New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Friday, January 6, 2012

A Smokey Dawn, Swarms of Seabirds and a Black-headed Gull

Seawatching along Rhode Islands West Passage and South County Shore

     Wednesday, January 04, 2012- Winter finally arrived! With the morning’s temperature barely reaching an eye opening ten degrees F. and combining those temps with an added twenty knot northwest wind, in New England terms; it was “wicked cold”! I decided to bird the West Passage along the shoreline of  Narragansett having watched the huge seabird concentrations following the fishing trawlers that have been working this area over the last week or so (see my last post). My thought was to bird the area from the Narragansett Town Pier to Point Judith in the morning, and then along the South County Beaches after noontime.

     Since the fishing fleet is normally working farther out to sea, the fact that they were working so close to the shore was very appealing to me. I wanted to take advantage of this wonderful opportunity; to see clouds of hungry seabirds swarming around the vessels waiting for the moment when the trawl nets would be lifted out from the depths of the sea. My idea was to start the day at first light at Point Judith watching for possible Alcids.  It was also a good location to watch the morning flights of sea birds searching for their morning meals.  As the sun slowly peered over the horizon, its presence was challenged by its cold winter ocean counterpart: sea smoke.

    There were a few trawlers working off Point Judith but they were barely discernable in the weak light and swirling matt of smoke that skittered across the sea.  Although the wind was steady with occasional gusts, the sea was unusually flat.

     Through my binoculars I could see many birds trading back and forth disappearing and reappearing out of the sea smoke. Most of the birds were sea ducks; Scoters, Eiders, Mergansers and a single flock of seven large Alcids, most likely Razorbills. The Alcids flew westerly and I lost sight of them rather quickly outside the Galilee wall.  But there was enough light to see a steady procession of sea birds moving off the open sea heading north into the outer reaches of the West Passage. The morning flights of hungry sea birds had begun. 

     I drove north on Ocean Rd, and pulled into the south parking lot of Scarborough Beach for a few reasons: to watch where the sea birds were going, to locate the fishing fleet, and to see if the previously reported Black-headed Gull was present on the beach. On Tuesday report, Paul L’Etoile ( reported a Black-headed Gull at the beach, a location where this species is spotted almost annually and where I have seen one before. Immediately I saw the working fleet, it was spread out along the coast. The seabirds were arriving in large numbers, and they began to settle on the water in endless rafts; waiting for the minute when the first nets would be raised and the feeding frenzy would begin.

     I walked down to the beach, and looked through the concentration of Gull silhouettes which were mostly Ring-billed Gulls. Since Black-headed Gulls are often found associating with Ring-billed Gulls, this was encouraging. I made a quick pass through the gulls with my binoculars and in the middle of the small concentration of Gulls, a single bird, sleeker by comparison with a smaller head and slender bill stood out; it was the Black-headed Gull. Even in the poor morning light the bird stood out and was easy to identify. It was too dark to take any pictures, but hopefully the Gull would be there later when the lighting was better, I would stop back. The Gulls suddenly lifted off from the beach, and most of them flew over the Treatment Plant and flew towards Galilee Harbor, I did follow the Black-headed Gull for a short time, but lost it in the poor light.

    The light grew a bit brighter and many of the vessels were navigating north, going along the shore towards Narragansett Town, the sea birds of course followed, and so did I. The craggy rocks at the end of Newton Ave. has always been a perfect (and comfortable) place to seawatch. I can remember nearly twenty years ago when a sudden invasion of thousands of Common Eiders appeared in the State, in numbers that were unprecedented in Rhode Island.  I was sitting with my friend Charlie Allin (the former Wildlife Biologist for the State) on those rocks counting the birds and of course marveling at their beauty and stunned by the huge carpet of sea ducks that were feeding below our feet. It was a great moment and I am glad that I was with him to share it!
     The vessels were now fishing the area out front of Newton Rocks and the scene was spectacular. The sea has been a life-long passion of mine, and I have spent most of my life on or by the sea. I am fascinated by sea birds, lighthouses, working fishing vessels and of course the winter dawn over the sea. Looks like I had it all that day! What a wonderful gift that unfolded before me! I scanned through the mass of sea birds through my scope for possible other sea bird species; and I was able to identify at least five Black-legged Kittiwake. There were probably more, but it was too difficult scanning through all of those wheeling seabirds.

     The seabirds began arriving, first in small numbers than gradually increasing.

     I am adding the highlights from this day, but I want the images to tell the story. I spent the morning from that gorgeous dawn until noon between Point Judith and the Narragansett Town Pier. I drove back and forth along the coast between those locations and also visited Scarborough Beach four times that morning. I also visited Galilee Harbor and Point Judith twice that morning, but most of the time I spent was at Newton Rock watching the incredible seabird show! The images below are time elapsed in sequence from right after first light until when I left around noon. I hope you enjoy the images!

    Later that morning.......

     A few other bird highlights from Newton and Gunning Rocks (a little south):

     Four of the many Great Cormorants I saw that morning.

     There were many Purple Sandpipers flying along the shore in small flocks, trios, pairs and singles such as this one.

     Many Scoters, Red Breasted Mergansers and Common Eiders were feeding along the shore and flew by all morning.

     There were many Common Goldeneyes as well.

     This pair of sub-adult drake Oldsquaw swam by later in the morning.

     During the later morning a small Gull roost formed on the rocks north of Newton Rock as some of the Gulls came to shore to rest between trawl hauls.

     As the numbers began to build, many of the successful gulls returning to the roost still holding fish in their bills were ganged up on by less successful Gulls. Little clusters of pirating Gulls were seen all over the sea. Some of the Gulls were confronted as they neared the roost. I spotted a single adult Lesser Black-backed Gull just as it approached the roost. A Herring Gull suddenly staring pursuing the Gull and they both landed on the back side of the roost. I tried to locate the Lesser Black-backed Gull, but it landed behind and below some large boulders. I looked and waited for a half an hour hoping to take a few images of the Gull, but I couldn’t locate it. I drove to the end of Hazard Ave. which is north of Newton Rock to see if I could locate the Gull from there, but I wasn't able to.

          The Black-headed Gull. I spotted this Gull on all four visits to the southern section of Scarborough Beach near the Treatment Plant. The second time I found the bird I searched through all the gathered Ring-billed Gulls on the beach out in front of the parking area.  I found a single Gull that was standing alone near the jetty. The bird was hard to identify as it was located right in the path of the bright sun. I walked down the beach to get a closer look from a different angle escaping the brightness of the sun. When I approached the bird from a slightly different direction (little bit south of the bird) it was the Black-headed Gull. (This image offers a good silhouette study of this gull showing its sleek appearance, long primary extension,  and its small rounded head and long slender bill).

     When I was able to put the sun behind me, the bird came into perfect view and its age was revealed; it was a first cycle bird. I had suspected beforehand that this was the same bird I photographed twice earlier at Galilee Harbor on codfishing trips (see previous blog reports:    and )   but as it turns out it wasn’t. Maybe this bird was the second (possible) Black-headed Gull I saw while standing on the Frances Fleet docks a few weeks earlier. I took a few images of the Gull while standing on the beach, and as so often happens, my SD card flashed full, and I had to change the card.  Just as I inserted a fresh card, the Gull took off and flew up the beach a short distance and joined a small gathering of Ring-billed Gulls.

     After taking more images, I left the Gull on the Beach and drove back to Newton Ave.
An hour later I returned and the Gull was still present, but it had moved a bit south on the beach again. I watched the Gull for a while longer, than the Gull took off again, and flew towards Galilee Harbor for the second time that morning.

     When I returned for the fourth and last time in the late morning, the Gull was back and standing with a small gathering of Ring-billed Gulls on the Beach. As I was admiring the bird, a woman walking along the beach collecting sea glass walked right past the Gull which only walked a bit ahead out of her way. As she walked near, I wished her a good morning, and her curiosity got the best of her. She asked me why I was so interested in the Gulls on the beach. When I told her of the rare Gull on the beach, she was very curious and interested. I told her that this species is a visitor that is common in Europe and also there is a small breeding population in northeast Canada. I let her use my binoculars for a closer look, and she thought the bird was quite lovely; I told her that her description is shared by many of us. After repeating the name of the Gull to herself many times, she asked me for the title of a good bird book she could purchase because she suddenly became interested in birds. I suggested Sibley’s to her.

     After a brief conversation, I believe that a new birder had been born! The Gull flew by us and landed a short distance away down the beach near the jetty.

     I drove back to Newton Ave. to look for the Lesser Black-backed Gull again, but most of the gull roost had left, rejoining the feeding mob of seabirds that were following the Trawlers.  I then drove back to Point Judith and Galilee Harbor.  At the Camp Cronin the large raft of approx. seven hundred fifty plus Scoters (mostly Black Scoters) were still present off the Point, and a flock of over a hundred sea ducks mostly Eiders were rafted off the southeast corner of the Galilee wall.

     As I was driving out of Camp Cronin, a single deer walked across the entrance road and walked down the trail towards the Lighthouse.

     I turned onto Ocean Rd. from the Camp Cronin Road and immediatly saw this immature Coopers Hawk perched on the power lines.

     I went back to Galilee Harbor to search for (hopefully) a white-winged Gull or two, but as expected the harbor area and docks were almost empty of Gulls-most had joined the feeding bonanza in the West Passage I suspect.  But there were many flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers moving in and out of the Harbor.

     After a quick lunch I drove around to the South County Shore with my first stops being to the beaches of Matunuck. From Matunuck to Quonochontaug, the sea was peppered with endless birds: Scoters, Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Common and Red-throated Loons, Horned Grebes, and sporadic fly by Gannets.
     I made a stop at Moonstone Beach. As I started to walk to the beach while standing on the little causeway, I looked down and saw a white streak moving under the ice along the edge only a few feet away. I thought at first it was a fish swimming under the ice, but realized that it was a Red-breasted Merganser chasing fish under the ice.

     The Merganser surfaced from under the ice only a few feet away from me (I had to back my lens down to 200 mm since it was too close). After the bird emerged from under the ice, it slowly swam away into the half frozen pond. This is a classic case of being in the right place at the right time. I never knew that there was a Merganser in the pond; I never saw it until it was under the ice!

    After scoping the ocean at the Beach and seeing the aforementioned species, I walked back to my truck.  A looked up and saw a pair of Harriers hunting the marshes along the eastern side of Trustom Pond.

     My next stop was my favorite location on the South County Shore; the Charlestown Breachway. Here are the highlights:

      There was a flock of approx. seventy-five Eiders with three Common (Black) Scoters at the end of the east jetty.

     When I walked down the jetty to the end, the birds swam out a short distance and remained there for some time. This Red-throated Loon spent most of its time fishing along the jetty…….

     ………as well as a handful of Horned Grebes.  These birds were successful with catches of Silverside Herring and Sculpin.

     A few Harbor Seals floated by……..

     ……. and many flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers passed by the jetty all afternoon.

     Acrobatic Gannets traded east with many passing by close to the jetty, and many diving just outside.

     A single hen Oldsquaw swam along the jetty and joined the Eiders.

     A spotted a distant Black-legged Kittiwake flying east. It eventually turned and flew towards Block Island. I also saw seven individual Bonaparte’s Gulls flying by in both directions, and one flew in and landed fifty yards outside the jetty.

     Three Greater Scaup flew in from the east and attempted to land with the Eider flock. They didn’t land and like the Kittiwake, flew off heading towards Block Island.

     The west wind began to pick up, so I walked down below the upper boulders of the jetty to the darker stones exposed by low tide. Being well hidden, the flock of Common Eiders began to swim back to the jetty thinking that I had left. As they approached closer, I took many images.

     The ducks got closer and closer to at one point they were only a few yards away. One drake however figured something wasn’t just quite right…..even though I was well hidden in a hollow between two big boulders, he had his eye on me!

     The ducks casually swam around the jetty and out of my view.

     After a half an hour, it was time to leave. As I walked back to the top or the jetty, I saw that the flock of Eiders had swam into the opening in the Breachway. I thought the birds had swam to the western jetty and never expected them to be in the mouth. The birds were startled and took off leaving in a cloud of splash and spray. The birds flew a short distance and settled again on the sea, right where they started from.

     After leaving the Breachway, I made a few quick stops along the beaches one stop being West Beach. This flock of Common Scoters was swimming right along the Beach.

     My day ended at the Quonochontaug Breachway Canal. I watched a small Eider flock in the lower Canal doing what I have seen them do so many times over the years. They would swim into the Canal moving with the incoming tide.  When the reached the area near the private docks, they would dive and feed for a while. At one point the entire flock would take off and skitter along the water and fly out of sight between the breakwaters…..only to appear again a few minutes later riding the incoming tide only to fly out again and repeat this all over again!

     The last shot of the day as a Great Blue Heron flies across the sunset on the other side of the Canal.

     Another great day on seawatch along the Rhode Island coast.

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!

     The chart below indicates where I spotted the adult Lesser Black-backed Gull (blue arrow) and the first cycle Black-headed Gull (red arrow).

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT