Our third and final ½ Day Pelagic with our partners Cap’n Fish’s cruises out of Boothbay Harbor took place on a glorious fall day on Tuesday, October 11th.
OK, let’s get right down to business: it was NOT a South Polar Skua. This is not the first time a mea culpa was issued over a Stercorariidae. It won’t be the last. Certainly not my last, anyway. But yeah, I got this one wrong, and I apologize.
We spotted a large, dark, and very heavy-looking skua/jaeger in flight parallel to the boat. Captain Nick did an exceptional job of staying with it, staying parallel to it, affording incredible views for an unusually long amount of time. We were traveling at 18.2 knots, and the bird was slowly taking the lead. When it looked like it was thinking of landing, I had Nick angle slightly away so as not to make the bird concerned. It worked! It landed, we slowly worked our way up to it, and almost circled it before it took off. High-fives were exchanged. Smiles reigned. We got a skua! Big, barrel-chested, thick dark bill, and short tail. The very cold tones and extensive molt strongly suggested South Polar Skua. It would be a life bird for many.
I was convinced in the field, and I was convinced when I got off the boat. Everyone I talked to was convinced too. Other than a small feeling that the bill looked a little long, and the bird looked a little, well, not-menacing on the water, I had little doubt. But as I announce on all of my pelagics, all jaeger and skua identifications are provisional until I can review photographs.
The doubt -err, fear – began in the evening, as I looked over Jeannette’s shoulder as she began to sort photos. Starting with the skua, I wanted to make sure it was in fact a South Polar, and not a Great. That was my only real concern. But then I saw her pics. I was observing through 8x binoculars, she was shooting at 400mm. Details would likely emerge that I could not see in the field. And I didn’t like those details.
That rear end did look a little tapered. The bill did seem a little thin. And wait, is that barring in the underwings? Uh-oh. Are we sure? What about the location of white within the outer primaries? Is it too narrow? And boy, it looks cuter on the water than I expected. And that bill does look two-toned and kinda long.
Photos were sent to a friend. The shadow of doubt cast over the room. He immediately said “Pomarine.” But we discussed, and he left it off as “but I could buy this as a skua.” Another friend “That’s a skua.” “I’m flip-flopping…maybe a hint of barring on the undertail and underwing coverts, but it looks so skua-like…the molt pattern is identical to one I saw a couple of weeks ago.” Back and forth with these three friends continued. I posted to the Skuas and Jaegers of the World Facebook page; “Definitely a skua…” said the first commentor. Books and papers were referenced.
More photos were received. And discussion continued. Some photos showed what could be nearly impossible to argue was anything other than a South Polar Skua. I only wanted to look at these.
Sheepishly – knowing how tired he must be after a long drive to and from in the same day, I asked my friend Bill Thompson to check his photos. He jumped right on it, and sent this.
Is that the beginning of the long, round-tipped central tail feathers of a Pomarine Jaeger? They’re so broad. And the rest of the tail is a worn, ratty disaster. That would explain why it looked so short-tailed in the field. But that bill looks short, stout, and all-dark.
I asked for an underwing shot.
Yeah, that looks barred. But still, that bird was a massive keg.
These photos were entered into the various discussions, and uncertainty ruled as I finally passed out from boat and skua-induced exhaustion.
I awoke – stalled in turning my phone on – and what little glimmer of hope was crushed when I opened some emails from Tony Carapella that clearly showed a Pomarine Jaeger. I mean clearly, unequivocally, without a doubt.
“And upon further review, the call on the field is overturned. After the play, personal foul, unnecessary roughness on the trip leader’s self esteem. 15 yards…”
Sorry, folks, I got this one wrong.
But, hey, the rest of the trip was decent, too, even if we scratched the headliner off the top. Right? Please tell me it’s all OK?
Of course, this wasn’t the only quandary on the day either. Late in the trip, three jaegers gave us the slip. I am hoping someone got some distant photos that might yield a hint, but for now, they will go unidentified. There were also two larger dolphins within a small group of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. Kelsey and I are still trying to figure things out. Stay tuned. They were not skuas, either, however.
Several Northern Fulmars included one that eventually gave fantastic views. We had a few Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Captain Nick did an amazing job getting us a close look at the first one that was loafing on the water. We also had an American Pipit fly-by, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler land in the cabin and rest for a while before departing.
And it was an absolutely, insanely gorgeous day. The water had only a slight ripple, there was virtually no swell, and it was warm with plenty of sun (but just enough high clouds to reduce the glare). There could not be a better day to head into deep water in the Gulf of Maine.
In fact, the unreasonably benign conditions allowed us to motor even further offshore than usual to explore a new area. After finding two of our favorite spots a little, well, low on birds, we headed out about 28 miles to an area we found on the map known as “Mistaken Ground” where the bottom plunged to a depth of 918 feet. I accept the name as a warning that maybe this would not be a good decision. But alas, it was where most of our action was. I could have spent all day here.
While the chum slick failed to work, perhaps because it wasn’t windy enough to waft the odor towards hungry birds, and there were long stretches with virtually no life in sight, overall, we had a solid list for merely 4.5 hours offshore. The proximity to deep water and interesting underwater topography afforded by starting from Boothbay Harbor allows us to run these trips in a shorter timeframe, especially for those learning to get their sea legs. And today was definitely a day for building up one’s oceanic confidence. Confidence in skua identification, however, well, that is another story. Apparently, my “mistaken ground” was thinking I could identify these birds before studying photos on the computer!
Here’s the annotated trip list:
- 8 Canada Geese
- 970 Common Eider
- 113 Surf Scoter
- 12 White-winged Scoters
- 24 Rock Pigeon
- 1 POMARINE JAEGER (see treatise above)
- 1 PARASITIC JAEGER (one of the three distant birds that turned out to be identifiable from photos)
- 2 Unidentified jaegers
- 1 COMMON MURRE (spotted in outer harbor by a few observers)
- 1 Razorbill (confirmed from jaeger photo bomb)
- 9 Black Guillemots
- 7 Black-legged Kittiwakes
- 2 Bonaparte’s Gulls
- 145 Herring Gulls
- 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull
- 51 Great Black-backed Gulls
- 3 NORTHERN FULMAR
- 1 Red-throated Loon
- 15 Common Loons
- 242 Northern Gannets
- 75 Double-crested Cormorants
- 2 Great Blue Herons
- 2 Bald Eagles
- 1 Merlin
- 8 American Crows
- 1 American Pipit
- 1 Yellow-rumped Warbler
- 1 Unidentified passerine.
- 1 Minke Whale
- 1 small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins
- 2 unidentified larger dolphins (still working on ID possibilities but we have no conclusive photos yet)
- 2 Gray Seals
- # Harbor Porpoise
- # Harbor Seals
- 1 Monarch