Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
A Whale Watch Surprise
July 28, 2023
By Steve Grinley
If you want to see birds and beat the heat, and the greenheads, you should try a whale watch. You’ll certainly see some amazing mammals and likely some different birds that you don’t usually see from land.
Margo and I went on a whale watch trip out of Cape Ann a few weeks ago. It was a foggy day and the Naturalist on board warned us that we could have a long ride through the fog to see some whales.
A fish crow’s “cah, cah” call came through the fog as we shoved off from the dock. As we motored out of Gloucester Harbor past double-crested cormorants, herring and great black-backed gulls and a number of common eider lined the rocks on Ten Pound Island. Fifteen great egrets were roosting in the trees in the middle of the island.
We saw our first Wilson’s storm-petrels of the trip before leaving the harbor and passing the Dogbar jetty. At first glance Wilson’s storm-petrels look like swallows, but they are all dark brown with a white rump. More storm-petrels would be seen throughout our trip, as they are the most abundant birds on earth!
After traveling in and out of the fog an hour and a half we reached the area of Stellwagen Bank where the majority of whales and birds were that day. We did see a great shearwater, a laughing gull and more storm-petrels along the way. As we reached our destination, we could soon see an area where the fog had lifted and other boats were gathered in a mystical sunshine but still surrounded by fog a mile or two all around us.
There were ten or twelve humpback whales, all “performing” in this area of open sunshine, breaching and tail slapping. Whale watching boats from Boston, Cape Ann, Plymouth and Provincetown were all there observing these giants of the sea.
Whales stir the ocean, bring fish and nutrients to the surface and, thus, there were lots of birds. There were many shearwaters, the majority of which were great shearwaters. There were smaller numbers of Cory’s, sooty and Manx shearwaters. Hundreds of storm-petrels danced on the water. And of course many gulls and a few terns were feeding there too. It was a magical sight to see!
From our position on the map, we were only a few miles off Provincetown, but we couldn’t see land due to the thick fog around us. On a clearer day we may have seen jaegers, the “hawks of the sea” chasing the gulls and terns for their fish, but these whales and birds were sheltered in our own small hole in the fog and were undetected by jaegers this day.
After spending an amazing hour with the birds and whales, we headed north toward home and Cape Ann. On the way back, we kept watching for birds passing or following the boat.
After twenty minutes we noticed a large brown bird join the gulls in the wake of the boat. At first I though immature gull but it was larger with pointed wings. We kept watching as it gained on the boat and it eventually flew along side.
We considered immature gannet with its long spear bill, but this bird was different. Young gannets are usually mottled white and brown, but this bird was mostly brown. It did have some white mottling on the belly with a clear demarcation from the chest. Its face looked different too. It was so close we could see yellow feet, not gray like a gannet. This bird was an immature brown booby!
The brown booby is a bird of the south, seen off Florida and southern California and is rare in New England. This bird flew along side the boat close enough and long enough for Margo to get some great photos. Eventually the bird flew ahead, over the bow of the boat and into the fog.
A few minutes later one of the deck hands, who knew that we were birders, came over and said that the captain thought that he saw a brown booby from the wheelhouse. We confirmed his sighting and showed him our photos!
You never know what one might see on a whale watch. Locally, there are whale watches out of Newburyport and Cape Ann. It is a great way to enjoy birds and whales, and to escape the summer heat!