my reports on this blog you will probably figure out that Provincetown is our favorite town on the Cape, maybe in New England. We love to go birding here, and do so every chance we have. Something really special about the history of this charming old fishing town. (You should read the book "The Provincetown Book" by Nancy Payne Smith). By mid afternoon after lunch at Savory's,  we were on MacMillan's Pier breathing in the salty air of the Harbor. The wind was light Southwest, and the water in the Harbor was near still. We didn't see too many birds, but we didn't care, we were here!

     At the Northeast end of the pier, fisherman were icing down their catch. Their fish totes on board were filled with Whiting and Silver Hake-

     And of course, where you have piers, fishing boats and fish, you will have Greater Black-backed Gulls. These were trying to pry the Whiting out of the spooled nets on the stern of the vessel-


   (I sectioned off these little decoy blocks in the report). You can just overlook them to continue with the report, and come back to them later if you are interested.  Most of my decoy inspiration comes to me this time of year at the heart of Sea Duck and winter Seabird season. To me birding and bird carving are one in the same; a fusion of feathers and wood, plumage and paint.

     Since I have been carving decoys most of my life, I just about always have a few decoys with me. Trying to photograph as many birds with these (their) wooden counterparts is quite challenging. In fact from shore it is nearly impossible. Finding good access points to float the decoys near the birds without crashing waves, large boulders, high piers and/or the wind in your face add to the challenge. I sure miss having a boat, that made it much easier. But the challenges of the interactions between the birds and the artform are worth it, especially when the two come together floating on the sea!

     I carved this group of  Alcids (and one Red-necked Grebe) in winter plumage for this time of year. They were inspired by and made in the classic style (in both carving and painting) of the most famous bird carver in history; A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), a Cape Cod carver from Harwich.  Mr.Crowell and his work is one of my greatest influences, I admire his painting style immensely!

     (from left to right: Dovekie or "Sea Dove" on Cape Cod, Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, winter plumage Puffin, Black Guillemot, Razorbill and Red-necked Grebe)

    A. Elmer Crowell and Cape Cod birdcarving- Mr. Crowell started carving birds at an early age. He was nearly sixteen years old when he carved his first hunting decoys, a dozen Black Ducks. At an early age he started his carving career as a hunting guide at many of the Cape Cod hunting camps. Through his guiding, Mr. Crowell met and began a long time relationship with  Charles Hardy in 1889. Mr. Hardy, a Cape Cod native, developer and Boston stockbroker eventually developed the Chatham Bars Inn. Mr. Hardy hired Mr. Crowell as the hunting guide for the Three Bears Club on Pleasant Lake in East Harwich. He also was hired by Dr. John C. Philips as a hunting guide at his hunting camp on Wenham Lake, north of Boston where he worked for ten years.

     Like many guides, Mr. Crowell carved most of his decoys in his down time and off season. Mr. Crowell took a few basic oil painting lessons from a local still life artist. (Today, it is Mr. Crowells "Impressionistic" style of painting is what makes his carvings so appealing and desirable). By the late 1890's, Mr. Crowell was carving his decoys for sale and were being purchased by many  gentlemen hunters for their own use. In the early 1910's Mr. Crowell was encouraged to start his own full-time carving business by Mr. Hardy who would finance his shop. Mr. Crowell's shop behind his house was called "The Songless Aviary".

     The shop had many customers which included Henry Ford, W. H. Hoover, Dr. John C. Philips, the Rockefellers and DuPonts. Besides decoys, Mr. Crowell began carving full sized birds for the first time. These standing birds which included wire legs and carved feet were called "Mantle Birds". These mantle birds were very popular and soon replaced the daily output of duck, goose and shorebird decoys. For the first time, Mr. Crowells production of carved birds included Songbirds and Game Birds. This marked the beginning of "collectible" birds which were displayed on the mantle instead of floating on the water. Mr. Crowell began carving miniature birds which became very popular, and more affordable.

     His bird carvings became popular with everyone who loved birds including Roger Tory Peterson who praised Mr. Crowell's wooden birds as genuine representations of their wild counterparts. In 1912 at the age of fifty, Mr. Crowell turned to carving full time assited in the shop by his son Cleon. In 1943, rheumatism forced Mr. Crowell to retire. But the Songless Aviary continued to produce bird carvings and decoys, from Cleon. Although Cleon was mentored by his father, his hands could never produce the magic of his father.

    Today, Mr. Crowells decoys and carvings are highly regarded as collectible sculptures of extremely high value. In 2007, a drake Pintail decoy sculpture sold at auction for 1.13 million dollars!

      You can just about always find the resident Eiders swimming around the docks off the pier....I never grow tired of watching my absolute favorite species of bird! Beautiful rich and soft umbers and siennas of this hen Eiders plumage-

     A nice contrast to this striking drake-


     Preening hen Common Eider (Crowell influence) based on Mr. Crowell's famous preening Black Duck

       Drake Common Eider carved in the classic style of Maine decoy carvers
              (influenced by A. "Gus" Wilson)

       Stylized modern Common Eider pair- "Courtship"

        Drake Common Eider- mid coast Maine style

         Greater Black-backed Gull attempting to steal a Razor Clam from a drake Common Eider

         Pair Common Eider carved in the classic CT style of the Stratford School (Shang Wheeler influence)


     There are always a few Common Loons swimming in the harbor. This one was still retaining most of its breeding plumage-

       A Great Cormorant flies over the Wharf-

      We at the Northeast end of the Pier looking around the Harbor for Alcids, but we didn't find any. The Black Guillemot and Thick-billed Murre that had been reported all week were not around; we couldn't locate them. They had probably swam out and around the breakwater. I was photographing the Eiders below the pier when Jen called out to me that there was a flock of birds flying towards us from the distant beach.along 6A.  As the birds approached the east end of the breakwater they turned outward towards the outer Harbor. It was a large flock of Razorbills.-

     The flock turned out and headed for Long Point-

     Outside the breakwater a moored fishing vessel had garnered the interest of a small flock of Gulls. I looked through all the Gulls in my scope but couldn't find anything other than the tree usual species. However, the breakwater was beginning to attract the afternoon roost of Great Cormorants returning from a day fishing at sea-

     A few Grey Seals were also hanging out by the Whiting boat tied up at the Pier. (This adult was grabbing a little snooze)!-

     This one was waiting for a handout-

     Finally, a pair of Razorbills popped up outside the pier-

     We watched the Razorbills for awhile and they slowly drifted out towards the breakwater. The day was getting long, so we decided to slowly head back to the Cove Motel in Orleans making one more stop in Welfleet to end the day. I wanted to take one more look off the end of the Pier just in case a Razorbill was hanging out below. I walked to the Southwest end of the Pier by the Boston Ferry dock and looked over the Pier. Instead of a Razorbill, the Black Guillemot was floating quietly about twenty-five yards off the dock.-

     After a few wing stretches, it dove.....

     .....popping up only a few yards in front of me while I was standing on the lower Ferry dock-

     The Guillemot gave me a ten minute show before it dove again, this time coming to the surface by the Ladies of Provincetown Pier just across from MacMillan's Pier.

     Welfleet Harbor-  The sun was setting over the Bay as we drove onto the Wharf parking lot at Welfleet Harbor. The Harbor was quiet, and the only birds we saw were a few Gulls settling in on the docks for the evening. By the boat ramp a few Red-breasted Mergansers were landing out in front of the ramp by the dock-

     A fishing eclipse Red-breasted Merganser drake-


     Preening drake Red-breasted Merganser (Crowell influence) based on Mr. Crowell's famous preening Black Duck

     Pair of R B Mergansers designed from a Merganser decoy I spotted in an Antique store window on Martha's Vineyard over twenty years ago-

     Pair of Red-breasted Mergansers designed from a Black Duck decoy from Gloucester originally carved in the 1940's-

     Pair of Red-breasted Mergansers carved in the style of Maine carver George Huey from Friendship, Maine-


     There are always a few Loons (both Common and Red-throated) in Welfleet Harbor. This one a juvenile Common-

      While I was standing at the boat ramp, I looked to my left and spotted what I thought was a Razorbill about halfway down the sea wall towards the bandstand on the end of the Pier. I walked up to the edge looking for the Alcid, and this Horned Grebe was floating right along the wall below me-


    Red-necked Grebe winter plumage (Crowell influence)-

     Red-necked Grebe breeding plumage (Crowell influence)-


     While I was photographing the Grebe, the Alcid surfaced twenty-five feet out in front of me; it was  a Common Murre! This was the first Common Murre that I have seen in Welfleet Harbor. I have seen Thick-billed Murres here before, but never a Common-

     The Murre swam out farther away from the Pier. I decided to try by the Commercial Pier, maybe a Dovekie would be hanging around there! We drove around the pier looking by the docks on the northern side, but there were only a few Loons, Mergansers and Bufflehead there. We parked by the Commercial Pier and started looking around the pier and out into the Harbor. Jen spotted an Alcid by the end of the Commercial Pier which I saw just as it was diving. I stood by the edge of the Pier, and the bird surfaced below was another Common Murre! Or, was it the same one I photographed a few minutes earlier? I started photographing the Murre and managed a few shots before it dove.-

     I looked down the main Pier to where I had photographed the first Murre and I spotted it. I know Alcids are underwater swimming machines, but could it have gotten that far so soon?-

     While I was watching the distant Murre, I heard the waters surface break below me. I looked down and there the Murre was. There were two Common Murres in the Harbor. The Murre below me stayed only on the surface for a minute, than it dove again.-


     Common Murre decoy (Crowell influence)


     While I was waiting for the Murre to surface again, this Red-throated Loon swam by as the last glimmer of the days light faded int the Harbor-

     The long day ended with a few spectacular birds from the day: Little Egret, two Black-headed Gulls, Razorbills, Black Guillemot, and two Common Murres.

      (Second Day)-Wednesday, December 5, Provincetown, Herring Cove Beach- The weather forecast for the day was a bit depressing; showers. Hopefully the showers wouldn't last long and wouldn't be too heavy. When we woke up at 5:00 that morning, it had rained during the night but it wasn't raining at that point. The wind was moderate from the Southwest. We both hoped that it wouldn't rain spoiling the day, but we both knew differently. Heading north on 6, we never had to use our windshield wipers until we reached Truro; that figures!

     I wanted to start the day at Herring Cove Beach, something we like to do when we are birding in P'town. We got there just after 7:00 am and it was only drizzling. Jen and I like to "Gull", and scouring the roosting Gulls on Herring Cove Beach is a great way to start the morning, especially in December. We always seem to manage an Iceland Gull or two.  As the dim light became just a bit brighter, birds began to move. We watched hundreds and hundreds of Eiders and White-winged Scoters move across the blurry horizon heading for Race Point.

     Looking at the Gulls standing on the beach, Jen pointed out what she thought were Kittiwakes flying right along the waters edge on the beach. I looked over and sure enough. there were Kittiwkes buzzing the shoreline heading south towards Wood End. Kittiwakes that close to the beach were a nice surprise and a great way to start the day.-

     I walked down the beach to the edge of the sea to try and get a few closer shots of the Kittiwakes. Just as I got to the waters edge, I looked over to my left and spotted a single second winter Iceland Gull standing on the beach only twenty yards away-

     A good sized wave crashed on the beach forcing the Gull to take off. The Gull crossed right in front of me and flew towards the large Gull roost at the mouth of Hatches Harbor-

     While I was watching the Iceland Gull fly down the beach, more Kittiwakes flew by me; some were a hundred yards out, others were fifty and others were twenty yards out......

     .....and a few others were quite close-

     After a half an hour, we had counted over thirty Kittiwakes that were within a hundred yards of the beach.

      MacMillan's Wharf-  heading over to MacMillan's, a light rain had developed. I was hopeing it would hold out for a little while longer, but we were here, so lets make the best of it. The harbor was quiet. A quick look around the Harbor revealed Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls, Common Loons, Eiders and a few White-winged Scoters. Even the breakwater was nearly empty with only a handful of Gulls and Great Cormorants standing on top. But there was activity of another kind in the Harbor; schooling baitfish. With the surface activity of the schooling baitfish, this meant that the birds weren't too far behind. And the first birds to find the splashing baitfish were the Gulls. And they feasted on them-

       Within a few minutes, the Black Guillemot appeared, and then disappeared with a quiet splash-

     And, than the Razorbills came in singles, pairs and trios-

     With the sudden appearance of the Alcids, I knew that the Thick-billed Murre couldn't be too far
behind.  Every year we have seen this species on the left corner on the Northeast end of the Pier. I walked over to the corner, and guess what; there it was!-

     It dove several times chasing the fish which seemed to prefer that end of the pier-


     Thick-billed Murre decoy (Crowell influence)


     By now more Razorbill materialized in the Harbor, some very close to the Pier (first winter Razorbill)-

     Greater Black-backed Gull and Thick-billed Murre (good size comparison)-

      First winter Razorbill-

     Thick-billed Murre and Herring Gull-


     Razorbills and hen Red-breasted Merganser-

     Razorbills and Thick-billed Murre (front center)-

     A few more shots of the Black Guillemot-

     Part 2, Provincetown, MacMillan's Wharf  continues.....Click on "Older Posts" Below Right