New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Saturday, June 25, 2011

Saturday Pelagic to Nantucket Shoals, 6-25-2011

   It is great to be back home in New England after spending most of June with my good friends at their fabulous woodcarving studio teaching an art class on the Upper Peninsula of Mich. The UP is a spectacular location showcasing its quiet isolation and extremely pleasant weather is framed by endless expanses of red pines, white birches, white cedars surrounding the extensive network of ponds, lakes, swamps and sloughs.  The bird life was evident, but because of the vastness of the forests, they were often heard but not seen. My teaching schedule which started just after dawn and continued until after dark left little time for birding. With the long schedule and because I didn’t bring my camera, binoculars or scope made it almost unbearable (especially without my camera). My birding centered around “road birding” on the ride from the lodge to the teaching facility in the early mornings, and what I could see on my friends spectacular property which had a 4 acre lake. Although not the best birding situation, I was able to see and hear (on a daily basis): Pileated Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Flickers, Bald Eagles, Sandhill Cranes, Ravens, Broad wing and Red Shouldered Hawks, and many assorted Warblers and Vireos. Unfortunately, I never saw the Black-backed Woodpeckers which I have seen the last two years. The UP is a fabulous place, but I was ready for a day of New England coastal birding, and a pelagic trip was at the top of my list.

   I returned home in time for the Brookline Bird Clubs June pelagic trip to Nantucket Shoals this past Saturday. Jen and I drove up to Hyannis on Friday making sure we were well rested for the long day on Saturday. As expected, I didn’t sleep much that night being excited to be back on the water with seabirds. The weather forecast was a bit bleak with indications of thunderstorms and fog, and Saturday morning the weather-person unfortunately finally got it right-FOG!!

  Arriving at the Helen H dock, everyone was beginning to show up and gather, and even with the fog, everyone’s spirits were high. As we boarded the vessel, the favorite rail positions were sought out and reserved, mine of course being the “figurehead” on the whale walk pulpit on the bow of the vessel. With everyone aboard, gear stowed and positions secured, the 100 plus foot Helen H cast its lines and we were underway. As we headed out of Lewis’ Harbor, the visibility was about a half a mile; hopefully it would improve as the morning wore on. A few Least and Common Terns were fishing at the mouth of the harbor near Kalmus Beach where we photographed the very rare Yellow-legged Gull a few months earlier. Also two Ospreys were seen; one perched on the roof of a small fishing boat, the other on the channel beacon just outside the harbor.

   Heading S/SE towards Nantucket Shoals, it became very obvious that the birding was going to be tough and very slow. The visibility became very poor with a thickening shroud of fog, and if any bird was going to be seen, it would have to be within an arms reach of the vessel. For the first hour the only birds we saw were a few Common Terns which flew out and then back into the thick fog. A Common Loon swam past the bow only to disappear back into the fog.  For the next fifteen minutes, the eeriness of the heavy shroud left little hope of seeing anything other than the waves that appeared only a few feet from the bow, soon to join and fade into the remnant bow spray and wake.

    As events often have a way of materializing under unusually timed circumstances, Steve Mirick one of the trips bird guides and experts walked up on the bow to see what was happening. Just as he arrived there to say hello, the first words out of his mouth were “there is the first pelagic bird of the day”. As he pointed over the bow rail a single WILSON'S STORM-PETREL flew across the bow, hugging the water with its characteristically zig-zagging flight. Although a common bird on a June pelagic, or any cod or tuna fishing trip, it was a welcomed site with the dismal conditions of the morning.

First Wilson's Storm-Petrel
Note white rump patch that wraps around sides, feet that show beyond tail, and un-forked tail.

   Continuing along, the emptiness of the morning was broken by six more single Storm Petrels appearing one at a time over a fifteen minute stretch of time. The reason was obvious for the Storm Petrels appearance from out of the fog; a single barely visible lobster boat off the starboard side was working the line of traps sending the odor of fresh fish oil into the water.  As we all started settling back into our patient mode Jen spotted a single bird which appeared from the starboard side and quickly flew across the bow offering a good look; a GREATER SHEARWATER, not a rare seabird, but one that got everyone’s heart rate up just a bit.

Buoy in fog

  As we approached the shallower waters of Nantucket Shoals, the blanket of fog was so thick you could barely see the large bell buoys marking the shoaling waters. The announcement stated that the waters off the Shoals were quite shallow and treacherous and much colder causing the pea soup (or “chowda” on the Cape) to thicken. The Captain decided to head out and find warmer water temps which should hopefully reduce the density of the fog. About ten minutes underway, the density of the fog appeared to lessen and you could barely see the small circular outline of the sun between intervals of broken fog overhead. A few W Storm Petrels appeared followed by 3 Greater Shearwaters, and then our first SOOTY SHEARWATER of the day.

Flying Sooty Shearwater at distance

   I looked to the starboard side and noticed what appeared to be two gulls sitting on the water about a hundred yards out. As I pointed to the birds, they took off, one was a Grtr Black-backed Gull and the other was a bit smaller (Herring Gull sized) and completely dark. Immediately an announcement came over the loudspeaker-“SKUA, SKUA, SKUA”! The boat turned hard starboard towards the birds, but they disappeared into the fog. The boat continued in the direction, and within two minutes, the bird reappeared and flew out across the bow again at a hundred yards. I tried at first for a few shots, but the fog prevented my autofocus from locking on, so I quickly changed over to manual focus with hopes of maybe capturing a chance shot or two. Since my viewfinder in my camera was “fogged” and so were my glasses, I took a long succession of shots as the auto wind purred not knowing if I captured anything on my flash card in focus or not. The bird suddenly vanished into the fog, leaving as quickly as it appeared. I could not tell if I secured any images of the bird as my LCD pad was also “fogged up”.

Skua 1

Skua 2

   With the excitement of the Skua a mere distant memory and behind us, we continued to warmer waters. The Captain kept announcing the water temps were starting to increase from the low 50’s to the mid-50’s. With this the fog began to show signs of opening a bit and the sun started to peek-through above from time to time. With that more birds appeared; Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Greater Shearwaters. As the ID calls from the vessel bellowed across the deck, a single CORY’S SHEARWATER appeared giving everyone on deck another glimmer of hope. More Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Greater Shearwaters began to show up in good numbers, then a single MANX SHEARWATER came from the port side followed by another Sooty.

Cory’s Shearwater

Manx Shearwater
Note white rump patch lacking, white under tail, and dark cap extends below eye.

   At this point there were many Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Greater Shearwaters in the area that the crew began running a chum line. What seemed like seconds, a group of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls appeared off the stern followed by Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Greater Shearwaters. The birds were following the chum line to the vessel, and more and more appeared. The vessel would reverse course and follow the chum line picking up a large group of feeding birds. More and more appeared and the “show off the stern” was great with many Greater Shearwaters landing in the Helen H’s slow moving wake, and the Wilson's Storm-Petrels so close to the stern you could almost reach out and touch them as they fed a mere few feet off the stern.

Close-up Wilson's Storm-Petrel 1

Close-up Wilson's Storm-Petrel 2

Close-up landing Greater Shearwater 1

Close-up landing Greater Shearwater 2

   In all the birding feeding excitement, the sun broke out and the fog passed to the distance near shore. The Captain announced we were 20 miles S/SE of Chatham and the water temps were nearing the high 50’s. We continued along the chum line, and the Petrels and Greater Shearwaters continued, but more Sooty Shearwaters appeared. Again Cory’s Shearwater was announced over the speakers, then another Manx, this one in the company of 1 Greater and 1 Sooty Shearwater. The Manx circled the vessel closely and offered everyone good looks and good photos. Suddenly a NORTHERN FULMAR was seen in the wake of the chum line and the Helen H turned around….there it was in all of its beautiful splendor. The bird flew close to the vessel and landed in the chum for nearly ten minutes. This is another species I never grow tired of seeing, especially on those windy November cod fishing trips off Cox Ledge and Gloucester.

Northern Fulmar

Small flock Wilson's Storm-Petrels swimming

 A few whales were seen in the distance: Humpback, Fin and Minke. The birds continued to feed along the chum line, when a call came out LEACH'S STORM-PETRELS! Looking into a small gathering of Wilson's Storm Petrels that were feeding on the chum were three pointed wing, fork tailed beauties with their typical “fluttering” flight. They gave everyone a show for a few minutes and then they disappeared in the distance. More Sooty Shearwaters appeared and then another Cory’s. This bird was closer to the vessel giving everyone a great look; a spectacular shearwater species.

Leach's Storm-Petrels
Note that feet do not extend beyond tail, slightly forked tail, fairly long angled wings, and white rump does not wrap around sides.
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Same field mark ID notes as in first photo of Leach's Storm-Petrels
Leach's Storm-Petrel
Same field mark ID notes as in first photo of Leach's Storm-Petrels

   There was a continual showing of birds: Wilson's Storm-Petrels, Greater Shearwaters, more Sooty Shearwaters, a few Leach's, Cory’s and a Fulmar or two including a blue morph. A single working trawler was spotted on the now open horizon, with the typical flock of gulls swarming all over the stern and trailing behind in the wake voraciously feeding on the spilling over bycatch. The waters behind the trawler were literally covered with birds. The vessel headed towards the trawler and the bird numbers began to pick up. I was looking through my binoculars at the birds on the water, and I spotted a single bird at a distance that appeared different. As I identified the bird as a Murre sp., a voice excitedly bellowed over the speaker-ALCID!  I picked up my camera and unable to relocate the bird on the water, I began to shoot random shots on the distant sea in the direction that I thought the bird was, not knowing if my camera was pointed where I saw the bird. Again, I shot a quick barrage of images in the area, and hopefully caught something on the compact flash card. I picked up my binoculars and found the bird again, it was long bodied with a long slender bill, and the black margins of the side pocket margin feathers could be distinguished even at a distance: COMMON MURRE.

Common Murre
Common vs. Thick-billed Murre- the black marginal feather streaking is clearly visible along the most posterial white side pocket margin - Common Murre

  As we continued along the chum line towards the trawler, the distance closed. Greater Shearwaters would literally fly along the bow of the vessel and pass directly below those of us who were standing on the whale-walk in front of the bow---that was incredible to be standing a few feet above the shearwaters as they flew under your feet!

Close-up (below) Greater Shearwater

   We began to see more breaching whales, and the bird numbers continued to increase. A few more Cory’s Shearwaters made appearances, and the number of Sooty Shearwaters also increased and began to overtake the numbers of Greater Shearwaters. Another Manx Shearwater appeared off the port side, and Wilson's Storm-Petrels were everywhere, surrounding the vessel. Within a half of a mile of the trawler, the water was covered and blanketed with birds as far as the eye could see in all directions. We were surrounded by mostly Sooty Shearwaters hundreds and hundreds of them with fewer Greater Shearwaters in the flocks. They were all   feeding heavily and I took a nice photo sequence of a Greater Shearwater coming to the surface and then flying away with a squid that it just caught.

  Suddenly the water around the Helen H began to boil with swimming, surfacing, landing and taking off birds: Sooty and Greater Shearwaters, Wilsons and a few Leaches Storm Petrels, a few more Cory’s Shearwaters and Fulmars and a single GANNET. Adding to the excitement came from the sudden appearance of feeding whales, breaching Giant Tuna (Blue fin, Yellow fin and Big Eye) and splashing Striped Bass. The water around the Helen H was boiling with sea birds, whales, tuna and stripers. At one point the Helen H just drifted amongst the huge feeding frenzy and we all watched with amazement. There wasn’t an open space along the rails on either side of the vessel. For over half an hour we drifted in the middle of all the feeding activity, with many of the birds popping up, and the tuna breaking the surface just below us along the boat.

Sooty Shearwater flock on water

Sooty Shearwater swimming

Sooty Shearwater taking off

Greater Shearwater with squid

   When the majority birds, whales and tuna began to move away from our area (still plenty to watch) the Captain began to steam ahead to a new location when you could hear a voice on the loudspeaker exclaim “JAEGER”!! Off in the distance about a hundred and fifty yards a single bird with large broad wings was flying away from the vessel. Another voice shouted that it landed on the water ahead. The Captain steamed for that direction, and there it was. A single Jaeger was sitting on the water and swam directly towards the Helen H to within twenty yards. It was a large and quite impressive bird, and it became clear that it was a molting juvenile POMARINE JAEGER. The bird swam close and then flew off, and again we followed the bird to the same results; many good looks and photos on the water and flying off. The bird took off and headed towards the horizon, but everyone on board was quite excited and exhilarated by the close encounter.

Pomarine Jaeger swimming
Note the large, heavy and strongly hooked bill, strongly barred lower tail coverts and ventral wing coverts

Pomarine Jaeger flying

Pomarine Jaeger flying

   Off in the distance, another large raft of Sooty Shearwaters and feeding Wilson's Storm-Petrels were seen and the Captain headed towards them. On the way, another Cory’s Shearwater made an appearance among the large flying groups of Sooty Shearwaters. Again a voice reached out over the loudspeaker-“another JAEGER”!! This time the bird flew near the Helen H and began to “walk” on the sea and feed with a small group of Wilson's Storm-Petrels. This bird was much smaller and quite delicate in appearance. Supporting nearly adult dress, it was clearly a PARASITIC JAEGER. The bird offered many good close looks both swimming and flying, and at one point circled the bow of the Helen H many times giving fantastic photo ops-WOW!!

Parasitic Jaeger with Petrels
Note the slender and medium length bill, short nail by bill length comparison, and visible small light feather patch at the base of the bill on the anterior lores, and significant brownish upper chest feathering

Parasitic Jaeger flying
Note same field marks as described on the Parasitic Jaeger photo above

 With the Jaegers behind us, along with the 1,000 + + + Shearwaters and Storm-Petrels behind us, we made way back to port. What an unbelievable day!! As we steamed back towards the Southern tip of Monomoy Island, more Shearwaters, Petrels and a Cory’s Shearwater made a brief appearance. We made one last stop at the S/E tip of Monomoy to look at the 150+ Grey Seals that were hauled out on the beach. Along with the Seals were a dozen and a half Common Eiders, a few gulls and D C Cormorants also on the beach. A few Least and Common Terns were feeding along the rips, and the Helen H headed home.

Monomoy Grey Seals

   As we pulled into the slip, and the lines were secured, we all disembarked the Helen H quite exhilarated from the incredible birding adventure. I have been on many pelagic trips; this one by far was the best. It was well run like a fine tuned machine. The leadership and bird identifications were great! The chumming was continual, and the mates did a fabulous job of spreading the offal chum and fish oil for maximum yield of birds….and did the birds come!!

   Thanks to the Brookline Bird Club, especially Ida Giriunas, Steve Mirick, Jeremiah Trimble, Marshall Iliff and Naeem Yusuff for a premium pelagic.  Steve's trip map is available by clicking on this link...
BBCPelagic062511.jpg (1021×768)
and Naeem's trip report is shown here (and copied below)...
The Massachusetts Birding List -- June 25th pelagic trip
plus photographs at Jeremiah Trimble's site....

Species Highlights  ---  from the bow:



*SKUA SPECIES - 1 (in the fog)

















Reports and images from other trips earlier this year will be posted on this Coastal Birds blog soon. The trip report from the BBC is also copied below, with permission from Naeem Yusuff, in case you want to read further about this outstanding pelagic trip which we all enjoyed!

Keith and Jen Mueller    Killingworth, CT
The Art of Keith Mueller
Coastal Birds
Pelagic Rhode Island 2011 March 19


Subject: June 25, 2011 Brookline Bird Club Pelagic to Nantucket Shoals area
From: Naeem Yusuff <naeem.yusuff AT>
Date: Thu, 30 Jun 2011 10:44:49 -0700 (PDT)
June 25 Brookline Bird Club Pelagic
Hyannis to Nantucket Shoals area

A.M.: Overcast, NE winds 5-10 knots, 60-75 F. Clearing throughout the day. 
PM Sunny and pleasant.
Seas:  2-4 feet. 
Beaufort scale: 2

Moderate to heavy fog in the AM. Visibility less that ½ mile at
times. PM Clear to horizon.

Marshall Iliff, Jeremiah Trimble, Steve “check out my cool iPad
App” Mirick; Naeem Yusuff keeping the eBird list, and of course,
Ida Giriunas.

The route aboard the “Helen H” with Captain Joe Huckameyer was nicely
charted by Steve Mirick and can be found at

A full boat set off from Hyannis Harbor at 7AM, with overcast skies and a thick fog. In the early going, we had only frustratingly quick glimpses of birds disappearing into the haze. The epic “one that got away” was a skua, which was viewed for 20-30 seconds before vanishing. Photos were taken by Keith Mueller of Connecticut, and all were optimistic about being able to ID the bird. Unfortunately, after seeing the pictures, the consensus expert opinion was “skua in the fog.”

The skies cleared latter in the day, Captain Joe avoided the colder water over the Nantucket Shoals to minimize our time enshrouded in fog. Our first shearwater of the day was a Cory's, a smattering of Cory's were seen throughout the day, all appeared to be the expected borealis subspecies. Cory's Shearwater are a warmer water bird, and their

numbers fluctuate greatly year to year depending on the water temperatures. Initial reports seem to suggest that this is moderate Cory's year.

Steaming east into colder waters, slick of menhaden oil mixed with beef fat and fish chum was put out at about 10AM, attracting good numbers of Great Shearwaters and Wilson's Storm petrels, as well as a handful of Sooty Shearwaters.

Steaming away from the slick, a shout of “Leach's Storm-petrel” came over the ship's sound system – a handful of birds were seen well with their characteristic nighthawk type flight. The chumming technique on the BBC Pelagic trips has really evolved; the combination of fish oil with cubed chunks of beef fat has made getting these harder to see storm petrels a little easier. Four Leach's were initially seen, with an additional handful of Leach's seen throughout the rest of the day.

Soon afterwards, a light-morph Northern Fulmar appeared behind the boat, again attracted by the chum stream. Fulmars are more common in the winter; we were quite pleased to find this bird. The fulmar lingered behind the boat making pass after pass, giving all great looks. Pausing to look at the fulmar also gave all the chance to appreciate the ubiquitous Wilson's Storm-petrels dancing in the slick. The majority of these were in active wing molt (and therefore adults), but a few fresher birds were seen and likely represented juveniles hatched in the austral summer (our winter). Many of the Greater Shearwaters were also in active wing molt, with multiple distinctive birds seen with missing greater coverts giving them a huge white band in the mid-wing--something not shown in most field guides.

Perhaps the best bird of the day was missed by most on the boat. While steaming away, an alcid was flushed from the water and seen by a lucky few as it flew directly away from the boat. Despite dozens on cameras on board, Keith Mueller of Connecticut was the only one quick enough to get photos. His images turned out to be diagnostic, showing the brownish cast to the back, slender bill, and importantly, the streaked flanks of Common Murre. Any alcid is unusual in these waters at this time of year, but Common Murre has been increasing on the breeding grounds and now has a dozen or more June records for Massachusetts. Still, this was a great rarity and a first for us on these summer trips -- too bad it flew off before most folks could get on it.

Steaming further east, a gill-net fishing boat was encountered, with a massive entourage of birds following. A conservative estimate of 250 gulls, with an additional 100 shearwater were seen taking advantage of by-catch. We kept a respectful distance, and followed the fishing boat seeing an additional 2-3 Northern Fulmar, 2-3 Cory's Shearwater, 60 Sooty Shearwater, 40 Sooty Shearwater, as well as an cooperative Pomarine Jaeger. Rather than the typical fly-by view of the jaeger, this bird sat on the water several times, and gave several passes with great looks for all.

We next encountered one of the more impressive spectacles I've observed in MA waters– a massive collection of bait fish had attracted tuna, stripped bass and bluefish, all actively feeding around the boat – in addition to a huge swarm of shearwaters. I was overwhelmed by trying to count them all, Marshall Iliff estimated 1200 shearwaters, roughly 8:1 Sooty:Greater. Tuna, stripped bass and bluefish were seen breaching the surface. The crew of the Helen H got a couple of fishing lines into the water, but alas, no dinner was caught.

Next came our second jaeger of the day – an exceeding obliging Parasitic Jaeger was sitting on the water, then gave multiple passes around the boat. Jaegers are powerful fliers, not even the Helen H can keep up with them in full flight, so we were fortunate to find both a pomarine and a parasitic which allowed such close study. Field guides show the length and thickness of the bill of jaegers being diagnostic, with the parasitic having a long slender bill, while the pomarine's is shorter and thicker. This is the first time I've seen them well enough to study the differences.

The return trip brought us past Monomoy Island, with about 70 grey seals including many young (resembling Harbor Seals) lounging on the beach. Common Eider, Double-crested Cormorant as well as a handful of gulls were the most common birds on the beach, and a few people espied a Piping Plover.

Over all, another highly successful BBC Pelagic! Check out the BBC webpage and contact Ida to join our next “extreme” pelagic, July 16 to the Hydrographer Canyon area. Join us and get those pelagic birds.
Naeem Yusuff
Cambridge, MA

The list (omitting the on-shore sightings from Hyannis Harbor and Monomoy Island). Participants on the trip who would like to have the eBird lists shared with them, please contact either me or Marshall Iliff.

Common Loon   15 
Northern Fulmar   2-3
Cory's Shearwater   12
Great Shearwater   376
Sooty Shearwater   1,303
Manx Shearwater   2
Wilson's Storm-Petrel   300
Leach's Storm-Petrel   8
Northern Gannet   1
Laughing Gull   2
Herring Gull   210
Great Black-backed Gull   225
Common Tern   4
skua sp.   1
Pomarine Jaeger   1
Parasitic Jaeger   1
Common Murre   1