Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Beach Birding, Part 1

Gurnet Lighthouse
  I just got back from 2 weeks at my beach house, in Green Harbor (pronounced Hahbah), Massachussetts. Between all of the the beaching/kayaking/biking/poker/pictionary/beatles rock band playing/jumping off bridges with cousins/aunts/uncles/grandmothers/friends/acquaintances, I was actually able to get in a good deal of birding.

My first birding expedition came when I was able to convince my family that a whale watch out of Plymouth would be a fun trip. Of course, I had an ulterior motive- Stellwagen Bank, where the boats go to, is a very productive pelagic birding location, and I wanted to see some shearwaters. My main target was Manx Shearwater, which was something of a nemesis bird for me, as I had missed it the past two years on whale watch boats. So at my urging, we boarded a whalewatch run by Capt. John’s Boats out of Plymouth on Wednesday, the 3rd of August.

A heron fishes next to the Mayflower II, a replica of the pilgrims' ship
Our first pelagic birds appeared right on cue, as soon as we began to leave the bay- Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, swooping like dark, oceanic swallows in front of the bow, pausing on occasion and pattering their feet on the surface while hovering, as if they were dancing a jig on the waves.

This was the first and best photo I got of a Storm-Petrel. It is the best because you can tell that it is a bird.
There was a fairly long break after that before some new birds appeared, though the storm-petrels were our compainions the whole way. Eventually, as we neared Stellwagen Bank (which is an underwater plateau off Cape Cod), I began to see shearwaters. First was a fairly distant Great Shearwater. Then my dad spotted a pair of shearwaters landing on the water. I identified them as Sooty Shearwaters because of their very dark back and wings, which were the only parts of the birds I could see. I quickly realized my error, however- they were much too small, and as soon became clear when the boat drew nearer, they had white undersides- Manx Shearwaters! My target for the trip, seen right off the bat.

As it was a whale watch, it would be remiss for me not to mention the whales, of which there were many. We began to see they soon after the Manx Shearwaters. A few came right up to the boat, and we got great looks at both humpbacks and minke whales.

Our stops to look at whales provided me with more birding opportunities, as it is much easier to bird on a still boat than a moving one. I was soon able to see the two remaining shearwater species- Cory’s and Sooty, as well as a handful more Manx and one or two more Great Shearwater. On the way back to the harbor, there were more Sooties, a few large flocks of dozens of storm-petrels feeding, and a single subadult Northern Gannet
Check out the wing moult on this Cory's Shearwater
Sooty Shearwater.
The next day, Thursday the 4th, we went to Plymouth Beach. This was also advocated by me, for the purpose of birding the tern colony in the dunes at the tip of the beach. To get there, it is a 3 mile walk out along the beach (and then, of course, another 3 miles back), but with the prospect of rare terns as motivation and the numerous shorebirds along the way make it well worth it. Plus, if the biggest obstacle to birding is that you have to take a long walk on the beach, then that is okay with me.

A typical assemblage of shorebirds on Plymouth Beach
The expedition as a whole was quite successful, with large numbers and decent diversity of shorebirds (Semipalmated Plover and Sandpiper, Piping Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Dunlin, Sanderling, Short-billed Dowitcher, Least Sandpiper), and 8 species of larids, highlighted by multiple Roseate Terns, both adults and juveniles, at the colony.

Count 'em- 7 Piping Plovers
That's a really pale tern... Notice also that the leftmost bird is a young roseate- all-black bill, black forehead.
Nice Roseate/Common Comparison. Note the pale back and wings, dark bill, and banded legs of the Roseate
An adorable Bonaparte's Gull
On the way back I started to try to photograph shorebirds and terns in flight- not an easy task, given their speed and size, and the fact that I have a point-and-shoot without manual focus. I did get a couple of shots that were almost in focus, though.

That's Gurnet Lighthouse (See top) in the background
I did not notice until much later that the top tern is a roseate.

I also spotted this guy stuck in the sand in the yard of a house on the beach:

Plastic White Stork- a much classier version of the plastic flamingo
The next day, August 5th, I birded with the Friday Morning Birders, a group that birds the south shore every week for a few hours (I think you can figure out when). The highlights of that trip were Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Solitary Sandpipers, an Ovenbird, a Veery, and some Saltmarsh Sparrows. The sparrows were a year bird for me, the 3rd day in a row I had added to my year list. The weekend was occupied with non-birding activities, but I did bird some more the next week, which will be chronicled in part 2. Stay tuned.

1 comment:

  1. Nice post Eamon. Good Job on Manx Shearwater. I too love P-town Whale Watches (that's where I saw my first Jaeger :) )