Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Sea Birds Driven in by Storm
November 29, 2008
This past Tuesday was one of those miserable days with cold, driving rains and very strong winds. An umbrella does you no good with Southeast winds that gusted to 40 or 50 MPH. It was the kind of day that most people would prefer to be curled up in front of a fireplace with a good book. Not so for die-hard birders. These stormy days with wind off the water are the days they (or in this case – we) want to be out on the coast, watching the seabirds get blown in, providing close views. You never know what may be blown in with a storm, and every storm is different.
Tom Wetmore of Newburyport, Mr. Plum Island as he is known in the birding world, was on the Island Tuesday, as he is most every day of the year (hence the title). He writes the following about his early morning experience:
“Here are the birds I recorded during a very wet, windy and rainy early morning of birding on November 25th on Plum Island. I headed first to the first Sandy Point parking lot hoping to see the sea from behind the shelter of the Bar Head bluffs. No luck as the wind was too far around to the east. I then returned to lot one where I tucked myself into the far south, back corner of the overlook, sitting on the wet bench, and hunched in beside the side of the dune. This proved an excellent spot for shelter from the wind, but not from the rain. I then managed about a half hour of sea-watching before I had to leave for daily frustration of driving [to work] to Waltham.
“The most common species over the ocean was Greater Scaup. Every few minutes a flock of 15 to 40 scaup would fly by. This was the second day this fall when I’ve seen this phenomenon. There was also good representation by Black-legged Kittieakes.
“With the foul (fowl?) weather conditions and strong southeasterly winds, I was hoping to see tubenoses, jaegers or alcids, so was very glad when a Leach’s Storm-Petrel and then Greater Shearwater flew by within minutes of one another. The storm-petrel was fairly close in, not far behind the breakers, and close enough that I was looking somewhat down on it through the scope as it flew by. The dark color with light rump and slightly forked tail were obvious. About a minute later the Shearwater flew by further out. First seen traveling behind a group of gannets also heading south, the Shearwater overtook the gannets and was well ahead of them as they all passed out of sight to the south. These two species are new for November, numbers 148 and 149, and also new for 2008, numbers 289 and 290 [for Plum Island]. It is a little unusual to have had to wait until near the end of November to pick up the Greater Shearwater off the island this year, and this completes the list of the four common Massachusetts shearwaters to be seen off the island. And the storm-petrel completes the list of two of the common Massachusetts storm-petrels for the island. The only remaining common procellarid unrecorded off the island this year is the Northern Fulmar.”
It was frustrating for me to read about the shearwater and petrel that he reported on his Plum Island Birds list serve later that morning. These are birds of the open ocean and usually require a boat trip to see. It is only when conditions are right that one is lucky enough to see them from land. I, unfortunately, was at work and couldn’t get away to share the excitement.
A later report from Rick Heil of Peabody didn’t make me feel any better. Rick was on Cape Ann all day, doing his usual sea watch at Andrew’s Point in Rockport. Rick tallied 435 greater scaup, 76 harlequin ducks, 1925 gannets and 215 kittiwakes. Like Tom, Rick did see a greater shearwater, and he also recorded one sooty and one Manx shearwater. Rick didn’t see any fulmars either, but he also didn’t see any petrels.
Rick did see alcids, those puffin-like birds that are sometimes seen in winter off our coast. Rick counted 5 common and 14 thick-billed murres, 9 black guillemots, 435 razorbills and an amazing high count of 340 dovekies! The dovekies had, apparently been blown into Ipswich Bay earlier in the morning by those strong southeast winds. Rick observed most of them after noon, after the winds had diminished somewhat, as they flew southeast past the point. What a sight it must have been!
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