Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Whale Watching with a Side of Birds
July 20, 2019
By Steve Grinley
The mid-summer heat tends to keep things quiet in the bird world. Nesting is still going on for many species and young birds are being introduced to feeders as a supplemental source of food. We still see many of the woodpeckers and other birds carrying off food to feed the fledglings that are likely hiding under the protection of thick foliage.
Some of the orioles have dispersed already, taking advantage of the bountiful insect population for their protein diet. Some orioles may have already started their journey back to the tropics of Central and South America. Other orioles may stop by for a quick jelly fix on their way from further north if you keep the jelly available.
One way to beat the heat and summer doldrums is to take a boat out onto the open seas. We enjoy the occasional whale watch to get us close to the large mammals of the ocean and to see some of the different oceanic birds that we seldom see close to land. Often times birds will feed near the feeding whales which makes the birds easier to find on the open water.
Visiting family from Nebraska and New York this past week gave us the opportunity to do just that. We like to use the 7 Seas Whale Watch in Gloucester, piloted by birder, whale biologist, and Captain Jay Frontierro. Jay, along with his naturalists and crew share their knowledge of the birds and mammals of the seas.
As we boarded the boat, Jay did forewarn me that there were not many tubenoses so far this season, very few shearwaters or fulmars which are some of the birds that we sought after on the ocean. But we also came for the whales, which would be new to the 6 year-old corn husker and the12 year-old from New York. Jay assured us there were “plenty of those.”
As we cruised out of Gloucester Harbor we saw many common eider ducks along the rocky edges and double-crested cormorants were on the rocks as well as fishing in the water. A few barn and tree swallows were over the water catching flying insects. A lone common loon dove as we motored by.
Before we could round the end of the Dog Bar Breakwater and head for open water, a Wilson’s Storm Petrel was already foraging back and forth along the water fairly close to the boat. These all-dark birds with white rumps look like giant swallows, often “dancing” on the top of the water with their long legs to find food. We were hoping that our seeing one so close to shore might have been a good sign of more birds along the route.
But that was not to be the case. There were small numbers of storm petrels all along our journey, some coming quite close to the boat. I was able to spot a couple of birds that looked like Leach’s Storm Petrels with longer, bent wings and more direct flight. I saw that one clearly had a forked tail, which the Wilson’s does not, and its feet were not as long as a Wilson’s, not protruding beyond the tail.
Other than the storm petrels, and a couple of immature gannets flying by some distance away, there were no other birds except an occasional gull or tern. So it was the whales that kept our attention. Jay was right-we had a half dozen or more humpback whales, most fairly close to the boat. Some were foraging, others made deep dives, flashing their uniquely patterned under-tails as they went down.
A few were “bubble feeding” releasing bubbles that surrounded the fish as they rose, “netting” the fish for the whale to enjoy with open mouth, only to filter the water out, catching small fish within their baleen, the hair-like “teeth” in their mouths. Usually this bubble feeding attracts gulls, terns, and other birds that try to steal fish that the whales miss, sometimes stealing it right out of their mouths,, but not on this trip. In fact, we saw no dolphin, no sharks, so sunfish, no turtles and no other ocean life out there. Except we did get to see one fin whale, the second largest whale only to blue whales. That was really cool for us, and our guests, to see.
And so we returned with few birds, but with lots of whale activity, and a refreshing trip on the cool ocean on a hot summer’s day.
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