Tag Archives: Common Eider

The Right Whales of Race Point.

Over the weekend, Jeannette and I made a little escape to Cape Cod. I’ve been wanting to take this trip for many years, but our schedule rarely allows it. But thanks to Jeanne and Haley holding down the fort at the store, and the return of Zane to the hawkwatch, we felt we could make a run for it.

While Cape Cod is always great for birding, especially Race Point, from late winter into the middle of spring Race Point is even more famous for its whale-watching. From land. Of one of the rarest animals on the planet: the North Atlantic Right Whale.

While much to most of the world’s diminishing population arrives in Cape Cod Bay in February, the best time to see the whales is in late March and April of most years (sometimes earlier, sometimes later) when they frequent the waters immediately off of the very tip of Cape Cod. Here, a narrow and deep channel come in close proximity to land and its shallow shores, providing a rich area of upwelling and unrivaled proximity to rich feeding areas for whales and birds.

For some background reading on the phenomenon, you can start with this article from last spring from the NOAA Fisheries.

We arrived Friday afternoon and decided to get the lay of the land. I haven’t been to Race Point in over 20 years – sadly – and Jeannette had never been here, despite growing up a short ferry ride away. While we didn’t see any whales this afternoon in a brief visit, we got to know the viewing spot, a little of the strategy from another visiting couple, and got to spend some time with the birds. It’s really extraordinary how much birdlife is at this place!

100’s of Red-throated Loons, at least a dozen Iceland Gulls, Razorbills, a couple of newly-arrived Piping Plovers, and a local avian specialty – Pacific Loon!  Arguably the best place in the Atlantic to see this – yes, you guess it- Pacific species, we found one fairly close to shore with a minimum amount of effort. This photo was the best that Jeannette can do, and while my phone-scoped photos are marginally better (or at least, more diagnostic, WordPress is being stupid with its photos uploading right now and I have given up!)

But with perfect afternoon light, Jeannette did much better with the “real” photography.

Red-throated Loon
1st winter Iceland and Glaucous Gulls with a Great Black-backed Gull and Herring Gulls of several ages.
Piping Plover

We were back early on Saturday morning, ready for the 1.5-2-mile slog over fairly soft sand.  We would have been to the point much sooner were it not for all of the birds along the way once again. And the soft sand.

Our pace quickened markedly when we saw a North Atlantic Right Whale in the distance. Well, distant to us. It was clearly right off the point! We also spotted a Minke Whale moderately close to shore just as our walk began. We were getting excited now.

In position at the point by about 8:20 – after reassurances from the local expert – we began to wait. Flocks of Common Eiders were moving out of the bay, as were many of the dozens of Northern Gannets.   A Northern Harrier did not even hesitate to head straight offshore, its bearings set for landfall in Nova Scotia.

Red-throated Loon
Common Eiders
White-winged Scoter

And then there were the Razorbills!  Singles, handfuls, small flocks; a steady stream heading out of Cape Cod Bay.  I tallied 356 when not distracted by other things.

Like Right Whales. Close to shore. Like right there Right Whales. In the surf of the rips just off the point.  First there was one who showed its fluke to announce its presence and departure. The next one (or the same that had circled around) was spotted off in the distance to the west, first by it’s v-shaped blow. It slowly but steadily came closer, feeding with shallow dives as it passed in front of us. Then, completely catching all of the photographers off-guard, a breach! Like right there. Right in front of us. It was absolutely breathtaking.

About when we realized it was almost noon and we forgot to pack snacks, two whales appeared in the rips nearby. We forgot about being hungry as we watched them feed for almost 45 minutes!  We also forgot to continue to click Razorbills. But that’s OK.


I don’t know what to say. It was a moving experience. We were so close to something so special, so rare, and whose continued existence is so precarious. At least one tear escaped my ducts. It was amazing. I am so glad we finally did this.

The adrenaline and satisfaction, as well as the reflection of it all, powered us back to the car, passing another Glaucous Gull with more Iceland Gulls, another or the same Minke Whale, and just as we reached the parking lot, one more North Atlantic Right Whale fluke in the distance for good measure.

Ist Winter Iceland Gull
Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow

We did some casual birding and tourist-ing for the rest of the afternoon. The perfect weather of the day  – light winds, fairly warm (we were most enthused about being overdressed!), gave way to some rain with an approaching cold front.  

Said front made for a much cooler and windier morning on Sunday. We decided to forgo another trek to the point – with much reservation and consternation – and try our luck at Herring Cove after a leisurely breakfast. We were on vacation afterall, no matter how mini.

There weren’t nearly as many birds here as the day before, so we went back to Race Point.  A series of blows from a North Atlantic Right Whale from the beach just beyond the parking lot made us ponder sucking it up and taking another walk, but the fact that we couldn’t see the massive animal at all because of the surf made us think twice. Again.

Our experience on Saturday – including the delightful weather – was something to savor and remember. We didn’t need a sand-blasted facial to sour our experience. So begrudgingly, we departed, working our way towards Providence for the night, to indulge in some Rhode Island birding and way too much divine Italian food. Seriously the spaghettoni alla carbonara at Ristorante Il Massimo might have been almost as memorable as the whales. Almost.

We’ll be back for the pasta. The question is, how much longer will we be able to see North Atlantic Right Whales?  With less than 340 remaining on Earth, this is a trip we could no longer delay. And nor should you.

The “Coastal Quick Hit” Van Tour report

I think it is safe to say that the inaugural “Coastal Quick Hit” van tour was a resounding success! We not only found all of the target species that we were after, but also a few surprises, and we saw all of our target species incredibly well! And we really lucked out with the weather, as the only rain we encountered was a brief downpour while we were driving. I have “no” doubt that all future tours will be this successful.

We receive numerous requests for guiding for several local breeding species that can be hard, if not impossible, to see elsewhere. While Bicknell’s Thrush is my number one request, there are a number of coastal species that are also sought. Folks travel from far and wide for our annual “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” van trip, and often I get requests for private guiding for many of the other species before and after that tour. Therefore, for efficiency and economy, we introduced the “Coastal Quick Hit” tour.

We had four visitors from California on board who were here to take part in the weekend’s thrush tour, plus three local birders out for the day. The eight of us met here at the store on Friday morning, and worked our way south.

Beginning in Scarborough Marsh, we had the opportunity to study Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows side-by-side, and ponder over some hybrids as well. We compared their songs and subtleties of identification – and learned how to simply leave many, likely hybrids and intergrades, as unidentified. Meanwhile, “Eastern” Willets and many other marsh denizens were numerous, and several sparrows and Willets posed for photos.
WILL

Walking the Eastern Road Trail, a Fish Crow was unexpected, and we enjoyed Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and more. We then found this wading bird, which immediately brought to mind one of the ultra-rare Tricolored Heron x Snowy Egret (and now, possible a backcross there of) that calls Scarborough Marsh home.
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However, it soon became clear that this was a “pure” Little Blue Heron – nothing about its shape, size, structure, or behavior (a regular adult was nearby, and sometimes in the same field of view) was suggestive of anything else (or partly anything else), and so I hypothesized about a leucistic Little Blue Heron. Immature (1st through 2nd summer) little blues are piebald, but this was much, much paler than what I usually see, with more of a uniform “wash” of the purple-blue on the body and wings. What threw me off a bit were the essentially fully-developed head and back plumes (the “aigrettes”) that I did not think were present on a bird who’s plumage was this early in development. A little research showed those plumes were just fine for a 1st-summer bird, even one in which so little adult-like plumage had been obtained. Therefore, unless this bird looks exactly the same come fall, I think it’s just a paler-than-average 1st summer Little Blue Heron. Nevertheless, it was a fun bird to study and ponder – offering a lesson in comparing shape, structure, and behavior in two birds that didn’t look the same.

Also off Eastern Road, we noted Glossy Ibis, American Black Ducks, and a White-rumped Sandpiper in spiffy breeding plumage – a treat for folks from the West Coast, and not a bird we see many of in spring here in the Northeast. It was hanging out with 4 tardy Semipalmated Sandpipers.
GADW,MS
A drake Gadwall at the Pelreco marsh was a nice sight as well.

Four unseasonable Brant greeted us at Pine Point, where we soon spotted one of our most sought-after species, Roseate Tern. At least 8, and likely many times that, as birds were coming and going, were quickly picked out from the crowds of Common Terns, with plenty of Least Terns zipping around.
COTE,MS
Common Tern

LETE,MS
Least Tern

This tour was designed to have at least two chances at all of our target species, but we “cleaned up” in Scarborough, so we elected to brake up our upcoming drive with a stop in Webhannet Marsh near Moody Point for a visit with the King Rail that, for the second summer in a row, has occupied a small corner of the marsh. While waiting for it, we spotted more Willets, and had another great view of a Saltmarsh Sparrow or too.

The rail never called, but about 2/3rds of the group, myself NOT included, were able to spot the rail as it crossed two successive small openings in the marsh grass. The rest of us were just a little too far up the road, and it never made it to the third clearing we were stationed at. But still, a King Rail in the middle of the afternoon! A loafing Surf Scoter with Common Eiders offshore was also unexpected.

A delicious lunch fueled the rest of our drive south and the timing of the rainfall could not have been better. Traffic was relatively minimal as we fought our way through the outskirts of Boston, arriving at Revere Beach just as a thunderstorm passed to our south.
Revere_Beach2

While this is not exactly the most aesthetically-pleasing stop of the tour…
Revere_Beach1

…it was incredibly rewarding, as in short order, we picked up our last two target species, Piping Plover…
PIPL,MS

…and, believe it or not, Manx Shearwater…
MASH1,MS

MASH2,MS

…from land, in a city, and not very far offshore!

This incredible phenomena (they are clearly nesting locally, but where!? One of the Boston Harbor Islands?) was the icing on the cake to a most-successful trip. Based on these results, you can expect to see the “Coastal Quick Hit” van tour again in 2018 and beyond. Stay tuned to the Tours, Events, and Workshops Page of www.freeportwildbirdsupply.com for more information about this and all of our tours.

A White-winged Gull Convention in Portland Harbor

On Sunday, Kristen Lindquist and I worked Portland Harbor for gulls.  In my usual routine, I started at the Maine State Pier and worked my way west, checking all of the piers and roosting locations in Old Port.  I was pretty happy with the 4 first-winter Glaucous Gulls and a healthy handful of Iceland Gulls from the state pier, and we continued to see Iceland Gulls here and there as we continued along.

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It was a good day for gulls in the harbor, but we didn’t realize just how good it was until we got to the end of the “Fish Pier.”  There, everywhere we looked we saw white-winged gulls!  Out by the dredging barges there were white-winged gulls.  Feeding at the rips around the channel markers there were white-winged gulls.  And all around the fish pier there were white-winged gulls!

I was very conservative in my counts, and yet tallied an exceptional 12 first-winter Glaucous Gulls – an all-time state high count for me.  But it was the abundance of Iceland Gulls that stole the show; 4 adults (all with completely different wing-tip patterns of course), at least three 2nd-winter, and an astounding (for southern Maine, anyway) THIRTY-TWO 1st-winter birds.  With that many, it was not surprising that the whole range of variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was to be seen, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a single bird that even allowed for an attempted stringing of a Thayer’s.

Despite starting the day by saying, “I am not taking any more first cycle Iceland Gull photos this winter,” with this many birds around, I couldn’t help myself.  Here’s a selection of photos, starting with two phone-scoping using an iPhone 4S, Phone Skope adapter, and a Zeiss Diascope FL, followed by “better” photos using my Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens.

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IMG_2837_gulls_at_outflow_pipe2,OldPort,3-2-14

At the aforementioned outflow pipe.

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1st cycle Iceland Gull feeding storm-petrel style.

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1st/2nd cycle (L) and 2 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls (R), with a dark 1st winter Herring Gull for contrast.

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Light and darker 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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Worn, late 1st Cycle or early 2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.

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Adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.

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Adult and 1st/2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

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1st cycle and adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.

DSC_0021_COEI_flight,OldPort,3-2-14

Wait, that’s not an Iceland Gull…sorry, I got distracted…

After second breakfast, we checked in at Mill Creek Cove, where the outgoing tide was attracting gulls to the mouth of the creek as usual.  With birds heading to and from the Old Port, we didn’t add to our earlier counts, but there were at least 4 1st-winter Iceland and 2 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls present.  Oh, and this rather confiding female Green-winged Teal was dabbling with the Mallards.

DSC_0033_GWTE_hen1,MillCreek,3-2-14
showing a little more green speculum than usual on one side.

Then we worked the Cape Elizabeth shoreline, highlighted by 3 Greater Scaup at Kettle Cove, 11 Brant at Dyer Point, and these 28 balls of awesomeness (aka Harlequin Ducks; phone-scoped photos).

IMG_2875_HADU1,TwoLightsSP,3-2-14]

IMG_2877_HADU2,TwoLightsSP,3-2-14

But back to those gulls…why so many?  While the number of Herring and Great Black-backed gulls (and the expected relatively small number of Ring-bills) were average (at least by recent winters’ standards), this is by far the most total white-winged gulls that I have seen in PortlandHarbor in the 13 years I’ve lived here.  Some of these gulls are probably northbound migrants, but clearly there was something more at play here.

For one, there’s a dredging operation ongoing in the main channel of Portland Harbor.  While we didn’t see any gulls obviously foraging on the dredge spoils being pumped into the barge, or immediately around the buckets scooping up the muck, there were birds standing around on the new moving “islands.”   I wondered if a lot of these gulls were following/riding the barges in from where they are dumping the dredge spoils seven miles offshore.  But in today’s Portland Press Herald, I read that the occasional dynamiting of underwater bedrock would kill some fish, and then the “seagulls’ (sic… ahem!) were feeding on the dead fish.  That would certainly augment the already-occurring food sources in the harbor.

But most of the Iceland Gulls today were centered around the outflow pipes of various lobster-related facilities, as usual.  Meanwhile, the high tide limited roosting and foraging opportunities along the coast, and here in the harbor.

So my guess is that the time of year (migrants), the dredging operation, and the tides all helped to greatly increase the volume of white-winged gulls present today to numbers not seen in recent years – at least not since Portland had a thriving year-round fishing industry.  Obviously, this is just conjecture, but whatever made it happen, I was happy to be there to enjoy it!

DSC_0022_1stC_ICGU-flight1,OldPort,3-2-14

Also gull-watching:
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