Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Watching Whales and Birds is Unpredictable
July 25, 2015
By Steve Grinley

     Last weekend’s hot and humid weather prompted us to take another whale watch to try and see shearwaters, storm-petrels and other pelagic birds. The one we took out of Newburyport a couple of weeks ago was rather uneventful, but there have since been reports of many whales and birds near the southern end of Stellwagon Bank, nearer the tip of Cape Cod.

     So we decided to go out on the 7 Seas Whale Watch out of Gloucester on Sunday morning because Captain Jay Frontierro is a long time birder and if anyone can find birds (and whales), he can!

     We were joined on the tour by our friend, Phil Brown. Phil normally likes to keep both feet on dry land, so we figured that if he was going out on the boat, it should be smooth sailing on this warm, calm morning. And it was. Captain Jay said that we were going to head to the northwest corner of Stellwagon because he had whales, and birds, there yesterday.

     As we headed out, we saw two Wilson’s storm–petrels flying out of the harbor and past the Dogbar breakwater off Eastern Point. Now that was a good sign, we thought. A couple of pelagic birds so close to land! It promised to be a great trip – or so we thought.

     One thing that you learn as a bird watcher, or a watcher of any wildlife, is that nature is never predictable. Birds or whales that were in one area on one day aren’t necessarily going to be there the next day, or the next hour for that matter. Such was the case this trip. We got to the northwest corner of Stellwagon and no whales, and only a few storm-petrels and gulls en route.

     We kept heading south, with nothing but water all around us. Two hours into it and we were beginning to think it was going to be another disappointing trip. After all, it was only scheduled to be little more than a four-hour trip. But with Captain Jay at the helm, we still had hope.

     Then we saw a sooty shearwater go by the boat. Then another. All of a sudden one of the crew spotted a humpback whale ahead. We came within a hundred feet of it, but then Captain Jay announced that we were going to steam ahead for another minute or two to where there were reports of many more whales. We could see more boats ahead and everyone got excited!

     It wasn’t long before we were completely surrounded by humpback whales and birds! Whales were bubble feeding all around us, some right next to the boat. Groups of eight and even twelve humpback whales were bubble feeding together, something I had never seen before. We would see the water bubbling up to the surface and then one head would appear, and then several, and within seconds many whales would surface filtering water through their open mouths. We watched in awe as gulls tried to pluck fish from a whale’s mouth, while another might land on the whales “nose”.

     And birds? Oh, yes, there were hundreds of shearwaters all around. Many were grouped on the surface of the water while others were flying all among the gulls. Most were Cory’s and great shearwaters, with many sooty shearwaters also present. We did find a couple of smaller Manx shearwaters in the mix. Tens of Wilson’s storm-petrels were also flying around and feeding. We also spotted a laughing gull or two among the hundred’s of herring, ring-billed, and great black-backed gulls.

     But the whales stole the show this trip. It took over two hours and 28 miles to find them, but it was worth it! There were more than forty whales in this area and the crew was able to identify twenty-one different individuals by their tail pattern. There was a mother with calf diving and feeding together, and many whales were next to and even under the boat! Captain Jay and many of the crew said that this was the best whale watches that they have ever been on (and Jay’s been at it for 25 years!) 

     Phil posted a photo on his Flickr site at https://www.flickr.com/photos/nebirdsplus/19813109866/in/faves-24246528@N05 and you can find more photos and video on the 7 Seas website https://www.7seaswhalewatch.com.Just click on the facebook link and scroll down to July 19 to see more photos, video and commentary about our fabulous trip that day.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
Celebrating 2
4 years of service to the birding community! 
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