New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Snow at dawn, Snow at Dusk, a little Ice in the Middle

Rhode Island- Cape Cod Weekend, November 26 and 27.

     Saturday, November 26-  Late November/early December on the Cape means Alcids are on the move; my favorite birding time of year! After a wonderful Thanksgiving with our families, Jen and I made plans for a nice birding weekend on the outer Cape. Having a room credit at the Hyannis Hampton Inn (left over from the cancelled BBC pelagic trip) we decided to leave early Saturday morning and bird along the way starting in Rhode Island. We were on the road at 4:30 am with our first stop being our favorite Rhode Island birding spot: Beavertail Point.

     The land design of Beavertail Point is a large “finger” projecting into the sea with the “west passage” of Narragansett Bay on the starboard side of the point and the “east passage” on the port side. Morning flights of waterfowl and storm driven sea birds fly closely to the Point often rafting close to shore on either side. One of the other advantages to the “Point” is the appealing lees (on either side) that offers birds (and birders) refuge from the icy cold winds of winter storms.  I have a passion for Lighthouses and often include them in my waterfowl paintings. Since Beavertail Lighthouse was the first Lighthouse built in Rhode Island and the Third Lighthouse built in the United States, Beavertail is a very special place; especially at dawn.

      As the embers of dawn ignited the sky, Scoters (mostly Surf) silhouetted against that brilliant glow, began rafting off the Point arriving in singles, pairs and small groups.

     While the Scoters continued arriving and joining the small raft....... 

                                        pair of Common Scoters

                     came a few flocks of Common Eiders………

……..and a few Harlequin ducks. 

     At 7:00 am, I was standing on the lower exposed ledges, below the high tide mark watching the Scoters swimming over the gentle surf when I suddenly heard the raucous calls of Crows coming from above and behind me at the Lighthouse. I recognized those angry and excited calls having heard them so many times. My first thought was that the Crows were harassing a Red-tailed Hawk that may have wondered over the Park. I turned around, looked up in time to see three Crows flying around the cupola of the lighthouse’s lantern room. They began to dive at the weathervane on top of the cupola. A very profound moment of realization overwhelmed me as the source of the Crows aggression became a reality. Perched on top of the weathervane was a spectacular Snowy Owl! I immediately turned to Jen to point out the bird just as she was turning to see what the source of the commotion was. Jen has never seen a Snowy Owl, and this bird offered her a wonderful gift.

    The Owl was firmly perched on the thin edge of the fletching on the arrow of weathervane now tarnished green from age and patina. The arrow was pointing south, perhaps an ironic symbol of the Snowy Owls sporadic winter irruption to New England. The Crows soon abandoned their harassment of the Owl, but maybe for just a short reprieve; the Crows flew a short distance perching on the wires and small trees nearby.

     The Owl must have just flown in, most likely seeking refuge from being chased by the Crows. (Ironically again-It was reported later that a Snowy Owl was seen at 6:30 am perched atop the Newport toll plaza). As it perched on the narrow metal weathervane, the Owl was obviously stressed and exhausted; its gape was wide, its eyes large and wide, and its wings were dropped at its sides appearing heavy and cumbersome. The Owl continually looked around in all directions, including up and down searching and anticipating another assault from those dark marauders that for the moment at least were gone.

    As Jen and I watched this beautiful Owl now bathed in the warm ambient post dawn colors, we shared this glorious sighting with many “morning walkers” whose curiosity naturally got the best of them. Wondering why at 7:00 am on a Sunday morning I was taking pictures of the top of the Lighthouse and why Jen was excitedly commenting about the top of the Lighthouse while looking through our scope would prompt a bit of curiosity! With a big smile on my face, I just pointed to the top of the cupola and asked them if they had ever seen a Snowy Owl? No one ever had, and offered our scope to all of them, and they were thrilled! This was the first Snowy Owl that they had ever seen, and they really enjoyed seeing the bird, and like me especially appreciated the bird perched atop the Lighthouse cupola shown here in these digi-scoped images.

         After a half an hour, the Owl began to relax. It regained a healthy stature tucking its wings up naturally and effortlessly, its posture strong, and its eyes relaxed and aware!

      Jen and I watched the bird for another half hour, and then decided to leave, continuing onward to Cape Cod. As I started taking down the scope to prepare it for traveling, the Owl picked that moment to leave the weathervane. I just saw it open its wings and fly off the cupola, behind the Lighthouse tower of course! I waited for the bird to emerge from either side of the building but it never did. Walking a short distance down the road to the west of the Lighthouse, the Owl was perched on one of the guardrail posts on the edge of the road.

     I took a couple of shots, and my camera quit…..what a time for that to happen! I didn’t realize that I had taken so many images that morning, my flash card was full. Just as changed the card, the bird took off from the post. I managed to turn my camera on just in time as the Owl flew across the yard heading for the small restroom buildings…….

…….and landed on top of one of them!

     I walked back around the Point to my truck which was parked “ironically” along the split rail fence nearby to the small buildings. I hoped that the Owl would still be there when I got back and also that Jen saw the Owl. When I reached my truck, Jen was watching the Owl and had seen it fly in and commented to me how large that bird really was! I took a few more pictures of this breathtaking Owl, and then we said our good-byes. The Owl looked quite peaceful on the peak of the roof with its eyes closed possibly enjoying a brief nap.

     What was my profound moment of realization? - (A few years ago, I wanted to do a painting of a Snowy Owl, and made many thumbnail sketches, but I couldn’t decide on a theme. I pictured the Owl in many subject/habitat compositions, finally envisioning the Owl perched on a railing of a Lighthouse being my favorite. After many attempts, I shelved the painting; I just couldn’t grasp the design. Funny how fate can run full circle and often in reverse. This is one of those creative times for an artist when inspiration follows a concept, rather than the other way around),

     When I was back at my truck, a very pleasant man approached me and asked me what the bird was. I told him, and a big smile came across his face. We introduced ourselves, and he began to tell me a wonderful story of his father Carl a lighthouse keeper who was stationed at Beavertail. His name was Richard Chellis , and better yet, he was born in the Lighthouse and he still lives nearby and takes his morning walk around the Park. Mr. Chellis is a wonderful story teller and he fascinated Jen and me with his story of his childhood living in the Lighthouse. He is also a docent of the Lighthouse Museum, and he recommended this book: “Sudden Sea” by Rita Scottie. Thank You Mr. Chellis, I will enjoy the book!

     As we were leaving the Park, we decided to drive around again, to take a few more peeks at the Owl; who knows when we would have this wonderful opportunity again! As we drove back into the entrance road, we saw the Owl, unfortunately this time it was being chased again by the Crows. It flew across the West Passage heading for the shores of Narragansett in the area of the “clumps”. We lost sight of it, but reflected on this great experience!

      When we reached the exit to Beavertail Park, a small flock of Cedar Waxwings were hanging out in the trees.

     On our way to the Cape, we made a few other stops in Rhode Island: Fort Getty, Fort Adams, Brenton Point, Easton Beach, Second Beach, and Third Beach. In the fields surrounding Fort Getty, there were large numbers of Canada Geese. We looked through all the birds and couldn’t come up with any different species of ssp. At Brenton Point along Ocean Blvd., there were a few Common Eiders, Scoters, both Loon species, and a small flock of Harlequin ducks.
     Along the causeway entrance to the entrance of Sachuest Point NWR were the usual Common and Red-throated Loons and small flock of Buffleheads which because of the high tide were just a few yards off shore.

     Other than a few Surf Scoters off shore of Third Beach, a single Bonaparte’s Gull was feeding along the beach. Leaving Rhode Island, we were soon crossing the Bourne Bridge just before noon. As we approached the rotary at the base of the bridge, my truck hit a pothole, which offered us a new experience! As I rounded the rotary heading east along the Canal road, my truck started humming intermittently from the front end. Driving down Route 6 the humming became quite rhythmic, and was now augmented by a metallic whining sound, this is everyone’s driving nightmare. Anyone who has driven on Route 6 on the Cape knows that other than a few exits, there are not too many places to pull off the road. I reduced my speed and hugged the edge of the right lane and the percussive rhythm of my front end disappeared. Since we were going to Hyannis, hopefully (with fingers crossed) our truck could make it just to exit 6! Well, we made the Mobil Station (since the gas gauge was nearly on “E” as well) and filled up the tank. Hyannis being the largest commercialized hub on the Cape, they must have a Dodge dealership? They did, and Premier Cape Cod Dodge would be happy to take a look at the truck……at 1:00 pm! We carefully crept down 132 to the airport rotary, and checked into the Hampton Inn. To make a long story short……after three hours and $600 later (for a new front end wheel bearing), we had a new truck free from unwanted musical percussion and of course a renewed sense of confidence in our truck! 

     With only an hour and a half remaining in the day and since our initial plans had changed, we decided to stay in Hyannis and head down to Kalmus and Keyes Beaches and search for the Black-headed Gull (again). Kalmus Beach didn’t yield any unusual seasonal Gulls so we drove over to Keyes Beach. As we drove by the Beach not seeing the Gull, I noticed a small duck swimming in the outpouring very close to shore near the small jetty. I remembered the report of the Harlequin Duck and this duck resembled histrionicus. So Jen and I turned around, she dropped me off by the creek, and  she drove up to the Beach parking lot to wait for me.

     The bird was indeed the Harlequin Duck; a first year drake. It was keeping company with a pair of Mallards, and all three were swimming out and away from the jetty by the time I arrived. The three birds swam towards the beach and then mingled with a few Gulls (no Black-headed) and a small flock of Brant. I asked a birder that was there if they had seen the Black-headed Gull and he told me that they hadn’t seen it yet, in fact that is why they were there. I took a few pictures of the distant Harlequin duck.

     After taking a few images, again my camera  shut down! I know that it was a fresh card in my camera having changed it at Beavertail; it must have been the battery. The flashing battery icon appeared in my camera so I started back to the truck to replace the battery. Jen and I had planned to stay at this beach until sundown hoping that the bird would return to the small outpouring to spend the night.

     I was standing in the opened back door of the truck in the process of changing the battery, when Jen said to me, there is a smaller Gull flying around the Beach where I was just standing. My first thought was “you’re kidding me” as I turned around to look at the Gull. I recognized its silhouette; it was the Black-headed Gull! It was now leaving the beach and flying west. I closed the battery door of my camera, turned it on, and managed only one distant shot as the bird was leaving heading towards the Kennedy Compound where I lost sight of it! Note to self: keep a spare battery in my pocket instead of in my camera bag!!

     Figuring that the Gull might be going to the Osterville beaches; Craigville or Dowses, Jen and I decide to see if we could find it. Since the sun was going down, and we still had a little bit of time, we started for Craigville Beach. We stopped first at Covell’s Beach, but no Gulls. We looked down the road to Craigville Beach and saw a few Gulls flying around the parking lot. When we drove into the parking lot, we saw a small roost on the pavement at the west end of the lot. The Gulls were common species without any stand-out species (even was hoping for a Lesser Black-backed). Driving out of the parking lot we noticed a few Gulls on the beach, and a handful of Gulls perched on the rooftop of the small building and the poles nearby. We looked at the Gulls on the poles and rooftop, but only a single Ring-billed Gull was among the Herring Gulls, same for the few Gulls on the beach.

     In the spirit of the day’s events with this Gull, we decided to leave and head back to Keyes Beach and hopefully the Gull would show up again. Just as I was putting the truck in drive, Jen noticed that the Gulls on the beach were flushed by a beach walker and these birds joined up with a few other Gulls that were flying by the beach. She again noticed a Gull that was a “bit different” and pointed it out to me. Sure enough, it was the Black-headed Gull again! I grabbed my camera and fired off three quick shots through my truck window (thankfully it was open); before the bird disappeared from view behind the building we were parked behind (a similar occurrence with the Snowy Owl that morning)! By the time I released my seatbelt, stepped out of the truck, ran behind the building the Gulls were in the distance heading east!

    We were happy with this sighting, although not the best views, we both had good looks at the bird. Since we going to pass by Keyes Beach on the way back to the Hotel, we would stop and watch the sun go down at Keyes Beach…..and besides, maybe the Gull would be there waiting for us! The Gull wasn’t there, but the Harlequin returned while we were standing there, coming with fifteen yards of us.

     As we were watching the sun go down, small flocks of Brant flew in to the beach silhouetted against the gorgeous yellows and oranges of the setting sun similar to the way our day began at Beavertail with Scoters!

     The Harlequin eventually meandered around the jetty and swam towards the other jetty farther down the beach to the west. The afternoon worked out good actually. We finally saw the Black-headed Gull and had the Harlequin as well. A great end to an “almost” perfect day, less one new wheel bearing!

     Sunday morning, November 27- For Jen and I there is no better location on the Cape to start a day winter birding than MacMillans Pier in Provincetown. When we walked out of the Hotel at 5:00 am, Hyannis was blanketed in fog, not exactly what I was hoping for! Remembering my Cape Cod weather mantra, I held out for the possibility that with the colder water temps on the “northern” side of the Cape, the fog would only be covering the warmer waters of the Lower Cape area. When we approached the Welfleet area on Route 6, the stars were bright and the fog was behind us.  Wow, my mantra works!
    Rather than writing a complete report, I wanted to show this day with images and the highlights:
     We arrived in Provincetown, just as the sun announced the new day, but first, we stopped to admire Provincetown’s Christmas Tree…….something we look forward to every year! The concept is perfect…..what could be better in a fishing town than a Christmas Tree made from Lobster Traps?!  :^)

     Dawn over the Harbor…….

   While Jen and I were enjoying the birds in the Harbor with a background of dawns brilliant colors,  a photographer walked out to the end of the pier and we chatted a bit. His name was Bill Thompson  and we watched as the Harbor came to life with birds.

Red-necked Grebes. The bird in the lower image is "foot waggling" a common activity with Grebes and Loons.

                                   two hen White-winged Scoters
     To the eastern mouth of the Harbor, three very late Common Terns were feeding on  a school of probably Sand Lance joined by a few Bonaparte’s Gulls and two Laughing Gulls. The Bonaparte’s Gulls and Laughing Gulls few in close to the Pier offering great views and camera shots in the low light of the shrinking dawn.

The first Razorbills of the morning appear.......

                               Red-necked Grebe with two Razorbills

                                                      a few digi-scoped shots

                                 A hen Harlequin Duck flys by.....

A Grey Seal

      Since the Razorbills and the Murre were swimming just outside the outer pier, I thought it would be a good time to toss my five Razorbill, Common and Thick-billed Murre decoys over the pier and hopefully entice the plump little alcids closer to the pier.

     Within a few minutes the Murre started swimming closer, maybe curious about the other Murres staying close to the pier.

     The bird dove and as we were looking for it, it “popped-up” right in the decoys below us. Before Jen and I realized what had happened the Murre slowly swam away from the decoys and I managed two quick shots. Bill seemed amused by it!

Four of the Alcid decoys I carved and were used: (top to bottom)- Dovekie, Thick-billed Murre, Razorbill and Common Murre. These decoys were carved and painted in the style of , and influenced by Elmer Crowell (see Gannet decoy below).

    Since the wind was coming from the southwest which paralleled the end of the pier, it had taken a few minutes to pull the decoys away from the end of the dock in perfect position. But this is a busy working fishing pier, and with being almost on cue, five big fisherman walked up behind us while a large fishing vessel worked towards us to tie up to the pier for ice, exactly where my decoys were. With the decoys quickly retrieved up the pier, their quick soaking was a success for me, and another story to tell.
     What seemed like a few minutes later, Jen tapped me on the back and pointed to the west. It seems the large fogbank from down Cape was pulling into Port, and quickly! Within minutes we were buried in one of the thickest shrouds of fog that I had ever experienced. But the fog didn’t dampen our birding spirits….as birds continued to fly in the harbor, and swim even closer to the Pier.

                                                                Black Ducks

                                                         White-winged Scoters

                                               The Thick-billed Murre returns......

     The  fog appeared to be lifting as the sun started peeking through.

      I decided it might be a good time to drive over to Herring Cove Beach to look through the Gulls. I knew there would be  a good number of roosting Gulls there (as they usually are) but possibly increased by the heavy fog. We said good-bye to Bill (you should check out his outstanding images from the link above).  Jen and I spotted five Harlequin Ducks and a handful of Eiders and Razorbills near the wooden Fisherman’s Pier with muted views from the thickening fog. We made another stop on our way out of town at the town boat ramp and spotted three Razorbills close to shore and I took this image…....

     When we drove into the parking lot, there were a few hundred Gulls present. We started looking through all the Gulls on the beach, and my attention was focused on the seven Bonaparte’s Gulls on the water’s edge. I was hoping for that roosting Little Gull or maybe a Kittiwake mixed in with the Bonaparte’s Gulls.


     Jen (my ace Gull spotter) on the other hand started looking through the Gulls on the beach, and what seemed like only a few seconds, spotted something tucked in behind a Greater Black-backed Gull.  After looking through a handful of Greater Black-backed Gulls, I spotted the bird she discovered; it was a sleeping first cycle Iceland Gull; way to go Jen!

     The bird stayed with the other Gulls and flew around the beach a couple of times. I think this bird was looking for hand outs as it flew towards a beach walker and then returned to approach me quite closely to the point where I had to back off several times to take these images…….


     Saying good-bye to the Iceland Gull, we drove back to the Pier and found that the fog was lifting.

     The light fog paints an eerie portrait depicting the reality of life on the sea. Eva Silva one of the women of Provincetown celebrated on the building at the Fisherman’s Wharf is part of a tribute to the Portuguese community and its fishing heritage in Provincetown.  Along with the other woman pictured on this building who over the years has been the backbone of this vital fishing village, came from a long line of hard-working people, emigrating mostly from Portugal. Their families fished these waters off Cape Cod for over 200 years, building a major fishing industry and made a very important contribution to the history and culture of Provincetown.

      As the light improved, I found Razorbills, Eiders and Bonaparte's Gulls close to the piers offering wonderful views......

                                                     Courtship posture....

     Within minutes, the fog lifted and the sun returned. The harbor was again alive with birds. I wanted to try for the Brown Booby again hoping to see it on more time before the cold weather comes and the bird heads for Caribbean waters. The breakwater was much quieter than it was a month ago, now nearly deserted. There were only a few handfuls of Cormorants remaining, mostly Great Cormorants, with their white cheek spots clearly evident. Near the east end of the breakwater all by itself stood the Brown Booby. I took a few long range digi-scoped shots, not the best quality, but good enough to enjoy this wonderful bird……

      A few other images from the late morning sun…….


                                                              Adult Razorbill

     Saying our good-byes to Provincetown, we would make one more stop before heading home and (hopefully) beating the Holiday traffic. I wanted to stop at Welfleet Harbor because the end of November was always the time good numbers of Bonaparte’s Gulls were in the harbor, and Sunday morning the birds were there as scheduled.  The Gulls were loafing on the docks…….

                                   …fishing around them…….

                                            ……and just flying around.

There were two first year Gannets fishing in the inner Harbor very close to the boat ramp.

     This carved Gannet “mantle carving” is from Jen’s collection. I wanted to photograph it at Herring Cove Beach, but the fog wasn’t helpful. So with great lighting, and a few cooperating Bonaparte’s Gulls, I photographed the “mantle carving” on the dock in the harbor. I carved this standing Gannet “mantle carving” using the influence of one of America’s premiere bird carvers; Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) from Harwich, Mass. I have been profoundly influenced by the works of Mr. Crowell and consider him one of my main artistic influences in my career. I carved this bird in the classic style of Mr. Crowell’s work using the same swamp cedar wood, and implementing his very unique techniques both in the carving and painting of this bird.  It is among my favorites in Jen’s collection.

   In the harbor were also both Common and Red-throated Loons and Double-crested Cormorants.

     As we left the Cape, Jen and I talked and reflected back to the great weekend (all except the wheel bearing ordeal). Driving through Portsmouth, Rhode Island on Route 138 Jen looked over and spotted a single Snow Goose in a large flock of Canada Geese on the side of a school.


     The weekend started with a Snowy Owl at Beavertail Point, ended with a Snow Goose in Rhode Island, and an Iceland Gull in the middle. Other than the birds, hope this isn’t a view into what’s on our way!

Here are the highlights from the trip:
(Saturday morning) Jamestown, Beavertail Point- Scoter (mostly Surf) 200+, Common Eider- 36, Oldsquaw-3, Harlequin- 7, Red-breasted Mergansers-13, Red-necked Grebe-1, Horned Grebe-3, Gannet-7, large alcid (most likely Razorbill)-1, many migrating Loons (mostly Red-throated)- 40+, immature SNOWY OWL-1, Cedar Waxwings-7

Fort Getty- Coopers Hawk-2, Snow Buntings-9, Cattle Egret-1, Eider-7, Scoter-40+

Newport, Fort Adams fields- 400+/- Canada Geese (did not see anything other than regular species).

Brenton Point- Eiders-31, Harlequin Ducks-7, Scoters-24+, Common Loons-3, Bufflehead-24, Red-breasted Mergansers-3.

Easton Beach- Common Eiders-100-150 rafted offshore

Third Beach- Surf Scoters-18, Bonaparte’s Gull-1,
Newport Res impoundment- Scaup-300+, Ruddy Ducks- 17, Red-breasted Mergansers-15

(Saturday afternoon) Hyannis- Keyes Beach, first year HARLEQUIN DUCK drake-1

Osterville- Craigville Beach, winter adult BLACK-HEADED GULL

(Sunday-am) Provincetown, Macmillan Wharf- THICK-BILLED MURRE- 1, Razorbills- 25 (mostly inside the breakwater), BROWN BOOBY continues, 1 hen HARLEQUIN DUCK, Common Tern-3,  Bonapartes Gulls-11, Laughing Gulls-2, Red-necked Grebes-3, Common Loon-5 (inside Harbor), large Loon migration outside breakwater heading towards Long Point. Great Cormorants- 24+/- (on breakwater), Double-crested Cormorant-18 throughout the harbor, Common Eider- 36, White-winged Scoter- 75 (inside and outside the Harbor), dark-winged Scoters- 50 (outside the harbor), Oldsquaw- 9 (inside and outside the Harbor), Red-breasted Mergansers- 500+ (mostly outside the harbor), Ruddy Turnstone-3 (on breakwater), and Grey Seal- 6. Peregrine Falcon-1 (perched on the Pilgrim Tower).

Provincetown Harbor- Wooden Pier- HARLEQUIN DUCKS-5, Razorbills-5
Provincetown boat ramp- Razorbills- 3

Provincetown, Herring Cove Beach- 1 first cycle Iceland Gull on the beach with gull roost in front of parking lot, also 7 Bonaparte's Gulls on beach in heavy fog. Sanderling-9

Welfleet Harbor (noontime)- Bonaparte's Gulls-100+/-; feeding in the harbor near the docks, out near the breakwater, and inside along the marsh edges. Razorbill -3 (near the Commercial dock), Red-throated Loons-3, Common Loons-7, first year Gannets feeding inside the Harbor-2

Bourne, Cape Cod Canal by MMA- Common Eider-75-100, Red-breasted Mergansers-5, Common Loon-5

Rhode Island, Portsmouth- Snow Goose-1 (in a large flock of Canada Geese 250-300). Large flock of Canada Geese behind Cemetery- 400-500

Keith and Jen Mueller,

Killingworth, CT