New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Thursday, September 13, 2012

"NECWA- Seabirds and Whale Tales Excursion"- Plymouth, Mass.- Searching for the Sabine's Gull (part 2)

    Sept. 9, 2012-Plymouth, Mass.-8) "NECWA- Seabirds and Whale Tales Excursion"- Plymouth, Mass.- Searching for the Sabine's Gull (part 2)

     Last year, I was contemplating going on the NECWA's (New England Coastal Wildlife Alliance) annual September "Seabird and Whale Tales Excursion" which has a good history of seeing Sabine's Gulls
( ).  Again my schedule conflicted with the date, and I thought about changing my schedule around, but decided against it. Well as expected they spotted two Sabine's Gulls (again), following up the one spotted the year before and the four in 2008 and two in 2007! This year I wasn't going to miss it!!

     In August, the notice appeared in my Inbox, and the check for Jen and I went out that morning. I mentioned to our friend Tom (Robben) that we were going and he did the same. We both have a special place in our hearts for the Sabine's Gull and that species has become a symbol of a "rare" New England summer transient pelagic species to us; a noble bird to search for. For me, it gives me a few more excuses to get out on the water especially off Provincetown. We have both seen them before; I have only once and Tom has many times especially on the West coast.  Last year two Sabine's Gulls were reported feeding together in Hatchess Harbor inlet, so off we went. But since this is a here-again, gone-again species known to stop for a minute and then move on, we were unsuccessful.

     A few days earlier the Rhode Island overnight Canyon Pelagic trip was cancelled because of the high waves formed by storm surge of Hurricane Leslie. Since this was only a few days later we were all concerned. Although the weather was calling for moderate winds and a possibility of rain, it was the surge that warranted caution. Cape Cod Bay being sheltered to the south wasn't the area to watch, it was the area nearing Provincetown and Stellwagen Bank which would be exposed to the storm surge. Krill Carson the host and organizer of the trip kept everyone informed. Her emails were upbeat and positive, but there was always that chance it would be cancelled. As the time grew closer, it was still a go, but with the possibility of cancellation that morning.

     Jen and I met Tom at the Mystic, CT commuter lot at 4:30 am. With a three hour ride ahead of us, we left for Plymouth all the while I was checking my Blackberry hoping (not) to get an email from Krill announcing the cancellation of  the trip. The excursion left the wharf at 10:00 am and returned at 6:00 pm; a full eight hours on the water. We wanted to get there a bit early (as my usual) and thats just what we did. We had time for a relaxing breakfast in downtown Plymouth and then went back to the pier. People started arriving for the excursion and some started boarding. I dropped Jen and Tom off with the gear while I went to park the car. After a bit of anxiety because of my impatience with the parking kiosk, I joined Jen and Tom onboard the one hundred ten foot "Tales of the Sea" from the Capt. John Whale Watching Tours Fleet.

     The sky was overcast and was sprinkling off and on, and it was a bit chilly (as expected)-

     Tom and I went immediately to the pulpit (which is our favorite spot) while Jen was a bit smarter and chose the bench under the canopy! While we were waiting for the lines to be cast off and the ships horn to blow, there was a little bit of birding in the harbor from the deck. Mallards and a Black Duck-


     Double-crested Cormorants are always entertaining. A Common Tern flew by while I was taking the picture of the Cormorant-

     Common Terns were busy fishing in the inner harbor-

      Soon the ships horn blew, the lines were cast off and we were underway! The first stop out of the Harbor was to get up close and personal with the (replica) Mayflower II. I think just about everyone on board thought to themselves trying to imagine what it must have been like crossing the mighty Atlantic in a cramped ship like that! A brief History:  It was built in the 1950s by shipbuilder William Baker. It was accurately designed and built to the original ships specifications. In 1957, the new ship sailed from Plymouth, England to Cape Cod, retracing the original Mayflower journey. Today, it is moored in Plymouth Harbor, Mass. and serves as a living history museum.

      After a few minutes of quiet reflection and a good dose of humility, the "Tales of the Sea" headed out the channel of the Harbor. Common Terns were busy as usual-

         This Laughing Gull chased this Tern for a few minutes. In the end, the Tern kept its prize-

       Duxbury Light as we approached the mouth of Plymouth Harbor-


    The first birds that we saw outside the mouth of the Harbor were a pair of Common Loons-

    Not many birds to see in the "dead zone" in the middle of Cape Cod Bay, just a distant first year Gannet-

     The trip across the Bay was essentially birdless except for a few diving Gannets. As Provincetown appeared in the distance......

     .....a small number of Gulls were following a fishing boat, unfortunately no Shearwaters!-

     Provincetown was now closer. As the vessel steamed East, I noticed a pair of Red-necked Phalaropes sitting on the sea directly in line with us. I wasn't quick enough with my camera to catch them on the sea, but I did manage a few quick shots as they flew off-

     Within a few minutes, five more.....

      .....followed by four more Red-necked Phalaropes.....

      .....and the first Shearwater of the day; a Greater-

     .......soon to be followed by three Manx Shearwaters, one of my favorite seabirds of the New England waters! Looks like we had found a small pocket of birds-

     A distant "blow" was spotted at the edge of Stellwagen and the vessel steamed in that direction. Passing by the tip of the Cape, the anticipated "surge" from the southern Hurricane appeared to be at its extreme periphery. The rollers although potentially substantial, were tamped down at the edge of the storms extreme reach. The sea was generous offering slow and long flattened swells (I am sure a great relief to some on board). Along the way, more Shearwaters like this pair of Greater Shearwaters sitting on the sea-

     The first Cory's of the day.....

     .....followed by the first Wilson's Storm-Petrel of the day. Usually quite abundant in these waters, their numbers are quite low this year off the Cape-

          The second Cory's Shearwater of the day......

     .....followed by another Greater Shearwater. Although Shearwaters are considered a "common" summer seabird in these waters, I could watch and enjoy them all day!-

     The "Tales of the Sea" approached the three Humpback Whales (one mother and her calf ) and the whales put on an amazing show!-


    This whale swam right under the pulpit, its head and mouth is clearly visible-

     Closing its blow hole-

     On its back-

   While most were watching the whales, many of us were searching for seabirds, and every now and then on would try and upstage the whale show and sneak through like this Greater Shearwater.....

     .....and this Cory's-

   As the pods of whales sounded they would surface again in the distance, and the vessel would follow. Although the birding was very slow, every now and then something would come into view like this pair of Cory's Shearwaters-

      Greater Shearwater-

     Cory's Shearwaters-

      In between the short jaunts following the whale pods around Stellwagen, the first of five Mola mola passed by the vessel-

    Another pair of Common Loons-

    Spending some time with the two whale pods, they decided to move around to look for birds. Although we did find a few hands full of birds during the morning, it was quite slow for September at Stellwagen Bank. Three more Manx Shearwaters perked us up a bit!-

     At one point around noon, the vessel was moving along headed for another area, when one of the spotters on the upper deck located a small flock of Phalaropes on the water. The "Tales of the Sea" made a wide circle and slowly eased back towards the area where they were last seen. A call came over the pa system that the birds were off the starboard side. For some reason, I couldn't spot the birds. Jen was directing me to the birds which she said were "right in front of me". With her direction and a quick point from a kind birder standing next to me; there they were! I was looking too far away from the vessel when in fact the birds were only twenty yards out. O the water was a flock of seven Red-necked Phalaropes which stayed long enough to capture this series of images (of most of them).

     There were scattered sightings of Terns mostly in singles and pairs. As we were moving to another  location where more whale blows were seen, a small group of Terns passed by the bow.

     I was just about ready to say to Tom to keep an eye out for Jaegers, when a single Jaeger appeared flying along the deck to the port. It lifted up and then flew right in front of us over the bow. Even though it was backlit, its large silhouette with deep chest and  heavy bill identifies it as a Pomarine.-

       Close-up of a Pomarine Jaeger bill-

      Another Humpback passing under the vessel-

     The calf was very accommodating often surfacing by the boat and showing off for everyone. It seemed to enjoy the attention-

     Another large Mola-

    A large scattered pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins appeared and gave us a great show!-

       The day was getting long and it would be time to head back to Plymouth soon. The birding was slow off Stellwagen (athough a few flurries and species were observed), but the Whales, Dolphins and Mola kept the day moving. A few parting shots of the Humpbacks-

      The fifth and final Mola; incredible!-

        Tom on the pulpit. I know what he was thinking because I was thinking the same thing- "There must be one Sabine's Gull out there somewhere"!  We spotted a few more very distant large Shearwaters and a second Jaeger which was too far out to identify.

      It was overcast all day, but the predicted rain held off except for one brief passing of  heavy drops with (what felt like) small hail on your skin on Stellwagen. To the east was blue sky that never made it until we were back in port!-

      The vessel headed over to a more "birdy area" from Highland Light to Race Point. Unfortunately this usual very "birdy" spot was very quiet......

      .....which was confirmed by the spotting plane flying overhead. They informed the crew that there wasn't too much surface feeding activity with the whales. No feeding activity meant no birds!

     The vessel paralleled the beach heading towards Race Point. A flock of twelve Common Loons was located rafted on the sea-

     Here and there, a few Terns would be visible feeding along the surface-

      Gannet numbers increased, but they were just flying down along the coast. We never saw any of them plunging!-

     At one point, there was a moderate sized flock of mostly Common (with a few Roseate) Terns feeding on a school of fish-

     Always plenty of Laughing Gulls to peak your curiosity-

     Gannets continued-

     To Jen and I the sight of a flock of Gannets flying along the dunes of the outer Cape is quite spectacular!!-

     Race Point Lighthouse. I am sure all the birders checked through all the Gulls that lined the beach!-

      Pilgrim Tower-

     Distant Gannets-

     Tom and I were looking back beyond Race Point. There were a few distant Terns buzzing around and we spotted another Jaeger. As we were watching the Jaeger, a few flocks of Terns appeared in the sky. I didn't see where they all came from, but my guess would have been from Hatchess Harbor.

     And our suspicions of what spooked them became clear; a Peregrine Falcon! Not sure if this is the bird that likes to roost on the Pilgrims Tower, or it was just passing through-

      There must have been some schools of baitfish in the area, many of the fishing boats lined up along Race Rip were catching Stripers and Bluefish (as in this image)-

     The numbers of Laughing Gulls increased-

      The crew had planned on chumming during the day, but there just wasn't large enough concentrations of birds to do it. It was getting close to the time that we would have to head back to Plymouth. There seemed to be enough Gulls lining the beaches and flying around to give it a try. We were just south of Race Point and Hatchess Harbor outside Herring Cove Beach, maybe that Sabines' Gull was hiding amongst the other Gulls? I walked back to the stern just in time as they started spooning over the cut-up fish chum. And as almost on cue, the Gulls responded immediately. Their  numbers increased as they dropped to the water to feed on the treat of a fish dinner.

     Suddenly many on the upper deck were excited and pointing frantically to the flock of Gulls. Binoculars and cameras were raised and everyone was in a frenzy. I asked what was going on, but didn't get an answer. I assumed that some rare bird was sighted, but why wasn't it being announced over the pa system? I kept asking what was going on, but still didn't get an answer. The whole upper and lower deck on the starboard side was lined with people pointing south, then pointing north, and camera shutters clicking all the while. I kept asking, "what is everyone looking at"!! Finally the mate looked at me and uttered those two words- "SABINE'S GULL"!! I repeated loudly in dis-belief "SABINE'S GULL"?? WHERE??? No one was giving any information, just pointing in both directions. I was looking hard, and asked again, "Is it and adult or Juvenile"?? Why weren't they announcing this on the pa?? A group of other birders on the stern heard my excitement (and frustration) and asked me what was going on. I told them, and they said the same thing I did "WHERE"?? We all stood there panning through all the Gulls looking. Finally some one from the upper deck told us that it was on the outside of the flock, at least that's where it was last seen. I asked him if it was an adult of juvenile (to help us understand what we were looking for); he said he didn't know.

      Our little stern group kept looking through the entire flock of Gulls, I decided to start taking pictures of all the Gulls on the water from one end to the other and hopefully it would be in an image when I reviewed them later. I took at least a hundred shots and went back and forth up the scattered Gulls-

          We kept looking hard as the mate finished spooning over the chum. Our hearts dropped when all of the sudden, the vessel throttled up and left the area! "Where are they going"  we all said to one another, "Why are they leaving"? I went up to the pulpit and asked Tom if he saw the Sabine's and he replied that he saw something that resembled a Sabines' Gull with ragged plumage. I told him I couldn't believe that they didn't announce this over the pa system, and he looked at me funny and said "they did"! Apparently at that time, the pa system speakers at the stern malfunctioned; we couldn't hear anything! I was shaking my head, when Tom said he would go on the upper deck and ask Blair Nikula if he had the Gull.

     When Tom came back down he said that Blair had shown him an image (on his camera LED screen) of a Laughing Gull with a Sabine's Gull "look-alike" wing. In all the excitement, an unusually marked Laughing Gull with a moulting wing resembling a Sabine's Gull was the bird in question. The image below is that image and was taken and furnished by Blair Nikula and was used with his permission. Thank You Blair!

      I went back to the stern and told the "stern birding group" what had happened. It was explained further to us by one of the NECWA's staff. When the bird is question was determined not to be the Sabine's Gull there was no need to hang around. Because the pa system in the stern was not working we didn't know this, and couldn't figure why the sudden departure. Thats why I like really gets your adrenaline pumping!! :^)

     The trip back across Cape Cod Bay to Plymouth was quick (or it seemed so). The staff held a raffle with many gifts for everyone who's ticket number was called. Jen picked up a nice NECWA cap to add to our collection.

     Arriving back in Plymouth Harbor was a carbon copy of the morning; a pair of Common Loons, Laughing Gulls, and Terns-

       But one thing was different; the sun finally came out and we came back to this awesome rainbow!

      Although we didn't see large numbers of birds, there were enough to keep you interested. Even if we never found a Sabine's Gull, there was that "almost" encounter to raise the blood pressure a bit!

     Thank You to the crew of the "Tale of the Seas", Krill  and staff of the NECWA, you all  did a fantastic job. Thank You to Blair Nikula for his permission to use his Laughing Gull image. This was our first time sailing with them we will see you next year!

     From the pulpit, Tom and I never kept an exact count of the birds or whales, but I did note: 3 Jaegers (1 Pomarine, 2 Jaeger ssp., probably Parasitic), 1 Peregrine Falcon, 13 Manx Shearwater, 18 Red-necked Phalarope, many Common Terns, 3 Roseate and 1 Forster's Terns, 18 Common Loons and 5 Wilsons Storm-Petrels.

Keith Mueller
Killingworth, CT.

     9)- "Milford Shorebirding"- the Western Sandpiper
10)- "Stratford Shorebirding"- Late Season Willets continues....

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