Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Enjoy Birds on Your Next Whale Watch
July 12, 2014
By Steve Grinley
Now that we are in the “dog days of summer”, when the greenheads have taken over Plum Island and other area marshes, and not much exciting is happening in the local bird world, it may be a good time to take to the water. Taking a whale watching trip out of Newburyport, Gloucester, or Boston is a great way to cool off and to see some exciting fish and mammals. Whales, seals, dolphins, and a variety of fish might be encountered on the open water.
As exciting as the whales may be, we go for the seabirds that are found offshore. A pair of binoculars is all you need to enjoy the many species of birds that you could encounter. Most birds fly relatively close to the boats, some follow the boats as you travel along, and some feed with the whales since these large mammals are able to force schools of fish to the surface, making it easier pickin’s for birds.
Gulls may be the first birds to follow you out of the harbor. They aren’t all just “seagulls”. There are actually four common species of gulls that you are likely to see. Herring gulls are the most common gull with gray mantles and black wing tips, and fewer ring-billed gulls which are smaller and, as their name suggests, have a black ring around their yellow bill in breeding plumage. The smaller still, Bonaparte’s gulls have a black hood in adult summer plumage and flash white in the wings. The largest of all gulls, the great black-backed gull is also common here and their large size the jet black mantle (back and upper wings) is easily recognized.
The small, slimmer, light colored birds with dark caps and rapid wing beats are the terns. Common and least terns nest here, but you might also encounter a roseate or less common tern as you venture further offshore.
Large white birds, that are larger than the gulls, with black wing tips are the adult gannets. They have large, spear-like bills and their wings are set back on their body. As one birder described it: “There is a lot of bird in front of those wings.” These birds sometimes fly close to shore, but are more likely encountered further at sea. Watching them fish as they dive from great heights, hitting the water with a big splash is always a thrill.
Once you are a few miles out, you will likely see some of the shearwaters. Shearwaters have long narrow wings which they use to glide along the surface of the water, using the swells for uplift. This minimizes their need to expend energy by flapping their wings and, thus, they can travel long distances over the water with relatively little effort. Great, sooty, and Cory’s shearwaters are the more common larger shearwaters that you might see. The smaller Manx’s shearwater is also fairly common off of our coast.
The small and dark swallow-like birds that you might see flying along the top of the water are storm-petrels. The Wilson’s storm-petrel is most common, all dark with white at the base of their square tail. They are often seen “dancing” along the water, feeding on plankton.
If you are really lucky, you might catch a glimpse of a jaeger, the “hawks” of the open seas. Their pointed wings remind me of a falcon. These birds are parasites – that is, they steal fish and other foods from gulls and terns. Jaegers are often seen chasing other birds for their food, creating elaborate maneuvers to get their victim to give up their meal!
So if you venture out on a whale watch in the weeks ahead, enjoy the whales. But also look around for some of these birds along the way. They will surely enhance the overall experience!
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