Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Winter Pelagic Boat Trip Challenges Birders
March 13, 2021
By Steve Grinley
Fifty adventurous souls braved below freezing temperatures aboard the five hour Winter Birding Boat Trip hosted by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce and Seven Seas Whale Watch last Saturday out of Gloucester. This annual trip had limited capacity this year, due to Covid restrictions, and sold out quickly. It only goes out about half the time due to the weather. At our 8:00 am departure time, temperature was about 20 degrees with a wind chill close to single digits. The brisk Northwest wind made for a challenging trip.
At the dock, we watched herring and greater black-backed gulls swarm the fishing boats around us. A small flock of common eiders meandered around the piers and a large gray seal did some maneuvers near the boat. A number of birders spotted a black-headed gull, a European species, flying about the buildings, but it disappeared before everyone could see it.
As we made our way out of the harbor, we motored past surf and white-winged scoters, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, several common loons, and many more common eiders. Jim Berry thought he had seen a king eider among the commons, but no one else was able to spot it.
The ride out to Stellwagon Bank, our destination, was almost an hour with little bird activity, typical of east coast pelagics. We did see a few flying alcids – razorbills and common murres – along the way and there were many cameras on board to help with the identification. A few more long-tailed ducks and common loons broke the drought.
The sea was quite choppy so it was hard to spot anything on the water. Our objective was to get to Stellwagon, where more birds typically feed, and cruise at slower speeds in search of more alcids, and other birds, on the water. The wind was at our back so the ride was relatively smooth.
As we neared our destination, more razorbills and common murres on the water, diving to feed. We had great looks at a number of common murres. Several kittiwakes, a gull of the open ocean, were seen flying in the wind past the boat. A couple of dovekies were spotted, but it difficult for many birders to “get on” these smaller 8 inch alcids that are just half the size of murres and razorbills. One was spotted right next to the boat and Margo and I were able to watch it fly away from us. Not great looks, but a dovekie for sure.
After cruising at Stellwagon for an hour or so, Captain Jay’s plan was then to head east to get back closer to the coast look for more birds. Well, the high speed ride back toward land headed us more into the wind, and the big seas made us concentrate more on “hanging on” and less on spotting birds.
After being jousted around a bit, we finally slowed again a few miles off Salem/Beverly Harbor and turned to follow the coast past Beverly, Beverly Farms and Magnolia. We were now able to spot more common murres and razorbills, and added black guillemots to our list of alcids. Great cormorants flew past close past the boat and more ducks were evident.
As we neared Gloucester Harbor we circled a large flock of common eider, hoping to maybe spot the king eider that Jim thought he saw. When the Captain slowed the boat to allow us to drift toward the eider flock without spooking them, we finally spotted a beautiful male king eider in their midst. It’s blue head and bright orange shield helped many birders spot it before the flock moved on.
We cruised the edges of the outer harbor and found more ducks including common golden-eye and bufflehead. As we entered the harbor, Margo spotted a thick-billed murre just inside the dogbar jetty. Everyone was able to get good looks at this bird, and maybe spotted a second one nearby. This species was a fifth alcid for the trip, and only a rare Atlantic puffin could have made it more!
The temperature in Gloucester had warmed to around 30 degrees upon our return with continued brisk wind. But it was a morning with good birds. I think most were pleased with the results of this successful, but challenging, winter boat ride.