New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Monday, October 24, 2011

A day on the Cape with the Hartford Audubon Society's Birding Club

   Day 4 (Oct 15) The weather forecast was for a sunny day with high wind warnings up to 40 knots westerly; an absolute perfect day for sea birding! Tom’s agenda listed Race Point Beach parking lot as our meeting point at 8:30 am. But anyone who wanted to brave the chill and winds with a brisk morning walk could meet Tom, Jen and I at 6:30 am at Herring Cove Beach. Our plan was to walk down the beach about a mile to the inlet at Hatches Harbor (just south of Race Point) to look through the large gull roost in hopes of finding a late Sabine’s Gull. But the gull roost was not the only reason, many migrating sea birds being pushed into Cape Cod Bay by the strong westerly winds follow the shoreline towards Race Point, bringing them very close to shore nearing Race Point often a few yards off the beach.

      We would meet outside the hotel at 5:30 am and head north on 6 to P’town putting us on the beach at 6:30 am (after a brief fuel and coffee stop). Outside the hotel Jen and I met Tom and Paul, and the morning began. Approaching Herring Cove Beach just as the sun broke, the sand was flying across the parking lot like a sand blast machine driven from the heavy southerly wind. We backed into the parking spots protecting our windshields from the driven sand. As we prepared ourselves for our walk, the sand blasted our faces and gear, having to turn around to shield ourselves. Since the parking lot was somewhat elevated, I knew that the impact from painful sand would be lessened as we got lower and closer to the water. The four of us pushed through the sand storm which became less severe when we found the low tide sand by the water. Walking along the lower beach, the westerly wind was very strong, often pushing us backwards since Herring Cove Beach faces directly west.

     The sun began to crack over the dunes, and its glorious bouquet of color augmented the spectacular morning gradually changing the grey horizon to a fiery cascade of yellow, orange and magenta spatter.

                                     Looking South along Herring Cove Beach

     With the approaching light came increasing visibility. The horizon over the bay came alive with swarms of flying sea birds. The sky literally came alive with Gannets, as far as you could see. As we approached the outer fringes of the inlet, we set up our scopes and started sorting through a few thousand birds both flying and in the gull roosts looking for any rare or uncommon sea birds possible at this location. This was not an easy task since there were at least a thousand Gannets swirling in front of us at this time. Terns began to fly as well as flocks of Eiders, Scoters and two small flocks of Red-breasted Mergansers. Laughing Gulls began to intermix with the Gannets and the tangle of birds before us began to grow. It became increasingly difficult to scrutinize all the birds, just too many before us. Tom got a call on his cell, and went back to the beach parking lot to meet a member of the group that wanted to join us. As Tom left, I changed the angle of my scope to the north at a direction just off the Race Point Lighthouse.

                                                        North to Race Point

      Almost immediately, I started seeing Shearwaters, darting in and out of the huge waves breaking across the point. Looking closer these small quick little Shearwaters were instantly identified: Manx Shearwaters. I tried to digiscope a few images but was unsuccessful. These little Shearwaters would come in short intervals with one or two every few minutes. Paul (below)picked up on them also, and although we weren’t counting, we did see quite a few.

    Looking back down the beach towards the parking lot Tom (below left) was returning with another birder from the group. It was a pleasure to meet Dave Zomick (below right), and he like us was in awe at the Gannet show before us. At times the Gannets were so close to the beach that they often flew over our heads crossing over the inlet.

    As the early morning passed you could see a continual flock of feeding Gannets that stretched from the far distant Wood End Point and continued around Race Point; a distance of over three miles. The sight was breathtaking to say the least!!

    At 7:45 we decided to walk back to the cars because we had to meet the group at Race Point Beach at 8:30. At 8:29 we pulled into the Race Point Beach parking lot, and the rest of the HAS group was there and getting ready for this exciting day. Jen and I had the great pleasure to meet the rest of the group: Marion and Ray Irizarry, Sandee and Jay Brown, Joan Lupacchino and Rich Nieman, Susan Turner, David Richardson, and again joined by Fred and Donna Nowak and Carl and Catherine Ekroth. We all walked down the path between the dunes and set our scopes on the beach. Because Race Point Beach faces east, we all had a bit of a break from the biting westerly winds.

    As we all began to scope the horizon, a good variety of October sea birds were making a showing: Gannets, Common Eiders, Scoters (all three species), Red-breasted Mergansers, Laughing Gulls, D C Cormorants, Common Terns (with quite a few Forster’s Terns), and of course Parasitic Jaegers following the Terns and also in the mix of seabirds were Shearwaters, mostly Greater and a few Manx.

                  Two Forster's Terns (left and right) and a Common Tern (center)
     After about an hour and a half of sea watching, it was time to move to our next location. Tom planned our next stop for MacMillan’s Wharf searching for the Brown Booby. Jen and I have seen the Brown Booby on two occasions in the late morning, so the strategy of birding the pier in the late morning may pay off! Since the pier wouldn’t hold too many cars, and parking really isn’t allowed, we decided to car pool. We all drove over to Herring Beach Cove which is on the way to the wharf. We would leave a few cars at the beach, and would return there later to have lunch when we were finished at the pier.

    Arriving at the pier, I immediately set up my scope to see if the Brown Booby was there. I keyed in on the “Winslow” but the bird wasn’t there. Maybe it hadn’t flown back yet, or maybe it was on the lee side of the breakwater escaping the biting wind.

    We kept searching for the Booby and began scouring through all the Cormorants on the wall. Paul located many Great Cormorants, and I overheard Rich calling out that he had found some Ruddy Turnstones. I moved to the eastern end of the pier which overlooks the outer harbor. A week and a half ago, I had spotted the Brown Booby feeding with a flock of Gannets just outside the breakwater, the dihedral of its wings standing out and different amongst the many Gannets. Tom and I also watched four Jaegers gang up on a single Tern flying way up into the harbor and nearly along Route 6A as it leads out of town. The Gannets and Laughing Gulls were almost in the same location, plunge diving just outside the outer moored boats of the harbor. On the water were huge flocks of feeding Cormorants, which darkened the surface of the sea with their great numbers. What seems like a sudden dose of Deja ‘vu, I spotted five Jaegers chasing a pair of Terns into the outer harbor in just about the same location as the others a week and a half earlier.

     While everyone was enjoying the excellent views of so many seabirds on a very comfortable location, I picked up two swimming birds in my scope to the east just behind a moored sailboat. The birds disappeared behind the stern of the sailboat, but reappeared when the boat swung to the left. The two birds were Razorbills, and many in the group were excited because many had never noted them. The pair of Razorbills swam in the area for quite a while and everyone got good looks at them. As the morning ended to noon, we decided to go back to Herring Cove Beach to have lunch. Just as we drove into the parking lot, another squall appeared from the west and made a brief appearance. It rained lightly for a few minutes, but as fast as it came it left us, never putting a damper on our day. While having lunch in our cars, we all watched a great show of sea birds through the comfort of our vehicle windshields.

     The next stop that Tom had planned was Highland light in Truro. With everyone finishing their lunches it was time to proceed to the lighthouse and the observation platform high above the ocean on the bluffs. Jen and I went out ahead to stop by the Wharf to see if we could locate the Brown Booby. If we did, we would re-route everyone to the pier, otherwise Jen and I would meet everyone at the Lighthouse. Well, no Brown Booby, so we drove over to the Lighthouse arriving at the same time as everyone else.
    The view from the platform is stunning. The overlook offers a long distance view over the sea. Immediately you could see the swarms of circling adult Gannets, with their stark white plumages reaching out against the Caribbean blue sea. Through our scopes we began to spot many Greater Shearwaters, and a few Manx and Cory’s as they wheeled in and out of the distant waves. Many from the club were anxious to see the Shearwaters, and many had good views of these distant pelagics. Tom and I also picked out a few Fulmars mixed in with the Shearwaters. On the top of the bluff a large group of Swallows flew across and over the platform taking several minutes to fly by. A single Turkey Vulture gave us a great show and lesson in “riding the thermals” at eye level to us.

    A distant fishing vessel appeared from the south with a typical large group of gulls swarming of its stern. As the vessel got closer out in front of the paltform the vessel was framed with Greater Shearwaters, passing around the bow of the vessel. Looking down the wake of the vessel, large numbers of Shearwaters could be seen following the boat along the entire length of the wake.

     With everyone satisfied with the sightings, it was time to go to our next location. Due to the fact that the Welfleet Oyster festival was on that weekend, we needed to plan our traveling on Route 6 carefully so we didn’t get caught up in the traffic nightmare. The worst of the traffic would be late morning and late afternoon, and since it would be mid afternoon that we would be traveling through Welfleet, we shouldn’t have any problem.
After passing through Welfleet under light traffic conditions (heading south-northbound was a traffic jam) we wanted to make a quick stop at First Encounter Beach. There wasn’t much happening at FEB, so Tom decided to drive to our next location; Nauset Beach (aka North Beach). We assembled at the most southern part of the beach parking lot and walked through the dunes to the beach. Almost immediately, we all picked up on the numerous Gannets, laughing Gulls and Terns flying outside off the beach.

     With the Terns came the first Jaeger, followed by more. One Parasitic, a juvenile flew close along the beach giving everyone there a fabulous close up view as it passed to the south.

     Jen spotted a group of one hundred Scoters rafted on the water just outside the breakers. The group was made up of mostly White-winged and lesser amounts of Surf Scoters. Carl called out that he had a small flock of Common Scoters flying just outside the beach line.

    More and more sea birds passed by: Gannets, Terns, Jaegers, and more Greater Shearwaters with a few Cory’s. We spent a wonderful hour at North Beach, and since the day was beginning to wind down, we wanted to end the day in a nice quiet area. We all started down Route 28 for Chatham.

   Our last destination was the upstairs observation deck at the Chatham Commercial Pier Fish Packing Bldg. overlooking south Chatham Harbor. Since this is home for the fishing fleet, and all the off-loading of their catch is at these docks, this area is a magnet for Grey Seals, Lesser black-backed, Glaucous and Iceland Gulls in winter. The extensive flats at low tide offer Shorebirds a great opportunity to rest and feed on these sand flats.

    After a quick pit stop in North Chatham (pit stop), we were all once again back on 28 heading south. Since Jen and I were leading the motorcade, we looked at every patch of water along the route hoping for any additional birding opportunities that could develop. As we approached the south inlet of Ryders Cove where Crowell Creek enters near 28, an area where Jen and I always stop because it is a good Shorebird (mostly Yellowlegs) roost. Looking down the shore, I noticed a large group of three to four dozen Shorebirds tucked up into the corner out of the wind near the small marshy area. There is a small road that heads down the hill which becomes a boat ramp. I turned quickly, and several cars followed me down the steep road to the bottom. Paul and Tom, Carl and Catherine kept driving south not seeing me make the drastic left turn. Out on the sandy point approx. fifty yards out the Yellowlegs were tightly packed trying to escape the wind. I started looking through all the Greater Yellowlegs searching for a Lesser. Rich called out that he found a smaller bird which turned out to be a “very puffy” Short-billed Dowitcher.

             Roosting Greater Yellowlegs with a single Short-billed Dowitcher (center)
 Soon after we all joined the others at the Chatham Pier parking lot. David had placed his binoculars on the hood of his car, when all of the sudden a juvenile Greater black-backed Gull landed on his car and began picking at his binoculars. The bird seemed quite tame, and it wasn’t until David gave it a gentle boost that the gull flew off.

     We all joined everyone on the deck and there were birds to be found. It was nice to be in a quiet spot, out of the wind, as the chill of the afternoon began to take over. In front of the deck there was a sandy point that developed from the low tide on the south side of Tern Island. A good gathering of Gulls were there including Herring and Greater black-backed Gulls, Laughing Gulls and two possible Lesser black-backed Gulls. These two gulls never gave us a better look for an ID; they were both squatting on the sand, and sound asleep with their bills tucked, chest facing us so we couldn’t see their leg and bill colors and wing projection lengths. They exhibited good field marks for Lesser: small size comparable to Herring Gull, and mid Grey mantle coloration somewhere between the Herring and Greater black-backed Gulls. Unfortunately, the two birds never moved so we never got a better look at them. Also on the sand bar were Shorebirds; Dunlin, Sanderlings, Ruddy Turnstones and approx. two dozen Oystercatchers.

     Along the eastern shore of the outer harbor large flocks of Sanderlings and Cormorants flew out of the harbor heading for the inlet. Also on the outer reaches of the harbor, a large concentration of Grey Seals were hauled out on the sandbar. Occasional Grey Seals would pop up below the deck giving everyone excellent close up views.

Just as the sun was giving us its last twinkle of light, Jen called out to me from the other end of the deck. She watched three gulls land in the small dock area below the deck. The three Gulls consisted of a Greater black-backed, a Herring and the other something different. The Gull was about the size of the Herring Gull, maybe a bit smaller. Its mantle coloration was a med/dark Gray (darker than the Herring Gull, but not as dark as the Greater black-backed). Jen mentioned that the bird appeared to have Yellow legs, and at first glance it looked perfect for a Lesser black-backed Gull. I walked off the deck to the dock area within a few yards of the gull. I took many photographs, and started to look at the gull closely. The legs (which were visible under the clear water) looked Gray with a pale tinge of flesh color or pale yellow. The wing projection was short however, making me think it was a possible Herring Gull x Greater black-backed Gull hybrid. I figured the best thing to do was to send the images of the bird to Patrick Comins ( a gull expert) when we got home.

     With the distant sun now setting over the town, we ended our day. We all walked off the deck, and said our good-byes. Jen and I want to Thank everyone from the HAS group, it was a great pleasure to meet everyone of you! We had a great time spending a day with you all in such a beautiful birding location. I hope that we can do this again, and we look forward to meeting up with you in the field! Exceptional birding to you all!

Our Warmest Regards,

Keith and Jen Mueller Killingworth, CT

Wing tagged Herring Gull #K85/ leg marker #36/Fed. Band # 1146-31712- (info received from Dr. Ken MacKenzie, Mass Gull research project)- Gull captured, tagged, banded and released in Boston, Mass., 02/02/11, discovered by Keith and Jen Mueller, Provincetown, Mass 10/14/11. It was the first reported sighting of this gull since it was banded.

Chatham Harbor Gull
Herring x G B B, or most likely a very small “runty” Greater black-backed Gull
After Patrick Comins reviewed the images of this gull, he suggests either a hybrid
(possible hybrid Herring x Greater black-backed Gull)-


Day 5 (Oct 16) "Blow out" a little too much wind for a boat ride!

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