New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Provincetown Seabirding- "Follow the Gannets and Whales"

     Part 1- "The Jaeger Show"! - Saturday, Sept. 29, Provincetown, Mass- My friend Tom Robben was again asked by the Hartford Audubon Society to lead another birding group to Cape Cod this year. Last years attempt at finding a late season Sabine's Gull off Provincetown was unsuccessful, but only for locating the bird, not for the great time everyone had seawatching along the coast.  )  Many of the birders stated that they checked off a few new "lifers" for their lists and they were happy! This year Tom decided to try a bit earlier for the Gull. Tom and I had been on three earlier seabirding/whale watching trips to Stellwagen with hopes of finding that rare transient pelagic Gull (see earlier reports from this Sept).

     What is the motivation behind finding a Sabine's Gull? Since we have both seen this Gull before, the motivation was (and is) to add just a bit of additional excitement and intrigue to the trips. Seabirding by itself is quite the adrenaline rush all on its own, but for me having a "focused species" in mind is like adding that single highlighted brush stroke to a near-perfect painting; it just needed that one little touch!

     Tom planned the trip a little earlier than last years trip, this time pushing it ahead to late September. Although considered a bit late for Sabine's Gull, you never know. In fact an adult Sabine's Gull was seen on the same Saturday off Eastport, Maine. Tom put together a well thought out plan for the Provincetown trip for the Hartford Audubon ( ). The trip this year would be concentrated around a whale watching trip on the Dolphin X boat. Tom arranged to have renowned Ornithologists', Biologists' and birding experts such as Guy Tudor,  Andrew Vallely and John Ascher on the boat.  Tom invited Jen and I  back again this year to help out with the spotting, and were excited to work together with Tom and Guy. Tom divided up the boat into three areas of coverage. Tom worked the upper deck with Capt. George and John Conlon the Naturlist and birder for the Dolphin fleet, Guy worked the stern and port and starboard sides, and I of course would take up my usual place as the figurehead on the pulpit- I wouldn't miss it!

     Jen and I met John last year on the Dolphin X while we were on a late October whale watch. John and I traded sightings on the vessel; he pointed out the Jaegers for me, and I the early Fulmars for him. That was a great day, we had many Fulmars, and plenty of Jaegers to enjoy. )

     John is a great Naturalist and birder. I appreciate his passion for what he does, and I especially appreciate his excitement when birds are spotted! I also appreciate that he emailed me last year while Jen and I were on our way up to the Cape (which included a trip on the Dolphin X) that he had spotted a Sabine's Gull a day earlier! Unfortunately, the wind was blowing near gale when we got there; no whale trip.

     As usual, the weather! -  The weather is always difficult to predict, just wait a few hours and it will change! But one thing you can count on. When you are planning a trip like this, the weather is usually spot on! All week Tom and I watched the weather and the words rain and wind were consistent on the forecast. Tom's stress level went up a bit with each new forecast; do we go, postpone or cancel? Because he had twenty people signed on to this trip he needed to make sure his decision was right. I on the other hand take the forecast with a grain of sea salt. Unless they are forecasting a "nor'easter", a hurricane or a gale, I go and deal with it later. Being on boats for most of my life, you take what comes and prepare for it, and if the Captain cancels, find something else to do. A few people cancelled, but the trip was a go. Besides, unless it was really windy, the boat would sail in the rain, they have a full canopy on the upper deck of the Dolphin X.

     The weather kept changing with each marine forecast updating for Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The outlook went  from heavy rain and strong Easterly winds, to showers and windy, to possible showers to moderate wind, back to strong Easterly with drizzle to patchy fog, back to rain......etc. I had also privately chartered a boat for Sunday morning for a handful of birders to go seabirding. I wasn't concerned about the rain, but watched the wind carefully. Both days Northeast to East winds were forecasted from 10 to 15 knots with higher gusts for Saturday (perfect for Seabirding off Race Point), and dropping off a bit for Sunday. It was the Captain's call.

     Friday we were all leaving for the Cape: Tom would be picking up Guy at the New London ferry in CT, and Jen and I had a little business in Rhode Island before heading up to the Cape. And as forcasted it was raining- often hard at times. I wasn't concerned, I had a feeling we would get a little break in the weather for Saturday which forecasted the most wind and rain. Well it rained steady all day with occasional downpours. We arrived to the Cove Motel in Orleans just before dark, and guess what; it was still raining hard! Nothing like unpacking your car in the pouring rain a few hours before a scheduled birding outing. After unpacking, Jen and I met Tom and Guy for dinner at a local Thai restaurant. I have been a fan of Guy's work having seen his bird art through the years, so it was a real pleasure meeting him. It was a great time as Guy shared many of his birding adventures from a long and illustrious career studying and painting birds.....and it was still raining!

     Tom designed the trip around the 9:45 trip on the Dolphin X whale watch, and everyone would meet at the dock at 8:30. He also planned an early seawatch from Herring Cove Beach at 6:15 am and all that were interested would meet there before going to the docks. Our alarm went off at 4:00 am, and a quick look out the window to the swimming pool showed those little circles dancing on the water; it was still raining! It wasn't raining hard, but it was raining. I kept telling Jen that we were going to get a break with the rain, and she of course just gave me "the look"- that powerful and humbling statement without even uttering a single word!

     Driving north of Route 6 the rain continued all the way. When we crossed the Truro line, it began to pour and lightning filled the pre-dawn sky. It didn't look promising but I was still confident the rain and weather would break, Jen was quiet! At 6:00 am we pulled into the parking lot at Herring Cove Beach just before it started getting a bit lighter. The rain continued but it had dropped off a bit to a heavy sprinkle. At 6:20 Tom and Guy and another car pulled up next to us while we were peering thorugh our open windows with our binoculars. They asked if we were with the Hartford Audubon birding group. I introduced myself and they did as well. These two ladies Marcia Reno and Elizabeth Nordell braved the harsh weather to join everyone for the dawn seabirding vigil. As dawn officially broke, the sky lightened and the rain stopped!! Fearing 'the look" again, I kept the "I told you so" to myself.   Herring Cove Beach-

     Birds began to move in the emerging light, mostly Terns, Gulls and distant Gannets. Almost immediately, four Jaegers appeared from Race Point and the Jaeger show had begun!

       This pair of Parasitic Jaegers were relentless on the Terns-

       Love these upside-down maneuvers-

        Jaegers continued harassing the Terns coming mostly from Race Point. The Gannets began moving heading northerly for Race Point, as well as a few White-winged Scoters and Red-breasted Mergansers. I was looking hard for Red-necked Phalaropes, and did spot them three times. One group had five birds, one group of three and a single bird passed by heading towards the Point. As usual a few Forster's Terns flew along the beach and Grey Seals appeared once and a while following closely along the beach keeping all of us entertained.

     While we were watching the Seals, a pair of Parasitic Jaegers were chasing Terns sixty yards off the beach-


      After a half an hour of "Jaeger watching" at Herring Cove Beach, we decided to head over to Race Point Beach for a different seawatch perspective. Since the birds we watched at Herring Cove Beach were all heading north towards Race Point, it would afford us a better and closer viewing location. Unfortunately, it started to rain again! When we drove into the parking lot of Race Point Beach the light rain had morphed into a steady shower.

     Although standing in the rain so early in the morning was not that appealing, the distant sound of waves breaking on the beach was compelling. We all walked down the path between the dunes and started scoping the distant flocks of birds swirling over the breaking sea. Suddenly cries of "Cory's" and "Great Shearwater" were called out, while "Jaeger" came from others. A birder walked up and introduced himself, he was also looking closely at the flocks of birds out over the ocean. He said he was here as a vacationing birder from Finland, and his name was Mika Ohtonen. By then two other birders showed up that were part of Tom's assembled team; Ornithologist Andrew Vallely and Biologist John Ascher. I mentioned to Mika that he should join us on the Dolphin X if he wanted to have a great seabirding experience. He seemed interested and we would most likely see him there. After a short discussion with directions to MacMillans Wharf with Mika, Tom and his team headed over to the Wharf.

     "Provincetown Harbor, The Dolphin X" - The rain started to pour again. I stopped by the Dolphin Fleet office to make sure the trip wasn't cancelled, which it wasn't. I told Tom the good news and we all parked our cars in the Town lot. As we started walking down the pier to line up at the Dolphin X,  and as almost on cue; the rain stopped! The wind was light to moderate northeasterly which left the water in the harbor still. The forecasted 15 knot winds with higher gusts were just words on a forecast sheet, it was evident by the calm harbor and dropped flags. But, even though the harbor was calm, it was a bit misleading, I knew the water off Race Point and Stellwagen would be eye opening for many on board.
      John Ascher (left) and Andrew Vallely (right) take the opportunity to scope the harbor area before we boarded the Dolphin X-

     Everyone from the Hartford Audubon arrived and at 9:30 we started boarding the Dolphin X. Jen and I walked out onto the pulpit, while Tom, Guy, Andrew and John walked up to the upper deck. Marcia, Elizabeth and all the other HAS members scattered all over the vessel. Everyone was excited to get underway!  

     John and I talked a bit catching up from last year, and he mentioned that the offshore wave buoy was showing six-foot seas. I knew that would make for an interesting ride for many "new" seabirders and whalers on the vessel when we rounded Race Point!

      Tom on the upper deck near the wheelhouse showing off his new Canon IS binoculars-  

       Capt. George at the helm (photo courtesy Tom Robben)-

           Naturalist and birder John Conlon-

      The horn blew, the lines cast off and the Dolphin X steamed out of the Harbor. As it passed the breakwater, the Cormorant roost was nearly empty; the usual "carpet of Cormorants" was out to sea fishing. A quick look through the remaining Double-crested Cormorants revealed two immature Great Cormorants.

     Even though it had stopped raining, there was a bit of light fog over the sea. This image was taken off Long Point-

        As we passed by Wood End, this pair of Parasitic Jaegers shadowed the vessel-

     And suddenly, the sun came out (for a few minutes)! Three Cory Shearwaters were sitting on the water directly in the path of the boat. They took off and flew ahead of the vessel-

      Gannets were passing by in good numbers. This group had birds in first year, second, third and adult plumages-

      Two more Parasitic Jaegers appeared off the bow; one in regular plumage and one a dark morph (my favorite Jaeger plumage)-

     The two birds are following a school of small fish. The dark morph Jaeger zeroes in on the school......

       ......and makes an attempt to grab a fish ......

      ......but is unsuccessful! The second Jaeger follows the school......

      ......and makes a plunge.....

        .....and also misses!

      A few studies of both birds-


         "Find the Whales, you've found the Shearwaters"! - The vessel steamed along paralleling the beaches at five hundred yards from shore. Gannets, Terns and of course Jaegers were keeping everyone on board busy. In the distance off Race Point, someone spotted a few whale blows, and the boa set a course for the whales. When the Dolphin X passed Race Point, Cory's Shearwaters appeared appeared flying by the bow-

      The bird show was steady especially with Gannets like this third season bird.......

     .......and so did the Jaegers, like this immature.....

         ......and a few Greater Shearwaters were seen like this handsome tube nose sitting on the sea. It stayed tight allowing the vessel to come very close (for great looks) before it took off-

       In the distance just northeast of Race Point, a flock of Cory Shearwaters were gathered together resting on the sea. Capt George directed the Dolphin X towards the flock offering everyone on board  fantastic looks. Thank You Capt. George! There were approx three dozen Cory's in this flock; many grouped together and many loosely formed and spread out.

(Note- although the birds looked very close to shore, they were actually about a quarter of a mile from the beach. It is an illusion result from a telephoto lens)-

      Heading Northeast towards a distant pod of whales, there were scattered Cory's both resting on the water and flying by the vessel. Suddenly a small Shearwater appeared; a Manx, the first one of the day. Here it flies by with the Cory's. The smaller, much faster and maneuverable Manx soon left its larger cousin behind. This is a good image for size comparison-

       Another Cory's

      The numbers of Manx Shearwaters increased the closer we approached the whales. Most of the Manx Shearwaters crossed by very close to the boat giving us spectacular looks-

      Heading farther northeast off Race Point Beach a second raft of Shearwaters-

      As the Captain steered the Dolphin slightly towards the Shearwaters, another dark Parasitic Jaeger crossed the bow-

      This raft of Shearwaters had nearly seventy birds......

      ......mostly Cory's. But looking closer, the group had about a half dozen Great and Manx each in the flock-

     More Manx-

      The first pod of Humpbacks surfaced, this one on its back-

        The surfacing Whales attracted the birds such as the Manx-

     ......and then came Laughing Gulls....

      ......and more Manx-

        Good shots of the baleen of feeding Humpbacks- 

       Laughing Gulls searching for fish that escape the whales baleen-

     Manx Shearwater-

        I like this shot if a Manx skittering over a cresting wave-

         Diving under for fish-      

        Another Greater Shearwater-

        The pulpit is always a popular spot! We are all looking at a Manx Sheawater leading the vessel just off the bow (photo courtesy Tom Robben)-

       This Report on "Older Posts" below right-