New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

January Alcids and a Knot of Kittiwake

Another day pelagic birding on a Rhode Island cod boat

     Monday, January 09, 2012- With unseasonable weather forecasted for mid-January it was perfect for another trip on the Lady Frances cod boat from Galilee Harbor, Rhode Island. The marine forecast stated northwest winds at five to ten knots with temps rising to near forty degrees; huh? Was that right? This is mid-January we are talking about!

      Since the weather presented a great opportunity (winds not temps) for pelagic birding, it was perfect for a run to Coxes Ledge. The cod trips up until the end of December left the docks at 7:00 am and returned at 4:00 pm. on the Gale Frances. After January first, the trip left the docks at 5:00 am and returned at 3:00 pm. on the Gale’s larger sister ship the Lady Frances. The Lady is a faster, smoother vessel complete with heated rails to help keep your frosted fingers warm during winter cod fishing. The ride out in the dark was perfect because the fishing destination was Coxes Ledge. The Lady would arrive just before sun-up, prime time to sit and watch for the morning flights of Alcids, my intended birds that morning.

     Dawn prying the clouds open on the horizon……..

     The moon illuminated by the warm colors of the distant sunrise……

     The “lava-lamp” moon appears to be melting into the northeast horizon.

     I decided not to write a complete report from Monday, but instead I sectioned off the day into three parts and added the highlights from each section: first part of the morning, late morning/early afternoon and the ride back to port in the afternoon.

    Part 1-  After arriving at the cod grounds on the northeast edge of Coxes just after sunrise, the first bird I saw was a single Fulmar. The bird passed by the stern of the Lady, made one circle  and disappeared in an easterly direction.

     The tide was moving good so Captain Mike decided to drift fish, which was perfect; we could cover more water area on each drift. The next birds I saw were several flocks of migrating Common Loons…….

     Followed by many flocks of Scoters, such as these White-winged…….

     …… and this mixed flock of all three species: Common, Surf and White-winged……

     ….. and this flock of Common (Black) and White-winged.

     The first small flock of large Alcids crossed the bow containing both Razorbills and Common Murres in the group.

     (From l to r)- Common Murre, Razorbill, Razorbill, Razorbill, Razorbill, Common Murre and Common Murre)

     (From l to r)- Razorbill, Razorbill, Common Murre, Common Murre.

     More alcids appeared in singles (Razorbill)………

     ……. trios, small groups and doubles as in this pair of Common Murre.

     ……and this pair (from l to r) Common Murre and adult Razorbill

     The Alcids flew sporadically all morning long including this pair of Common Murre from later in the morning.  But by that time, I had not  seen one Dovekie; I was a bit disappointed by that.

     There was a few other fishing vessels on the cod grounds that morning, but what was missing were the usual inquisitive Gulls. There are just about always a few Gulls hanging back from the fishing boats waiting for the opportunity of a tossed back short fish or old bait. But that morning the sea was eerily empty of Gulls except for the occasional fly by or fly over Herring or Greater Black-backed Gulls (all the Gulls in the area were probably still following the trawlers off Narragansett). But even with the absence of Gulls, Black-legged Kittiwake patrolled the area, but disappearing as quickly as they appeared.

     Part 2- By late morning the bird flights had slowed to only an occasional distant bird or none at all. I decided it might be time to start my chum line (IF) I could locate just one nearby Gull. Since I had intentions of fishing (a little), I reserved our usual stern rail positions (one for me, one for Dad). I took out my bucket of chum (cut suet and squid) and watched the sky looking for that one Gull that could get the action started. After fifteen minutes, a single Herring Gull appeared out of the north. It came closer and I started tossing over a few pieces of stale bread to get its attention and to help the birds locate the suet. The young Herring Gull swooped in and grabbed a piece of bread and then flew off! So much for my Gull attracter. As the first few pieces of bread drifted out and away from the boat, they left a trail and a drift direction. I cut the suet larger so it would be easier to spot from the air, and as I started spooning over the suet, it floated perfectly following the bread…..a chum trail had begun. A few minutes later, the Herring Gull returned, swooped in and grabbed a piece or two of the suet. As quickly as it came it left. Fearing that my efforts were futile; two more Gulls appeared, followed by two more and then a handful. Soon I had over a dozen Herring and Greater Black-baked Gulls swimming along the chum line. Where did they come from? I couldn’t locate a single Gull across the sea, and then I had a dozen. As I started spooning more suet and squid, the first Kittiwake appeared, followed by two more. Within a few minutes, there were a half dozen Kittiwake working the chum line, I have no idea where they came from!

     One of the Kittiwake dropping in to take the suet offerings…..

     Because the Lady was drifting, it would move off the fishing spots, so the Captain would start the diesels and move back to the same location for another drift. Of course with every repositioning, I would have to start the procedure all over again, but I was able to enjoy the Kittiwake and Gull feeding activities for over an hour and a half.

     Part 3- The morning passed by noon and it was now 1:00 pm, and Capt Mike announced it was time to head in. He also said that he would make a short stop at East Grounds on the trip back and everyone could fish a little while longer. I was happy with that decision, as East Ground is a good spot for Alcids.

     With the diesels engaged, the Lady steamed for East Ground, and I assumed my usual location on the tip of the pulpit; my very favorite spot on the vessel. The Lady steamed a few miles northwest, and I spotted a pair of birds flying ahead of the vessel out in the distance. The birds were a pair of Dovekie, the first of the day!

     I watched the two Dovekie disappear in the distance, and within a few minutes I spotted more distant birds flying west out in front of the bow. I located the birds in my binoculars and found four species of birds: a pair of Razorbill, a single Common Murre, a single Dovekie and two Fulmar, one of which was plumed in its spectacular blue morph plumage. (the birds in the image are small-just click on the image to view it larger).

     (From l to r)- blue morph Fulmar, (extreme right)- Common Murre, (right above Murre)- Razorbill pair.

     (From l to r)- Fulmar and  Common Murre

     Fulmar (below) Dovekie appearing top

     There was also a pod of small Whales that appeared for a few moments and then sounded. I didn’t get a good enough look at them to ID them.

    As we continued, a single Dovekie appeared on the surface just off the starboard bow. I took a few quick images before it dove.

     As we approached the East Grounds, the area was dotted with Alcids, both on the water  and flying by such as this single Dovekie…..

     These three Razorbills........

     ......and these Common Murre

    Another Dovekie surfaces out in front off the port bow. It stayed up long enough to take two quick pictures before it dove.

     But this Common Murre swam by the starboard bow and stayed on the surface offering me a good opportunity for some decent shots…..

      After fishing the East Ground for a half an hour, the Lady Frances started back to port. The mates were actively cleaning the fish from the day’s catch all the way back from the moment we left Coxes until just before we entered the Harbor of Refuge from the opening in the east wall. Of course the usual gathering of Gulls followed the vessel all the way, and so did the Kittiwake. After we left East Ground the numbers of Alcids faded until I couldn’t locate one. I walked to the stern of the vessel where I found at least three dozen Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls and handfuls of Kittiwake. The Kittiwake were buzzing the stern of the vessel like autumn leaves in the wind making it nearly impossible to count them. I decide to augment the fish remnant offerings, so I started spooning over more suet. The Kittiwake found the suet and the feeding frenzy increased. Since I have posted many Kittiwake images on previous posts, I am adding only a few here. The Kittiwake stayed with the chum line until we reached the Point Judith Lighthouse. Than as quickly as they appeared, they vanished into the afternoon sun.

     This one likes the big suet pieces!

Notice the Kittiwake's classic red/orange gape?
( )

     Here is my favorite shot of the day......

      The Gulls and Kittiwake were joined by Gannets. Although I did see some Gannets during the day, the majority came in the afternoon.

   This is a Gannet decoy I carved for a collector in Toronto for his decoy collection.

     As we got closer to the shoreline of Rhode Island, this flock of Razorbills passed by with the Newport shoreline in the distant background…….

     ……and this flock of Common Scoters with the Jamestown Bridge in the background. 

     When the Lady reached the opening in the East wall, the Kittiwake were gone. But the shadowing Gull and Gannet numbers increased, joined by the roosting Gulls that lined the outer walls that await the returning fishing vessels and the chance at a easily found meal. Looking up, there were over a hundred Gulls with a handful of Gannets following the vessel.

     As we passed into the middle of the Harbor of Refuge, a few Common Loons swam by the Lady.

     Looking up at all the Gulls, I thought to myself that there should be at least one Iceland Gull in all of those Gulls. After all it was January, the time of year this species shows up in the Harbor.

     I looked through all the mass of churning Gulls, and sure enough, high up on the port side, I spotted the silhouette of a backlit Iceland Gull; its shape was unmistakable. The bird flew down closer to the Lady and then passed by only to fly away heading towards the Jerusalem wall.

     I walked back to the bow hoping to see if the Black-headed Gull that was reported in the Harbor might be there. We approached the “narrows” in the Harbor, and on the end of the small breakwater was a small Gull roost of seventy-five to a hundred birds. I started looking through the Gulls in my binoculars as we passed by hoping for a possible Glaucous Gull which I didn’t find. But as I panned across the birds, a single medium sized Gull near the end of the breakwater stood out. Its small rounded head with soft features and pure white primaries left no doubt of its identity; an adult Iceland Gull. I put my binoculars down and fumbled for my camera. The vessel passed by the parking lot and out of position for a picture. There was a small group of Bonaparte’s Gulls flying around and landing with a small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers. The birds were on the Matunuck side of the Harbor. I looked through all the Bonaparte’s Gulls, but couldn’t find the Black-headed Gull.

     The day turned out perfectly with three species of Alcids with larger numbers of Common Murre, a handful of Dovekie, excellent showings of Kittiwake, a blue morph Fulmar, and two Iceland Gulls.


   The red arrows on the chart indicate the area where I spotted the highest concentration of Dovekie, and the blue Arrow is the location where I saw the blue morph Fulmar.

     The locations of the two Iceland Gulls.

For those who may be interested-(mostly for CT birders who are interested in spending a great day coastal birding along the beautiful Rhode Island coast) Jen and I are planning on running a day long birding trip to Rhode Island late in January or the first part of February. This is only in the planning stages at this point, but if you are interested and care to join us, please send me an email ( (use Rhode Island birding as a topic) and I will let everyone know the details as it comes together. I like to start early so plan on starting at dawn (which is the best time for seabirding). I have been seabirding in Rhode Island for many years, and it has never disappointed! You never know what we will find!

     How was the fishing? Well, the fishing was steady, unfortunately with the eight degrees warmer water temps (unusual for January) it was the dogfish that kept everyone busy. But there were some good sized Cod caught including a hoggish twenty-five pounder, a few Hake, a few Sea Raven, two monstrous Angler Fish, and a few Mackerel. I have included a few fishing images below.

Keith Mueller        Killingworth, CT

     The first mate unhooks the largest cod of the day; a twenty-five pounder

     Andy proudly shows off his pool winner;  a huge Bergall (not really)!! Way to go Andy!

     Dad telling another fish tale!

     Mackerel were hitting the teasers on the jigs!

     The first of two huge Angler Fish (aka Monkfish)

      The second Monkfish, half as big again as the first one!

     Look at that mouth, at one point it latched on to the mate’s boot!