Tag Archives: Pacific Loon

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.

This Week’s Highlights, 2/26-3/4, 2022

There are few better places to photograph Wood Ducks in Maine than Abbott’s Pond (aka the “York Duck Pond”) in York. A quick stop here on Friday with clients visiting from Texas afforded some great photo ops!

It was a busy – and exceptionally productive – birding week for me! The extensive list of highlights – including two full days of private guiding which cleaned up on most of our regular wintering species in southern Maine – were as follows:

  • 7 BARROW’S GOLDENEYES, Winslow Park, Freeport, 2/26 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk Group). Two days later, on 2/28, Allison Anholt, Cameron Cox, Jeannette, and I had an incredible EIGHT birds (4 pairs). This is my highest count here (or anywhere else in southern Maine) in nearly a decade.  At least 6 were still present on 3/3 (with clients from Texas). 
  • 1 first-winter Glaucous Gull, Winslow Park, Freeport, 2/26 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk Group).
  • 1 interesting, likely hybrid GLAUCOUS GULL X HERRING GULL, Bath Landfill, 3/1 (with Jeannette).  Showing characteristics consistent of this fairly-regular hybrid pair, the much darker primaries suggest the possibility of a second-generation hybrid – perhaps a backcross with a Herring Gull. Discussion on this bird continues but this is the current consensus. Unfortunately, the phone-scoped photos were further challenged by photographing through the debris netting.
  • 1 drake Northern Pintail, Falmouth Town Landing, 3/2.
  • 1 2nd winter Iceland Gull, Mill Creek Cove, South Portland, 3/3 (with clients from Texas).
  • 1 Killdeer (FOY), Fort Williams Park, Cape Elizabeth, 3/3 (with clients from Texas).
  • 4 Brant, Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth, 3/3 (with clients from Texas).
  • 3 Green-winged Teal, Bayshore Road, Falmouth, 3/3 (with clients from Texas).
  • 1 first-winter Iceland Gull, Winslow Park, 3/3 (with clients from Texas).
  • 25 Horned Larks, 1 pair American Wigeon, 1 pair Northern Pintails, etc, The Pool, Biddeford Pool, 3/4 (with clients from Texas).
  • 1 continuing PACIFIC LOON, The Cliff House, York (with clients from Texas).
  • 1 continuing pair Wood Ducks and 1 female Green-winged Teal, Abbott’s Pond, York, (with clients from Texas). Photo above.

10/11/21 Boothbay Mini-Pelagic with Cap’n Fish’s Cruises.

Well that sure was fun!  What a day!  All the superlatives.

Fall pelagics in the Gulf of Maine are few and far between, especially in October. With whale watches ending early to mid-month each year, opportunities to board vessels to look for seabirds become greatly limited. There’s so much to learn about what is out there at this time of year.

Furthermore, fall weather is temperamental, and planning for a day of deep-sea birding months in advance is a crapshoot. And even when the conditions are great, there are days where there just seems to be no life out there. I’ve certainly been on whale watches in October without a single non-gannet seabird.  Those can be long days, especially in rough seas.

Monday was NOT one of those days. In fact, it was incredible. Following up on our success of last year’s trip on October 12, and several extremely productive whale watches over the years with our partners for this tour, Cap’n Fish’s Cruises, we had high hopes, but reasonable expectations. Because pelagics. In the Gulf of Maine. In October.

The first of our wishes had come true: the boat was going to run!  Although there would be some swell offshore (and there was), there was no concern about getting far offshore today. The winds were light, the air was warm, and it was basically about the nicest day one could hope for in a normal October in Maine.

So that was a good start. But soon, it got even better.  Shockingly so.

Just a few minutes out of the dock, a few folks spotted what they thought was a Red-throated Loon. I took a look, expecting the first Red-throated Loon of the season, but was shocked when I saw the puffy head and bright gray nape of what could only have been a Pacific Loon!  In full breeding plumage!

What the what?

This stunning bird – rare but regular in Maine but extremely rare in such stunning breeding plumage – was with a Common Loon right off our bow. And we had not yet even left the harbor’s no-wake zone.

We were in the boat channel, and luckily, there was no traffic coming or going, so Captain Steve adeptly turned us around and we slowly worked our way closer to the loon, attempting to get the bird in the best light possible for photographs.  And this was no easy feat – we were in a narrow channel and if there were any other boats coming or going, this maneuver might not have even been possible. But alas, luck was with us already, and many folks had a life bird, year-bird, or “life-plumage” before we even left the harbor. I for one was not ready for this…I was still organizing, and we were still plotting a course! And I clearly needed to finish that cup of coffee (words? What are words? And how do I use them again?)

Could this day get any better?  Spoiler alert: it did.

The great thing about our partnership with Cap’n Fish’s is that we have a great, fast, comfortable boat that can cover a lot of ground when we need to. However, there’s something special about this area at this time of year that means we usually don’t have to. In fact, shortly after clearing Damariscove Island, we started picking up Northern Gannets and the first few scattered Great Shearwaters. There just wasn’t a long stretch of “worthless” ground to be transited before we start to see life.  This was even more evident on the way back, as we were tallying seabirds until we were right up to the eastern side of Damariscove.

In between, we covered a fair amount of ground at a steady speed, setting two chum slicks over promising areas. Covering a couple of ledges and a long contour line where we have had great success in the past, there was rarely any lengths of time we didn’t have a pelagic species or two.  We never went further than 20-25 miles offshore, mostly working an area near the Portland ship channel that has been productive for us in the past. At times we were in waters up to 500ft deep but were more interested in places where upwelling might occur – such as near ledges, ridges, or “holes.”

Unfortunately, birds were just not excited about the chum today, so we didn’t have a ton of birds close enough to touch. But, our captain did his best to get us close to the occasional raft of loafing Great Shearwaters for example.  Northern Fulmars seemed to be “sniffing out” our offerings, but excitement never developed. Lots of great, close passes however, with others sitting on the water here and there. I was conservative in my count as I thought 4 birds were making a wide circle around us for a spell, but it’s possible there were a lot more individuals.

Great Shearwaters

I now expect Atlantic Puffins off this boat at this time of year, but we did not expect to tally 32 of them (which seems quite low in hindsight). I was surprised to not see any Razorbills until we were almost back inshore, but then we had some good looks within site of the outer islands.

It took photo review to confirm the two jaegers (including one frustratingly distant one) as the expected species, Pomarine. But still, any day with a jaeger is a good day.

There was a good 2-4 foot swell offshore, but little chop. You could feel the roll though, and a few sharp turns were definitely noticed. It was just enough to limit how quickly we could stop on a dime and go back for a loafing bird, or change course to chase down a jaeger. But overall, it was a decidedly pleasant day on the water!

I think most people would have been satisfied if the only “good” bird was the Pacific Loon, but we had a challenger for best bird of the day. Now, the looks we had and the gorgeous plumage of the loon put it ahead for many, but from a rarely-encountered perspective – along with the fact that this is THE bird(s) we hope for on this trip – the excitement among participants reached its crescendo when I yelled the magic word: “SKUUUUUUUAAAAAAAAA!”

Just about 2/3rds of the way through the trip and about 20miles offshore, a dark, menacing terror of the ocean came roaring towards us and passed in front of the bow. It took a half-hearted swing at a Herring Gull before, unfortunately, continuing on. I spotted it as it was coming towards us at 11:00 (the bow of the boat is 12:00), but most folks got on it only as it came out of the sun glare by 1:00 or so. Therefore, most of our photos are of the bird heading away.

My initial reaction was Great Skua based on my impression of a reddish-tone to the upperparts in particular. I thought I saw a darker crown and I didn’t see a pale blaze on the face. Great Skua is a little more likely in this season, but we are still far from understanding the true ranges of it, and its southern Atlantic counterpart, the South Polar Skua, and especially differences in age classes (and their respective molt patterns).

However, after trying my best to give useful and enunciated directions to all the observers on board, I got back on the bird to study it only as it was going away. I was surprised by the cold, dark brown appearance it now had, as opposed to that first impression.

We threw out some chum to try and stir the pot, but it just kept going. We began a chase, but that did not last long – the skua smoked us!

The first photo I looked on the back of a camera seemed to confirm the reddish tone that would be indicative of Great Skua.

So that temporarily confirmed the call on the field, but as I made clear, I wanted to review as many photos as possible. And as I began to receive them, I could not get over how most of them showed a very dark, cold South Polar-like color impression.

The instant replay was now under review. Some skuas are straightforward, but this was not one of them, in large part because of the distance it passed and the lighting we were able to photograph it in. I have sent photos to several friends more fluent in skua than I, and I awaited their analysis. There are a few things that are just not computing for me, but I – like 99.9% of birders – just don’t have enough experience with skuas, especially in fall when many are a molting mess.

Unfortunately, a head-on or side shot might give us a definitive head pattern, but that is not apparently in existence. The lack of blond streaks on the back is a knock against Great, but some non-adults are really dark and minimally streaked at this season. And no photos show the nape, either.

So this is the best that we have to go on at the moment.  I’ve included a series of photos here, and more can be found on eBird. I will update this blog as I receive more information and continue to study the incoming photos  but I do believe at this time that this is a 1st-year South Polar Skua. That would explain the pattern of molt (similar to what an adult Great Skua should look like now) and those worn outer primaries that gave many folks – myself included – an impression of a paler, warmer brown. Also, those new coverts on the upperparts are so blackish – I can’t seem to find photos of Great Skuas suggesting that kind of deep, dark color. (I will add comments and commentary at the end of this entry as I receive them. I’ll also update the photo suite if I receive anything new and revelatory.)

Anyway, skuas are awesome, even if their identity is often in question  – and realistically, cannot always be answered. But we had _a_ skua, any skua, and that is the apex of a fall pelagic trip, especially the further west and south you get.

(Oh, and since I am thinking of it, here’s a link to the pelagic-by-cruiseship that Jeannette and I investigated a few years back. That was a skua fest and resulted in my first confirmed Great Skua for Maine – which had been a nemesis until then. We were talking about this trip on the boat and wanted to share the link. )

So yeah, a Pacific Loon and a <insert identity> Skua! Lots of puffins, Great Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars (another target of the season), and so much more. And yes, we had a couple of Minke Whales, lots of Harbor Porpoise and Harbor Seals, several schools of Bluefin Tuna, and a really lovely pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. 

The following counts were adjusted to reflect total number of individuals (and not double-counting birds in and around the harbor while traveling to and fro) tallied in separate eBird transects kept by my trusty co-leader, chummer, and list-keeper, Ian Carlsen.

I’ve annotated the checklist with photos from Jeannette and others, as I received them. I’ll add more, especially if any pertinent to the skua ID discussion surface.

  • 500+ Common Eiders
  • 300+ Herring Gulls
  • 173 Great Shearwaters
  • 100+ Double-crested Cormorants
  • 85+ Great Black-backed Gulls
  • 94 Northern Gannets
  • 32 ATLANTIC PUFFINS (high!)
  • 31 Rock Pigeons (dock)
  • 16 Common Loons
  • 15 Black Guillemots
  • 12 NORTHERN FULMARS
  • 8 Razorbills
  • 3 Bald Eagles
  • 2 POMARINE JAEGERS

Bird #1:

Bird #2:

  • 1 Surf Scoter
  • 1 SOUTH POLAR SKUA (*see discussion above)
  • 1 Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile)
  • 1 PACIFIC LOON (no, seriously!)

Today was a good day!

Skua Identification feedback (coming soon):

  • From Michael O’Brien:

“It’s tough to see much detail on this bird, so hard to be 100% sure about it. Having said that, I think I would lean toward a first year South Polar. It has fresh inner primaries, which fits the molt pattern of an adult Great or first year South Polar. The outer primaries seem quite worn/faded, which is why I’m thinking it’s a first year bird with old juv outer primaries. In terms of color, it seems fairly cold toned, and in particular, what looks like fresh greater coverts seem dark and cold toned vs normally paler, warmer, and more mottled (and contrasting with darker secondaries) on a Great. So that’s my take on it, at the risk of reading too much into some distant photos! “

A Very Jersey Christmas

A whirlwind Christmas trip to my homeland of New Jersey was filled with fun and festivities with friends and family.  Birding time was limited in this visit, but Jeannette and I simply had to spend at least one day birding in the “deep south.”

Arriving on Christmas morning, we took Sasha for a stroll around my Mom’s neighborhood, enjoying Carolina Chickadees and goodly numbers of things like Carolina Wrens and Red-bellied Woodpeckers.  A similar suite of species greeted us the next morning at nearby Turkey Swamp Park.  In the afternoon, a big vulture roost a couple of blocks away from a friend’s house gave us the chance to enjoy Black Vultures, along with bunches of Turkey Vultures.

Friday the 27th was our big birding day however, and we elected for the “North Shore Tour,” one of my favorite NJ winter birding tours.  Covering ponds, inlets, and ocean from Point Pleasant Beach north through Monmouth Beach, we tallied a respectable 22 species of waterfowl, and found a few goodies.

LittleSilverMany of the ponds remain open in the winter nowadays, and concentrate nice numbers of waterfowl.  Since they are surrounded by development and activity, the birds are often fairly confiding and approachable, affording great opportunities for photographs, such as this shoveling Northern Shoveler…

NSHO1…and these Ruddy Ducks…

RUDU…and other waterbirds such as this Great Blue Heron.

GBHE

The goal of this tour is for 25 species of waterfowl.  (A very long day that begins at Barnegat Lighthouse and ends at Sandy Hook has the potential for 30 species of waterfowl).  I later learned that siltation – augmented by flooding from Hurricane Sandy – has limited the number of diving ducks, and less emergent non-phragmite vegetation has limited lingering dabbling ducks.  Twenty-five seems like a lofty goal, but we were off to a good start.  Two American Wigeons in Lake Louise – our only wigeons of the day – were our tenth species, after only four stops.

Arriving at the Manasquan Jetty at the north end of Point PleasantBeach, we began to add seaducks to the list, but then I spotted a Pacific Loon!  A rarity and “review-list” bird in New Jersey (like most of the East), we set off to document it.  It soon disappeared behind the jetty to the north, and we raced around the inlet to look for it from ManasquanBeach.  It took a while, but we finally found it, and I set about attempting to phone-scope it – a distinct challenge on a distant, actively-feeding loon.  Then we lost it.

A text-blast resulted in a birder being on the seen in a matter of minutes, soon followed by our good friend Scott who joined us for most of the rest of the afternoon.  The bird finally reappeared, and I did manage a series of “documentation” shots.  This was the “best” of the lot:

PALO1Purple Sandpipers, Dunlin, and Sanderlings were on the jetties, and a 1st-winter Iceland Gull was at Fisherman’s Cove.  We had stalled at 15 species of waterfowl however (including many hundreds of Brant in the ManasaquanRiver), but we had more important things on the agenda – like lunch, and our first “slices” of the trip.  Even average pizza in NJ is better than 98% of the cardboard and ketchup served in Maine, so this was definitely a priority.

Refueled, we returned to the coast, and worked our way north with Scott.  An adult Lesser Black-backed Gull at SylvanLake and 8 Snow Buntings at the mouth of the SharkRiver were other highlights, but waterfowl were the stars of the show, such as these Hooded Mergansers.

Scanning the ocean again from the end of Roosevelt Avenue in Deal, Scott spotted ANOTHER Pacific Loon – 2 ½ hours after the first bird (although only 10-15 miles or so apart) we believed this to be a bona fide second bird, which is exceptional in NJ.  I’ve certainly never seen two PALO in the same day in the state.  This time, the bird was much closer, so Jeannette took over the documentation.

PALO-2aIncluding this nice comparison shot with a Red-throated Loon.

PALO-2bA pair of Wood Ducks on Lake Tackanassee put us at 21 species of waterfowl on the day, with the hopes for one more up the road. Scott had to depart, but gave us instructions on how to look for a massive aggregation of scoters that had been building off of MonmouthBeach.

damageAlthough this section of the coast was not as badly devastated by Hurricane Sandy, plenty of evidence of her destruction was readily apparent.

We saw plenty of Black Scoters from various locales, but the big group of 3-4000 birds alone (80-90% Black, a few White-wings, and the rest Surf) were across the street from the Monmouth Beach Cultural Center.  The sun was getting low, and many of the birds were quite distant in the outgoing tide, but we still managed to tease our two immature male King Eiders – our 22nd and final waterbirds species of this most productive and enjoyable day of birding the JerseyShore.

Saturday was the Pinstripe Bowl at Yankee Stadium, so Jeannette and I joined a bunch of friends for a train ride to and from the game.  An unseasonably warm and beautifully sunny day made for a very enjoyable bowl experience, at least until the last seven minutes of the game when Notre Dame pulled away from my beloved Rutgers.  During TV timeouts, Jeannette and I kept an eye open overhead, yielded a stadium list of 7 species: Ring-billed and Herring Gulls, Turkey Vulture, Red-tailed Hawk, European Starling, Rock Pigeon, and House Sparrow. No bird lists were kept for the pre- and post-game bars.

We had plans to bird in Connecticut with a friend on our way home on Sunday, but with the next storm rapidly approaching, we hit the road early and somehow stayed just ahead of the storm – nothing more than light rain or sprinkles from southern Connecticut all of the way to Freeport. Although light rain caught up with us as we had lunch in Meriden, CT, it was worth it as we visited the famous Ted’s for the local specialty, steamed cheeseburgers.

Teds

IMG_2321

We also tallied raptors on our drive home, including a goodly count of 47 Red-tailed Hawks.  Three Turkey Vultures (NJ), 1 American Kestrel (NJ), and 1 Cooper’s Hawk (NY) were added to the road list.

Rain began to fall in earnest soon after we returned, and a couple of hours later snow began to fall heavily. Another 6 ¼ inches accumulated by morning as Sasha and I broke trail at The Hog.  Yup, we’re back in the north…and quite happy about it.  It was a great trip, but it’s always good to be home.

Happy New Year everyone!