New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Rhode Island Part 2- "Finally"!! Sea Birds off Southern New England"!- Coxes Ledge

    Wednesday, October 2, 2013- Rhode Island, on the cod boat Lady Frances to Southeast Coxes Ledge- It looks like the seabird ghost town that has plagued the offshore waters of coastal Massachusetts from New Hampshire, through Stellwagen Bank, along the eastern coast of the Cape continues. There was a small glimmer of hope when (a few) small groups of Shearwaters have been found east of Chatham, Mass. But it has been a summer of "no vacancy" over these normally seabird rich and extensive ocean real estate. It has been a summer of NO Storm-Petrels....something that is hard to imagine let alone accept. But again, I turn to the offshore waters of Rhode Island from Block Island Sound to Coxes Ledge. This area has been moderately productive with seabirds this summer including handsfull of Wilson's Storm Petrels and all four common species of  Shearwaters, Jaegers and a few close sightings of South Polar Skuas have rounded out the pelagic bird list. My two trips on the cod boat this late summer was very busy with coming and going seabirds.

     It was time to try again. I asked my Father-in-Law if he wanted to go codfishing out of Point Judith which was answered quickly "What time are you picking me up in the morning"? Dad has always been a Gloucester man, and I have always been fond of Point Judith....I have fished there since the early 80's. He of course has me beat...he was fishing in Gloucester since before I was born! But the last time we went to Gloucester ( a few weeks ago) the fishing was very slow.....and the birding was terrible!! The cod fishing reports from the Frances Fleet seemed a bit better, although there are no Haddock off Rhode Island (our favorite fish) the one hour and fifteen minute drive to the docks in Galilee seemed more appealing than the long three hour plus drive to Gloucester (plus the late afternoon rush hour congestion on 128). Point Judith seemed a little easier to do....especially after being on the water for eight hours. That three hour ride home from Gloucester is really long especially if you didn't catch many fish....or see any birds!

     I know many go on pelagic trips to enhance your lists and/or of course to hopefully come across a rarity....or two...or three!! That can really make the uncertainty of a pelagic trip that much more exciting. But to me, spending a day on a cod boat watching Shearwaters, Gannets and Fulmars in the fall and alcids in the winter is a great experience. For me, there has always been a contiguous connection between seabirds and codfishing.....each one enhances and touches the other. On Monday, a friend asked me what birds I was expecting to see? I mentioned that I was quite happy and content if the Shearwaters were around, but I really wanted to see the first early Fulmar of the season, and maybe an offshore Lesser Black-backed Gull!

     Every year at this time during the late Striped Bass run in the north and southwest rips around Block Island, the Cory's Shearwaters (usually) start to congregate here. It is a wonderful time to see good numbers of Cory's very close to Block Island. In fact over two hundred Cory's were reported late last week from the north shore of Block "shearing" over the north rip. Cory's and Sooty Shearwaters are my two favorite Shearwaters (Cory's is my favorite). Since the Sooty's have gone from this area, maybe I would be fortunate encounter a few Cory's, that would be wonderful!

     Dawn breaks over the docks in Galilee. The weather was forecasted to be sunny but warmer with breezy southwest winds 15 to 20 knots becoming steady 20 -25 in the afternoon. >

    While we were standing around swapping "the big one that got away" fishing tales from the stern of the Lady Frances, the quiet harbor erupted with Bluefish attacking a cornered school of Bunker (Menhaden)....anyone got a spinning rod and a plug?? >

   Just at 7:00 am when the Lady was set to cast off, I took my usual spot on the pulpit ready for the day to begin. This Greater Black-backed Gull landed on top of the utility pole and began preening....a good opportunity to set my camera settings.>

      Looks like these Cormorants have found the school of Bunker as your feet!! >

      Always a great way to start the day looking at the fishing vessels in the very picturesque port of Galilee >

    Heading out of the Harbor, the over-summering Kumlien's Gull was loafing on the beach at the Jerusalem town pier. This Gull has very worn and haggard plumage and by looking at it appears to be unhealthy, but it is still hanging in there! Let's hope it recovers and is with us for many years to come! >

    At the Harbor "narrows" near the rock jetty off Salty Brine Beach were four Common Loons, the first that I have seen this year in Rhode Island. >

        We passed through the gap in the Galilee walls and they were covered with the usual large number of Gulls and Double crested Cormorants. Since we passed through the eastern gap, I figured that Capt. Richie was taking us to Southeast Coxes. >

      The first Cory's Shearwaters started appearing in the distance when we were about twenty minutes outside Point Judith. Block Island was disappearing to the west as we steamed due southeast. >

     Of course we were steaming directly into the bright rising sun....but the number of Cory's Shearwaters increased as we traveled farther out and they would often cross just a few yards off the bow. This is what I was hoping for! >

     A few more Cory's passed by both close and in the distance before the first Gannet of the day came from the east. >

       Another Cory's >

      When we were about an hour out and out of sight of land, these three ducks appeared from the east. I assumed they were Scoters, but when I looked close through my binoculars, I couldn't believe it: three Wood Ducks! >

     I also spotted a handful of small Passerines flying by which I couldn't identify. >

     With still an hour to go before we reached the southeast edge of Coxes, the number and frequency of passing Cory's Shearwaters increased........

     .....and they came from all directions, all around the steaming Lady Frances. >

       The Cory's Shearwater show was fantastic.....I had already seen nearly forty of them, and still not a Greater Shearwater to be seen! >

      A pair of drake White-winged Scoters pass by from the east. Up until these Scoters, I had only seen three Surf Scoters, three "Wood Ducks" and a handful of Eider.>

      The sun got a little higher off the horizon, and the Cory's continued from all directions >

      This Cory's lifted up off the deck and passed by right at eye level... just showing off how magnificent he/she was! What a beautiful Shearwater! >

      Another Cory's comes close by the pulpit, its obvious silhouette and profile perfectly outlined by the back lit sun >

      I looked back towards the stern (I always check there as many birds sneak behind the vessel) and a Brown Thrasher appeared skimming across the waves heading towards the Lady..... made a single attempt to land on the steaming vessel, but failed and kept flying west. I would have never expected a Brown Thrasher....but with the Yellow-headed Blackbird last month, I guess any bird can show up here! >

      Finally! The first Greater Shearwater of the day. >

      And another Passerine flies over the Lady. It swings around but keeps flying west. The white rump makes identification easy; a Flicker! >

    Just as we reached Coxes, the number of Greater Shearwaters increased, and the number of Cory's decreased to very few. >

     Well, I spoke to soon as a Cory's pulls up on the stern of the now idle Lady......

     .....where it is joined by another Greater Shearwater......

     .....and another that passes close by the port side of the Lady >

     Interesting avian behavior of the day #1 - We had reached the southeast corner of Coxes and it was time to lower the anchor because of the tide. The tide wasn't running enough to drift fish, so Capt. Richie instructed his mates to set the bow anchor. Dad was ready to start fishing, but I usually wait to see what the fishing is and how the birding is (of course good birding always wins)! Everyone started fishing and the Greater Shearwaters passed by every few minutes.

     Capt. Richie came out of the wheelhouse onto the upper deck to say hello and chit-chat a bit. He told me that we were thirty-two miles out from Point Judith on the extreme southeast edge of Coxes. Capt. Richie is an excellent Captain. He knows his codfishing and he knows the water. I feel very comfortable when I am with him because of his knowledge and experience, but also because of his confidence and un-rattled demeanor....nothing seems to phase him. In all of the years that I have fished with him (and there have been many) I have never seen him lose his cool regardless of the water, weather or fishing conditions. But he also enjoys birds! I was with Capt. Richie twelve years ago when the Brown Booby made an appearance and landed on the upper rail of the Gail Frances. In fact we were talking about that when he looked to the west and spotted a bird off in the distance.

     I found the bird in my binoculars, and I said to him your are not going to believe's a Peregrine Falcon! The Falcon slowly flew from the distance towards the Lady....

     .....and even though the Falcon was over a hundred yards out from the starboard of the Lady, it started acting peculiar! It would fly a short distance and then begin hovering like a Kestrel. I probably would have expected this behavior in December assuming the Falcon was waiting on a Dovekie to surface, but this was the first of October! There are no small alcids here now, just larger Shearwaters.....probably too large for a Falcon to go after way out here on the sea! >

     The hovering continued for a few seconds, and then the Falcon would drop down and start flying horizontally about twenty yards up from the surface of the ocean. Then after a short distance, it would raise up and start hovering again, only to drop down and repeat the horizontal flight again....only to raise up and hover again.....and then the horizontal flight again. It repeated this over and over as it drifted off into the west. I looked down towards the water in the direction of the Falcon, and there it was....the Falcon was following a Greater Shearwater. They both disappeared into distance. I had never seen that before!! >

   Captain Richie couldn't believe it, he also hadn't seen that before! Fifteen minutes later.....the Falcon returned, but this time it had something in its talons.....

     .....looks like a small bird carcass...(Maybe that Flicker that passed by earlier)?? >

      It began to eat its prey in mid air while it was flying. It seems very interesting to me that it came to the boat twice, this time closer. I am starting to think that this young Falcon uses the boat to watch for tired Passerines! >

      It must have finished its meal, because whatever it was feeding on was released and it fell to the sea. >

     The Falcon made another pass towards the vessel and over the bow.....

      As I was watching this Greater Shearwater pass by the vessel.......

      The Falcon re-appeared and flew directly over the bow of the Lady.....

      .....and flew off to the south. >

     After about a half an hour of being on anchor, the fishing was slow with only a few small cod and Scup coming over the railings. I decided it might be a good time to start chumming before Capt. Richie moves his position looking for better fishing real estate. I always pay for the fishing ticket whether I am fishing or not. This way I can reserve my stern rail position (assuming I am early enough to do so) so I can run my chumline. The first few handfuls of stale bread, catfood and suet brought in a few curious Gulls like this immature Herring Gull. I am fascinated how these hawk-eyed Gulls can come out of nowhere when the chumming starts. I didn't see one Gull until I started tossing out the chum. >

     After about ten minutes as the suet and catfood drifted away and out from the stern of the vessel, Greater Shearwaters started arriving from everywhere following my chumslick right to the stern of the vessel. >

      One of these Shearwaters landed just off the stern......

      .....while the second one passed by. >

     Then a few more Cory's started appearing.....

     .....and more Greater Shearwaters >

      They followed my chumslick right up to the stern many times passing by within only a few yards! This was great!! And to think, besides Capt. Richie (who was enjoying the Shearwater show) I was the only birder on board! >

      And they kept coming!! >

     More and more Gannets appeared from all directions. >

     The Greater Shearwaters kept coming following right up my slick just like driving on a road.....

      .....and passing by really close to the hull of the vessel >

     I was watching more Shearwaters flying around the vessel, when I caught a movement off the stern. A medium sized white bird came from the chumline and passed across the stern and flew up the port side. It was a first one of the day and of the season!! It flew up the length of the vessel and disappeared to the west. That was really exciting! One of the two birds I wanted to see today. >

     I had just finished watching the Fulmar and noticed a few more Cory's Shearwaters were flying right up the chumline and also passed by closely to the stern. >

     The Greater show continued.....

      More and more Greater Shearwaters came flying up the chumline....

     .....this one came on me so fast my camera couldn't focus fast enough to keep up with it.....

      .....but it did, and the image shows how spectacular this species is. >

      I was watching this very close Shearwater pass by the stern, when I caught another movement out of the corner of my left eye...... was another Fulmar, the second of the day. This time this bird passed by the starboard side. >

     The Greater Shearwater traffic was continual......

      ......this one decided to land just outside my chumline......

      Here comes another one..... decides to land also! >

      It swam around only ten yards from the port side of the Lady! >

     It eventually swam over to the other swimming Shearwater. >

      Very streamlined silhouette. >

      The skies continued to be busy with Gannet numbers rivaling the Shearwaters. >

      Interesting plumage on this second year Gannet. >

      Oh yeah, more Greater Shearwaters continued. Captain Richie moved the vessel several times throughout the day searching for better fishing. Although I would have to start my chumline again and didn't take the Shearwaters very long to find it. >

      And many kept landing in my slick...feasting on beef suet! >

     While I was enjoying the continuous bird show and when I had to replenish my chumline, I would see how Dad was doing fishing.....and it was very slow. He had only caught one keeper cod, and a few keeper seabass and scup. He looked to me as another Greater Shearwater passed by the stern and said "It looks like you are having a better day than I am"!! I walked back to the upper deck just in time to see another Passerine fly right over the vessel. It was another Flicker....I started wondering where that Peregrine was? >

      As the Flicker flew out of sight, the Shearwaters continued....this time another Cory's. >

     I went back down to the stern to throw over a few more containers of catfood and to spoon over some more suet. I always leave my camera in my camera bag on the upper deck so it won't get splashed with chum, or clam bait or thrashing fish! Seabirding on a cod boat is not like being on a dedicated pelagic trip where everyone's gear is neat and orderly. On a codboat, all the coolers, tackle boxes and gear are strewn about everywhere similar to an obstacle course. It seems there is always a fisherman washing their hands with the hose splashing everyone and everything! I don't want my camera to get soaked or splashed with smelly sea clam bait juice....or accidentally dunk it in my chum pail when I am reaching over to scoop more out. I have found its best to leave the camera in a safe dry place.....which on a cod boat is on the upper deck!

    As the second helping of suet went over the railing.....Dad pointed out into the distance and asked me "What kind of a bird is that small one"? "Is that one of those Philopenies"?? That is Dad's way of being funny....he knows it is called a Phalarope he just likes to give me a hard time.  And....yes it was! A single distant Red-necked Phalarope crossed by at racing car speed. I didn't even instinctively grab for my camera....I shook my head and knew I left it on the upper deck. No reason to run up the stairs like an was gone as quickly as it came. Usually when I am "unarmed" with my camera on the lower deck, its usually a gorgeous Pomarine Jaeger that flies by....this is the first time with a Phalarope!

    I made it back to the upper deck, grabbed my camera and looked down at the chumline. A few more Herring and Greater Black-backed Gulls started lining up on the slick and started feeding on the suet.>

     Just in time with my camera as the third Fulmar of the day crosses the stern over the slick. >

    This Fulmar flies out then turns around.....

      .....and comes back following the chumline this time closer to the vessel. >

      I really love Fulmars.....always have.....and always will! >

     While I was watching the Fulmar, I felt a little flutter over my head as a single Yellow-rumped Warbler landed on the railing a few feet away.....

     .....or tried to! >

      Yeah, it finally landed on the railing......

     .....or did it? >

     Meanwhile, the Fulmar crossed by the vessel again.......

      .....this time even closer.......

      What a stunning bird. I thought it was going to land on the chumline off the stern.....

      .....but instead it flew by (probably because all the Gulls had gobbled up all the suet and catfood). >

      It slowly drifted by the port side of the vessel, and I thought it would keep on going....

      .....but it did finally land on the sea. Unfortunately it was fifty yards away from the Lady Frances. >

    Part 2 on "Older Posts" below right to continue. >>>>>