A little bit of everything........plus a few Surprises
TRIP OVERVIEW:Best bird species were...
Yellow-legged Gull, 1 (probable) similar to/possibly the same gull from Kalmus Beach, Hyannis MA)
Little Gull, 1
Iceland Gull, 13
Glaucous Gull, 2
Glaucous x Herring Gull 1
Black-legged Kittiwake, 1
Manx Shearwater, 1
Here is a map of the Provincetown, MA trip April 29-May 1, 2011....
Using the map: The boat left the dock at area A and headed towards area B. This is where Jen and I spotted the first whale. As I was looking at the whales, the first gulls started to appear. This is where I saw the first Glaucous Gull. It flew around with the other gulls and then flew off SE towards Great Island and disappeared over the bay. The other gulls including the 2 Iceland Gulls and a Glaucous x Herring Gull, plus the Laughing gulls appeared around area C. The vessel then turned towards area D. In route there were more gulls including the Little Gull. A small boat the "R/V Shearwater" from the Center for Coastal Studies was present monitoring the whales (see the image where 1 Iceland Gull is flying by the stern).
From there we headed to Race Point about a mile offshore, area E.....Gannets all the way! When we were a mile off Race Point we circled the trawler (image with another Iceland Gull). On the return trip, the vessel went along the and paralleling the shore from Race Point to Wood End to Long Point about 1/2 mile off shore (area F). The remaining Iceland Gulls (swimming and roosting on the beach) I saw (in the photos) were spread out between Wood End and Long Point (area G)....with the most being near Long Point on the West side (area H). When we were going by, I saw (through my binoculars) a single Icleand Gull on the beach amongst the other gulls (images) flap its white wings (which got my attention). That is what prompted me to take pictures of all the gulls and examine them later.....good thing!!
We saw one Manx Shearwater at the area marked by that species code MASH.
When we were back on shore, I spotted Glaucous Gull #2 (pure white) on the sandbar near shore along 6A (area I).
The location of the Yellow-legged Gull is shown by the YLGU indicator, near the breakwater that connects the shore to the lighthouse. It was just on the inside (above/north) of the breakwater near shore.....in the moors.
Part 1 Seabirding Cape Cod and Gloucester April 29, 30, May 1 and May 3
Since the winter birding season has transformed into spring; I wanted to squeeze out as much winter as I could holding on for just a few more days. My birding was always framed around the late fall/winter months, from Oct. to early March and it has always been hard to temper my birding with the onset of spring and summer. My main avian interests for nearly 35 years have always been waterfowl and seabirds; the prime subject matter for my art. This past winter season was a banner year for seabirds: Tina Green’s sighting of the first documented CT. record of the Common Murre, numerous sightings of Razorbills in the Sound, Black Guillemots off Stonington, large flocks of Eiders in CT. and many interesting Gulls including the Guilford Black-headed, Rhode Island Little and most likely Yellow-legged Gull on Cape Cod.
Gulls had become my new avian family of interest this year especially following the rare and less common species such as Iceland and Glaucous Gulls throughout New England. Looking for these wintering species in late April/early May would be stretching the possibilities of finding them. That of course intrigued me. Where would the best place be to find these late hanging-on wintering gulls? The answer is Provincetown, Mass. The Cape reaches 40 miles out into the sea, acting as a natural funnel for migrating ocean birds. Because of the natural design of Provincetown with its extensive and undisturbed beaches, vast marshes, including the naturally reclaimed harbor (Hatches Harbor) and a working harbor, all of which are essential for wintering gulls. The deep water shoal just off shore at Race Point attract winter migrating pelagic species especially alcids. Provincetown circular shape and its numerous pockets including its small harbor, small bays, inlets, and sandbars offer safe accommodations for migrating seabirds from the heavy winds (from any direction) and storms so common in the North Atlantic in winter.
With early spring seabirding and gulling as our primary focus (and of course a little R&R) we headed out on Friday for a wonderful weekend on the outer Cape. The areas that we would concentrate on would be Provincetown which included: Provincetown harbor, Hatches Harbor, the moors, Herring Cove Beach, Race Point, and Pilgrim Lake, in Orleans at First Encounter Beach, in Welfleet at Welfleet Harbor and the Mass. Audubon Sanctuary. We left home Friday afternoon, and even after a delay in New Bedford rush hour traffic, we arrived at the MacMillan Wharf at 6:30 which gave us over an hour to watch the beautiful day fade away. When we reached the pier, the harbor was quiet with a few relaxed flocks of Common Eiders swimming amongst the fishing vessels many of which are spending their last remaining years waiting for the time that they won’t log sea miles any more.
On the pilings and also on the roof of the adjacent building on Fisherman’s Pier stood a few handfuls of Greater Black-backed Gulls waiting for their next meal opportunities. The nearly one quarter mile long breakwater just outside the harbor mouth was spattered black from one end to the other with nearly 1,000 Double Crested Cormorants.
The Cormorants were squabbling over territorial and nesting rights and were actively nest-building. With a few handfuls of cat food tossed into the water off the pier, the gull numbers grew to nearly 200, mostly juvenile Black-backed Gulls. Leaving the wharf, we drove over to Herring Cove Beach. As the sun was setting behind us, we ended the day watching hundreds of Common Eiders and Gannets plunging into the sea for their last meals of the day.
I had a very good look at the gull in my binoculars, and to me the bird was exactly the same as the Hyannis gull (which we were only twenty feet away from) in every detail both physical and by the color values of its plumage and bare parts. My color value description as follows: the grey value of the mantle- (using a mature adult Herring Gull for comparison). On the gray value scale- white (or #1) signifies the low end of the scale and black signifies the high end of the scale (value #10).The gray mantle color value of a Herring Gull will be designated and identified as a #5 on the grey value scale. The moors gull mantle color was #6.5 or slightly darker in gray value. The legs of the moors gull were a brilliant hue of natural yellow ochre (color index pigment #PY43) with a high chroma. The chroma scale is measured from #1 or weak through #10 or strong. The moors gull exhibited a chroma #8 or very strong color vibrancy. I didn’t have a chance to examine any feather details or plumage consistencies, but I did mentally note the plumage/bare part coloration and values. Since the consensus of the experts is leaning towards the Hyannis gull being a Yellow-legged Gull, and since the gull Jen and I saw looked exactly like the Hyannis gull, to me the moors gull is a probable Yellow-legged Gull that could be a/another/the same gull documented at Kalmus Beach in Hyannis. Here is a photo I took on April 17th of that highly-probable Yellow-legged Gull at Kalmus Beach, Haynnis, MA...
Expecting the gull to be somewhere in the harbor area, we drove over to the harbor again, but we didn’t spot the moors gull. Since our itinerary included Hatches Harbor, we decide to walk down to the old harbor and look for shorebirds or gulls. Hatches Harbor is a former harbor that has now sanded in. The harbor now is carpeted in a large tidal flat salt marsh that is separated form Cape Cod Bay by a long sand bar extending from Race Point. This sand bar is a major winter gull roost. There are four ways to access Hatches Harbor, one being a mile long walk from the fire road adjoining Province Lands Road. The sandy fire road meanders over and through the dunes which are covered with sporadic clusters of scrub pines and bay thickets.
The path was heavily imprinted with Wild Turkey tracks and it continued onto the dike that separates the salt flats from the salt marsh. We walked down the dike and nearly its entire length. Looking across the flats we saw a few groups of Greater Yellowlegs walking through the short marsh grass which were waving in rhythm from the moderate wind which also muffled the calls of Willets scattered throughout the flats. As we were walking back to our truck, I spotted a female Kestrel that was perched on a dead snag along the path on the edge of a small clearing, and 3 distant Red tails perched in trees. A single Buteo type hawk flew low directly over us heading N/W which was noticeably different. I only had a quick glimpse, but I clearly saw dark primary/secondary underwings with almost pure white contrasting coverts and a dark upper chest; possible Swainsons?
It was 9:00 am, and we decided to go on the whale watch which was scheduled for 10:30 am. At the MacMillan Pier, we purchased our tickets and with a little time to spare we had a quick breakfast in town. The line for the 10:30 Dolphin Fleets whale watch began to build so we decided to stand in line. While we were standing in line, we were entertained by a pair of Common Eiders just below us. The ducks were actively feeding making continual dives returning to the surface with a small green crab or mussel; even though I have seen this a million times over the years, I never get tired of watching it.
Standing in line turned out to be a smart decision. Before long, the line was nearly as long as the pier. They let us board the vessel at 9:45, and I picked the upper deck platform on the port side of the wheelhouse. Everyone headed for the lower deck especially the bow. Within a few minutes the bow and lower deck was packed with over a hundred people. Before long the upper deck was nearly packed and the full to capacity vessel was casting their lines and our voyage was underway. The sky was still overcast and the moderate wind continued making late April feel like November all over again. The vessel passed by the inside end of the breakwater offering great close views of the squabbling nest building D C Cormorants. Within a short time we were clearing Long Point and I noticed three whales splashing on the surface about 300 yards off the port bow. I was expecting a long boat ride off Race Point, but the whales were just outside the harbor. Before long, the naturalist on board announced over the loud speaker that there were a few Right Whales at 11 o’clock off the bow. As we approached a little closer, you could see the Northern Right Whales, and their heads were clearly half out of the water, and their mouths open exposing their massive baleen curtain as they skim fed along the surface for copepods, a small planktonic organism. These tiny plankton sized copepods are consumed by the whales by the ton. The copepods also attract smaller fish such as sandeels which also attract birds such as Gannets, Alcids and Gulls. Within a few minutes more and more Right Whales were appearing all around the vessel. I began to notice a group of Gannets plunge diving on the distant peripheral of the whale pods. Within minutes , I started to see gulls appearing in the distance and they were now following the whales. The gulls were circling the skimming whales and began to feed around their open mouths.
I began to scan the mass of swirling gulls through my binoculars, and I saw mostly Herring Gulls with a few Gtr Black-backed Gulls. Out of nowhere came a huge all white gull with a slow effortless wing motion; a Glaucous Gull!
In my excitement, I exclaimed to Jen that I located a Glaucous Gull which she located. A few of the people that were next to us on the narrow deck area asked what I was referring to, and I told them of the huge white gull. They also found the gull in their binoculars and were excited about the find as I told them about the uncommon gull.
By that time many of the whale watchers on the boat were all pointing and commenting on this very unique all snow white gull that was circling the right whales. The Glaucous Gull joined the feeding activity and within a few minutes began to wonder off heading towards the distant Billingsgate Island until it disappeared. Jen and I heard a choir of oos and ahhs over the sighting of this gull which became quite an attention grabber. As everyone’s attention reverted back to the whales, I continued to scan the whirling gulls and within a few minutes two more white winged gulls appeared with the feeding gulls. One of the white gulls was larger than the other. I assumed the larger gull was the same Glaucous Gull that I saw earlier; the other was most likely an Iceland Gull. So I shouted out Iceland Gull.
Of course everyone was now looking for the second white gull which they found, which then prompted the question, what’s an Iceland Gull? After a general species description and Glaucous/Iceland Gull comparison, I picked up my camera and began shooting the entire distant flocks of gulls to see if I could document the two species feeding within the flocks of feeding gulls around the skimming whales; that would be great if I could capture the two gulls and whales in the same images. In reviewing the images in my camera LED screen, this Glaucous Gull was different, its plumage appeared to have a light gray cast to primaries 9 and 10 and its complete tail. At this point, there were two Glaucous and an Iceland Gull observed on just a short time.
Soon many on the upper deck and a few listening from the lower deck were watching the two white gulls feeding with the whales. In the distance a small boat the "R/V Shearwater" from the Center for Coastal Studies was present monitoring the whales. Looking over to the boat, another white gull appeared over the bow of the boat; another Iceland Gull!
At this time there were three white winged gulls in the same area in the cluster of feeding gulls. The gulls moved through the whale pods varying their distances form the vessel. I began to notice smaller gulls in the swirling mix of Herring, G B B, single Glaucous, and two Iceland Gulls. These slightly smaller, more agile gulls were Laughing Gulls, and more and more of these gulls began to appear until I could count at least a dozen. After an hours time, the Dolphin VIII began to move towards Race Point, our next destination. As we were underway, I noticed a very small gull like bird with a very erratic flight which appeared in the mix of gulls and whales. I first thought it was a tern because of its features and flight patterns. I was watching this bird through my binoculars and it would occasionally disappear behind the waves only to re-appear again for a moment or two. It was very difficult to follow because of its small size, erratic flight and the distance from the vessel. At once the bird came into closer view and I could (with some difficulty) make out field marks: black head, shorter blunted wings with dark undersides. I pulled back from my binoculars in excited disbelief; I had just seen a Little Gull. I lost the bird again, and Jen and I frantically searched only to find it again for a brief moment than it would be lost again. I started taking rapid shots with my camera directed in area where the bird was the last time I saw it. Hopefully the bird would show up in my images later. By this time the vessel had steamed farther away from the area, and with that my hopes of finding the bird again were gone.
As we began to pick up speed steaming ahead towards Race Point, the boats direction shifted and you could feel the full impact of the wind. Suddenly it began to feel like November, and many who were unprepared and inadequately dressed for this began to shift positions and escape the cold by heading for the cabin. The number of Gannets increased with many sitting on the water in singles, small groups and larger flocks. I had several opportunities to take close up shots of the birds swimming just a few yards off the vessel.
At this point, Jen came back onto the deck with two hot cups of coffee. And as usually happens, I turned to help her with the coffee when she exclaimed, “look a shearwater”! As I turned, a single Manx Shearwater flew by the port side heading into the wind. By the time I set the coffee down and picked up my camera, I lost sight of the bird and couldn’t relocate it. As we passed Wood End Point, the water was literally covered with Red Breasted Mergansers as far as you could see.
The ducks with the high number of Gannets were gorging themselves on the abundance of sandeels off the point. As we passed Race Point, the announcement over the speaker said we would be heading about a mile off Race Point for the possibility of seeing a few different whale species that were present a day earlier. Off in the distance, a trawler was working, and I could see the all too familiar cluster of gulls surrounding the stern of the boat. The birds were of course concentrating on the “working end” of the boat, as cast off fish offerings from the nets were the bird’s main focus. Our vessel kept a distance from the trawler, and I glassed as many birds as I could, and couldn’t locate any other species of gulls except G B B and Herring. But my experiences have shown that I take many photos of the birds surrounding the boat because you never know what species of bird would show up in the images.
We only saw two passing whales briefly, so the Captain decided to head back. At this point a few hours had passed and it only seemed like minutes. In front of the bow a small pod of Harbor Porpoise appeared followed by another one just offshore from the Race Point Lighthouse. We headed back to port keeping a parallel course along the beaches from Race Point heading towards Wood End Point about a quarter of a mile from shore. Now the sun was occasionally breaking through and behind us. You could hear a big sigh of relief and appreciation as the sunshine began to warm the decks and everyone on it! Because we were closer to shore, and the angle of the sun was behind us, you could now see the amount of birds that were on the water. The water was covered with swimming and rafted birds: R B Mergansers, D C Cormorants, Eiders, all 3 species of Scoters and Gannets.
The water was blanketed with birds as far as you could see from Race Point to the distant Wood End Point. Just below the Race Point Lighthouse, you could see the sandbar shoaled entrance to Hatches Harbor. I pointed that out to Jen since we had been to the inner flats of that harbor a few hours earlier. Jen commented on the large amount of roosting Cormorants and Gulls that were present. In looking through our binoculars, we looked through as many birds as we could, but didn’t see anything that stood out. I took a few shots of the roost with my camera as we steamed by.
The bow parted through the rafted birds and there was constant activity of birds diving and flying keeping their distance from the vessel. More Laughing Gulls began to appear and they seemed to follow the vessel looking on the water for possible fish collisions with the boat.
As we started to approach Wood End Point, I noticed four gulls swimming along and just off the beach. One of the gulls appeared to be pure white, and a quick look through my binoculars revealed another first cycle (light plumage) Iceland Gull; that was the third of the morning!
I took a few long shots with my camera of those birds as well as the small roost of gulls on the beach. As we headed along the beach from Wood End Lighthouse towards Long Point Lighthouse, I could see small scattered groups of roosting Gulls, and I photographed every one of them as we steamed along the beach. At one point a Gull on the beach flapped its wings which caught my attention; the bird’s wings were white! Could this be another Iceland or maybe another Glaucous Gull? I lost sight of the Gull, but took many shots with my camera of the group where this Gull was and of all of other the Gull groups as we approached Long Point Lighthouse. The vessel passed Long Point much closer and you could clearly see many birds roosting on the Point. The birds were mostly D C Cormorants, with a small group of sleeping Common Eider and just a few gulls.
When the vessel reached the docks, you could already see the line of people waiting to board for the 1:30 whale watch. The line stretched the length of the pier, and I wondered if anyone in that line were interested in birds. If they were they would be in for a heck of a treat!! Jen and I stepped off the vessel and received some “thank you’s” for the mini bird tour. We were told that it added so much to their trip; they had no idea that so many bird species were present, especially the gulls, they were all just “sea gulls” to them. I suggested they all purchase a copy of Noble Proctor's book entitled “A Field Guide to North Atlantic Wildlife” which I had with me and showed them……maybe a few new birders are born!
Jen and I headed back to our truck talking about the fantastic morning. We saw numerous Laughing, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, a Little Gull, a Manx Shearwater, and tons of Gannets; Jens favorite bird. After lunch at the Lobster Pot Restaurant, we were leaving Provincetown on our usual route along 6A which allows you to drive for a short stretch along the beaches just south of town. I have seen many species of waterfowl here on the low tide sand flats and Razorbills and Gannets when the tide is high. As we approached the beach area, I noticed a huge all white gull standing by itself on the sandbar very close to the road. Jen noticed it as well; it was a first cycle Glaucous Gull. I stopped the truck so Jen could have a good look at it, and I walked out with my camera taking as many shots as I could.
The gull was comfortable with me and the distance from him that I established. It stayed for five minutes and then took off suddenly heading for Pilgrim Lake. I wondered what spooked the bird which became obvious when a beach walker’s curiosity got the better of him and he approached me to find out what I WAS photographing. I told him about the Glaucous Gull, and he politely said thank you and mentioned he thought I was taking pictures of the shoreline.
(Note)- That evening at our Hotel I was downloading my camera flash cards onto my laptop form the whale watch, and I made an unbelievable discovery. I began editing all the gull images from both the flying gulls around the whales and roosting along the beaches from Hatches Harbor to Wood End to Long Point. The second Glaucous Gull that we saw feeding with the Iceland Gull with the whales was actually a Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid confirmed later from the images for me that I sent to Patrick Comins.
From the images that I took of the gulls swarming the trawler, there was another light plumage first cycle Iceland Gull that was clearly visible in the images. From the images of the feeding gulls with the whales, I have one image that showed five species of gulls in the same shot: 4 Herring Gulls, the Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid, 1 Iceland Gull, 1 Laughing Gull and 1 surprise Gull, a Black –legged Kittiwake that I never saw until I looked at my images.
From the images along the beaches from Hatches Harbor to Long Point, I found another Iceland Gull in the roost at Hatches Harbor, another swimming Iceland Gull near Long Point (which now totaled 6) and I then found 7 more Iceland Gulls mixed in to the gull roosts on the beaches. All the Iceland Gulls were first cycle except for two possible adults or at least late third cycle. Total: 13 Iceland Gulls; Wow!! Here are photos of some of those Iceland Gulls...
The following photo shows three Iceland Gulls...
The species/number totals from the morning whale watch are:
From 10 am to 1 pm off Provincetown on the Dolphin Fleet Whale Watch vessel Dolphin VIII...
350+ Scoter all 3 species (mostly White Wing)
300+ Common Eider
1000 Red Breasted Merganser
500+ Double Crested Cormorants (1 fly-by Great Cormorant)
13 Iceland Gulls
2 Glaucous gull (all 1st cycle) (including the bird south of town on the sandbar)
1 Glaucous x Herring Gull hybrid
21 Laughing Gulls
1 Little Gull
1 Black-legged Kittiwake
1 Manx Shearwater
End of Part 1, Part 2 to follow
Keith and Jen Mueller
Part 2 Seabirding Cape Cod and Gloucester April 29, 30, May 1 and May 3
After leaving the beach area south of Provincetown with the memory of that beautiful Glaucous Gull fresh in our minds, we headed down Route 6 towards our next destination; Welfleet Harbor. This harbor is a little winter time gem especially during or after a strong late November/December gale. We have seen many birds here including most species of sea ducks; Common Eiders, Scoters (all 3 species), Oldsquaw and R B Mergansers. But what makes it a real gem are the many alcid species we have recorded there: Razorbill, Thick-billed Murre, Black Guillemot and the little Dovekie or “Sea Dove” as they are called on the Cape. Late last year, Jen and I saw a Peregrine Falcon mantling a Red Throated Loon on the beach, just west of the commercial pier. Driving into the parking lot there were three Common Loons swimming near the first docks on the left. Two of the Loons had changed over into spring black and white while the third bird was only half way through its plumage change. Looking down the row of pilings along the docks that were covered with broken clam shells, three of those pilings had guests perched proudly atop of each. Three contented Laughing Gulls were standing evenly spaced with a single piling between them looking over the harbor. In the water below were 5 more Laughing Gulls swimming just outside the floating docks near an old rusty trawler.
The channel off the point was active with a flock of 11 Red Breasted Mergansers and 2 more Common Loons. Following the long parking lot on the south side near the boat ramp, there was a pair of preening Red Throated Loons tucked up tight to the inner docks. Looking over to the high commercial dock, a small group of Double Crested Cormorants were spiritedly diving with all the birds disappearing under the surface at the same time. Getting a closer look, the Cormorants were returning to the surface with small eels. Watching the Cormorants swallowing a twisting, wiggling eel was quite interesting, and often would take the birds minutes to do this successfully. Looking west along the beach near the commercial pier, the falling tide had attracted a small flock of Greater Yellowlegs, a few Willets and Dunlins. Among the shorebirds were another 7 Laughing Gulls which were also picking along the tide line.
Orleans, First Encounter Beach-When we arrived at F E Beach, the tide was low and had fallen to extend the beach nearly a quarter mile distant from the regular beach.
Jen and I noticed several groups of shorebirds feeding in the puddles that were left behind by the receded tide. Jen and I walked out on this vast sandbar nearly a half a mile from our truck and approached the shorebirds at a respectful distance. The shorebirds consisted of two flocks of Greater Yellowlegs with 20 in one flock, 11 in the other, 5 Willets and 17 Dunlin many of which had very developed black chest feathering and rusty colored dorsal feathering. The birds flew off after fifteen minutes as we were walking back to the beach. In the marsh on the opposite side of the beach, we noticed 3 Kestrels; 1 perched, 1 flying over the marsh and 1 was hovering over a dry grassy area in the marsh.
Chatham, Chatham Harbor- With the day winding down, Jen and I decided to take the last two hours of the day and relax and enjoy the sun going down over this beautiful harbor. We drove into the harbor near the commercial fishing dock and processing building. The tide was out and the vast sandbars were exposed holding many D C Cormorants, a spattering of Common Eiders, small pockets of Gulls and hundreds of shorebirds. The shorebirds were spread out on the outer sandbars too far to identify through binoculars, but I would assume Yellowlegs, Willets, Dunlins and Sanderlings. Along shore along the nearby beach, a small group of Willets were feeding and calling. You could hear other Willets calling back from all over the harbor. In winter months this area is a good location to spot Iceland and Glaucous Gulls although we didn’t see any that afternoon, just Herring and Greater Black –backed Gulls.
Just after a short drive north, we were sitting on the old boat ramp at the end of Cow Yard Lane. Off in the not too far distance was the northern point of Tern Island. Mass. Audubon was busy setting up Plover and Tern barriers and nesting enclosures. The sand bars from the north and eastern part of Tern Island extended for a great distance in the upper Chatham Harbor.
As we sat there enjoying the spectacular view, a small group of Willets were feeding along the waterline just in front of our truck. Occasionally a Herring Gull or two would land with the Willets just waiting to steal any food item the Willets would find. Jen and I took a short walk along the shoreline, and the afternoon air was filling with the beautiful calls of Gulls, Willets and the very recognizable calls of Laughing Gulls. Looking out across the open water towards the massive sand bars, we found a small flock of 23 Laughing Gulls sitting on the opposite shore from where we were standing. In the slightly higher ground of the sand bars northeast of Tern Island a large gathering of Black Ducks were dabbling in the tidal pools. We counted 150+ Black Ducks most likely fueling up getting ready to head north. Along the edge of the sandbars near some of the black ducks, were 9 Bufflehead and 2 Common Loons. When we got nearly back to the truck, a pair of American Oystercatchers flew in from south of the harbor and landed with the Willets below the boat ramp. As the day and the sun began to fade, we watched a steady stream of Cormorants and Gulls coming from the north in the upper reaches of Pleasant Bay headed towards the outer beaches just below the noble Chatham Lighthouse.
Sunday morning, May 1- When the Hotel doors opened we were greeted with a glimpse of what would be a fabulous dawn. The brilliant mosaic of colors were peeking through the last bit of the evenings blanket, the air was cool and inviting. We were heading north on Route 6 to spend the first few hours looking around Provincetown; the town we can never seem to get enough of! Our usual routine was in order, but this morning the sky was cloudless and the wind was warm. On the way north, I decided to make a quick run through Welfleet Harbor just to see what the dawn has brought to this harbor with exceptional birding possibilities. There were a few Laughing Gulls present, and Jen found a Red-throated Loon very close to the docks. Perched on top a single light pole was a Sharp Shinned Hawk which had apparently got an early start with breakfast possibly a sparrow or a red winged blackbird. As we were leaving the harbor area, a single Raven flew across the road followed closely (or being escorted I might say) by 3 Crows. This is the first Raven I have seen in the Welfleet area.
Provincetown/Truro, Pilgrim Lake- the Lake was quiet with only a few remaining Bufflehead and Scaup making up the waterfowl count. Along the creek edges at the south end of the lake, there were a small bunch of Greater Yellowlegs with a few Willets and Least Sandpipers. A pair of Harriers flew across the road and began to intertwine in a courtship flight. The male eventually flew off by himself and landed on a small flat-topped cedar tree very close to the road. We watched for a few minutes than the bird took off and headed directly for the outer dune area where he vanished over the mountainous dunes. As we neared the southern stretch of Provincetown, nearly every other light pole along Route 6 had a Redtail Hawk perched on them. Jen counted 9 as we drove by.
Provincetown, MacMillan Wharf- The huge concentrations of nest-building D C Cormorants continued on the breakwater. Their squabbling calls could be clearly heard across the harbor. The usual birds were swimming casually in between the fishing vessels: Common Eiders (with the single male Surf Scoter), Red Breasted Mergansers, Common Loons and many immature Greater Black-backed Gulls. We searched all around the area for Iceland or Glaucous Gulls, and of course the Yellow-legged Gull but didn’t see any.
The Moors and Herring Cove Beach- The marshes of the Moors were very quiet, with only a handful of Greater Yellowlegs walking around near the road, and the calls of Willets were heard from all over the marsh. Jen spotted 2 Great Blue Herons in the middle of the marsh. The Herons were in their very intense “cocked and ready to strike” positions, they had obviously found a good fishing hole.
On the opposite side of the road above the Moors is a very shallow tidal pond that always holds a few Black Ducks, Yellowlegs and R B Mergansers, and that morning was no exception. There were 2 Black Ducks, 5 R B Mergansers, 11 Greater Yellowlegs, 1 Lesser Yellowlegs and 3 Willets had joined the others. The Mergansers were fishing by periscoping in very shallow water right alongside the Yellowlegs. In fact many times the Mergansers actually walked up on the sandbar still in the periscoping position even though the water was only a half of an inch deep.
With the very light winds, the sea off Herring Cove Beach was almost still, something you don’t see too often. Out in front of the beach were the usual large flock of Red Breasted Mergansers and Cormorants, a spattering of Scoters and Eiders, and of course Gannets; loads of them. We sat and watched the Gannets plunge dive not too far off the beach. An occasional whale spouted out from shore, and flying flocks of Cormorants passed by in both directions. While we were watching the Gannets, a small flock of Gulls flew by coming from Hatches Harbor. The flock had a single Iceland Gull in the middle of the group, probably one of the birds we saw and photographed the day before, or maybe not! The gulls headed towards Wood End Lighthouse. I lost sight of them when they passed around the point.
As we were leaving Provincetown, I thought about the Glaucous Gull I photographed the day before on the beach just north of town. Jen and I pulled up to the spot where the Gull was the day before, but the only birds there were a few Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls, a flock of 43 Brant, and a small flock of 13 Laughing Gulls. I looked through the gulls for the possibility of the Little Gull but without any luck. With my binoculars, I looked farther south down the beach and spotted what appeared to be a carcass of a porpoise on the beach at the high tide line. Standing around the carcass were 5 Greater Black-backed Gulls and a single all white Glaucous Gull, the same bird from the day before. Unfortunately, the birds were on a section of the beach that was behind the many condos and beach cabanas and obviously private. While I was standing near the truck talking with Jen about the gull, a pair of Great Cormorants flew over the road heading west towards Long Point.
Welfleet, Welfleet Harbor and Great Island- Saying our good-byes to Provincetown (which turned out to be an exceptional and successful birding visit) we headed south to Welfleet. We gave another run through the harbor area, and the usual Laughing Gulls, Willets, Yellowlegs and Cormorants were present. But a single Horned Grebe in bright spring plumage was swimming outside the harbor.
A short drive to Great Harbor revealed a substantial Gull roost for this time of year on the backside inlet area. I could only see Herring and G B B Gulls and a few Laughing Gulls were flying around the cove diving at fish. On the back side of the cove near the parking lot were three Red Breasted Mergansers that had hauled out onto an angular boulder. The birds were asleep. Along the shore at the edge of the marsh were Yellowlegs, Willets and 3 American Oystercatchers
Welfleet Mass. Audubon Sanctuary-This is one of the most beautiful birding areas on the Cape. The Sanctuary is diverse in its layout; from woods, to extensive salt marshes and tidal flats, to beaches, dunes, freshwater ponds and salty bays. Jen and I always enjoy walking this property, especially during a late November gale when continual flocks of Razorbills fly by the beach often close enough to reach out to them. Sunday was the first time that we have ever been here where it was actually warm. We decided this time to take the Goose Pond Trail which winds along the marshes to the south of the Preserve and then back through the woods to the Nature Center Building. When we arrived on the property, we were greeted by 2 male Baltimore Orioles in the trees near the feeders. As we walked through the property down the trail that leads to the marshes, the woods were alive with bird songs; Cardinals, Red Wing Blackbirds, Towhee, Flickers, and many warblers. Since most of my birding interests are designed around sea birds, waterfowl and shorebirds, I am not that familiar with many of the woodland birds, especially warblers and their calls. Anyone visiting the Cape who is interested in woodland passerine migtants especially warblers should stop by this Sanctuary.
In the marsh were the typical early spring shorebirds: Greater Yellowlegs including a single Lesser, Willets and Least Sandpipers. When we reached the lower marsh near the southern creek, a single Green Heron flew by and landed in a cedar tree on the periphery of the marsh. When the bird passed us, its brilliant colors were illuminated by the bright sun. Out over the dunes several flocks of Brant appeared and disappeared behind the rolling dunes. Two Osprey were hunting the lower marsh by the inlet near the dunes just beyond the marsh boardwalk. Several small groups of small shorebirds probably Dunlin and Sanderlings were flying over the lower marsh just inside the dunes. As we walked the outer trail approaching the woods, a single hen Wild Turkey walked up the trail in front of us and then scooted off into the woods. When we approached the area where the Turkey left the trail, she was squatting down in the grass and thorn scrub playing a game of hide and seek with us just a few feet off the trail. When we arrived back to the Nature Center, two male Baltimore Orioles were sitting in the same tree where we saw them over an hour earlier.
Back to the Chatham area- and our first stop was Chatham Harbor. The same birds were present as the day before: Eiders, Cormorants, Herring and Gtr B B Gulls, Willets and a few flocks of Yellowlegs, Dunlins and Sanderlings. The Laughing Gulls were loafing on the sand flats below Tern Island. In front of the Commercial Fish Pier were 3 Grey Seals sleeping with their typical “nose up” posture.
Driving around Stage Harbor, we spotted a few Eiders and several Greater Yellowlegs and Willets along the shore line marsh above the town dock. On the pilings were 2 Laughing Gulls and what appeared to be a Common Tern flew by the dock headed for the sand bars out in front of the Stage Harbor Light. Seeing how the birds we were seeing were the same species we have already noted, and our pace was relaxed a bit, we decided to try the little marsh at the mouth of the Red River in Harwich. The marsh was starting to come back to life as the winter gray marsh grass was slowly changing with patches of vivid green. You could hear Willets throughout the marsh, and a small flock of Yellowlegs walked along the beach at the mouth of the creek chasing small fish that were trapped in the small tide pools. Also in the marsh were several Snowy Egrets and 2 Great Blue Herons. Outside the jetties were a few Brant, Eiders and Cormorants. Out in the distance with Monomoy in the background was a little flock of small gull type birds probably Laughing Gulls or maybe Terns in a feeding frenzy making many spiraling dives to the water obviously chasing a school of small fish.
On our way off the Cape we made two quick stops to both ends of the Canal: Sandwich and then Bourne. The bay side Canal in Sandwich had few Eiders and Cormorants in the Canal and they were struggling to swim against the heavy tide and current. They finally gave in and just went with the current. On the small grassy area near the parking lot and commercial fish processing building, there is always a good group of roosting gulls, and often in winter an Iceland Gull or two. Among the Herring and Gtr Black-backed Gulls were a small flock of sleeping Brant. As we were looking through the gulls, a friendly woman approached and offered the gulls her left over French fries from her lunch at Seafood Sams. The gulls were quite pleased of course, and out of nowhere came 7 Laughing Gulls to take advantage of the kind gesture.
The Bourne side of the Canal was much quieter than over a month ago when 5,000+ Common Eiders were present. This area is a spring staging area for Common Eiders and the numbers in the Canal just in front of the parking area can be staggering! But for the first day of May, we would be happy with the 100 Eiders that were there. Along with the Eiders were a few Brant, R B Mergansers and Cormorants of course. Jen and I looked very hard for the resident Peregrine Falcon pair that are usually present on the railroad bridge, but we didn’t find them.
The last quick stop on the way home was in Galilee, Rhode Island to pick up some fresh codfish, steamers and swordfish, Of course looking through all the gulls on the buildings, pilings, piers and parking lots for a possible hanging around Iceland Gull. We didn’t find any white winged gulls, but we did observe interesting gull behavior. We were watching Gtr B B Gulls in the grassy lot near one of the parking lots. The gulls were ripping out large wads of green grass and carrying this material to the rooftops of one of the fish processing buildings. Looking up we noticed that much of the roof on this one building was covered with contented Gulls sitting on their well constructed nest built from fresh green grass. In the harbor near the fishing fleet were 3 Red Throated Loons, 5 Common Loons, 21 Eiders and a dozen R B Mergansers, of course the ever present D C Cormorants.
End Part 2 and Cape Cod Birding weekend.
Part 3 to follow- Gloucester pelagic
Keith and Jen Mueller
Part 3 Seabirding Cape Cod and Gloucester May 3
After Jen and I had a great weekend on the Cape watching seabirds and finding a fabulous 10 species of gulls including a Little Gull, Yellow-legged Gull and a good concentration of Iceland and Glaucous with a Glaucous hybrid, what could be better? The only answer I could come up with would be a combined pelagic/cod fishing trip out of Gloucester to Stellwegan Bank. Since cod fishing was introduced as a possible scenario or reason for going, only one person came to mind as my partner for the day: my Father-in-law. Being a life-long lobster fisherman from Madison CT, who proudly proclaims Gloucester as being his second home because of his love for cod fishing; the day was planned. Over the past few weeks our plans for the first cod trip of the year changed a few times due to weather and heavy winds. But Tuesday everything was right for the trip; light winds, partly sunny, and a light sign-up for the trip which meant plenty of “elbow-room” on the vessel. They forecasted light southerly winds of 10 knots with two to four foot seas, which is ideal for codfishing, not the best for spring pelagic birding. But there was a positive outlook for the day. The winds were going to change out of the southeast and pick up to 15+ knots, perfect for spring pelagic birding, exactly what I was hoping for. At 2:30 am Dad and I left CT for our three hour drive to Gloucester.
When we arrived in Gloucester at the docks, just as predicted; you could feel the light southerly winds. With the distant dawn announcing it was going to be a beautiful day, we unloaded our gear on the dock. With enough time before the vessel would get underway, it was time to enjoy that morning cup of coffee and share a few “fish tales” with the other fisherman. The dock was located directly across from Jodrey’s Pier by a narrow inner harbor inlet. Jodrey’s Pier is a very well known as a famous birding location known for its inner harbor storm driven sea birds and alcids which are regularly seen and photographed close to the pier often swimming just below the main pilings. Species such as Black Guillemot, Thick-billed Murre and Dovekie are recorded every winter especially after a strong gale. But the bird species that make this pier so appealing are the Gulls. The pier is one of the best locations annually to see and photograph Glaucous and Iceland Gulls, often very close. Other rare gulls such as the Slaty-backed and Thayers Gulls have been recorded here with some frequency.
With the dawn complete and a short time before we could board, I grabbed my camera. The dock for the cod boat was large and almost completely covered with mountainous stacks of lobster traps. I walked around the stack to the edge of the dock and looked over to Jodreys. In the water you could see scattered bunches of swimming Common Eiders, D C Cormorants and handfuls of Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls. Through my binoculars I started looking in the water around Jodreys with the hopes of finding a late Guillemot or Murre which I didn’t find. I began to look through the large scattered clusters of gulls perched on the pilings, on the vessels and nearby rooftops which are the common roosting sites for the gulls at Jodreys. There were plenty of gulls flying around a large trawler that was unloading its catch at the pier. I looked through as many as I could, but didn’t see anything “non typical”. We still had about fifteen minutes until we could begin boarding. I decided to look at my camera to make sure all the settings were adjusted. I wanted to take a few images of flying gulls just to make sure I was happy with those settings. I looked over to the end of Jodreys and a single gull flew out from the pier and headed in my direction. I assumed the gull was a Greater Black-backed Gull from its large size. It was flying on my side of the narrow harbor and was getting closer. As it approached, I found the bird in my lens and watched the auto focus slowly transform a fuzzy gull into a clear image. I shot two quick shots of the gull and then I realized the bird in my lens had pure white wings; it was a beautiful sub-adult Glaucous Gull. I took as many shots as my auto wind would allow, and the Gull flew up the narrow harbor and disappeared over the city of Gloucester. That was completely unexpected, but most welcomed. That was the perfect way to start this day.
Soon we were boarding the Yankee Patriot. As soon as our gear was stowed in the cabin and rods secured in the holders at the port transom, I immediately headed up to the bow to assume my typical figure head position. As the diesels warmed up and the last few minutes at the dock faded, a regal pair of Common Eiders swam up to the bow like Mallards in a park looking for a tossed offering. The pair swam within a few feet of the bow and began preening. Since I was taking quite a few pictures of the ducks, it prompted the hearty fisherman on board to ask me what the species of ducks were. As I began to tell them about Common Eiders, one of the interested fishermen asked if that is where eider down comes from. I acknowledged and explained the down gathering techniques used on Iceland eider farms. They were all quite interested in that!
The Patriot was underway and slowly heading out of the inner harbor. As the vessel passed along Jodreys, my eyes were fixed along the waterline in, around and under the pier. Small groups of Eiders were diving around the pilings which included numbers of D C Cormorants. I began looking through all the gulls on the pier and the rooftops, but found it difficult to separate any different species from a moving vessel. In the near flat harbor waters, as we approached Ten Pound Island small flocks of Common Eiders, Cormorants, a few Common Loons and two small flocks of Surf Scoters surrounded the island. Every exposed rocky ledge and rocky point of the island hosted small groups of hauled out Eiders and of course accompanied by their gull chaperones. On Ten Pound Island, the Herring and Gtr B B Gulls were present in good numbers keeping lookout over the harbor. On the shores and slopes of the island many Common Eiders could be seen resting and in some cases walking up the naturally sculpted facade of the island. Settled in along the top of the islands granite architecture were many drake Common Eiders, passing the morning away quite relaxed in bill buried sleeping poses. That made me wonder why no hens? Could the hens be investigating nesting locations? As the Patriot left the inner harbor, Eastern Point was approaching. Along the way, a few groups of gulls had settled in various locations on the water in the outer harbor, but no Iceland or Glaucous Gulls were present. As we began to pass the breakwater, 3 Oldsquaw in summer dress passed by the bow.
Greeting the open Atlantic a few hundred yards outside the lighthouse the two to four foot seas were augmented by long undulating ground swells. The Patriot’s well seasoned wooden hull greeted theses rollers like old friends handling the seas perfectly timed resulting in a slight burst of bow spray. Not giving up my perfect position on the bow the first bird I saw was a very friendly Common Loon in full black and white plumage swimming by the bow at fifteen yards. There were many groups of Common Eiders both swimming and flying by in small flocks. One flock of flying Eiders was closely followed by two flocks of mostly Common Scoters. In a short s distance Gannets started to appear in sporadic numbers. Most were flying by in both directions within a quarter of a mile out from the lighthouse. As the Patriot began to put some distance between itself and the shore, the Captain announced that our first destination would be Tillies Bank; a cluster of bottom structure near the head of Stellwegan Bank and south of Jefferies Ledge. With about an hour to go before we reached Tillies, I spent that time scanning the horizon in all directions. A few Gannets would come and go, and the occasional flurry of Herring and Gtr B B Gulls would appear and then disappear, heading directly towards the fishing fleet at Stellwegan.
A half an hour had gone by when I noticed a small white bird swimming about a hundred yards off the bow. It was very difficult to ID in my binoculars with the bow heaving and falling. The bird was very skittish and soon became airborne. As the distant bird turned to the port side, it was easy to identify. It was an adult Black-legged Kittiwake one of the birds I hoped to see again that day. I like Kittiwakes, they always remind me of a very nervous yet quite agile small gull; a bird that when you spot them you really feel that you are on the open sea.
The Kittiwake quickly dissolved into the horizon and the remaining travel time to Tillies was uneventful bird wise. When the Patriot slowed to a gentle creep, the anchor was dropped and the announcement that we were on the north slope of Tillies in three hundred and five feet of water. While we were anchored a few fly by Gannets, Common and Red Throated Loons and G B B Gulls appeared and the customary handful of Gulls would settle in on the water a short distance from the stern. The gulls were of course waiting for the opportunity of tossed back undersized cod and haddock.
The fishing was slow, and within a half an hour, the Captain decided to pick up and move to a possibly more productive section of Tillies. When the anchor was hauled, and the boat began to move, a single white and grey small bird came from the distance and flew broadside to the Patriot. Its twisting glide of a flight was something that I have seen so many times over the year’s codfishing; a Fulmar, another fabulous bird species that I was looking forward to seeing that day. Over the next few hours the fishing and the birding was very slow. The light southerly winds held and would hold until the tide changed around noon. Occasional Gannets would fly by the vessel often circling the Patriot looking closely for the opportunity of a tossed back short which didn’t happen. On the third time that the Captain picked up anchor and decided to move to another location of Tillies, I looked over to the 5 G B B Gulls that were hanging around the Patriot off the bow. The 5 Gulls had company of three smaller birds. All 8 birds took off from the water as the vessel approached. The 3 additional birds were Fulmars, and 1 of the Fulmars was a blue morph. For the morning I had seen many Gannets, Gulls 1 Kittiwake and 4 Fulmar including a dark morph.
With the change of the tide came the change in the wind both in direction and speed. As predicted the winds would change to southeast and increase. With the sudden change in the tide and winds, the Captain decided to head over to the western collar of Stellwegan; just what I had been waiting for. Time was slipping away before we had to return to port, but after a short fifteen minute ride, the Patriot was soon dropping anchor again. But this time the conditions were noticeably different. The winds had picked up and the seas increased to three to six feet. The tide was running transversally and the rollers were coming broadside to the vessel. Almost at once the numbers of Gannets increased with more second and third year birds starting to replace the overwhelming numbers of adults.
A Fulmar appeared and then another and another. What seemed like a steady flow of Fulmars came from the horizon. Some would drift by the vessel in the distance, some would come closer and some would be just off the stern. Needless to say, my new custom built cod rod was sitting idly in its rail holder; replaced by my camera.
For the next hour, Fulmars and Gannets would come and go putting on an amazing show. The fishing was very slow, and many of those hearty fishermen began spotting birds for me and asking what they were. The Captain announced that it was time to pick up, and the anchor was hauled and off we went headed for home. But the best was yet to come! The fishing may have been over for the day, but my birding had just begun! As in all fishing trips, when the vessel is headed home, that’s he time that the mates clean and fillet the fish. Usually if the day was successful, the mates would be kept busy cleaning fish for over an hour or two on the ride in. The remnant s are cast off the stern and the birds are very familiar with the procedure. As the offal offerings are tossed back into the sea, the birds congregate off the stern. The flying swirling mass of birds wheel around and plunge head first into the sea with perfected techniques emerging from the turbulent sea with a mouthful of deep Atlantic offal. More and more birds start to appear and the numbers swell. First the gulls and then other species begin to show up.
Off in the distance I saw a small group of birds appear. I would lose them in the troughs of the waves and they would reappear again. The birds were much smaller and moved around the area very quickly. I lost sight of the birds when more appeared from the distance. One of the small groups followed the long line of feeding Gulls, Gannets and Fulmars trailing behind and along the wake from the Patriot. The group appeared off the starboard side of the vessel and came close enough to identify; Kittiwake. This group of 7 Kittiwakes were made up of mostly clean plumaged adults with a few immature birds clearly displaying their black “M’s” on their wings. The birds disappeared just as quickly as they appeared. I started to again look into the mass confusion of birds off the stern, and then came more Kittiwakes.
The Kittiwakes appeared to be independent. Although drawn to the area by the offal and the feeding birds, they didn’t mingle with the others. This next group materialized and came much closer to the stern of the Patriot. The flock of 9 birds followed the wake of the vessel like driving up a road. When the birds got within fifty yards of the stern, they veered to the starboard side and then turned back in the direction they had come. I was taking pictures as the birds passed by the stern, but they were fast…..my auto focus was having difficulties focusing on the birds. As I was looking through my lens, I noticed that one of the birds was noticeably smaller than the rest of them and appeared to have remnant black head feathering. The flashing white blazes of the wings on that one bird appeared brighter than the other juvenile Kittiwakes and the black “blades” of the anterior outer wings was “sharp-edged” where the black and white meet as compared to the broken white/black edge of the immature Kittiwake. The bird was completely different than the immature Kittiwakes. I only saw the bird for just a few seconds, so I reviewed the images in my camera LED screen and even though the images were a little blurry, I could clearly make out the sharp edge between the white wing blaze and the black blades of the outer wing. Also clearly evident was the same grey color on the posterial wing coverts as compared to the scapulars and mantle of the bird. I had just seen a Sabines Gull. (When I was home, I downloaded the images especially the images of that gull; it was confirmed by Patrick Comins as a Sabines).
(From l to r) Sabines Gull, imm Kittiwake, Fulmar and adult Kittiwake
A few more flocks of Kittiwakes appeared in the distance and never came close to the Patriot. The Fulmars continued to show up and proved to be the best day I have ever had with that species with an all time high single day count for me.
As the fish cleaning slowed down, the birds began to dissipate and their numbers became fewer and fewer. With the exception of the few hanging on G B B and Herring Gulls and Gannets, the Fulmars, Kittiwakes and Laughing Gulls were no longer seen. By this time the seas were sporting a good heave and the flags standing straight out told us that the wind was blowing at least twenty-plus knots. As we headed into the inner harbor, I searched through all the gull roosts on the rooftops near Jodreys looking for a possible day ending Iceland or Glaucous Gull which I never found. Approaching the dock, everyone was anxious to disembark the vessel. Nothing clears a cod boat faster than a slow day of fishing. Dad did OK with a few nice Haddock and Cusk in the cooler.
We had a great day, and the birding was exceptional.
For further reading-
"Stellwagen Bank: A Guide to the Whales, Sea Birds, and Marine Life of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary"
The totals for the day:
60+ Common Eider
400+ Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls
50+ Scoters (mostly Common)
11 Common Loons
7 Red Throated Loons
20+ Laughing Gulls
30 +/- Black-legged Kittiwakes
1 Sabines Gull
1 Glaucous Gull (sub-adult)
Keith Mueller Killingworth