New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Friday, November 18, 2011

A Symphony of Seabirds in “C-Major”

A Medley of Pelagic Feathers

     With the BBC’s Pelagic trip from Hyannis to Nantucket Shoals postponed due to strong winds, a spectacular day of seabirding was still possible. Jen and I had originally planned to arrive on the Cape on Friday to bird the rest of the day, go on the pelagic trip on Saturday and then bird Sunday on our way home. With the trip postponed, we would spend Saturday on shore rather than on the sea. The strong westerly winds were perfect for sea birding on the “forearm” of Cape Cod’s bayside coast pushing the seabirds along the coast closer to shore. I am always watching the marine forecast for New England storms that “feature” strong Northwesterly/easterly gale force winds; gem conditions for a seabirder! It doesn’t take too much effort on my part to convince Jen to spend a few days on the Cape in the fall/winter for seabirding. For a good understanding of the Cape Cod seabirding experience, a comprehensive chapter about Cape Cod pelagic birds was written by Blair Nikula for the book “Birding Cape Cod”, a book I highly recommend.

     Friday, Nov. 11- In the inlet at Dowses beach there were five Horned Grebes present, and small flocks of Buffleheads were flying around the bay north of the parking lot.

     As we were leaving the beach parking lot, I noticed a small gull swimming along the back shore of the bay. It was a good distance away, but when the bird took off, I noticed it had white “blades” on the anterior edge of the primaries; could it be? I stopped the truck along the side of the road by the town landing and quickly set up our scope. I located the bird immediately and noticed that it had a black bill and pink legs as it landed with a small gathering of the other Bonaparte’s Gulls; my favorite gull species. I enjoy watching Bonaparte’s Gulls, and I am always thrilled when they arrive in the spring and fall. The thirty-one gulls were feeding with a small flock of Red-breasted Mergansers.

     It was early afternoon and with the wind blowing strongly from the northwest, we decided to go to Provincetown. On our way north on 6, we made a quick stop at First Encounter Beach. The wind was screaming across the beach sandblasting my truck as we approached the end of the parking lot. The Bay was whipped-up with white caps spraying across the sea’s surface from the heavy wind. The distant sky was filled with hundreds of swirling Gannets; as far as you could see. Flying back and forth across our view were small flocks of Common Eiders and Scoters. Although the sea bird show in front of us was enticing, unfortunately the low tide sandbars extended a half a mile out into the Bay keeping the birds that much farther away from us; just too far to really appreciate them.


     With the remaining afternoon hours fading, we made a quick run to Provincetown. Our first stop was MacMillan’s Pier. With a little over an hour and a half left to the day, our first search was for the Brown Booby that we had seen a few weeks earlier. The Harbor was quiet with only a few Eiders and Gulls swimming in between the pilings. I scoped the breakwater for the Booby, but only found a few hundred Cormorants with a dozen Great Cormorants in the mix. I didn’t however locate the Booby. With the wind direction, I figured that the Booby was sitting on the backside of the breakwater in the lee out of my view. At the end of the Pier by the ice machine, I searched the water to the northeast of the breakwater, and found a single alcid that was diving around a moored sailboat where I located two Razorbills a month ago. As the bird came to the surface again, I was able to identify the alcid as a Common Murre. The bird still retained its full black head and hadn’t changed over to its more familiar white cheeks winter dress.

                                  distant Common Murre (between the buoys)

    We made a quick run over to Herring Cove Beach. The northwest wind (not the ideal wind for that beach) kept the large flocks of Gannets closer to Race Point and the breaking sea. The water in front of the parking area had scattered flocks of Eiders, Scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers and a few Common and Red-throated Loons sprinkled over the sea.
     The day ended at MacMillan’s Pier under a gorgeous sundown. On the way back to the hotel, Jen and I discussed our birding plans for the morning.
     Saturday, November 12- Arriving at Macmillan’s Pier at 6:15 am, the Cormorants were leaving the breakwater en masse with the Brown Booby probably consumed in the tangle of pelagic wings! After the morning rush of Cormorants, the Harbor was quiet with only a few Common Eiders swimming around the Pier. We then drove over to Herring Cove Beach, and immediately we spotted a large flock of Gannets in the distance concentrated mostly off Race Point. The Gannets had located a huge school of fish and were whipped up in a heavy feeding frenzy; like ants in a sugar bowl.
     Sea Ducks covered the water in small random flocks being joined by other birds searching for company. With the largest concentration of birds hanging off Race Point, and the winds stronger from the west, it would be better to watch from Race Point Beach where the wind would be contacting the beach more directly. Driving over to Race Point Beach, a dark colored red Fox was hunting along the road. It soon scurried off into the brush. As Jen and I walked through the dunes on the path at Race Point Beach, it was obvious we made the right choice, Gannets were crashing into the surf a few yards off the beach.

     From the northeast, my favorite Bonaparte’s Gulls were arriving continually in small groups. They were coming in singles, pairs, triples and flocks of half a dozen or more. The small gulls landed on the sea in small spread out groups, would sit for a minute and then back into the air heading towards race Point. The gulls came and went for the entire time we were there; nearly two hours. With the large numbers of arriving Bonaparte’s Gulls kept both eyes open for that transient Little Gull. Common and Forster’s Terns were mixed in with the Bonaparte’s Gulls spending much of their time plunging into the schools of fish swimming along the beach.
                    Bonapartes Gull (left) and Common Tern (right)
     We had only been there for fifteen minutes when Jen spotted the first Jaeger of the day; a Parasitic. The Jaeger was typically following the Terns and after singling out a Tern started chasing the Tern matching every maneuver the Tern could muster.

     While we were watching the mass of twisted sea birds before us, a small flock of Snow Buntings flew across the path along the dune grass by the beach. In the group was a yellowish “Pipit-type” bird that I only looked at out of the corner of my eye. My first impression of the bird was a Pipit illuminated by the morning sun. I only saw the bird for just a few seconds and never had a good look at it.

     Being a windy November day in Provincetown, one species of bird I was anxious to share with Jen was the Black-legged Kittiwake, a delicate pelagic gull that is exciting to watch. This bird to me defines late fall “sea watching” and when they appear it transforms the seabirding experience to a higher level. And as almost on cue, the first few appeared farther out from shore. The majority of the birds were adults, and they flew all the time we were there.

                                     Kittiwake and two Bonaparte's Gulls

     Eiders, Scoters (all three species), Oldsquaw and Red-breasted Mergansers were present in good numbers both flying and rafted on the water in small groups. The hardy sea ducks were joined by a few flocks of Bufflehead and the first flock of sixteen Common Goldeneye for the fall season. We only saw five large alcids; they were too far out to identify.

                       Common Eiders, Gannets and a single Greater Shearwater
                                    White-winged Scoters with Bonaparte's Gull

                                                               Surf Scoters

                                                White-winged Scoters

     A birder from Rhode Island joined us on the beach and we all enjoyed the Gannets, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Common and Forster’s Terns, Kittiwakes, a few Greater Shearwaters, Sea Ducks, two more Parasitic Jaegers, another small flock of Snow Buntings, and a few Savannah Sparrows.

                                                             Common Loon

                                Savannah Sparrow flies across the dunes

     After a few hours on the Beach and our hearts satisfied with the sea bird show before us, especially the hundred plus Kittiwakes, it was time for breakfast. After our break, we drove back to MacMillan’s Wharf hoping to find the Brown Booby or maybe an alcid hanging around the pier. Scanning the breakwater again, the Cormorants were coming and going in a continual stream, and their were a good number of Great Cormorants present. Most of the birds were perching on the lee side on the breakwater, probably where the Booby was. But the main attraction to the pier was the substantial numbers of Common and Forster’s Terns and Bonaparte’s Gulls that were feeding on the large schools of sand lance in the harbor.
                                                    Common Terns

                                           Common Tern and two Bonaparte's Gulls

                                                              Forster's Tern


                                                      Common and Forster's Terns

                                                               Forster's Terns............

                                                    Common Terns..........

                                                     Bonaparte's Gulls..............

While we watched, both Tern species and the Bonaparte’s Gulls were diving for the sand lance often a few yards from the pier. Many of the Terns flew under the pier and successfully plunging in for a fish.

     While I was photographing these Sand lance, this Common Tern dove into the water just ten feet below me and successfully grabbed this Sand lance. Notice the Tern has a broken maxilla (upper mandible). The break is between the nares.

                 Common Loon, also enjoyed the huge schools of Sand lance in the harbor

                                                juvenile hen Common Eider

                ........notice the three plumage color variations on these hens?


     After spending a very successful half a day birding in Provincetown we decided to drive south and stop by a few other favorite spots including Welfleet Harbor, First Encounter Beach and Corporation Beach. Welfleet Harbor was quiet, with a few Red-throated Loons, Eiders and Scoters swimming around the docks like this hen Surf Scoter.

                                              Red-throated Loon
     Also in the Harbor were these four Harbor Seal pups taking it easy and grabbing a long nap in the warm sun on the end dock. Jen really likes seals especially these adorable pups, so we stayed for a little while watching them snooze!

     Large numbers of Gannets were swirling on the horizon at First Encounter Beach, and flocks of Eiders were crossing our field of view in both directions.
     It was low tide in the afternoon at Corporation Beach. The beach sandbar inside the breakwater was exposed which made it easy to access the breakwater. Looking out over the breakwater Bonaparte’s Gulls were arriving from out in the Bay and joining a flock of nearly fifty other gulls along the beach.

     A few Forster’s Terns were feeding just outside the breakwater. I walked out to the breakwater as a flock of nearly a hundred Common Scoters flew by heading west. A single drake Lesser Scaup was in the head of the flock.

                                                    Red-throated Loon                                     

     As I walked up onto the western end of the breakwater I noticed two Horned Grebes swimming a few yards off the wall. I took a few images of the Grebes, as they got closer to the wall, my camera informed me that my compact flash card was full. I forgot to put an extra card in my pocket, so I had to walk back to my truck.

With a new 8GB card loaded in my camera, I noticed that the Bonaparte’s Gulls had begun following and feeding on a small school of fish along the beach. I walked down to the waters edge and photographed some of the Bonaparte’s Gulls diving into the fish just a few yards away from where I was standing.

     It was now dead low tide and the breakwater was completely exposed. As I walked over to the eastern end of the jetty, a Black-bellied Plover passed by, while another flock of Common Scoters (seventy-five birds), and three large flocks of Oldsquaw flew by the outside of the wall coming from the Sesuit Harbor area. The largest flock (pictured below) had over eighty birds in the group; the other two flocks had about half as many.


     When I was watching the Bonaparte’s Gulls I noticed that the Red-throated Loons and Horned Grebes had moved closer to the outside of the wall. This would give me a better opportunity to photograph these birds at closer range. When I approached the top of the wall, I started looking for the Loons.

    I must have timed my climb perfectly as a single bird popped to the surface finishing its dive. Expecting a Grebe or a Loon, I was momentarily stunned because this bird was neither species. It took my brain a few seconds to register what it was. Ten yards in front of me was a stunning drake Harlequin Duck. Having spent many years and hours studying Harlequin Ducks in Rhode Island, this is only the second time I have seen this species on Cape Cod. I watched and photographed the bird for fifteen minutes, and then it swam out by the outer tidal boulders farther out from the breakwater.


     Harlequins and Oldsquaw are among my top favorite waterfowl species and I have carved hundreds of them over the years. These carvings below are few examples of them. The antique Harlequin decoy is now in the collection of Jen. 

     While I was standing on top of the breakwater, two wonderful avian shows unfolded before me; I was glad to have a front row seat! A Forster’s Tern made a successful dive and started to carry off its prized fish, when a Ring-billed Gull made its appearance on the stage. The Gull chased the Tern which decide on an upward aerial escape path. The Gull acting like a seasoned Jaeger, pursued and matched every move of the Terns escape. But the Gulls persistence triumphed; the tern relented, giving up its prey after only a brief encounter. The small Sand lance tumbled down towards the sea and the Gull was dropping fast trying to grasp the offering. But in a last effort, the smaller and faster Tern twisted downward and made a quick “turn” and tried to grab the tumbling fish, but it missed. The Sand lance hit the water, and the Gull gathered up its prize!

                         Keep your eye on the fish! (to the left of the Forster's Tern.

     A single first year Gannet was fishing nearby, and at one point came very close to the breakwater. It made several plunges which were quite entertaining!



     As Jen and I were leaving the parking lot, Jen pointed over to my left. There sat a beautiful red Fox just off the side of the road; its brilliant sienna colored fur was shimmering in the afternoon sun. It slowly walked by our truck and then walked along the rail fence where it sat again appearing quite relaxed and comfortable. This one giving us much better looks than the one we saw that morning hunting along the road by Race Point Beach. What a beautiful animal.

    With only an hour remaining in the day, Jen and I searched the Hyannis area beaches again for the Black-headed Gulls, but no luck. We said good-bye to the day, and looked forward to Sunday morning.
  Sunday morning, November 13We started our morning at dawn at MacMillan’s Wharf. The sun slowly crawled over the horizon announcing itself in a kaleidoscope of yellow and orange ribbons of brilliant colors.

    In the distance Jen and I noticed large skeins of birds flying past Long Point Light heading into the head of Provincetown Harbor. The flocks of birds continued for over five minutes; they kept coming and coming! Through our binoculars, I realized that the birds were Red-breasted Mergansers, thousands of them! The birds settled on the water in the distant head of the Harbor, causing a large black blob on the waters surface. This “oil slick“ of rafted birds, reminded me of a scene I have seen so may times along the CT shore of huge rafts of Scaup. Over the years I have seen enormous rafts of Red-breasted Mergansers staging off Provincetown in November, and also a mile offshore of Saquatucket Harbor, Harwichport in December.

     After five minutes, the entire flock of Mergansers got up off the water and flew back across the lighthouse in one huge line of birds eventually flying out into the open Bay.

              These nearly two thousand birds are only part of the massive Merganser flock

     With the Cormorants and Mergansers leaving the Harbor, the water was quiet with birds.

     I made a quick look for the Brown Booby, but I didn’t find it, so we drove over to Herring  Cove Beach. Driving into the parking lot, the sea was alive with birds; hundreds and hundreds of them.

                                                  Gannets and Bonaparte's Gulls

                                     Gull and Cormorant roost-Race Point

                                                  Bonaparte's Gulls

     Every direction we looked were Gannets, Bonaparte’s Gulls, Common and Forster’s Terns, Sea Ducks, with special appearances by 7 Parasitic Jaegers, 1 large and very dark Pomarine Jaeger, three single Dovekie, a few Greater Shearwaters, and of course the Kittiwakes. It was hard to scan for species; there were so many birds flying from all directions.
     And here come the Jaegers......


                             Targeting a Tern in all those Bonaparte's Gulls

                                                   Enter Jaeger #2.................

     After an hour of watching, the huge flocks of Red-breasted mergansers again appeared around Wood End Point coming from out in the Bay. This time the entire flock of birds were in larger groups and they flew out and around Race Point. The only way to describe this morning was an over abundance of birds!

     After three hours of seabirding at Herring Cove Beach, we had to start making our way home. While we were standing on the edge of ocean on the beach, this single Bonaparte's Gull started fishing directly in front of us. I couldn't resist just a few more shots!

    Jen wanted to see the Harbor Seal pups again, so we made a quick stop at Welfleet Harbor, and the there they were. Now there were five Seal pups; three on the dock, two in the water. We watched as one of the pups was hesitant about climbing up on the dock. The pup swam around a bit, looked for the best spot to crawl up on the dock …………

                            Using the cleat for leverage was clever.............

 .........................but this is easier!!

Coastal Seabirding Friday afternoon, Saturday and Sunday November 11, 12, & 13.
Species Highlights. (The numbers totals for large groups of birds are roughly estimated (often too many to count, and too many birds in the area at the same time). Other bird species numbers were counted such as Jaegers, Grebes and Loons. (Totals are combined for Friday, Saturday and Sunday all locations)

Locations visited: Provincetown- Harbor, MacMillans Pier, “Moors”, Herring Cove Beach, and Race Point Beach, Welfleet Harbor, Eastham-First Encounter Beach, Orleans-Rock Harbor, Dennis-Sesuit Harbor, Corporation Beach, Sandwich- Sandy Neck, Sandwich Beach, Basin and Canal, Hyannis- Federal, Kalmus and Covell Beaches, Osterville- Craigville and Dowses Beaches.

Gannets- 2500+ (First Encounter, Herring Cove, Race Point and Corporation Beaches, Provincetown Harbor)
Bonapartes Gulls- 850-1,000 (all locations)
Black-legged Kittiwakes- 250-300 (Race Point Beach and Herring Cove Beach)
Common Terns- 100-150 (Herring Cove, Race Point, First Encounter and Corporation Beaches, and Provincetown Harbor and Beaches)
Forster’s Terns- 75+ (same locations as above)
Parasitic Jaeger- 9 (2 from Race Point Beach, 7 from Herring Cove Beach)
Pomarine Jaeger- 1 (large, heavy dark plumaged bird from Herring Cove Beach chasing Bonaparte’s Gulls)
Common Eiders- 750+ (all Cape Cod locations except South Shore)
White-winged Scoters- 500+ (all Scoters- same as above)
Surf Scoters- 250+
Common Scoters- 750+
Oldsquaw- 350+ (Herring Cove, Race Point and Corporation Beaches, Provincetown Harbor)
Harlequin duck- 1 drake (Corporation Beach)
Bufflehead- 150+ (all locations)
Common Goldeneye- 16 (Race Point Beach)
Red-breasted Mergansers- 3,500-4,000 (low estimate) (all locations-largest concentrations and rafts in Provincetown area)
Black ducks- 200 (all locations)
Common Murre- 1 (Provincetown Harbor from MacMillan’s Pier)
Large alcids- 5 (Herring Cove and Race Point Beaches)
Dovekie- 3 (all singles-Herring Cove Beach)
Greater Shearwater- 5 (Herring Cove and Race Point Beaches)
Common Loon- 27 (all locations)
Red-throated Loons- 16 (5 Welfleet Harbor, 7 Corporation Beach, 4 Herring Cove Beach)
Horned Grebe- 9 (Corporation Beach and Dowses Beach)
Red-necked Grebe- 3 (Herring Cove Beach)
Great Cormorant- 23 (Provincetown Breakwater and Herring Cove Beach)
Herring, Greater Black-backed and Ring-billed Gulls- 1,000 (all locations)
Double-crested Cormorant- 200 (most locations)
Black-bellied Plover- 17 (Shorebirds most locations)
Sanderling- 75+
Dunlin- 100+
Ruddy Turnstone- 3 (Corporation Beach)

Snow Buntings- (including an unidentified yellowish, pipit-type bird in one of the flocks at Race Point Beach) 13 + 1 (unidentified bird described above)
Savannah Sparrow-3
Grey Seals- 9 (Provincetown Harbor and Herring Cove Beach)
Harbor Seals- 12 (5 Welfleet Harbor, 2 Provincetown Harbor, 5 Herring Cove Beach)
Red Fox- 2 (1 Corporation Beach, 1 Race Point Beach)

 Keith and Jen Mueller   
Killingworth, CT