Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Numerous Mammals and Birds Entertain Whale Excursions
July 19, 2014
By Steve Grinley
If last week’s column inspired you to go out on a whale watch last weekend, you were in for a treat! I took my own advise (which I don’t always do), and we embarked on the Captain John boat out of Plymouth last Saturday along with some fellow birders from the Brookline Bird Club and the South Shore Bird Club. It was nothing less than awesome – the best whale watch I have ever been on – both in terms of number of whales and the number of birds!
The boat took us off the tip of Cape Cod, off Race Point and Provincetown, where schools of bait fish had attracted a large number of mammals and birds. Whale watches out of Gloucester, Boston or and Provincetown were also there to enjoy the show. I didn’t see the Newburyport Whale Watch boat, it may be too far for them to travel in a half day trip and they likely often go to Jeffrey’s Ledge instead of Stellwagon Bank. I did hear that there were good numbers of whales and birds on Jeffrey’s Ledge, just not the spectacular numbers that we experienced that day.
I have been on many whale watches that encountered one or two whales, maybe as many as six if we were lucky. If a whale was spotted, the whole deck of people would shift to that side of the boat to catch a glimpse. Sound familiar?
Not so on this excursion. We were blessed with thirty-two whales! Most were humpbacks, but we did see a few small Minke whales. They were all around the boat most of the time we were off Cape Cod, so everyone had great views without moving from their side of the boat. Often there were multiple whales just off the boat, some mothers with calves, some whales bubble feeding, others breaching at the same time. It was such an amazing display!
Oh, yes, then there were the birds! It started off rather slow as we crossed Massachusetts Bay from Plymouth. A single Wilson’s storm-petrel was seen by a few people, but missed by most. But as we neared the southern edge of Stellwagon bank, a Cory’s shearwater was spotted, then another and another. By the time we reached the area of bait where the whales were congregated, we were riding past rafts of shearwaters. We were seeing mostly Cory’s, but a small number of great and sooty shearwaters were in the mix. Only one small Manx shearwater was found, but nearly everyone had good looks at it.
We estimated about fifteen hundred shearwaters, mostly Cory’s, and less than a hundred of great and sooty shearwaters. The views were amazing as so many birds flew right by the boat, providing great photo opportunities for those with cameras. Margo got a great photo of a Cory’s shearwater which you can see here:https://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/14478491478
A few more Wilson’s storm-petrels were also seen. There were hundreds of terns and, of course, thousands of gulls, including hundreds of laughing gulls which we don’t see as often on the North Shore. It was fun to see the gulls try to steal bait from the whales, sometimes sitting of the head of the whale during the feeding process.
There may have been a few different birds we missed among the rafts of birds we passed, but the focus of this trip was whales. We may have had more variety of birds on some of the dedicated birding pelagic trips we have taken when we travelled further offshore and put out “chum” to attract the birds. But for a casual half-day whale watch trip, this one was truly memorable!
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