I had watched the daily reports of up to four Little Gulls in Wells, Maine; two in New Hampshire; and one in Newburyport, Mass. But with our schedules, that's all we could do was watch the daily reports....and cringing not being able to take a day off and go up there! The first opportunity we had was Friday afternoon. With my Mothers recovery improving, Jen and I decided we would take the afternoon off and drive up to Maine to (hopefully) see and photograph the Little Gulls. It seems that the Little Gull has become one of my two Nemesis birds!! I have seen Little Gulls before, but only at a distance.
Missing Little Gull(s) by a day or an hour seems to be my routine with this species. Last year, Jen and I were returning from a business trip to NYC early afternoon on a Sunday. I checked my Blackberry, and an email alert came out that an adult Little Gull in full dress had been seen at Southport Beach that morning. Since we were nearly there on 95, we took the exit and were soon at the beach. A few birders were still assembled looking, but of course; NO Little Gull!! There were plenty of Bonaparte's Gulls there, but we were told that the Little Gull flew off hours earlier after only staying a few minutes on the beach. Of course, Mark Szantyr was there and he (stepped in luck again)....managed unbelievable shots of the Gull:
In New Hampshire, Steve Mirick whom I call the 'luckiest Little Gull guy" I know also just happens on them all the time. He found two (or maybe three) last week as well, and also managed excellent photographs, one of an adult at a remarkable close range at Plaice Cove:
Last week, fellow CT birder and photographer John Schwarz was returning form a successful trip with John Drury of Vinalhaven, Maine seeing and photographing the Red-billed Tropicbird (click on "Older Posts"- on the bottom right of this page). John stopped by Wells Beach and sure enough walked right up on a Little Gull standing on the sandbar at the mouth of the Little River. See John's great website and images of this Little Gull: http://www.birdspix.com/blog/coastal-maine-july-30-31.
With all these Little Gulls in Maine, New Hampshire and Mass., we have a good chance to have a good close look and photos.....well, you would think! On Wednesday we made plans and we were all set and ready to leave on Friday morning to head to Maine. The afternoon tide was perfect; it was a falling tide with low tide around 7:30 pm. The low tide would create a large sandbar at the mouth of the river on the beach perfect for roosting Terns, Gulls and the Little Gull(s)!. I contacted John Schwarz and Louis Bevier from Maine for directions and both replied with fantastic directions to the sandbars where the Little Gulls had been. Louis also gave me other areas to try in the Wells area....just in case the Little Gulls were not on the sandbars. Thank You John and Louis, I appreciate your generosity!
However Thursday it became clear that this would not happen. A strong front from the Southwest was steaming towards New England. The front would bless us with strong westerly winds, heavy rain and local flooding....this was expected to last all through Friday into the very early morning hours on Saturday. Not what I wanted to hear, so we just made plans to go on Saturday morning instead. The weather was predicted to be clear, sunny and temps near 80. The tide would be low at 8:30 am.
Fearing the weekend "exchange" of vacation traffic to and from Maine, Jen and I left early at 4:00 am which should bring us to the Laudholm Farm Reserve in Wells Maine by 7:30 am that morning (hopefully the traffic would be good at that time)....and it was! The ride north was clear, we had beaten the mad traffic rush. We decided to go to Wells for the morning and return home by late afternoon. I wanted to be asleep early because I was going codfishing with my Father-in-Law on Sunday and I was picking him up at 2:00 am.
The sandbar was located on Wells Beach, and because of the extensive private property along the beach, the only way to access the beach was by entering the Laudholm Farm Reserve and following the beach trail.. It was about a half mile walk down the trails through the Reserve to the dunes. Once you crossed over the dunes, another half mile walk to the river estuary sandbars. When Jen and I arrived at the dunes (after walking a half mile down the mosquito infested trails), we could see the estuary off in the distance, and the tide was perfect. I looked through my binoculars, and I could see Tern activity coming and going from the sandbar estuary, and the beach was nearly empty of beach walkers. Maybe we would be lucky!-
When we arrived at the estuary sandbars, there were a few Herring and Ring-billed Gulls there, and at least two dozen mostly Common Terns-
Common Terns came in from the ocean, and flew up and down the estuary-
Most of the Terns landed in front of us on the sandbars........
.....sometimes landing quite close to us. We looked hard and searched through all the Terns on the sandbars and in the air, but no Little Gull! I was a bit disappointed, but maybe one would show up!?
This Great Blue Heron flew down the beach an over the Tern enclosures....and was immediately escorted out of the area by the Terns! Other birders began showing up, and the first question they asked us was- "Have you seen the Little Gulls"?? We unfortunately had to pass on the disappointing news.-
After an hour and a half of waiting (and hoping) that the Little Gull would suddenly fly in, we decided to leave. The beach had a few shorebirds to entertain us on the way back: Sanderlings, Semi-palmated Plovers and Sandpipers, and a few Least Sandpipers. Louis had mentioned a few other places nearby to try where the Terns and Bonaparte's Gulls congregate; one being Wells Harbor. He mentioned that this is usually a good place to look for Little Gulls if they were not in the river estuary on Wells Beach or the flats off Kennibunkport. When we (finally) found a parking space by the town pier, we saw quite a few Terns and a few Bonaparte's Gulls feeding on a school of fish in the Harbor-
(Probable) Roseate Tern- bottom left-
This Bonaparte's Gull was in the middle of moulting-
This adult Bonaparte's Gull landed on this mooring ball-
Another adult swimming in the moorings-
The first adult was chased off its roost by another adult.-
The moulting bird joins the pair-
Good shots of the moulting Bonaparte's Gull-
It was around noon and Jen and I had decided that we weren't going to find the Little Gull this day. The strong front most likely moved the birds on! So we figured it would be best to head back home hopefully without any traffic nightmares! The traffic heading south on the Maine Turnpike was light and moving well! But not heading northbound! When we reached the Maine toll booth, it was jammed with vehicles on their way north to (who knows where). We started out shocked as the traffic from the toll booth south was a parking lot all the way to the NH border. But it gets worse! This stopped traffic continued to the NH tollbooth....there were so many cars heading north and stopped by the Maine tollbooth, the cars in the NH tolls had nowhere to go!- UNBELIEVABLE....but it didn't get any better. The cars merging onto 95 (which were backed up for miles) from 495 were also backed up with no where to go! This traffic jam continued all the way south on 495 to south of the Merrimak River where the cars where starting to slow down! This was completely UNBELIEVABLE....we had never seen it so bad! Not the best way to start a vacation! I am glad we went real early avoiding all of that!
Point Judith Codboat- South Polar Skua?- Sunday, August 11, 2013- I picked up Dad at 2:00 am and we drove east to Point Judith. The Lady Frances was leaving the dock at 5:00 am and would return at 5:00 pm....that's twelve hours on the water :^)!! They have had great fishing at Coxes Ledge the past few weekends, and the birders who went along were blessed with exceptional summer pelagic birding including unbelievably close looks at South Polar Skuas! According to the reports for two weeks in a row S P Skuas put on quite the shows! On one trip, a Skua landed very close to the boat and stayed for quite some time! On another trip, a bird flew very low right over and circled the vessel many times; just over everyones heads! Check out this spectacular image here on Paul L'Etoile's RIBird site here: http://ribird.org/galleries/3
Will Skuas make it three weeks in a row? Again, like the Little Gull, I have only seen Skuas at a distance, never close enough for photos. I always hear- "You should have been on the boat yesterday", or, "You should have gone today" ....etc. The Skua is my second Nemesis bird!!
Only two Rhode Island birders showed up this morning: Kathy Patric and Carlos Pedro. With everyone on board, Captain Mike pulled away from the dock exactly at 5:00 am.>
Point Judith lighthouse backlit by the brilliant dawn. Seeing the Lighthouse form this angle is a wonderful sight....to me it means a day on the sea birding (and hopefully a little codfish to put in our freezers) >
As we head south to Coxes, the Jamestown Bridge is visible in the distance up the West Passage. >
Dawn is breaking over a nearly flat sea. Unfortunately, the wind was light northerly, not a particularly good wind for sea birding for southern New England (southeast would be best) but it was a day out fishing with Dad, and that was something to look forward to. But I couldn't help wonder if the northerly wind and the passage of that big front two days ago would make a difference for the birds and the cod!? >
As we steamed south the sun began to break the horizon >
Two distant fishing boats part as the sun splits between them >
More Cory's >
The sun has finally broke the horizon, the morning is awake! This Cory's must have been just sitting on the sea. As it flew by.......
.....it shook its plumage in flight shaking its feathers dry. >
A little tip: If you have a tough time identifying a Cory's Shearwater from a Greater Shearwater at a distance, here is a simple method that may help separate the two species for a reasonable ID. What would seem to be an easy species identification between the two can become very complicated due to light conditions, distance from the boat, the sea conditions, and how much the vessel is rocking.
Normally the species characteristics such as the broader wings, gray/ brown plumage, larger all gray/brown head, yellow bill, small white upper tail coverts patch and all white breast of the Cory's compared to the slightly narrower wings, slimmer body, dark head cap, white cheeks, darker brown body plumage, larger white upper tail coverts patch, and brownish breast smudging of the Greater Shearwater separate the two species noticeably. However if you add the factors listed above in the first paragraph, these classic field marks become difficult to define.
The easiest way that I have found and rely on, is to look at the underside of the wings. Shearweaters are quite accommodating because of their natural flight pattern of twisting from side to side as they "shear" over the waves. If you concentrate your efforts by looking at the base of their underwings where they join the body, it should help you identify the species, or at least give you a general idea as to which species it (might) be. The feathers at the base of the underwing are called the axillaries, and on a Cory's Shearwater, these axillaries are white and unmarked. (Cory's Shearwater below image)..notice the broad white feathered area where the wings attach to the body? Also the breast area of the Cory's is white and unmarked. >
Where as if you compare the axillaries on the Cory's (above) to a Greater Shearwater (below images) you will see that the axillaries are not solid white; they are marked and spotted with dark brown. You will also notice the brown smudging on the breast. However the amount of dark markings on the axillaries and breast smudging varies from bird to bird as is clearly indicated in these three images (below). >
After about an hour of being underway, the number of Wilson's Storm-Petrels increased with many multiple numbers sighted. This one came close to the bow. >
I was watching a few Storm-Petrels flying off the bow, when I spotted a small cluster of birds sitting on the sea. There was five Wilson's Storm-Petrels and two "white" birds that were swimming with them. At first I assumed the two whitish or light plumed birds were Phalaropes.....what else could they have been? We were twenty-five miles from shore so assuming the two birds were Phalaropes sitting with Storm-Petrels made perfect sense. I watched the birds through my binoculars as we approached closer trying to figure out if they were Red-necked or Red Phalaropes. But with the bright back lighting, slight rocking of the vessel along with the lunging of the boat through the swells, it was difficult to see them clearly. Finally as we were within forty yards, the birds took off and scattered. But I was in luck, the two whitish birds flew directly towards us and passed by the bow; Least Sandpipers! What the.....? That really surprised me!
It stunned me for a few moments than I grabbed my camera to take a few shots just to make sure I was seeing what I was seeing! A pair of Least Sandpipers! >
I had never heard of this behavior let alone seen this before on all the pelagic trips I have been on. I have seen plenty of Shorebirds way off shore migrating, some right on the deck of the sea, but never "swimming". However, I have seen many "peeps" and other Shorebirds swimming in ponds and marshes trying to cross a deep creek, or bathing in deep water, or hitting the water trying to evade a Merlin or an accipiter, but on the sea?
Later I talked with Carlos regarding these two Least peeps, he saw the pair of birds flying by the starboard side of the Lady, but being on the upper deck behind the wheelhouse, he never saw them sitting n the ocean.
Thinking back, I remembered I photographed Semi-palmated and Least Sandpipers swimming in the ponds at Hammonasset BSP last fall. When I got home, I searched my files and finally found the images >
Two Semi-palmated Sandpipers joined the half dozen plus Least Sandpipers passing by the vessel. I wonder if these had taken a break on the sea?? >
The third Sooty of the day this time passing closer to the Lady. >
Hard to believe, we didn't see many Gulls this day. This small group of young Herring Gulls were heading southwest in the distance. >
After nearly two hours of sailing, the rpm's of the diesels dropped: we had reached our first destination. We had made the the northern edge of Coxes Ledge. The ride out yielded a good showing of birds with nearly sixty Cory's, thirty Greater, three Sooty, three Manx, three dozen Wilson's Storm-Petrel, forty Terns, seven Least Sandpipers, a pair of Semi-palmated Sandpipers, four Laughing Gulls and a handful of distant Whales. The Captain's voice came over the pa system, "OK everybody drop their lines" and almost immediately just about everyone on deck hooked up. I saw a handful of large cod from 20 to 30 lbs come over the rails. Here Dad gets his first keeper cod of the day. >
I was standing near Dad at the stern and decided to wait to see what the fish were doing, and to see how the drift went.......I didn't feel like dealing with tangled lines from a disorganized drift, especially with the whole day ahead of us. So I stood at my stern rail position and waited for the birds. That didn't take long when a single Cory's passed by......
......followed by a Greater. >
The Greater flies away from the vessel meeting up with another Cory's. >
The fishing was good at this spot, and the birding was looking good as well. The Captain however, called out to everyone to pick up their lines he was going to move to try another spot. I was surprised by that because the fishing was quite good here, but it was his call. Dad only caught the one Cod here, after releasing several small cod and a few Sculpin. As we steamed away, a small pod of Dolphins appeared to "bow ride"! >
More Dolphins appeared. This small pod startled three Cory's Shearwaters that were swimming. >
After another half an hour steam, we reached the southern edge of Coxes. I was looking forward to this! I wondered when that light morph Skua would show up, or maybe a Sabine's Gull, or maybe a Pomarine Jaeger or two, or maybe even a really displaced White-faced Storm-Petrel? Well, not with a light north wind! I even thought back to May 2001 when that Brown Booby showed up out of nowhere and landed on the railing of the upper deck.....which I selfishly had all to myself! Who knows, anything can happen out here.
Everyone started fishing again, and was really slow. Only an occasional small cod was brought over the rails and thrown back, one small Ling was caught, and an endless supply of useless Sculpin, Pout and Bergall were caught. The fishing was so bad, there were only two Dogfish caught (both by Dad)! The sun was bright, the light northerly wind dropped off and the birds basically stopped flying!!! >
I always bring chum with me on the cod boats. I use dry catfood and suet which attracts and works well for all seasonal birds; from Storm-Petrels and Shearwaters in the summer to Gulls, Fulmars and late Shearwaters in the fall, to Gulls. Fulmars and Kittwake in the winter. Once you get the Gulls and Fulmars coming to the chum this activity will always bring Gannets, Razorbills, Jaegers and even Phalaropes. Of course being on a codboat, I am not able to float my decoys (unless I am with a half dozen birding friends who fish a little....than we can reserve the whole stern of the vessel).
But just chumming from the stern is great fun, and any birders coming along on the cod boat will get a little extra treat of closer views of birds coming to my chumline. Unfortunately, today, we had very disorganized drifts, I wasn't able to run a chumline until late in the day. Once the drift started heading away from the stern, I was able to start a chumline which probably was an exercise of futility. We hadn't seen a bird in a few hours, and quite a few boats had surrounded the Lady Frances. But it was worth a try. Within a short period of time, a single Greater Shearwater flew in and followed the line, and a handful of Wilson's Storm-Petrels came in and started feeding on the small cut-up pieces of suet. They didn't stay long, as the Captain kept moving the boat to get back into position for the drift. I tried chumming a few more times, but with the continual re-positioning of the boat and the lack of birds, I didn't see much reason to continue. >
In the end, it appears to be a very large young Common Tern with a darker head cap and wings that seem a bit off in color and markings. >
Carlos looking for his camera with the medium sized passerine in the background. >
As the bird flew closer to the vessel, Carlos shouted out...."You are not going to believe this, I think its a Yellow-headed Blackbird"!! >
As it got closer to the vessel, I could start to pickup the yellow throat in my camera >
Twice it flew down towards the sea, and we all gasped hoping it wouldn't give up and drop on the sea!>
But the bird grabbed for altitude and flew back towards the vessel, You could see that this bird was tired, and with the forward momentum of the vessel again ( repositioning itself on the drift again) it was clear that this bird was struggling! >
It circled again......
.....and again it dropped towards the sea! C'mon bird.....get over here! >
It turned again for the vessel after coming really close to the water.....
.....and finally landed on the railing! Yes!! >
At this point, the Lady stopped on the spot ready for another drift getting caught in its own wake from the port side. The boat rocked back and forth and the Blackbird seemed to lose its footing....it hadn't gotten its "sea legs" yet! >
The Blackbird was siting really close to where we had been sitting on the benches.....we had great close views! It was immediately identified as a 1st winter male which was easily established by the white-edged greater primary coverts. >
I had never seen a Yellow-headed Blackbird before (not something you usually see while sea birding)....it was a beautiful bird! For me, it wasn't a light morph South Polar Skua, but pretty close considering the rarity of this species on the East coast and where we were at the moment! >
The bird flew up to the awning railing. The light breeze ruffling its feathers. >
The bird started to settle down and get comfortable....it started preening. Always a good sign. >
Occasionally, it would utter a faint squeaking call >
Back to preening >
And a scratch or two.......
......and a bit more preening! >
......and the yellow cloaca feather spot >
After a half an hour of rail grooming, it flew down to the upper deck and started searching for food. >
Kathy and Carlos offered him a few crumbs of crackers, nuts and granola to help build up its energy. The bird was obviously exhausted and accepted their offerings! >
The Blackbird near the stairs to the fishing main deck. >
Carlos offering the bird a few more crumbs >
Dad in the background fishing with the Blackbird in the foreground >
After a quick snack, back to the railing.....
.....where again its sea-legs were still a bit wobbly! >
That;s better! A nice portrait of a beautiful bird! >
Kathy sitting on the bench near the very obliging Blackbird. Kathy was really happy, she told us that this was her Nemesis bird. Talk about being in the right place at the right time!! >
Kathy suggested that the bird may be thirsty. So she poured a small puddle of water from her bottle in the shade along the bench. The bird watched her and flew down as soon as she moved only a short distance away. It took several long drinks, looked for more food, and back to the water for a few more drinks....
......and then walked around the upper deck searching for some protein. In these images the Blackbird reaches up for a few small gnats that were flying around the deck. >
.....and more preening. >
And a little doze or two! >
A good record shot and a great memory.....Carlos with the Blackbird only three feet away from him. >
A picture is worth a thousand words?? I think we had taken enough pictures? >
While we were engaged with the Blackbird, Kathy spotted a large pod of Dolphins. >
A fisherman walked onto the upper deck and without knowing startled the Blackbird. It took off......
.....and Wilson's Storm-Petrel flew by the boat, but not much else.
With the stow-away Blackbird now snuggled in behind the life rafts on the roof of the wheelhouse, we headed back to Point Judith. >
We figured that as soon as we had Block Island in sight, the Blackbird would take off. The ride back yielded few birds, this Cory's being one of the few. >
My favorite time on a cod boat whether I am fishing or birding (or both) is the ride back to port. Assuming that fish were caught that day....the bird activity following the boat when the mates are cleaning the fish and tossing over the fish remnants is usually fantastic. You never know what species will show up. But this day, it was quiet.....very quiet. Not one Gull all the way in!! That was un-heard of...I have never seen that happen before. It makes me think that the Gulls had joined a large concentration of seabirds somewhere else. The first Gulls we saw off the stern happened when we were nearing the Galilee wall, but by then all the mates were doing was washing down the deck. This moulting Greater Black-backed was wearing an interesting plumage. >
There was a small group of Gulls and Terns feeding on a school of fish just outside the Point Judith lighthouse. In the group was a single Black Tern and Carlos spotted a probable Roseate Tern. >
I wish we had time to cull thorough this Tern roost just inside the break of the Galilee wall. >
What about our Blackbird? Well, we passed by Block, and the bird stayed tight, enjoying a nice long rest. Maybe the bird would stay on the vessel all the way to the docks.? When we passed by Block Island, Carlos made a phone call alerting a friend to the rare prize that was on the vessel with us. Hopefully that person would be home and then relay the info to Rachel to send out an alert to everyone. The message was left and the phone call returned, and the alert emailed. But just as we passed into the Harbor of Refuge....the bird became alert......
......and flew off towards the marshes of Galilee. Take Care!! Thanks for the great time we spent with you....(over five hours)!! As I watched this wonderful bird fly off to the northeast (center top of image)....I couldn't help but to reflect back on this inspiring birding event. Because of my art studies and my art subjects being waterbirds, waterfowl, shorebirds and of course sea birds, I don't spend much time studying and observing land birds and passerines....they are not among my favorites. I do however carve a few land birds such as woodpeckers, nightjars, owls, hawks and many tropical species of birds as my subjects as well. Although before this Blackbird would never have been comparative to me with a Skua, but after this experience, it does! >
The small breakwater in the narrows by Salty Brine beach had the usual roost of Gulls and a few Double-crested Cormorants. >
What started out being a good seabirding trip on the way out, changed to a very slow and dead fishing and birding day, than morphng into one of the most memorable birding events with an totally unexpected and "way out of range" non-seabird. For the day: nearly 70 Cory's Shearwater, nearly 40 Greater Shearwater, 3 Sooty and 3 Manx Shearwaters, 50 Wilson's Storm-Petrels, 65 Terns (1 Black Tern, 1 probable Roseate Tern), 3 Forster's Terns (spotted by Carlos on the sandbar inside Galilee Harbor), 1 very large and unusual Common Tern (on Coxes Ledge), 12 Greater Black-backed Gulls, 9 Laughing Gulls, 7 Least Sandpipers and 2 Semi-palmated Sandpipers (near the north edge of Coxes Ledge), two Cowbirds and 1 Yellow-headed Blackbird (1st winter male). 7 unidentified Whale species (1 young Humpback seen well breaching near the stern of the vessel at Coxes) and 50 Dolphin (unidentified species). Also 1 unidentified Sea Turtle between Block Island and Galilee.
Tnundra Swan Decoy- I received a commission for a full size Tundra (fka Whistling Swan) back in December. I had carved a few Swans years ago, so I looked forward to carving this one. I was busy this winter other commissions, "Gulling", working on my Potoo World piece, and of course dealing with power outages and storm problems. So I worked on the decoy from time to time over the winter.
Two years ago, Jen and I went to Coventry, Rhode Island to see and hopefully photograph the pair of Tundra Swans that have been showing up at Coventry Lake annually. The birds were off in the distance when we were there, but I could get a good feel for the birds by watching them through the scope and cropping a few images as well. >
The decoy begins. After consulting with the collector, the head pose was established and I carved the head and neck from white cedar to meet with his approval. He chose a high head posture with the head looking down slightly. I then drew up the pattern for the body, and cut out the profile from four> thirty-eight inch lengths of four inch thick white cedar. The decoy was hollowed with the bandsaw in the middle wood section cut-outs and then glued together with marine epoxy. When the epoxy cured after a few days, I took quite a few side cuts off the edges with the bandsaw to establish the beginning rounded shape of the Swan.>
The bottom board was a single piece of two and a half inch x fifteen inch wide Eastern White Pine. The body when glued up was made up of four lengths of four inch thick x eight inch wide x thirty-eight inch long white cedar. Because the decoy was quite large, and the customer wanted a "rounded under" bottom I had to round over the bottom shape first. For this I used a angle grinder with a coarse sanding disc on an open workmate table>
The Swan's body is now rough shaped with the drawknives. >
With the final shaping completed......time to carve in and delineate the side pockets, wing tips and secondaries.....
......for this I use the Foredom tool (flexible shaft machine) and various Kutzall granular cutters. >
With the decoy completely carved and shaped, it is time for the lengthly and very laborious hand sanding step. With the sanding completed, head glued on and seam filled, the decoy was sealed with two coats of lacquer sanding sealer. >
Because white cedar has an issue with tannin bleeding thorough white and light colored paint, the decoy was completely painted with several coats of flat black sign painting oil paint. This black primer prevents the brown tanin stain from coming through the paint. >
The primed Swan with three coats of dried Black paint >
After several coats of light gray to white oil paint on top of the black, the Swan was painted with oil paints and completed. >
The happy collector with his new Swan decoy for his collection! >