Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Searching For #300 is a Challenge
July 11, 2015
By Steve Grinley
Although our thirteen year-old friend, Sam Mroz, has only been birding for about two years, his life list is already approaching 300 birds. Sam started birding when he lived in Seattle, shortly before he moved here to Massachusetts a year and a half ago. He, therefore, had a number of western birds on his list before he proceeded to add our eastern species. His sharp identification skills have certainly contributed to the quick climb of life list.
Sam was six birds away from the magic 300 last weekend when we planned to take him to see the nesting Mississippi Kites in Newmarket, New Hampshire and then go on an afternoon whale watch to try to find him some new pelagic species. At this year’s kite nest site, there was no activity at all, and though we spent about an hour scouring the area, we only caught a glimpse of a probable first year kite flying low through the trees.
We then went the elementary school where kites had been reported this past week. After a short time, we did see an adult kite soaring high over the trees behind the school. We saw it a second time, giving us reasonable looks and it dove into the trees. We hoped for even a better look for Sam’s life bird so we decided to search the neighborhood behind the school which, though it took a couple of hours, gave us closer looks at the kite in flight for Sam.
We had planned to do the afternoon whale watch out of Cape Ann which is closer to Stellwagon Bank where the whales and birds are, but our kite search had taken much longer than expected. We had just enough time to make the Newburyport Whale Watch. This was Sam’s first whale watch, so most pelagic birds would be life birds for Sam, so we hoped for the best.
Before we embarked, we knew that Sam was at 295, five away from 300. So we reviewed the possibilities for our trip. There were 4 shearwaters possible, northern gannet, Wilson’s storm petrel, and any jaeger would be a life bird. It seemed very do-able.
As we left the harbor, we found a roseate tern among the common terns on the under-construction Salisbury breakwater. Roseate tern was a recent life bird for Sam that we had found for him a couple of days previous at Stage Island Pool on Plum Island. After we cleared the breakwaters, I saw a large tern heading toward us from the Salisbury side. It was a Royal tern, displaying its large, yellow-orange bill. Sam and Margo got on the bird before it flew directly over the boat as it headed south toward Plum Island. An unexpected life bird for Sam!
As we headed further out we were cautiously optimistic. The next birds we encountered were northern gannets. The first gannet was an immature and not the best look. The next was closer to maturity with mostly white body and wings and black wing tips. Another life bird for Sam!
Next, we encountered a Wilson’s storm-petrel and eventually many more. These small, swallow like birds with white rumps are one on the most numerous birds on the ocean. A third life bird for Sam.! We were three away from the magic 300.
We passed by a minke whale on the way to an area where the Whale Watch Naturalist said they had whale reports, but we found nothing there when we arrived. After much searching, we encountered a fin whale that was being watched by other whale watch boats from New Hampshire and elsewhere. The fin whale, and a distant humpback were not drawing many birds. We did encounter a couple of Cory’s shearwaters among the search for whales,and Sam was able to get one more bird added to his life list making 299!
But the remainder of the trip was uneventful and we arrived back in Newburyport one shy of his goal. Sam was going to try to hear a whip-poor-will one evening this week on Plum Island for number 300. We wish him luck. If not, we wonder what number 300 might be for him this weekend?
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