Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Birders Challenged By Storm
January 30, 2016
By Steve Grinley

     Last Saturday’s storm was supposed to be a “non-issue north of Boston”, as one weatherman put it, so we picked up our young friend Sam in Georgetown and headed for Cape Ann. We met our friends MaryMargaret and Paul in Essex and we piled into one vehicle and headed to Gloucester. Our first stop was going to be the Jodrey State Pier in Gloucester Harbor, hoping to see the Thick-billed Murre that was reported there the previous few days. That would be a life bird for Sam.

     As we stepped out of the car at the Pier, we immediately felt the increasing winds that were gusting well above 30mph, making the temperature in the 20’s feel like the teens or worse. Still, we scoped the ducks, which included Common Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, Surf Scoters, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and a pair of Greater Scaup. The gulls were mainly Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls. I spotted a couple of wintering Iceland (Kumlien’s) Gulls, one adult and one immature. It was Sam who first spotted the larger Glaucous Gull, a life bird for him!

     We also saw a Common Loon in the harbor, but there was no sign of the Thick-billed Murre that we were hoping for. There were other birders at the pier that were also looking, and it wasn’t until we had just about given up and I was collapsing my tripod, when one of the them said “I have the Murre!”

     It was a long way off in the middle of the harbor and it took our larger scopes at fifty to seventy power to get a good enough view for a positive identification. It wasn’t a terribly satisfying look, but Sam had a good enough view to identify it for his life bird! We drove around either side of the harbor to try to get closer view of the Murre, but we couldn’t relocate it from the vantage points we tried.

     We then headed to Eastern Point and the Dogbar Breakwater to search for a Black-headed Gull that was seen there in recent days. The wind gusts there were approaching 40mph, so we kept looking from inside the car. I did take out a scope and crouched beside the car to try to stay out of the wind, and looked at the few gulls that were perched on the breakwater. Just the usual Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls were hunkered down in the wind, and no Purple Sandpipers were clinging to the rocks. (We later learned that the Black-headed Gull was seen before and after we were there!)

     We then headed to Niles Pond and Brace Cove on the other side of Eastern Point. There was only a swimming pool size hole in the ice at Niles Pond where a number of gulls, a few ducks and a lone Mute Swan were hanging out. We scoped them as best we could in the cold and wind, but could only find the “usual suspects.” Only a couple of Loons and Goldeneye were in Brace Cove, but Margo did spot a Cooper’s Hawk fly over the dike between the pond and the cove.

     We made our way along Bass Rocks, looking for Purple Sandpipers or an Alcid, but we saw few birds, except for an occasional Scoter, Goldeneye, or Merganser. We stopped near the Elks Lodge and spent some time scoping the ocean, looking for the elusive King Eider that was infrequently reported this season. This would be another life bird for Sam. We saw Common Eider, White-winged Scoter, Common Loons, and Red-breasted Mergansers. We also could see a few crazy surfers riding the six to twelve foot swells at Good Harbor Beach. But we saw no King Eider.

     We continued around Cape Ann, stopping at Good Harbor Beach, Pebbly Beach, Loblolly Cove, and Straitsmouth Cove without finding any different birds. During a stop at Rockport Harbor, I checked my email and saw a post about a King Eider being seen twenty minutes prior, seen in with the Common Eider at Andrew’s Point in Rockport. We immediately headed for Andrew’s Point, a short ten minutes away.

     Andrew’s Point and Halibut Point are two points of land that jut out into the ocean on the northeast corner of Cape Ann. They are both favorite birding “hot spots” for watching seabirds from land. During nor’easter storms, such as the one we were experiencing last Saturday, birders can watch pelagic birds such as Gannets, Kittiwakes, Alcids, and Sea Ducks, being blown close to shore. The bad news is that the wind, and any precipitation resulting from the nor’easter are being blown into one’s face. Though there was no precipitation (yet) with this storm, the wind was blowing in sea spray from the six to twelve foot ocean swells. Add to that the wind chill, and you can only imagine the trying conditions that are created for attempting to watch birds during a storm from these points of land!

     As we pulled up to Andrew’s Point, conditions seemed even worse than I have described here. We tried angling the car so everyone could see, but the wipers were needed for viewing out the windshield. The side windows were quickly covered with sea spray so lowering the window was the only way to see out. Lowering the windows brought the sea spray inside, and that quickly coated our binocular lenses. 

     We got out of the car and pulled out our scopes and tried to block the wind with the car or a nearby house. Little helped. Luckily the raft of Common Eiders was close to shore and we could scan with our binoculars. We could even watch Gannets and Kittiwakes fly by us fairly close in with the binoculars.

     In addition to the challenge of the wind and the sea spray, the large swells permitted only a brief few seconds to see any bird before it disappeared behind a wall of water. Scoping helped us see Harlequin Ducks and Surf Scoters in with the Eider. After a lot of time had passed, some of us caught glimpses of the King Eider. We tried desperately to get Sam on the bird, but there were few points of reference that we could use and the bird would disappear as quickly as we found it.

     Most of us kept retreating to the car to get out of the wind and to warm up. MaryMargaret did not. She persisted, staring at the water with her scope, getting periodic looks at the King Eider and trying to stay on it to give Sam a fighting chance to see it. Sam was a trooper too, staying out longer than most of us, trying to get a satisfying look at this special bird. But I feared that this experience would be the ruin of a wonderful hobby for our young friend. I thought that this “non-event” storm would do him in.

     Then it happened. A little divine intervention I suspect. There was suddenly a pool of calm between two ocean swells where Sam could get a prolonged look at the handsome King Eider. “Wow!” we heard Sam exclaim as a smile came over his face. It is a sound, accompanied by an ear-to-ear grin, that has become familiar to us when Sam sees a bird for the first time. For over a minute he enjoyed the thrill of finally seeing the King Eider. A well-earned life bird for Sam, and year bird for us all!

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
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Newburyport, MA 01950
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