New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Ian Ban an Sgaden “The White Bird of the Herring” A Gaelic play

Rhode Island Pelagic, Galilee, Point Judith, November 19

     Prologue- Anxiety and the North Atlantic  Well here we are, another November pelagic trip teetering on the edge under Mother Natures thumb. The predicted force six southwesterly winds added to the anxiety and uncertainty if the trip would be cancelled. Everyone was waiting anxiously for the email on Friday noon from Carlos Pedro, the trips organizer and host if the trip was a go or not. As the minutes drew closer, my brush  strokes on a black duck decoy I was painting quickened. This is the way an artist paces; with his hands instead of his feet. Last weekend, a planned Brookline Bird Club Pelagic trip was postponed because of high winds; it was re-scheduled for Sunday, the day after this Rhode Island trip. This would have been a back-to-back pelagic weekend. But with the winds increasing on Sunday, it was doubtful this trip would happen.  If Saturday’s trip was going, it came down to a few anxious minutes. Following the marine forecast didn’t reassure my being anxious with up to nine foot seas predicted; that was pushing it!

      Noon came and went, and no email from Carlos, the trip was on. At 3:00 am, the alarm went off, and after the pot of hot coffee emptied into my thermos, I was off. Walking out of my house, I felt the cool rush of wind which was augmented by the slapping of leaves that were hurled about from the noteworthy wind!

     When I drove into the Francis Fleet dock area, there was absolutely no mistake; the wind was making its presence known. You could feel my truck move from the sporadic gusts, and leaves and small pieces of debris were having a race, tumbling across the parking lot. I sat there for a moment, and all of the Francis Fleet vessels: Admiral, Gale and Lady Francis were lit up, and loading with well-seasoned cod and totaug fisherman, oblivious to the wind.

     I was early (as I usually am), so I unloaded my gear at the Admiral Francis dock and parked my truck. Of course with the heavier wind came a temperature drop. Being November plus a force six wind equals cold, an extra layer or two of clothing just might be a good idea. A distant “slapping” sound caught my attention. The flag atop the Commercial Processing Plant was standing still straight out with only its now tattered ends tapping time with screaming wind.

     Act 1- The Reality of Apprehension   After my gear was stowed, other anxious birders began to arrive, and of course the talk of the day was dominated by the wind, with thoughts of rare bird sightings holding second. The sky exploded with an awesome array of Crimson and Violet, and you could hear quiet murmurs of “Red in the Morning” coming from the cabin of the Admiral.

     Captain Don fired up the diesels and the mates soon cast off the lines; the trip was underway. You could see the look of apprehension on the faces of a few, as we rounded the docks and the full push of the wind could be felt, and seen. Although tilting from the low tide, the green can painted a sobering image as the wind stirred up the shallow inner harbor water.

     Most of the fishing fleet were snuggly secured to their docks, maybe subliminally offering a glimpse to what the day will have in store for us.


“With half-closed eyes against the sun, for the warm wind giving thanks,
I dreamed of the years of the deep-laden schooners thrashing home from the Grand Banks.
The last lies done in the harbor sun with her catch in on time,
But I heard an old song down on Fisherman's Wharf,
Can I sing it just one time?
Can I sing it just one time?”- Stan Rogers

     The look out of the Harbor projected a less daunting scene of calmer than anticipated seas, but I knew the faux image of a calm sea was a bit of a fantasy. I have been through the gaps in the seawalls many, many times over the years; I knew what would be coming!

     In the inner Harbor of Refuge, Gannets were passing through the calmer waters inside the walls, many quite close to the Admiral. They came in a steady procession of singles, pairs and trios; a little diversion for the reality that awaited us only a few hundred yards ahead outside the seawalls.

       As we approached the channel opening in the Jerusalem wall, a distant stern trawler appeared out of the waves, heading for home. Many eyes on board the Admiral Francis grew large as the broken brittle inner harbor waves gave way to a huge confused sea!

     Act 2- Respect and the Sea  Within a second, the sea announced itself in a huge crash as the Admiral faced the first tumbling rollers of the seas opened door. The eight foot waves driven by the strong southwest wind left little doubt who was in charge. Four of us:
Doug Koch (  ), Alex Burdo ,
Brendan Murtha (   and I were standing on the bow taking pictures of the Gannets. As we approached the opening in the wall, I suggested we get the heck off the bow, as I knew what was just a moment or two ahead of us. As I scrambled down the port side of the bow, the Admiral took its first plunge into the trough of these giant waves sending huge clouds of spray into the air. Reaching the side of the cabin, I looked back to see Alex engulfed in a huge cloud of salt spray, than another one! When I saw him a few moments later, he was soaked, but being young, he just shook it off and was actually amused by it! Good for you Alex! Doug and Brendan escaped down the starboard side before the wave hit. As we were slamming into the first series of waves, I saw the first of three quick views of Cory’s Shearwaters flying across the outer Galilee Wall to the east. I soon lost them in the sun and distant waves.

    The stern trawler came closer to the Admiral, and you could see this large vessel was buried in the troughs of these truck-sized waves; its windward port side “stabilizing bird” was deployed counterbalancing the winds lateral pushing force.

“Now back when this earth was a silver blue jewel
and back when your grandfather's father was young,
men of these shores made and gave up their lives pulling up fish from the sea.”

“It's the same damned ocean that keeps them alive,
it will swallow you up, it will let you survive.
It will heal you and steal you and take you away
like a note in a bottle with nothing to say”- James Taylor

     As we passed through the seawall gap, the Admiral was now committed, we were steaming for Coxes. Looking back at the Point Judith Lighthouse, the crashing waves on the center wall painted the theme for the day!

The waves crash in and the tide pulls out
It's an angry sea but there is no doubt
That the lighthouse will keep shining out to warn the lonely sailor
And the lightning strikes and the wind cuts cold
through the sailor's bones, to the sailor's soul
Till there's nothing left that he can hold except the rolling ocean“-Dougie Maclean

     I suspected that the Captain would be heading for the eastern shore of Block Island to hopefully catch a lee behind the Island than a following sea to the Mudhole and Coxes to keep the pounding to a minimum. On the way to Block Island, Gannets, Common Loons, Eiders and Scoters highlighted the crossing.


“Feel her bow rise free of Mother Sea
In a sunburst cloud of spray
That stings the cheek while the rigging will speak
Of sea-miles gone away”- Stan Rogers


                                                             Surf Scoters


                                                              Common Loon

      A Wind Intermezzo-  As we approached Block Island and the North Light came into view, the wind and sea welcomed the Admiral with a less overwhelming presence, a gift from the high cliff side facade of eastern Block Island. There was a good flight of Loons this morning including this pair of Common Loons.

Gannets flew across the north rips, a place I have fished for Stripers for many years. The birds flew along the shore of block, often highlighted against the bluff faces of the Island. Many of these Gannets flew over the Admiral, offering excellent underside views of these spectacular birds.


     When we were just offshore from the Southeast light, two small flocks of Scoters including these five Surf Scoters followed the shoreline to quieter waters in the lee of Block.

     Approaching the southeast rip, the Captain turned the vessel slowly east crossing over the huge swells that were tumbling over the rip; we were back into the grasp of the sea once again!

Act 3- Appearances are Deceiving  Surrounded by ten foot plus waves, the Admiral Francis steamed east heading of the outer codfishing ledges. With the following sea, the vessel traveled under a misleading headway, which was brought back to reality with every fifteen foot rogue wave that passed the port and starboard sides of the boat.

     Within a short time, the first Greater Shearwater of the day was spotted a few hundred yards off the port side, and then flew in the direction of the boat passing a short distance outside the vessel heading east crossing the bow………

    ……followed soon after by a Red–throated and a Common Loon. 

     While the Captain matched the wave movements from the wheelhouse, a cry came out from the lower deck of another Shearwater flying off the starboard bow. Just as we lost sight of the bird in the glistening sun, it was identified as a Cory’s Shearwater, the first one spotted off shore. The bird displayed the species typical wider wings, blunted at their tips, and a larger head and bill.

     A second Greater Shearwater came from the stern, passed overhead and flew along the portside of the vessel.

     I was talking with Doug, and he pointed to the port side as a small pod of Common Dolphins were breaking the surface fifty yards off the bow. I immediately looked down over the bow, expecting the Dolphins to re-appear below me riding the bow wake. I readied my camera  and sure enough, that is just what they did! Since I had my 100-400mm lens, I wasn’t sure if I could capture the Dolphins in such a close proximity.  Here are two images of one of the Dolphins.

 Doug getting ready for a shot as another large wave passes us by. Block Island in the distance

                                         (from l to r) Brendan , Alex and Doug

     Act 4- Reality Rolls at the Surface  With a few miles, and Block Island behind us, it was becoming quite clear, the situation wasn’t improving. In fact, it was getting worse. The waves were growing, and the distance between the waves was shrinking. Huge rogue waves were becoming more frequent, and the Captain had to tack his course once and a while to hold the line. With the slight change in course came the heavy pitch and yaw, and of course the significant bow drop as it entered these deep wave troughs. Simply, it was time to turn around and head back, the outer codfishing ledges were not a possibility let alone a reality. The Captain covered a lot of sea surface to find the right passage to turn the vessel around. When this was accomplished, the game had changed. The ride back to Block was no longer a barely comfortable ride, it was now a “hang on, its gonna get rough” amusement park ride, complete with the bow and stern  rising and falling fifteen to twenty feet out and into the waves all the while it pitched and yawed ten feet side to side. The timing of the ride back was interrupted in measured intervals as the Captain throttled-down as high crowned rogue waves passed under the Admiral causing the vessel to heave high out of the water bow first followed by the stern. Every time the Captain throttled-down everyone hung on, because we knew what was coming.

     As the Captain and everyone on board found their groove, one of the mates started chumming, tossing over handfuls of chopped beef suet. Within minutes, the Gulls arrived finding the floating morsels of suet with accuracy. Soon a few dozen Gulls and Gannets were following the stern of the vessel, and I spotted a single Black-legged Kittiwake following up the line of gulls, but keeping a distance. This species is a very exciting Gull for me, and my favorite pelagic Gull species along with the Bonaparte’s Gull. This Kittiwake made a few passes at the peripheral of the chum line, and soon faded into the horizon.

                           The first Kittiwake to visit the chumline (top right)

    Phil Rusch took over the chumming, and his efforts were rewarded with a large gathering of Gulls and Gannets.

"if disappointed in its attempt, you will see it rise by continued flappings, shaking its tail sideways the while"-  John James Audubon


     As we closed the gap to Block Island, we had a large following of very anxious and hungry Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls and Gannets, mostly adults.

     A large scrap freighter appeared in the distance along with a pair of adult Black-legged Kittiwakes. The two birds stayed with the chum line for half an hour often disappearing from view only to emerge again. A few times the birds passed closely to the stern of the vessel, and also landed on the sea with the other Gulls. This is a bit unusual because my experiences with Kittiwakes while codfishing in the spring and fall have shown that they are usually timid about associating with larger Gulls and often avoid them or leave the area when they show up. We were all happy that these two stayed with us.

                                                      Thats an interesting pose!

     When Block Island was closer in our view, the Kittiwakes left the area, and didn’t see them again.

     Act 5- Behind the Wind  Reaching the lee a mile out from Block Island’s southeast corner, the high crowned rollers were replaced by a tempered sea which was  a welcomed relief by many on the vessel. The Captain announced that he was going to anchor the Admiral in these relatively subsided seas and continue the chum line.

     As the vessel maneuvered to secure the anchor, a single Razorbill was seen flying by the stern of the boat a hundred yards out.

     When the anchor finally grabbed hold of the bottom, the large gathering of Gulls and Gannets were still present both in the air and on the water. With every handful of suet tossed into the sea, frenzied birds struck the sea sending crowns of splash into the air while arguing with each other for every scrap of food floating on the water.

With the Gulls came the magnificent Gannets, plunging into the sea a few yards off the stern of the boat, only to surface so close you could almost reach over the rail and touch one. The Gannets entertained all of us with their sea worthy life style from their large wingspans gliding effortlessly in the wind, their exciting plunge-diving postures falling like rockets from the sky and their indifference to the turbulent sea seemingly unaffected by the strong winds and currents. Gannets in all cyclical plumages were present  offering the eyes a feast of plumage combinations.


“The flight of the Gannet is powerful, well sustained, and at times extremely elegant. While traveling, whether in fine or foul weather, they fly low over the surface of the water, flapping their wings thirty or forty times in succession, in the manner of the Ibis and the Brown Pelican, and then sailing about an equal distance, with the wings at right angles to the body, and the neck extended forwards. But, reader, to judge of the elegance of this bird while on wing, I would advise you to gaze on it from the deck of any of our packet ships, when her commander has first communicated the joyful news that you are less than three hundred miles from the nearest shore, whether it be that of merry England or of my own beloved country. You would then see the powerful fisher, on well-spread pinions, and high over the water, glide silently along, surveying each swelling wave below, and coursing with so much ease and buoyancy as to tempt you to think that had you been furnished with equal powers of flight; you might perform a journey of eighty or ninety miles without the slightest fatigue in a single hour. But perhaps at the very moment when these thoughts have crossed your mind, as they many times have crossed mine on such occasions, they are suddenly checked by the action of the bird, which, intent on filling its empty stomach, and heedless of your fancies, plunges headlong through the air, with the speed of a meteor, and instantaneously snatches the fish which its keen sight had discovered from on high. Now perchance you may see the snow-white bird sit buoyantly for awhile on the bosom of its beloved element, either munching its prey, or swallowing it at once. Or perhaps, if disappointed in its attempt, you will see it rise by continued flappings, shaking its tail sideways the while, and snugly  covering its broad webbed feet among the under coverts of that useful rudder, after which it proceeds in a straight course, until its wings being well supplied by the flowing air, it gradually ascends to its former height, and commences its search anew. In severe windy weather, I have seen the Gannet propelling itself against the gale by sweeps of considerable extent, placing its body almost sideways or obliquely, and thus alternately, in the manner of Petrels and Guillemots; and I have thought that the bird then moved with more velocity than at any other time, except when plunging after its prey.“- John James Audubon

Photos studies of Gannets from the stern of the Admiral Francis……..


Second Year......

Third Year.......

First Year........

Adult and First Year......

     While we were enjoying the steady procession of feeding Gannets, a second Razorbill an immature, flew in and landed in the chum line fifty yards off the stern. Every one had great looks at this chunky little alcid.

      Intermission-  When the Razorbill landed, I started thinking. On other pelagic trips I made a few decoys to float in the chum line for two reasons; to help attract birds (hopefully rarer species) to the chum, and the other to add a different flavor to seabirding, and of course to add a bit of fun. In the other pelagic trips from summer, I carved a Great Skua, Greater Shearwater, Pomarine Jaeger, Little and Sabines Gull (see earlier posts on this blog). For this trip I carved a small group of eight alcids: two Razorbills, two Common Murres, two winter Puffins, a single Dovekie and Thick-billed Murre, and a Black-legged Kittiwake.

The Recipe.....

Starting with a little "Inspiration" (first CT. Record, Jan. 2011).....

    Add a little wood.....

    .........add a little oil paint....

   ............add a little sea water!

      When the Razorbill landed, I immediately decided to send a couple of decoys into the sea and if another alcid flew by it would land with the decoys. Since I am collecting images for a future book project featuring one of my carved birds in the company of its wild counterpart, this might be a perfect opportunity. With Brendan’s help, we sent the Razorbill and the Common Murre into the waves.

     After the decoys floated for a while I decided to pull them back into the boat. Just as I was ready to wind in the line, Carlos who didn’t know that I had put out the two decoys, looked over the railing and started back to the cabin mentioning he wanted to get his camera to photograph the two alcids swimming behind the boat. Suddenly it occurred to him that the two alcids were made from wood and oil paint. He smiled as he told me that he was fooled by the decoys, which I greatly appreciated.

     Act 6- A Gift on Wings  While we watched the continued Gannet and Gull Show, one of the mates added frozen Spearing fish to the chum tossing’s. Carlos who was standing next to me at the stern rail, shouted out that he found a White-winged Gull. Pointing out the Gull, it flew closer to the stern and immediately it was obvious the gull was a first cycle Iceland Gull, another exciting Gull species. The Gull offered wonderful close-up looks for everyone often flying within a few feet of the stern and also landing on the sea.


“Look at the way I glide
Caught on the wind's lazy tide
Sweetly how it sings
Rally each heart at the sight
Of you silver wings”- Neil Diamond


  I like this shot, and appreciate the tenacity of this Iceland Gull stealing a piece of fish from the Herring Gull

     A single Laughing Gull appeared and joined the Gannets and other Gulls including the Iceland and took advantage of the food handouts.


     Three more Greater Shearwaters followed the chum line and also entertained everyone swirling by the back of the vessel and landing with the Gulls who were busy gobbling the small frozen fish.

     While Doug and I were standing by the stern rail taking as many images as the opportunities presented themselves, John Vanderpoal ( ) exclaimed that he found a first cycle Lesser Black-backed Gull. The Gull was sitting on the water with the other Gulls and took flight from time to time giving everyone excellent looks as well.

          A good comparison.....Lesser Black-backed (above) Greater Black-backed (below)

      Finale-   The Captain announced that it was time to head home for Galilee. As the anchor was raised, with the rumbling of the diesels, the bow turned to starboard and the Admiral began to make headway. With Block Island now on the port side, most of the seabirds dispersed, but a few followed behind still waiting for that last handout.

     The hour and a half ride back was almost  a mirror of the mornings ride out, except for the following sea.  Gannets, Gulls, Loons and Scoters were visible along the entire ride in and provided everyone with binocular opportunities while relaxing from a very bumpy day.

     When the Admiral approached the entrance to the Harbor of Refuge the scene was identical to the morning; crashing waves over the seawalls and Gannets inside the Harbor of Refuge. Along the beach a modest sized flock of Gannets were feeding and could be seen plunging into the bay in a spectacular show in the shadow of the Point Judith Lighthouse.

                                              Red-throated Loon

     Epilogue-  When the Admiral was secured to the dock, many on board sighed a bit after a long day bouncing around on a very rough sea. Although this trip may have fallen short for those looking for “listing rarities” , I found this trip as one of the best pelagics that I have been on. The highlight for me was experiencing these spectacular birds especially the “White Bird of the Herring” at a very close range giving me a more profound and detailed look into their very specialized life styles. Thank You Carlos for again hosting such a great pelagic, can’t wait until March…..or maybe a January trip??

Keith Mueller     Killingworth, CT

This official species list was formulated by the upper deck birders and many of these birds were not seen by the lower deck birders.

Results of our rough day at sea-

400 + Northern Gannets
     7    Greater Shearwaters
     2    Manx Shearwaters
     1    Cory’s Shearwater (my addition)
     9    Red-throated Loons  (my addition)
     16  Common Loons  (my addition)
     7    Common Eider (my addition)
     43  Scoters (mostly Common)  (my addition)
     1    Ring-necked Duck (my addition)
     11  Red-breasted Mergansers (my addition)
     5    unidentified small flock Shorebird species (probably Sanderling/Dunlin) (my addition)
     2    Dovekie
    10   Razorbills
     3    Large Alcid Sp.
     1    Iceland Gull
     3    Lesser-black Backed Gulls
     5    Black-legged Kittiwake

In and around Galilee Harbor-

200 + Common Eider
     3    Cory’s Shearwater (my addition)
     3    Red-throated Loons (my addition)
     5    Common Loons  (my addition)
   42    Bonaparte's Gulls

    31   Scoters (mostly Common) (my addition)
    13  Bufflehead   (my addition)
     2    Sanderling
     1    Purple Sandpiper
     1    Ruddy Turnstone

      17 Black ducks  (my addition)
  30 + Northern Gannets putting on a diving show.

Addendum- A little bit easier pace.....

Sunday morning, Nov. 20-  Jen and I took a ride around in the morning and here are a few highlights:

Yellow-breasted Chat at Hammonasset Park-

Hutchinson’s Canada Goose, Mackenzie Reservoir-

Ruddy Ducks were seen at every location (such as these at Greenbackers Farm Pond, Durham) and also Mackenzie Res, Pistapaug Pond., Wallingford, and Bishops Pond, Meriden.

Green-winged Teal- Bishops Pond, Meriden, CT

Mallard x British Call Duck hen hybrid, Canada Goose (not a highlight, just an image I like) and juvenile Black Duck, Lyman Orchards Pond.

Keith and Jen Mueller     Killingworth, CT