Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Extreme Pelagic Trip Spectacular, Despite Rough Seas
November 20, 2010
By Steve Grinley

     Where in Massachusetts can you go on a November day and see 100,000 birds? We saw many more birds than that on a Brookline Bird Club Extreme Pelagic boat trip to the Nantucket Shoals out of Hyannis last Saturday. The offshore forecasts were not favorable for such a trip, as a storm of the previous week was still churning southeast of Cape Cod. Winds were gusting to 20 knots and seas were very rough with 10 foot swells. Still, sixty brave (or foolish) souls headed out on the Helen H at 7 AM in search of ducks and seabirds.

     In spite of the conditions, our very adept Captain driving the boat kept us as comfortable as is possible with 10 foot swells. The conditions were a lot better than I expected, but a few folks did get sick. This was one of those Extreme pelagic trips that lived up to its billing.

     We had not made it past Monomoy on the Nantucket Sound when we experienced one of the top spectacles of my birding career. Massive rafts of ducks covered the water. As these flocks lifted into the air, they created thick clouds of birds, too numerous to count. They consisted mainly of common eiders with a percentage of scoters and long-tailed ducks mixed in. When I tried to estimate the numbers, I looked at a cloud and estimated the first layer of ducks that were visible – easily one or two thousand birds. But each cloud had to be almost a quarter mile thick! The reported estimate from the trip leaders were 350,000 eiders and 20,000 scoters (mostly white-winged), but I personally think that those numbers seemed very conservative. I think there were more than a half million or more ducks that we encountered. One passenger described it as “like being on the Serengetti!”

     There were couple of other treats before we sailed the out of the Sound, one of which was a first winter little gull. Its dark markings on the wings were very evident, giving everyone aboard good looks as the delicate-looking gull crossed the bow of the boat and flew toward South Monomoy Island. The mass of gray seals sunning themselves on the beach of South Monomoy were also great fun to see.

     As we headed northeastward, the crew left a trail of Menhaden Oil and were constantly chumming (mostly beef fat) which brought thousands of birds into the wake of the boat. This provided excellent views and great photographic opportunities throughout the trip for those who had cameras.

     Hundreds of great shearwaters and tens of fulmars were often following the boat. We also saw three Manx shearwaters mixed with the great shearwaters. In addition to hundreds of kittiwakes and tens of Bonaparte’s gulls, a half dozen each of Iceland gulls and lesser black-backed gulls, as well as one lesser black-backed x herring gull hybrid, made appearances during our voyage. We occasionally saw common and red-throated loons, red-breasted mergansers, bufflehead and cormorants in our travels.

     While we hoped for more alcids on the trip, we did see a couple of dozen razorbills, mostly flybys, during the time we were out there. Four dovekies were spotted flying and they sat down briefly in the water less than a hundred yards from the boat. But the high swells and small size of these birds made it impossible for many people to get a good look.

     The most exciting find of the day was a Great Skua. This is only the third time this species has been recorded on the BBC Extreme Pelagics. The bird was in view for sometime and almost all on board had good looks at this bird – a life bird for many The last time I saw one was forty years ago!.

     As spectacular as the birds were, the whale show was better than I have ever seen on any whale watch. The trip tallied 3 minke and 33 humpback whales, with 17 concentrated in one particular area to the far east of Chatham. The food supply there must have been abundant as there were whales and birds everywhere that we looked. The whales were bubble feeding within fifty yards of the boat and you could see the water filtering through the baleen in their mouths. The birds flocked around the whales to try to catch some of the “leftovers.” More than once, the boat couldn’t move because we were surrounded by whales – a thrilling experience indeed!

     With all that activity, we were a bit late getting back to port. Despite the rough seas, everyone aboard agreed that it was well worth it! A few photos can be viewed at http://www.flickr.com/photos/24246528@N05/sets/72157625396763218

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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