Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
A Memorable Offshore Trip for Seabirds
October 19, 2019
By Steve Grinley
A fall pelagic trip went out of Rye Harbor on Columbus Day this past week, traveling all day through the waters of New Hampshire, Massachusetts and Maine in search of seabirds. Unfortunately, I was not on it. However, our good friend Doug Chickering of Newburyport was aboard, and he tells us about the excursion as only he can:
“It could be good, maybe… we thought as we chatted and the boat pulled out of the little harbor in Rye New Hampshire, but then again… maybe not. The initial conditions weren’t particularly encouraging. We chugged through fog that was rather thick, and we speculated that perhaps the real big show had passed us by when the two days before when a ferocious storm had rattled the coast.
“Perhaps the lucky ones were those with the pluck and stamina to sit at various viewing places on the coast and peer through the storm and wind as a multitude of great birds flashed by or struggled against the fierce turmoil. Perhaps we would simply gather up a few remnants and spend much of the trip chilled and in desultory conversation about previous, better pelagic trips. It wasn’t as if we continued out into the unknown under a pall of pessimism, it was just that we didn’t know what we would find.
“The fog began to lift as we headed out into the great mystery of the Atlantic and then a few birds became visible, slipping inauspiciously out of the gloom. Then came a real bird; one that we had hoped for, a light phase Fulmar, then another, and followed by a dark phase Fulmar. Fulmar was a target bird and it was likely we would see one, but the recent storms might had swept them away. We were glad and grateful for the two or three. A glimpse of a passing Shearwater upped out hopes when suddenly the sun was out, the sea flattened to light, pleasant swells and the birds began appearing. Appearing in a steady roll of species that scrambled my memory so even now I cannot quite remember the order of their appearance. Now the day is a segmented series of memories and I am not sure of the order of their appearance.
“The Fulmars kept appearing on the water like apparitions from a dream. Seemingly oblivious to our passing, often close by. Taking to flight now and again and giving us good looks of their sharp stiff wing beats and peculiar profiles when airborne. It had been thirty some years since my last sighting of Fulmar and now I was taking this opportunity to closely scrutinizing their flights.
“The first sighting of a Phalarope in the water sent a wave of electric excitement down the ship and a little frantic activity lest the bird take flight prematurely. We needn’t have worried. Like the Fulmars, the Phalaropes; at first Reds and then Red-necked and finally a mixture of the two drifted along unconcerned and almost unaware of our presence. We had hoped to see a few Fulmars and Phalaropes in the trip. We had hundreds of both.
“There were more moments. Unexpected, sharp and destined for the great birding stories of the future.
– A Little Gull among the Bonaparte’s Gulls. A juvenile whose bright sharp field marks stood out when in flight and whose size was obvious among the boneys when in the water.
– A Leach’s Storm-petrel that was first seen at some distance about two points above the starboard beam. The bird flew close to the surface – after all it was a Storm-petrel – at a leisurely pace and allowed us to pass by it on the starboard side, close. Close enough that its slightly forked tail was discernable and its familiar flight pattern obvious.
– The South Polar Skua, bulky heavy with a distinctive flight pattern slowly gaining on the boat as we relentlessly but inadequately pursued.
– As we sailed into an area where Humpbacked Whales were feeding, the gulls began to gather and it seemed as if every cluster of gulls flying and sitting by the whales contained a Black-legged Kittiwake or two; flying around with the gulls so that I could clearly see that wing and back pattern of darker grey on the back and then extending out towards the tips of the wings growing ever lighter until nearly white to jet black tips.
– A good but brief look of a Parasitic Jaeger.
“In the morning the boat drove south and then worked its way north along the length of Jeffreys ledge. Along with the flurry of birds we had whales. In the afternoon as we made our way up Jeffreys ledge we came upon several pairs and a few three whale groups feeding. They would dive and arise from the ocean, mouths open and at the top of their thrust you could see the throats balloon out into a odd black and white, almost harlequin, pattern before dropping back into the sea to expel the water in their swollen throats and feed on the unfortunates left pressed against the baleen. At one point the whales were surface feeding, heads barely below the surface and rolling over on their backs to force the water out, which foamed a light red from the krill they fed upon.
“In a way the whale feeding, which would have drawn “oohs and aahs” from whale watches were simply a fascinating backdrop to the center stage of the birds. I am sure that the numbers of birds we saw on the trip will be posted somewhere. I was dazzled by scene and didn’t keep track. I am sure that other participants may have other episodes and other impressions than I, and there have been some sights I have not related. But I am also sure that the conviction that we were all in a special place on a special day is universal among us.”
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