New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

Fogbound Seabirds and Cod

A day on the sea east/southeast of Block Island

     Rhode Island, Monday Dec. 5- With another December (rain) storm predicted for this week, Monday was the only day where (at least) the rain and wind would be minimized making it the best opportunity for a combined day of seabirding and codfishing. The Marine forecast predicted S/W winds at 10-15 knots which is a favorable wind speed but not direction; S/East would have been better. At the tag end of the weather forecast, it stated-“patchy fog”. I asked my Father-in-Law (a former Commercial Lobsterman and Fisherman) if he wanted to go codfishing on Monday morning, and before I could finish asking him, he was already getting his rod and gear ready. Dad being a long-time fisherman loves codfishing, and I believe he has Gloucester Harbor seawater running through his veins. We go codfishing together quite often (mostly out of Gloucester-his spiritual second home) and we haven’t been since September, just before the hurricane.

     Since the Gloucester December schedule is limited to weekends, we reserved two rail positions on the Gale Frances ( out of Galilee, Rhode Island- the same Fleet that runs the Rhode Island pelagic bird trips hosted by Carlos Pedro (see Nov 19 report Ian Ban an Sgaden “The White Bird of the Herring” A Gaelic play), (Block Canyon Pelagic-August 20th 2011) and (

     The codfishing trips offer birders a great opportunity to search for pelagic birds, and although I love codfishing, my main interest is for sea birds. If the birding is slow, than I will pick up my rod and join Dad fishing. The good news is that the Frances Fleet offers birders a reduced fare if they just want to go birding on the vessel for the day: $45.00. The vessel leaves port at 7:00 am and returns to the dock at 4:00 pm, that’s a great deal! Since I knew that I would be focusing my attention on birds I spent an hour on Sunday afternoon cutting up twenty-five pounds of suet that I would use for chum on the cod boat. Since the best location on the vessel to chum is from the stern, I wanted to be at the docks early Monday morning to secure the stern rail positions: Dad’s usual spot is the port stern corner, and I like the stern position just behind him.

     We arrived at the Frances Fleet docks at 6:00 am, and after checking in, we had our gear stowed, and secured our two favorite rail positions. There was quite a difference that morning from the morning of the 19th. The winds were flat calm, contrasting to the thirty-plus knot wind from a few weeks earlier. The Gale began to fill up with well seasoned fisherman and also two Rhode Island birders.

     As the light slowly opened the morning, the calm of the harbor was clearly evident as the fishing fleet cast their alter-images against the mirror smooth surface of the inner harbor water.

     Out of the Harbor of Refuge to the open sea.

      Into the Harbor came morning flights of a few small flocks Red-breasted Mergansers…….

……and a handful of Bonaparte’s Gulls chased the schools of baitfish reminiscent of the long since departed Terns that followed the same baitfish schools in the Harbor…….

……and the Harbor Seals relax in the quiet waters along the fishing docks.

The Gale Frances was underway, and as it passed the “narrows” of the inner harbor, it startled a Red-throated Loon. The loon pattered across the water with its characteristically long take-off appearing to race the Gale; it won!

     The colors of dawn stretched across the horizon like a wide swipe from a paint brush, its colored dynamic tempered by the contrasting harmony of the distant foggy cloud-bank.

     A distant tanker offers a bit of perspective to the magnitude of the endless sea.

      The first birds passing by the opening in the sea walls were two hen Common Scoters and this Common Loon that flew directly over the vessel.

     Passing through the opening of the Jerusalem sea walls, Gannets greeted us, offering us the open sea.

     As we steamed towards the east of Block, the distant fog now became a reality, it was moving in. The once clear distant tanker now became a muted image only a short distance away.    

     On the short steam to the east of Block, a few Common and Red-throated Loons, Gannets, a few Gulls, Scoters, Eiders and a single large Alcid passed by the bow of the vessel at a distance appearing to hug the edge of the fog.

     When Captain Richie DeLuca reached the cod grounds just a few miles east of Block Island, on his announcement, forty-plus anxious cod fisherman sent their lines to the bottom of the sea; the fishing had begun!

      Just as the first cod and sea bass were being hauled up, a single bird appeared out of the fog from the east, it was a Peregrine Falcon. The bird was flying low to the deck of the sea, and after a brief appearance it disappeared into the fog again heading towards Block Island to the west.   


      After a few hours of successful fishing on the east grounds, Capt DeLuca decided to head out to the outer ledges about ten miles Southeast of Block. Here is Dad with another cod for the cooler.

      The fog became heavier as we traveled to the distant ledges. In the distance off the bow, were three birds flying west together; two Red-throated Loons and a single Common Murre.

     The rpm’s of the Gale Frances’ diesels slowed, and Capt. Richie announced “Let em’ down, I am marking fish”. What seemed like only a few seconds…the first few cod and sea bass were making their way up from the depths into the fisherman’s coolers and sacks; another bounty of fish marked by Capt. DeLuca. I was standing at the stern watching Dad unhook another sea bass that he just caught.

      I looked up in time to see a Kittiwake pass by the stern and fly to the starboard side of the vessel. I ran up the upper deck stairs to inform the birders on the upper deck about the Kittiwake, just as the bird landed sixty-plus yards out on the sea.

     As we were watching the bird, I decided this might be a good time to toss over a little suet chum with hopes of enticing the Kittiwake in for closer views. I flung a few spoonfuls of suet over the stern, but the vessel had drifted a bit east and the swimming Kittiwake disappeared into the fog; it was doubtful the bird saw the chum offering. I waited for a few minutes but no Kittiwake. Moments later one of the birders informed me that they had a Northern Fulmar and it was flying around the vessel. As I reached the upper deck, the Fulmar was passing by the bow and I managed this shot before it flew behind the wheelhouse.


     The Fulmar circled the Gale two more times, slowly disappearing into the fog.

     Since the Fulmar may still be in the area, I decided to toss over more suet. If the bird did come back again, maybe it would come closer for this offering. There were a few gulls that had landed off the stern picking at the morsels of clam bait that were floating. When I offered the first few spoonfuls of chum, the gulls flew in to help themselves. I was getting my camera ready to take a few images of the gulls, when all of the sudden, the Kittiwake swooped in, grabbed a few pieces of suet and then flew off.

     The Kittiwake circled the vessel one more time eyeing the floating chum, and then flew off into the fog. The bird came quite close to the stern of the Gale showing off its distinctive plumage, this is beautiful pelagic gull!

     Out of nowhere, the Kittiwake returned again grabbing another piece of suet and then quickly departing into the fog.

     Every now and then, the sun would tease us a bit by barely breaking through the fog, only to be overtaken again by the heavy shroud.

    A second Fulmar appeared from out of the fog, and circled the vessel three times then landed a distance from the vessel, just as the Kittiwake did.

     While we were fishing these outer ledges, two more Fulmars appeared out of the fog, circled the vessel and then flew out into the fog. Looking close at the colors and markings of the bills reveals there were at least three different birds. One bird shows a light mottling on the “nares tube”, another has a moderate amount, and another shows an almost complete dark “tube”.

     Here is a Fulmar carving I just finished for a collector of mine. The bird is carved for a collection of New England sea birds made in the influence of Elmer Crowell.

     The day ended with coolers full of Codfish, Sea Bass, a few Hake and large Scup spilling over onto the deck of the Gale. The Capt. Announced it was time to call it a day and to head for home. We were underway for half an hour when the sun made a valiant attempt to show itself only to be buried once again in the thick fog.

     A few Gannets, Loons and a single Razorbill passed by flying along the edge of the fog offering little more than a tease of a view. My favorite time on a cod boat is the ride back to port; not because it’s the end of the day, but because of the mate’s activity cleaning the fish. As the mates clean the fish, the remnant frames and skin offal is tossed back into the sea igniting a frenzy of feeding gulls attracted to the offerings. As the gull numbers increase other sea birds such as Gannets, Shearwaters, Fulmars, White-winged and other pelagic Gulls such as Kittiwakes will also appear from the commotion of the Gulls and the scent of the fish over the sea. Because of the thick fog, there wasn’t one gull following the vessel on its return trip to Galilee…..that is something that I had never seen before.

     Judging by our travel time without any landmarks under zero visibility, I figured we were two-thirds the distance back to Point Judith from Block Island, when a single Greater Black-backed Gull appeared, followed by a second and third Herring Gull. They soon found the offal offerings, and announced their discovery. Soon a few more Gulls appeared and the feeding began, hopefully not too late!

     With the feeding Gulls came the Gannets, as many as seven of them.

     Another Kittiwake appeared joining in with the feeding activities of the Gannets and Gulls.

     The Kittiwake stayed with the vessel for ten minutes, and when the vessel’s diesels slowed, the Kittiwake departed…..we must have been near the Point Judith sea walls.

     Of the five Kittiwakes I saw, there were at least three different individuals easily distinguished by the distal black markings of the ventral wings (shown in the images below). The black areas show different white tip spot markings and the edge of the black where it meets the white on the primaries shows different edge designs; one has a sharp edge, others have irregular edges.

     Looking to starboard, the center sea wall came into view. This would be the closest to shore that I have seen a Kittiwake in Rhode Island. Ironically, as we approached the gap in the sea wall, a fishing vessel came out of the fog into view of the stern of the Gale Francis. It was the fishing vessel Tradition, the same vessel we passed by in the gap a few weeks earlier on the pelagic trip on the Admiral Francis

     The harbor looked very much as it did earlier that morning, except now blanketed in fog. Even with the very poor and limited visibility, a few interesting pelagic species were “coaxed” in for closer views.

     And how was the fishing? Well, I can sum it up this way. When we reached the dock, and the Gale Francs was secured for the night, the mates were still cleaning fish. With nine filled coolers in line as well as a handful of stuffed burlap sacks, they would be there for quite a while possibly with many of us already home!  I have included a few fishing images below if you are interested, and in case some may be sensitive to this.

A great day with a handful of large Alcids, many Gannets, and a few Northern Fulmars and Black-legged Kittiwakes despite the heavy fog conditions.

Keith Mueller   Killingworth, CT

               A large Sea Raven- (aka Red Sculpin), it was safely returned to the sea.

                                      A nice Cod caught by my Father-in-Law

                                                  A nice  Sea Bass

                                     Longhorn Sculpin (aka-Hacklehead, Toadfish)

                                           A nice stringer of Sea Bass

                                           Dad lands a huge Sea Bass........

    was nearly as long as our cooler.

                                                          Another Sea Raven

                                   Captain Richie unhooks the fish for the fisherman

                                   A double-header: a Sculpin and a Sea Raven
                                          A large Scup (aka Porgy)