New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Block Canyon Pelagic-August 20th 2011

                   Calm Sea, Blue Sky, Tropical dreams and
                           an honorary tribute Puffinus

   For any “sea-birder”, a twenty-four hour “almost-extreme” pelagic trip is high on the list. August in the outer New England canyon areas mean a chance to see any of the few summer tropical species wandering into the fringes of our area. These species include: Band-rumped Storm-Petrel, White-faced Storm-Petrel, Black-capped Petrel, Bridled Tern and Audubon’s Shearwater. I also heard a few other names tossed around the vessel such as Herald and Fea’s Petrels (I think that came from Carlos Pedro and Doug Koch) and White-tailed Tropicbird (all right-that one came from me). With the Brown Booby spending a little summer vacation at Corporation Beach in Dennis, Mass. on the Cape, anything was possible.

   The trip was again organized by Carlos Pedro and was scheduled to leave at 9:00 pm on Friday evening on the Gale Francis (ironically the same vessel where I had the Brown Booby land on the upper deck railing-see earlier post) from Galilee Harbor.

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   The idea for the trip was to leave the night before and arrive at dawn on the Canyon area a hundred miles or so from shore. The marine weather forecasted possible showers and/or a thunderstorm turning into light and variable winds (mostly southerly) with seas one to four feet easing a few “motion-sickness” fears from a few on board. Jen and I arrived a bit early to the dock and no one was there, so we decided to have dinner (ironically-grilled Mahi-mahi) before heading back to the dock. When we returned, nearly everyone was there. In the crowd were many familiar faces: (I apologize in advance if I mis-spelled anyone’s names) Nick Bonomo, Charlie Barnard, John Oschlick, Phil Rusch, Glenn Williams, and Mardi and Towny Dickinson (who Jen and I had the pleasure to meet for the first time) from CT, and Carlos Pedro, Linda Gardrel, and Paul Buckley (we also had the pleasure to meet Paul for the first time) from Rhode Island, Douglas Koch from N.Y and many others whom Jen and I also had the great pleasure to meet.

   The evening was gorgeous; warm with a light and cool southerly breeze, clear sky with a spattering of stars highlighted by a waning Gibbous moon. The Gale Francis was boarded in record time, and everyone was anxious to get underway.

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   Everyone got prepped for the long day; stowed their gear, reserved their bunks and sleeping spaces on the upper deck, and mingled around the vessel. It was clear, everyone was anxious! The hour passed nine o’ clock, and everyone’s eagerness was evident judging by the amount of “watch checks” you could see. But the delay was justified and earnest. Unknown to us, a possible squall or more serious storm was being plotted on the radar. The two Captains closely watched the storm development to determine the severity. If the storm was just a squall, we would be underway based on the squall’s development and path, if it was a fully developed storm, it was possible that the trip would be cancelled. The outcome: a squall staying to the west. With that, the mates: Sean, Matt and Zach cast off the lines and the Gale Francis backed out of its slip.

   Heading out into the darkness of Galilee Harbor, the lights of the shore obviously contrasted between the relaxing quiet of the sleeping fishing vessels and the night life of the restaurants and beaches complete with celebratory fireworks.

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   Steaming  between the opening in the Jerusalem sea wall, we were now “Canyon bound”! As we headed out of the harbor, the Captain announced that the squall was located over Block Island, and those thinking about sleeping on the upper and outer decks may want to reconsider; “you’re ‘gonna get wet”! With a long eight hour ride ahead of us it was time to settle in. With the rhythmic grumble of the diesels, the Gale Francis lunged forward under a moonlit sky and a gentle roll of a light sea. Many on board had already turned in, and many of us took the time to get acquainted, swap a few stories and share a few “tropical dreams” of the upcoming day. As we approached Block Island it was clear skies and plenty of stars; the squall moved out.

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   After many hours and a “few winks” of off again-on again sleep (I was too anxious to sleep), I walked out onto the bow and my usual spot on the head of the pulpit just as a hint of pre-dawn colors took a peek over the eastern horizon. Being the first one on the bow, the solitude of the moment was incredible.

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   This has always been my favorite time of day: to be on the water just before dawn, to watch a new day being born; it’s a very humbling moment. Its also a great time to put life into perspective, also a perfect time to be creatively inspired. In half an hour, the sun would be showing itself surrounded in a shroud of amazing hues and chroma…..what a moment! But, not only the spectacular palette of colors announcing the day, but also the first birds of the day would appear. What a great feeling to be the first person that day to see a sea bird so far from shore. Under the dim light of pre-dawn, distant lights from fishing vessels dotted the horizon of the Canyon area. As we approached closer, Captain Don turned on the search light looking ahead for buoys or other objects picked up on his radar. As the beam penetrated the sky, I could just make out the shapes of the small waves a short distance from the vessel. Suddenly a dark object fringed in white appeared just off the starboard side and drifted by under the pulpit heading east, than another. I couldn’t make out what they were in the distorted shapes of the sea and the pale light. Maybe my eyes not yet acclimated were playing tricks on me! A third one appeared, and this time I was able to recognize the shape: it was a Greater Shearwater gliding by the bow and under the pulpit literally a grasp away from me under my feet. With that another one appeared and my eyes were now use to the light and the shapes of the flying shearwaters. It was obvious, that the birds were attracted by the light from the search beam something that is common and often fatal to sea birds and sea ducks. They are unfortunately drawn to the lights and then meeting their untimely demise flying into the hidden vessels. As dawn approached, and before the Captain switched off the beam, I was able to identify and note 7 Greater and 1 Cory’s Shearwaters within a few feet gliding under the pulpit.

   As my eyes became accustomed to the very dim light I noticed splashing just ahead of the bow; Dolphins! Instinctively, I looked below the pulpit, and sure enough, a large pod of Dolphins were “bow riding” the Gale Francis merely six feet below me. I reached in my camera bag and fumbled for a camera. I just purchased a new camera a Canon Powershot S95 which should be perfect for this situation. As the Dolphins broke the surface in a rhythmic procession, I tried my best to capture anything I could on my camera. But as expected, I wasn’t familiar with this new camera, and I ended up with fascinating shots of black swirling emptiness on the card. Oh, well, it was invigorating to be part of that!

   By now, others started to stir on the vessel and the decks were also starting to come to life. The dawn was spectacular and many cameras were active capturing the memories!!

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   Here we were, eight hours later approaching the canyon grounds. The first birds to appear were a few Greater Shearwaters and a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. Another pod of Dolphins appeared and others were excited to see them swimming just below the bow. They only stayed for a few minutes, but gave everyone a good morning thrill! I am not sure what species they were, but I heard Common Dolphins mentioned. As I began shooing the fabulous dawn, the first of many camera malfunctions occurred. My Canon 50D just shut down in the middle of shooting, I couldn’t believe it. I consulted with Doug and he suggested a bit of moisture may have caused it. He suggested shutting it off, changing the battery and let it re-boot. So I put the camera back in the bag, and pulled out my spare camera; a Rebel XT. Although not my favorite camera, it has survived many tropical downpours in Costa Rica and countless rain and snow storms while winter birding in New England, and it has never failed me! I was glad to have it with me.  After a half an hour, I checked the 50D and success; it turned on, re-booted and ready. Little did I know that a malfunction still continued with the camera which wasn’t evident until downloading the images onto my laptop at home on Sunday? Strings of downloaded images  intermittently appeared in black and white than suddenly are revitalized with color only to change back to black and white (you will see this in the selected images for this report).

      Looking off to the west, the dark curtain of the squall blanked the western horizon. Its ominous appearance was enhanced with appointments of intense lightning and the distant rumbles of thunder; the Captain navigated around the squall perfectly! With the full day ahead of us, we ventured farther out to deeper water under a beautiful blue sky. The sea was relatively flat making the ride quite comfortable. The birds were sparse, with the exception of another Cory’s, and a few Greater Shearwaters and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and a pair of “small Shearwaters” appeared at a distance but not identified.  Continuing south, a few Leach’s Storm-Petrels were added to the list as well as more Wilson’s. The Captain announced that we had reached 6,000 feet and the water temps were nearly 73 degrees Off in the distance we could see a large floating plank of wood, unfortunately, no Bridled Tern was roosting. Because of the slow birding conditions, the mates had decided to do a little fishing. A few skirted lead head jigs were being trolled off the stern. As we passed the floating plank, my first thought (after the missing Bridled Tern) was that it would be a good place for Dorado (aka Mahi-mahi) fish to be hiding. This species uses the shade from floating objects such as buoys, boats, sargassum weed mats and floating debris to hide from bait fish. Sure enough as we passed the plank, both lures were hit and two fish were on! The mates reeled in two beautiful female Dorado: one in spectacular bright yellow and blue, and the other spotted and silver.

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    The Captain announced we had reached 8,000 ft. and the water temp was 75 degrees. Everyone was searching intensely for any dot on the horizon that might materialize into a tropical vagrant, but it didn’t happen. As we explored the area under a bright blue sky and calm sea, it became clear the area was vacant of bird life.

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   A few distant whales and a few pods of Grampus (aka Risso’s Dolphins) got the adrenaline going, but that was short lived. By now we started spotting more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and it was decided to start the first chum line of the day…..maybe in all those Storm-Petrels there would be a rare Storm-Petrel hiding amongst them. So the Menhaden slick appetizer and delectable fish offal entrée was started. Immediately as clock work, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels keyed in on the slick. More and more appeared and as always, within a few feet of the stern. Just about everyone lined the rails both watchers and photographers to enjoy these birds. Many of us have witnessed this so many times, but we just can’t ever get enough of these entertaining little sea birds!

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   Since I like to take my birding experience a bit farther…..adding a few of my own carved decoys to the mix adds another dimension to the experience. As stated before, I have carved and used decoys professionally since the late 1970’s and I can’t seem to go anywhere without them (see my art blog page- On my last Pelagic trip in July, I made a Greater Shearwater and a Great Skua decoy especially for the trip (see my earlier blog "Block and Alvin Canyons”). For this trip, I wanted to add a few others, species that would be specific for this trip. I would be using the Greater Shearwater decoy which I carved for last trip again this time, but I also wanted to carve other species that were compatible by species interaction and also the time of year and location. I originally carved the Greater Shearwater decoy with a large fish in its bill to hopefully encourage a little Kleptoparasitic behavior from possibly another Shearwater, or hopefully another bird such as a Gull or other aggressive species. The aggressive other species that is most commonly seen with Greater Shearwaters is the Pomarine Jaeger. The Jaegers favorite species to harass is the Greater Shearwater; the first decoy species I carved for this trip. My plan for the Jaeger and Shearwater decoys were to hopefully encourage a Jaeger into the decoys (for a close look and camera shots) if a Jaeger was in the area and curious about the bird activity at the back of the boat. Figuring the Jaeger would see another Jaeger sitting near a Shearwater with a large fish (just waiting to be stolen) the approaching Jaeger couldn’t pass up the opportunity: a little competition from another Jaeger and a free meal waiting to be usurped!

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 Being late August approaching Sept., the other species that came to the top of my list was the Sabine’s Gull. The Little Gull decoy followed partly from the chance association with Bonapartes and Sabine’s Gulls and the other being wishful thinking on my part!

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   As the number of Wilson’s Storm Petrels increased, and with permission from Carlos, I sent out the string of decoys, with help from Jen and Matt the mate. The decoys drifted beautifully with the tide into the middle of the frenzy of Storm-Petrels. The first chum line drift only drew Wilson’s Storm-Petrels.

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    After fifteen minutes, the decoys were pulled in, and the Gale Francis moved on. We started heading in a northerly direction back towards the Canyon walls, and someone called out “Shark”! Off in the distance a single huge Basking Shark was “basking” on the surface, it soon sounded. Within a half an hour, we began seeing more Petrel and Shearwater activity, and the chum line was started again.

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   Under a very blue sky, I sent the decoys out in the water again. This time, there were more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels in the area, and a few Greater Shearwaters were appearing as well. The shearwaters were coming in close to the boat and also were landing near my decoys; I really enjoyed that, and I also heard from many on the boat that they enjoyed it as well.

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   Although there wasn’t a Jaeger in the sky that day, I know someday one will drop into the decoys and maybe (fingers crossed) try and steal that fish from the Shearwaters bill. After a short time, it was time to move, and I pulled in the decoys again. Thank you Carlos, I am grateful for the opportunity!

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   The day had grown long; it was now time to head in a home port direction. We were still seven hours from port that still left many hours of good birding. The journey back was dotted with occasional shouts of sporadic Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Greater Shearwaters, a few fin whales and a distant small Shearwater most likely an Audubon’s (considering our warm water location), but it was too far distant to get a positive ID. Looking ahead in the way distant North a few tuna boats could be seen, we all knew that was our destination. As we approached the periphery of the fishing boats, a cry came out “Tern, Tern, Tern”! A single Tern seen in the distance made a quick dive and then flew farther away from the Gale Francis. A few camera shots were taken from the upper deck of the very distant bird, and then after careful scrutiny of the bird in the image on the camera….it was stated a very probable Bridled Tern. I wish we had gotten closer to that bird! As we approached the boats, it was clear we were nearing the Canyon walls. The surface of the water had plenty of floating debris in the form of lumber and sargassum weed. We all looked around in the broken weed mats and debris, but no Terns or Phalaropes. Suddenly someone cried out that one of the floating distant planks had something sitting on top of one of them. The Captain directed the Gale Francis in the direction, but it was evident that the “something perched on the log was nothing more than a big knot.

   After a short distance, an announcement came over the speaker that there were some birds sitting on the water in the distance. As we crept slowly forward, they were identified as the first of two rafts of Wilson’s Storm–Petrels.

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   Continuing on and within a short ride from the Petrels, a single bird was spotted also sitting on the water. The Gale Francis slowly approached the bird, and the small bird seemed to ignore the boat and kept feeding on a strand of sargassum weed; it was an Audubon’s Shearwater! Named as a tribute to and to honor John James Audubon who originally called the bird a Dusky Shearwater. In late June 1826 while on a voyage to Europe to arrange the publication of his drawings, he was delayed and drifting on a schooner in a windless spell in the Gulf of Mexico off the Florida coast. Audubon noticed that the numbers of this species had increased. The mate fired once with his shotgun and four birds fell. He gathered up the birds for Audubon which were used for his drawing for his later produced engraving.

   I was standing on the head of the pulpit, and as the Gale Francis approached even closer, the Shearwater wouldn’t move, it continued to feed on the weed. My first thought (as I was taking close-up images of course) was that the vessel was going to run over the Shearwater. Just as the bird began to disappear under the pulpit, it flew out a couple of yards and landed again, continuing to feed on another weed strand. The bird’s obvious field marks were clearly evident; white supracilliary stripe, shorter blunted wings, longer tail and longer tail extension when sitting. The boat slowed and everyone got great looks at the bird. It flew again, this time crossing the bow and then settling on the water again. The bird flew again and settled. Then finally the bird flew off into the distance….excellent!

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   With everyone still smiling  (and talking) from the Audubon’s Shearwater, we were headed home! It seemed like the thought of the Shearwater was still fresh in our minds when the Gale Francis slowed again, that means something else is nearby. The announcement came out; “a Sea Turtle”!

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   About sixty yards from the starboard bow, a single Loggerhead Sea Turtle was basking on the surface. It raise it’s head out from below showing its characteristically namesake large head. The turtle sat calmly on the surface of the water exposing a large amount of the back of it’s shell which was covered with a treasure chest of adornments: weed, barnacles, slipper shells and chitons.

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   The day grew old, and the long hours without sleep began to take hold. As the Gale Francis headed home, It was time for a brief nap. Being awakened from a deep sleep by the vessel slowing down, and frantically grabbing my camera, many of us missed the small flock of unidentified Phalaropes that were seen off the starboard side. Coming to our senses, the afternoon was old and the sun would be setting in a few hours. Many of us sat along the benches and had wonderful conversations….just as it began nearly a day ago! In an unusual turn of events, someone spotted a strange object hovering over a distant fishing boat. Many offered identifications ranging from a helicopter, a weather balloon, a blimp and even a UFO! I chuckled a bit under my breath, I knew it was a tuna kite and the boat probably had a fish on. When we got closer to the boat, that’s what it was and the boat apparently had caught a giant tuna (considering the heavy starboard list of the boat. Circling the boat was a single juvenile Laughing Gull the only Gull we saw on the trip (other than the birds at night in the harbor). As the sun began to set over Block Island 3 Common Terns passed by the vessel heading out to sea.

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  The sunset over Block Island was a beautiful, a wonderful note to end the day on. Although most of the tropical rarities evaded us, the day was everything that it set out to be: special. There are too few opportunities to travel to the summer canyons in search of rare feathered treasures, every chance we get is a memorable one. As we entered Galilee Harbor exactly twenty-four hours from when we left. The lights on the shore obviously contrasted between the relaxing quiet of the sleeping fishing vessels and the night life of the restaurants and beaches complete with celebratory fireworks. We had traveled in a complete circle ending as it began.

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 Another great day on the ocean. Jen and I want to personally Thank Carlos for putting this fine trip together and for him offering me the opportunity of deploying my decoys. It was great to see everyone, and it was a pleasure to meet many new people, Paul Buckley, Mardi and Towny Dickinson, and many others. Jen and I are off to do a bit of Striper and Sea Bass fishing tomorrow (Tuesday) around Block Island. If we see anything interesting, we will report it!

Keith and Jen Mueller    Killingworth, CT


Wilson’s Storm-Petrels-   400+/-
Leach’s Storm-Petrel-   3
Greater Shearwater    55+/-
Cory’s Shearwater    3
Small Shearwater species-   2
(probable) Audubon’s Shearwater-   1
Audubon’s Shearwater-   1
(probable) Bridled Tern-   1
Common Tern-    3
(unidentified) Phalarope-    8
Laughing Gull-    1

Fin Whale
(Probable) Common Dolphins
Grampus (Risso’s Dolphins)
Loggerhead Sea Turtle
Basking Shark
Dorado (Mahi-mahi)


      Addendum: Block Island fishing and birding aboard the Mako II

           Cory’s Shearwaters galore!   Tuesday August 23, 2011

   As posted (above), Jen and I (on a family outing) went striper fishing today off Block Island. We were aboard the 43 ft. Mako 2 in the very capable hands of Captain Dave Tyrrell and of course his “always interesting” mate Almoe! I have fished on the Mako 2 for many years, but my Father-in-Law has known Dave for a long time.
   At 5:30 am we left Galilee Harbor (his slip is next to the Francis Fleet) and I immediately pulled out my cameras and binoculars.  The center wall was lined from one end to the other with Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls and Cormorants. Within a few minutes of leaving the breakwaters, the first bird I saw was a Cory’s Shearwater.  Shortly after, a small pod of (small sized) Dolphins were following the sides of the Mako 2 often breaking a few yards from the sides. I tried to photograph them, but they were too fast. By the time we reached the North rip of Block, I had counted 13 Cory’s. When we arrived to the Southwest side of the Island, a mile or so offshore, the Shearwaters were quite abundant both flying and rafted on the water. The Shearwater rafts were spread out all over the sea and many were associating with a large flock of Laughing Gulls (50+/mostly juveniles). Both species were following and feeding with a large school of surface feeding Stripers and Bluefish that remained in the area for two hours. I took many pictures of the Shearwaters and many were in various stages of wing moult. The majority of the Shearwaters remained until 10:00 am and then began to slowly fly out of eyesight heading southerly. When the Shearwaters left the area, it was time to fish!
   There was so much going on between the numbers of birds and the Stripers and Bluefish feeding frenzy, it was almost impossible to count the birds. But with a conservative estimate, I saw over 200 Cory’s Shearwaters in the area. There were also a few dozen Common Terns feeding with the Laughing Gulls and Shearwaters as well as a “larger” tern which I saw fly by into the sun and never got a good look at. Jen pointed out two small flocks of small white shorebirds flying along the water farther South of the Island. I couldn’t get a good look at them; too far. Heading back in, a Black Tern flew by on the western side of Block. As far as the fishing? With Captain Dave’s experience and fishing savvy, we caught our fill of Stripers, Sea Bass and Scup!
   Of Interest: I talked with Captain Dave at length about the possibility of chartered private fall/winter/spring birding trips around Block (and beyond), and he was interested. I will keep working on the details with him, and we will see what we can come up with. He has a very spacious and comfortable boat (, rated for 14 passengers, and would be perfect for a private seabirding day around Block. Of course the weather is always an issue, but we will put our heads together and come up with something. Keep watching for details.

Shearwater images...

Black Tern

   On the way back home, we stopped at Quonchontaug Breachway and the Common Terns were feeding heavily in the area at the beginning of the pond where it meets the breachway. There were 3 Forster's Terns present, and a flock of 13 Short-billed Dowitchers flew to the western cove on the beach side.

Keith and Jen Mueller   Killingworth, CT