Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Pelagic Birding Along the Massachusetts Coast
February 6, 2010
By Doug Chickering

            There really isn’t anything comparable to standing at the edge of the ocean at Andrews Point on a winter day looking out over the endless expanse of the North Atlantic searching for birds.  Even if the day is still and the sun is out and bright, there is an unavoidable cold off the water that eventually will work its way through the defensive layers of clothing and place a slight chill through the body.  Not only that but it is seldom still.  There is usually a wind, from somewhere, and ironically the birding is best when the wind is from the north east. Which puts it, of course, right in your face.  Still birders endure the discomfort; almost welcome it. At times we seem to be immune from it.  We do it for it is the only way to observe a world which otherwise is completely unavailable.  The world of sea birds.

 Andrews Point in Rockport along with other spots on the Massachusetts Coast, like Race Point on the Cape and Halibut point near Andrews Point afford the best opportunities for sea birds.  They jut out into the ocean and present small obstacles for the regular movement of sea birds.  For the most part birds that live on the ocean are not colorful nor do they entertain us with their songs. They are all but invisible as they live in a world far removed from ours and it takes a special effort to see them.  Shearwaters and Storm-petrels in the summer, and alcids in the winter; they present a challenge but it’s worth the effort; at least for me.

Viewing the Shearwaters and Petrels is a little easier than looking for alcids.  For one thing they populate our summers when the ocean is a great relief instead of a source of pain, and you can always go out in the ocean by way of a whale watch.  The pelagics (birds that live on the ocean) usually feed where the whales are feeding.  The ocean birds of winter are, however a completely different case.  There you have to stand at the waters edge exposed to the ravages of winds that sweep down from Canada and across the water.

Unlike what happens on land, the number of birds off shore in the winter hardly diminishes.  There is plenty to see passing by Andrews Point or Halibut Point, or even the ocean platform at Parking Lot 1 on Plum Island.  Sea ducks like Eider, and Oldsquaw and the strikingly beautiful Harlequin Duck.  There are clusters of Purple Sandpipers; those extraordinary tough little shore birds that cling to the rocks at the edge of the surf and there are the special winter gulls, known as white-winged gulls.  But the stars of the show are the alcids; those black and white birds from the north that can be seen off our waters when the days are short and the winds cold.

In a real sense they are from another world.  They nest on barren rocks in lands that are always shrouded in mist and are wild and foreboding.  Even though we don’t really see many of them their numbers are inclined to be staggeringly huge.  The little Wilson’s Storm-petrel that one might see dancing over the waters of a summer whale watch may be the most numerous birds in the world.  The smallest alcid, the Dovekie, is only seen infrequently off shore but up north they are enormously abundant.  To me it’s a special treat just to spot them way off shore; Razorbills are the most likely to be seen where I go to look; flying in formation, skittering low over the water, or occasionally diving and feeding up close. Black Guillemots frequent the immediate shores in the Bass Rocks area and here and there are the occasional Murre, both Thick-billed and Common.  Like any birding there are good days and bad days. There are days when they are up close and days where you can only glimpse characteristic forms on the horizon.

I have one specific memory of an alcid, a Dovekie, perhaps my favorite bird that I will always carry sharp and clear in my minds eye.  Lois Cooper and I watched this little Starling sized alcid at the mouth of Hoop Pole cove, right next to Andrews Point.  It was a blustery December morning and there was a considerable storm out to sea.  The wind wasn’t much where we stood but great rollers were thundering in from the horizon and breaking in smashing torrents just at the mouth of the cove.  And here at this confluence of turbulence a lone dovekie was swimming and diving.  He appeared to be in imminent peril, so tiny and vulnerable against the harsh crashing surf.  A wave would come in, pile high as it pushed onto the sudden shallows and the little bird would start to float up on the incoming wall of water, and just as the wave broke; just as the foaming turmoil came down on upon him, he would give a little flip with his legs and dive into the wave; emerging seconds later on the other side, unperturbed, safe and presumably unimpressed at the power of the angry sea.  I was extremely impressed however. 

I most certainly like to see something like that again; or any Dovekie for that matter. Fortunately there is plenty of winter left.    

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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