New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Monday, January 2, 2012

Late December Sea Ducks and Sea Birds

Rhode Island Highlights- December 27 and 30

     Late December winds continued to take center stage, which are a gift for sea watching. Tuesday’s forecasted weather included overcast skies and moderate southerly
winds. Jen and I drove to Galilee Harbor just after sunrise, hoping to get just one more look at the Black-headed Gull if it was still in the area. There were a large group of Gulls present chasing a school of bait fish in the middle of the Harbor, but we couldn’t locate any Bonaparte’s Gulls or the Black-headed Gull. After checking the “narrows” and Salty Brine Beach without finding any Gulls, we drove over to Camp Cronin. The waves were breaking over the east wall and on the cobble beach. From the parking lot, Jen looked down and spotted the first bird; a Razorbill.

     The Razorbill was swimming close to the cobbled beach. I walked down the edge of the parking lot onto the cobble stones hoping to photograph the bird at reasonably close range, but the immature Razorbill dove. Alcids will typically pop up quite a distance from where they dove, and this bird was true to its genus. The bird surfaced many yards away. As I was watching this bird, I spotted a second immature Razorbill swimming over the tops of the breaking waves; it came close enough to take a few images. Jen let me know that she located a third Razorbill out farther than the other two.

     Swimming along the breakwater was a small flock of Common Scoters and Eiders. Inside the sea ducks closer to the parking lot a single hen Harlequin Duck surfaced from a dive and swam along the wave tops.

     When I walked back up the beach to my truck, I started scouring the ocean for other birds, maybe more alcids. When I checked the area just off the point from the Lighthouse a long dark cloud of birds covered the bouncing sea like a large floating weed mat. The raft of sea ducks stretched from the Point to as far as you could see heading towards Block Island. Scouring the huge raft through my scope I roughly estimated the flock to be several thousand birds with at least fifteen hundred of them rafted closer to the Lighthouse. The ducks were mostly Common Scoters with smaller numbers of Common Eiders and Surf Scoters, and a handful of White-winged Scoters.

     From Point Judith, we drove over to Jamestown. On our way to Beavertail we spotted the Cattle Egret that has been present in the livestock fields for some time. The bird was very close to the road to Fort Getty walking just yards away from the stone wall.

     Sea ducks were spread out all around the Point, with the majority of the birds rafted on the eastern side of the Park. Of the nearly one thousand sea ducks along both shores, the majority of the ducks were Common Scoters, with handfuls of Surf Scoters, a few White-winged Scoters, and a hundred Eiders. All the birds were diving in the broken surf along the shore feeding on mussels and crabs.

     There were several handfuls of Harlequin Ducks mixed in with the Scoters and Eiders.

     At the Point a single adult Razorbill dove and fed in the breakers.

     A single sub-adult drake Common Scoter found a bit of a reprieve from the surf in a small tidal inlet between the boulders on each side of the small inlet.

     One of three Harbor Seals swimming around the Point.

     Gannets were trading outside, and a small flock of Oldsquaw, and one of a handful of Great Cormorants also flew by.

     The Lighthouse, viewed from the western side of the Point.

     There were several fishing trawlers working the waters between Beavertail and Point Judith, and all had large swarms of birds circling the vessels. I searched through as many of the distant birds as I could and found many Gannets and common Gull species. I looked very hard for Kittiwakes and/or Fulmars, but I couldn’t locate any.

     We left Beavertail Point and drove into Fort Getty. The Cattle Egret was now feeding in the middle of the big field. Besides the small flock of White-winged Scoters and Common Eiders swimming around the point behind the campground, there were two small flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers…….

      ……….and this single Bonaparte’s Gull flying by which flew towards the Narragansett shore.

     As we were leaving the park, we noticed a small flock of Common Eiders, Goldeneye and Brant were loafing in the calmer water near the small rocky islands. After Fort Getty, we drove over to Fort Wetherill. There was a single drake Harlequin Duck swimming along the far shore across from the boat ramp. Driving down the hill next to the R I Marine Fisheries, I immediately spotted a single adult Razorbill swimming near the bulkhead. Jen spotted another Razorbill swimming near the island with a few Common Eiders.

     On our drive over the Newport Bridge to Newport, a single Peregrine Falcon was hovering near the bridge supports looking below the bridge for pigeons. It then flew up to the cable at the top of the bridge and landed. A short distance away, Jen spotted and pointed to a single white-winged Gull flying over the bridge out in front of the truck; it was an Iceland Gull either second or third cycle. The Gull was followed by a flock of seventeen White-winged Scoters flying over the bridge heading south towards Rose Island. Looking down over the bridge (carefully-since I was driving) the Scoters joined a large flock of ducks sitting on the water just northeast of the reef at the north end of Rose Island.

     At Brenton Point, besides the small flocks of Common Eiders, Scoters and Bufflehead were a small group of seven Harlequin Ducks and these Common Goldeneyes.

     A flock of Cormorants, mostly Great Cormorants roost on a rocky island near the old boat ramp east of Brenton Point. 
       A quick walk over to Island Rocks at Sachuest Point NWR was productive. A small flock of Purple Sandpipers landed on the lee side of Island Rocks south.

     Common Eiders were loafing in the quiet rockweed covered rocks near shore.

     A single hen Greater Scaup rides the waves along the shore.

     The highlight of the day! The Snowy Owl spotted a day before was still present as it “hunkered-down” out of the wind in a crevice at the top of Island Rocks north.

     Back to Beavertail, the large group of sea ducks was closer to shore along the eastern side of the Point.

     Mixed flocks of Common Eiders, Common Scoters, Surf Scoters and a few White-winged Scoters

  (From l to r)- sub-adult drake Common Scoter, drake Surf Scoter (top rear), hen Common Scoter, drake Surf Scoter, hne Common Scoter, hen White-winged Scoter (center) drake Common Eider

                                        A regal looking drake Surf Scoter

                                                           Common Scoters

                                    Common Scoters with a single hen Surf Scoter in the water

     While I was searching through the rafts of sea ducks looking for a possible King Eider, I spotted this hen Common Eider; she had a radio transmitter attached to her caudal area. ( )

     After spending another hour at Beavertail we drove back to Galilee for another look for the Black-headed Gull which we could not find. A small fishing vessel loaded with its catch listed heavy to port as it steamed back to the docks. There were a few gulls following the vessel. As the fishing vessel passed by us at the narrows, we didn’t see any white-winged Gulls.

     On a quick stop at the Charlestown Breachway on our way home, there was a small flock of Common Eiders with three Common Scoters at the end of the jetty. There were many other sea ducks, at least seventeen Common and three Red-throated Loons near the jetties.

     There were many other Loons, Sea Ducks, and a few Horned Grebes on the water away from the jetties, but the rough water made it difficult to estimate their numbers. While I was standing on the jetty, five Gannets flew by quite a distance from the jetty.  A single Razorbill swam in and dove almost as quickly as it arrived. It surfaced again to the west of the western jetty where I lost sight of it.


     December 29- a few minutes looking around New Haven Harbor, CT.-    

     West Haven boat ramp. It was low tide and there was a flock of over one thousand Brant feeding along the shore in front of the boat ramp to the New Haven yacht club docks. There were also other flocks near City Point and along the shore of Sandy Point.

      The birds in front of the boat ramp lifted up and flew around the inner Harbor landing with the other Brant near the NHYC docks.

     Then all the birds took off and flew across the Harbor and landed with the other flock along the shore of Sandy Point forming one huge flock of Brant.

     In the inner Harbor along the inside shores of outer Sandy Point was a good-sized raft of at least one thousand five-hundred Scaup (mostly Greater). I couldn’t locate the previously seen Redheads or any Canvasbacks, but the raft was stretched out for a long distance, I could not see the end of it. There was also a smaller raft of Scaup below the sandbar off the West Haven beaches.

     Near the boat ramp were several hundred Gulls (mostly Ring-billed and Herring). I searched through all of them but could not find any other species other than the common Gull species. There are usually one or two Iceland Gulls hanging around the boat ramp, but none were found that day. One of three Great Cormorants on the pilings behind Leon’s at Long Wharf.

     December 30, back to Rhode Island-

   Jen and I started our day in Jamestown. Taking a right off the exit onto
North Main Road we spotted a group of fifteen White-tailed Deer in the fields on the right.

    After watching the deer for fifteen minutes, we arrived at Beavertail Park just as the fishing trawler “Persistence” was passing the western side of the Park. I saw the large flock of Gulls following the stern of the vessel. I looked through my binoculars from my truck stopped on the entrance road in the opening between two trees at the first parking lot and spotted a single white Gull in the swarm of birds. I quickly grabbed my camera and was able to take two shots of the flock before the birds disappeared behind the trees. The image does reveal a white gull, but unfortunately, I can’t make it out clear enough to ID it. The bird is a possible Iceland, Glaucous, or maybe an albino Herring  Gull.

   We arrived at the Point below the Lighthouse just as Bob Weaver was leaving and we had a brief chat (Bob- superb shot of your picture of the Cattle Egret!). Jen and I missed the five Razorbills and the single Dovekie that he found a bit earlier (I knew we should have gotten there a little earlier (^: ), but we did have a great morning at the Point.  I looked down to the small inlet, and the same sub-adult Common Scoter I photographed a few days earlier was back again in the inlet. This time however, the sun was low and the soft morning light should aid in better images than the dark overcast shots from earlier in the week. I walked down the granite boulders and was able to capture these images:

     Notice the basal area of the bill is starting to swell and form an adult drakes basal knob, and the color of the forming knob is starting to turn yellow.

     The artist in me loves these shots of the sea foam!

     While I was photographing the Scoter, Gannets were continually flying by the Point, and many came very close as this one did……….

……….and these Common Eiders.

     A small flock of Common Scoters swam around the Point……..

     ……as well as this pair of Harlequins. I am always amazed at the tenacity of this little sea duck living in the most extreme conditions especially at its winter grounds. I like watching them dive through a breaking wave…..

     While we were watching the Harlequins and the single Scoter, Jen tapped me on the shoulder and pointed. A small flock of Purple Sandpipers had landed in front of us on the edge of the water. They were feeding heavily on the fine menu of small mollusks now exposed by the low tide.

    In the distance the trawlers continued to work the area between Beavertail and Point Judith. The water was covered with birds as far as the eye could see. Wonder how many rarities were in that flock?

    We decided to leave, and as we walked up the rocks by the road (near the foghorn) a single Orange-crowned Warbler landed in the last bush near the road before the sea. It stayed a few minutes and then took off crossing the west passage and flew towards Point Judith.

    After a quick stop for coffee at the Village Hearth Bakery ( (a wonderful bakery-one of the best and very welcoming when you are winter birding) we drove over to Fort Wetherill. As we were driving down the road by the Park, I saw a Crow fly across the road with something in its bill. I couldn’t believe what I saw and asked Jen if she had seen it. She didn’t and when I told her what it was, she gave me that look. As fate (and luck) would have it, I saw the bird again as it flew down the road and landed in a tree just beyond the Park. I stopped the truck, and there was the Crow sitting in the tree with a live Garter Snake in its bill. The Crow soon dispatched the snake and here are the images (a snake in late December)??……

    There were not too many birds at Fort Wetherill, so we drove over to Newport. The usual sea ducks were present along Ocean Avenue , and I stopped to take this image of the usual Harbor Seals hauled out on the appropriately named Seal Rock.  A small cluster of Great Cormorants had joined them. I also scoped the water around the Rock and breaking ledges, no King Eider yet!

     The Snowy Owl was not present at Sachuest, and the usual sea ducks were there. On an outer ledge rock, a small flock of Purple Sandpipers had joined these loafing Common Eiders.

     This Black Duck climbed up on this rock along shore.

     Back at Beavertail on the way home, I was happy to find the fishing trawlers were still busy fishing the outer western passage.  Gannets were continually trading by mostly heading east as these were doing flying by the buoy at Newton Ledge…….

     The “Persistence” was heading back in and the usual entourage of sea birds were following closely behind the vessel. There were many Gannets and Gulls surrounding the vessel.

      A Gannet flies by a working Lobster Boat.

     Again we had a front row seat to the Harlequin show with these birds diving through a wave near shore.

     We stopped at the last parking area leaving the Park, and this raft of mostly Common Scoters were close to shore near the last point north of the parking area. The drake Common Scoters were deeply involved in courtship antics. Their pleading calls resonated above the sounds of sea, sounding like wind whistling through the riggings of a sailing vessel.

     We made a brief stop at Galilee and saw this small trawler in the Harbor of Refuge which was surrounded by a swarm of Gulls….

     ………and these resting Great Cormorants and Eiders on the stones at the opposite shore of the narrows.

     Along the South Shore Beaches  from Matunuck to Quonochontaug including Matunuck Beaches, East and West Beaches, Green Hill Beach and Central Beach the ocean was spattered with Eiders, Scoters, both Loon species and Horned Grebes. I didn’t spend too much time scanning for Alcids or any rarities, but with the numbers of birds present along these beaches I am sure I overlooked many. This small flock of Common Scoters, few Eiders and a handful of Oldsquaw were swimming off of Green Hill Beach.

     In the small flock of thirty Common  Eiders at the end of the jetty at the Charlestown Breachway was this single drake Oldsquaw….

…..soon joined by this single Horned Grebe.

     Red arrows indicate the location of the Razorbills, Blue indicates the Snowy Owl's location

   Happy New Year!

Keith and Jen Mueller
Killingworth, CT