Tag Archives: Gulf of Maine

Pelagic Birding by Cruiseship: NYC-NS-NB-NYC, Oct 2019.

Skua
Bonxie!
Jeannette and I took round trip a Princess Cruise from New York City October 26 (pm departure) through October 31st (early am arrival). It made ports of call in Halifax, Nova Scotia and Saint John, New Brunswick.  The full-day at seas between NYC and Halifax on 10/27 and from St John to NYC on 10/30 were the draws for us.  Cruise ships offer steady, stable and unreasonably comfortable deep-sea birding opportunities. Paul Lehman helped put the “repositioning cruise” itinerary on the West Coast on the birding radar and he, along with several others around the world, demonstrated the value of these floating behemoths for pelagic birding.
departing NYC
Verrazano

Our transit from NYC to Halifax was our best stretch, with seas a mere 2-3ft, partially cloudy skies, and unseasonably warm temperatures. We awoke to find ourselves at 49.9 nautical miles south-southeast of Nantucket.
Sunrise, 10-27

After a surprisingly slow first 2 hours of the day, the action really got going and remained strong into the early afternoon. The day ended up yielding an impressive 5 Great Skuas and 6 unidentified skuas. A small dark storm-petrel – likely a very late Wilson’s – may have been the one that got away this day as we were unable to photograph it. A Manx Shearwater was well seen, along with 9 Cory’s Shearwaters and many of the expected species. A Song Sparrow arrived on the boat, first seen shortly after sunrise that morning.  A complete list is below, but all of our highlights were in Massachusetts waters.
GRSHGRSH2
Great Shearwaters
COSH
Cory’s Shearwater.

A 27-minute stretch in Maine waters (U.S. territorial waters with the closest point of land being 101nm to Mt Desert Rock) yielded little, and not my most-desired bird of the trip: a Great Skua in Maine waters, a bird that has become an unreasonable nemesis for me.  Nova Scotia waters were very slow, and an area of low pressure caught up to us, with rain becoming steadier and rapidly reducing visibility and light.
NOFU
Northern Fulmar
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On 10/28, we arrived in Halifax Harbor before sunrise, and our friends Eric and Anne Mills picked us up at the dock for a day of local birding. A continuing Yellow-throated Warbler at Point Pleasant Park and 2 Indigo Buntings at the old city dump were highlights, but like it has been in Maine, landbirds – especially in the woods, but also sparrowy-edges – were sparse.
old_city_dump
Point_Pleasant_Park

leaving_Halifax
The boat pulled away after sunset, but we were pleasantly surprised to awaken on 10/29 with a considerable distance of the Bay of Fundy left to transit. The boat was at a lower speed than usual, as we had to wait for high water in St. John Harbor. Beginning 17.3nm WSW of Brier Island, we enjoyed very productive birding through 11:00am as we were entering St. John Harbor.  Single American Robin, Horned Lark, Dark-eyed Junco, American Pipit, and Savannah Sparrow made morning passes around the boat, but the alcid show we had been waiting for had arrived: 58 Atlantic Puffins, 44 Razorbills, and 12 Common Murres (the majority of all were in New Brunswick waters). We were very excited to see a total of 5 Dovekies – a group of four followed by one lone bird in flight – all on the Nova Scotia side.  This was another one of the “target birds” we had identified for this itinerary.
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We arrived in Saint John at noon, and walked across the city to get to Rockwood Park. There were “no” birds in the woods here, either, so we visited a couple of breweries and had our best meal of the trip at the St. John Alehouse on our way back. It was not until almost midnight that the boat departed as the world’s highest tides had finally filled back in.
RockwoodPark1RockwoodPark2
St_John_dusk
Gulls commuting back from Rockwood Park with us.

The morning of October 30th has been circled on the proverbial calendar for a while, but there was quite a bit of apprehension about where we would find ourselves at dawn. I had my eyes on Maine waters – especially for my state Great Skua! – but also out of my own general birding interests of course.
Sunrise,10-30

Rolling over in bed at 5:30 EDT, I pulled up the Navionics Boating app and found our position to be 64.8nm ESE of Mt. Desert Rock, well within Maine-countable waters and with a current track that would keep us in these waters for some time. Breakfast was consumed rapidly, and we were on deck at 6:45, with just enough light to start looking for birds. Seas were still 2-3ft, with very light chop, and a little breeze. Skies were partly to mostly cloudy all morning. Conditions were once again unreasonably perfect.
me_sunrise

Great Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars were soon visible, and we picked up our first Red Phalaropes of the journey. Since Jeannette and I were the only birders on board, not surprisingly, we had been taking turns looking for passerines on the open decks and going on coffee and restroom runs. At about 8:00 or so, Jeannette went to the upper decks and returned about 30 minutes later to find me writing furiously. At 8:21EDT, I had a good bird, and I think it was a very, very good bird. Of course, she wasn’t there to see it, but as importantly for the task at hand, she was not there to try and document it while I studied it for as long as I can.

After watching it in the scope for a minute or two, I made the decision to go for the camera, despite the extreme distance of the bird. I paused for a moment at the idea of attempting a phone-scoping session, but I realized the unlikelihood of that being successful. I snapped a couple of pictures, realizing they were unlikely to be anywhere within the realm of realistically seeing “something” and went back to following the bird in the scope, hoping for it to turn or land, or at least stick around long enough for Jeannette to return.

I have seen a lot of Manx Shearwaters, and ample numbers of Audubon’s Shearwaters. Instantaneously, it was obvious this was not a Manx, so I started scribbling notes. I had a feeling based on my studying before the trip, that I was looking at a Barolo’s Shearwater, a bird not yet recorded in Maine (but on my long list of likely new additions).

Here are my transcribed field notes, lightly edited only for decipherability (comments added later):

  • Coordinates: 42(d) 35.966”N, 67 (d) 56.02’W
  • small seabird spotted distance while J was on coffee/passerine run.
  • Blackish back and white undersides but extremely stiff and very shallow wingbeats noticed immediately.
  • Thought alcid, but wings too narrow and relatively long (compared to size of body)
  • (First) observed at approx 60-degree angle as it was angling slightly towards the bow, but rapidly getting further away.
  • White underwing clean and appeared to go right out to wingtips.
  • White face – could possibly make out eye – rose well up towards narrow-appearing crown. Even compensating for morning light, face was far too white and clean for Manx Shearwater, more like Audubon’s, but with even more white than that
  • Could not see undertail coverts (specifically), but white did appear to “continue” towards rear.
  • Small bill, almost imperceptible at distance.
  • No shearwatering, stayed level (low over water) with shallow, stiff wingbeats/
  • Did not see “saddlebags” or not (too far for such fine detail).
  • No molt visible.
  • Dwarfed by passing Great Shearwater
  • Flight considerably different from Manx, plus extensive white on face and extensively white and clean underwings. Very short wings, relatively.
  • White as “far as I could see to” wingtips and undertail.
  • Need to get out field guides to compare Barolo’s vs Audubon, but this looked smaller, pudgier body, whiter underneath, and wingbeats so stiff and shallow.
  • Cannot reconcile wingbeats/flight and extensive white face, undertail, (underwing), with anything but Barolo’s Shearwater.
  • (wishing I went for the camera sooner!)

As I was scribbling away, Jeannette returned, I took one sip of coffee, and went back to my notes. Shortly thereafter, she yelled “BONX-IIIIEEEEEE!”  And finally, at 8:37am, 82.2nm southeast of Matincus Rock, and only about 6-10nm closes than any point on Cape Cod, I had my Maine state Great Skua. Finally. Mission accomplished.
IMG_1292

But then, it was back to the shearwater. Plans were made to celebrate later (wait, why can’t I get a drink delivered to me outside?). I added to my notes, still before checking any references, summarizing my observation:

  • Manx quickly eliminated by short wings, very small size, and bright white face. Flight style quite different. This was closer to an alcid with super-shallow wingbeats.
  • Single bird, all alone, picked up in straight, powered flight.
  • Distance could have obscured internal underwing markings, but none noticed
  • White rose up face – even if compensating (for) sun “overexposure,” so high that when going away, appeared to have a very narrow dark crown. (I made an exceedingly poor drawing of the impression. It is not worth sharing).

I had Howell and Zufelt’s Oceanic Birds of the World and the Nat Geo field guide with me, so I consulted them, along with an online image search. I revisited those resources and looked longer online when we returned to our cabin later. After that, I added the following:

– (my bird) looked “normally” tapered/pointed wing(tip) and not at all rounded like Audubon’s.
– did not appear particularly long-tailed
– short bill; Audubon’s looks longer-billed.
– cold/cool water environs. No water temperature measurement on board boat, but well within Gulf of Maine at 689ft depth. No “warm water species” seen on entire trip.
– too small for Manx, as a Great Shearwater crossed in front of it (while I was viewing through the scope). 3-5 had been circling the ship (consistently).
IMG_1358

Oh, and my desperate attempt at a photograph I alluded to? Well, I think it was one of the Great Shearwaters (is that a hind collar behind a dark cap?), but it could also be a giant piece of sushi. I whiffed. And that does not make me happy, as even a crappy photo might have had some value.

Looking at those resources, photos online, and more resources upon our return home, I concluded that this bird was indeed a Barolo’s Shearwater. Whether “sight records” are “good enough” for First State Records, well, that’s a debate for another day…

But yeah, we had other birds that day too, with Great Shearwaters and Northern Fulmars leading the way, and lots of dolphins, including several small close pods of Short-beaked Common Dolphin.  We also had another skua in Massachussets waters that suggested South Polar to me, but it was just too far, and Jeannette was unable to get on it in the camera for closer study.
COSHandGRSH
Cory’s Shearwater with Great Shearwaters.
GRSHandGBBG
Great Shearwaters with Great Black-backed Gull

At 4:15, with nearly-lifeless waters – the same early morning dull stretch from day 1 that got us worried about whether this entire trip was a good idea or not, we called it quits and went inside. A beer and a top-deck jacuzzi were in order. Come dawn, we’d be back in port in Brooklyn, so maybe we’ll even have a second drink tonight!
J-Mo_on_deck

Yeah, this cruise ship pelagic birding has its perks! And you can expect us to offer this as a tour in the near future. Unfortunately, a change in ships on this route next year may hamper the birding access, so we’re going to figure this out before we promote the tour and the future of birding possibilities on this intriguing cruise route.

Here’s the breakdown of the birdlist:

10/27.
-On deck 6:30 EDT. Mostly cloudy, lt-mod SE, light-moderate chop and 1-1.5m swell.  49.9 nm SSE of Nantucket.

1) Massachusetts waters:
GREAT SKUA: 5 total (coordinates recorded for each).
UNIDENTIFIED SKUA: 6 (coordinates recorded for each)
Parasitic Jaeger: 4
Unidentified Jaeger: 9
Black-legged Kittiwake: 4
Herring Gull: x
Lesser Black-backed Gull: 1
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 3
Cory’s Shearwater: 9
Great Shearwater: 259
Manx Shearwater: 1
UNIDENTIFIED STORM-PETREL – 1, Wilson’s-type most likely.
Northern Gannet: 186
Song Sparrow – 1 found on Lido Deck

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin pods: 1

2) Maine: 27 minutes.
Herring Gull: 1
Great Black-backed Gull: 1
Northern Fulmar: 2
Great Shearwater: 1
Northern Gannet: 1

3) Nova Scotia waters.
Black-legged Kittiwake: 1
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 2
Great Shearwater: 2
Mourning Dove: 1 – 81.4 nm SW of Seal Island. Reappeared and was stooped upon by PEFA.
Peregrine Falcon: 1- 83.8nm SW of Seal Island

Pilot Whales: 4-6
PEFA1PEFA2

10/29: Bay of Fundy.

  • On deck 7:54 ADT. 7.5nm W of Boar’s Head, Briar Island, NS..
  • Nova Scotia waters through about 9:30am EDT:

Common Eider: 13
White-winged Scoter: 2
DOVEKIE: 5
Razorbill: 3
Atlantic Puffin: 15
Pomarine Jaeger: 6
Unidentified jaeger: 3
Black-legged Kittiwake: 59
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Red-throated Loon: 2
Northern Fulmar: 7
Sooty Shearwater: 2
Northern Gannet: 24
American Robin: 1 at dawn, flying parallel to boat.
Horned Lark: 1 flying with DEJU 9.4nm W of Centreville Harbor
American Pipit: 1
Savannah Sparrow: 1
Song Sparrow: continues on deck.
Dark-eyed Junco: 1 flying with HOLA 9.4nm W of Centreville Harbor
AMRO

New Brunswick waters (after about 9:30 EDT):
Common Eider: 186
Common Murre: 12
Razorbill: 41
Atlantic Puffin: 43
Large alcids sp: 9
Pomarine Jaeger: 1
Black-legged Kittiwake: 49
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 1
Northern Gannet: 8
Red-throated Loon: 14

Minke Whale: 1
Harbor Porpoise: x

10/30.
– On deck 6:45 EDT. Maine waters, 64.8nm ESE of Mount Desert Rock and 60nm W of Seal Island, NS, but in US territorial waters.  Seas 2-3ft, light chop, increasing breeze.

1) Maine Waters:
GREAT SKUA: 1 – 42  31.291’N, 67  58.735’W
Pomarine Jaeger: 1
Red Phalarope: 16
Atlantic Puffin: 1
Black-legged Kittiwake: 7
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 76
Great Shearwater: 74
BAROLO’S SHEARWATER: 1, See Above. (42.35988’N, -67.5602’W)
Northern Gannet: 1

  • Massachusetts waters:

Unidentified phalarope: 30
UNIDENTIFIED SKUA: 1 (probable South Polar)
Pomarine Jaeger: 2
Parasitic Jaeger: 2
Unidentified Jaeger: 4
Black-legged Kittiwake: 14
Herring Gull: x
Lesser Black-backed Gull: 1
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Northern Fulmar: 158
Cory’s Shearwater: 6
Sooty Shearwater: 1
Great Shearwater: 233
Northern Gannet: 77

Atlantic White-sided Dolphin pods: 3+
Short-beaked Common Dolphin Ponds: 3+
Unidentified dolphin pods: 4+

Common_Dolphin
Common_Dolphin2
Short-beaked Common Dolphin.