[CT Birds] Trip and sighting report from Seabird & Whale Tales excursion

Carol Carson krillcarson at mac.com
Sat Jun 20 13:11:36 EDT 2009

Thanks to Wayne for writing up this sighting report from our recent  
all day marine excursion.
Best, Carol "Krill" Carson
Middleboro, MA
krillcarson at mac.com

NECWA Seabird and Whale Tales Trip – June 14, 2009	
Trip Report from Wayne Petersen

Once again an intrepid group of seafaring naturalists set forth on  
the Tails of the Sea (a vessel owned and operated by Captain John  
Boats) out of Plymouth for an all-day investigation of Stellwagen  
Bank and the waters east of Provincetown and Truro off the tip of  
Cape Cod.  Despite showery conditions during much of the morning,  
decent observation conditions were still possible.  Leaving Plymouth  
harbor, participants learned something about the large Common Tern  
colony located on the tip of Plymouth Beach, as well as the steady  
increase of a fairly recently established Laughing Gull colony  
there.  The Laughing Gulls, while nesting at only one other locality  
in Massachusetts, pose something of a disruption to the nesting terns  
in that they are inclined to steal food from the hard-working terns  
once they start bringing fish back to the colony to feed to their  
young.  In addition to the terns and Laughing Gulls, 5 lingering  
Brant were present along the edge of the beach.  This Arctic nesting  
goose, although common enough in winter in Plymouth Harbor, typically  
has headed north by the end of May.

The trip across Cape Cod Bay was relatively uneventful until we  
reached the southern end of Stellwagen Bank, where 75 or more fishing  
boats were in quest of Bluefin Tuna.  These giant fish (potentially  
able to reach up to 1500 lbs.) are seldom as large as they were 20-30  
years ago before over harvest reduced their population, yet they  
continue to bring a pretty penny at the dock.  In a withering economy  
the effort to catch one is still worthwhile!
As the Tails of the Sea neared Stellwagen Bank, increasing numbers of  
small, black-and-white Wilson’s Storm-Petrels began to be seen  
skimming the water in their endless quest for plankton.  Unable to  
dive beneath the surface, these tiny seabirds travel all the way from  
Antarctic nesting areas to feed on the plankton-rich surface waters  
of the Gulf of Maine during the austral winter.   Some feel that  
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel could be one of the most abundant birds in the  
world – an irony, given that most people will likely never even see one.

By noontime the numbers of birds began to increase and whale  
sightings went from distant to intimate.  Humpback Whales were the  
lead performers, and no fewer than 24 individuals were sighted and  
identified.  Among them were four mothers with new calves, which is  
always an encouraging sign for this endangered species.  Thanks to  
the trained and watchful eyes of Joanne, Jenn, Krill and their  
assistants, most of the Humpback Whales that were sighted were  
identified by their distinctive tail fluke and flipper patterns.  In  
addition to recognizing known individuals and learning something of  
their genealogy, a number of unique behaviors were observed at close  
range, especially the whales’ unique use of bubbles to corral fish,  
and their spectacular breaching behavior that literally lifts their  
massive bodies clear of the water; no one still knows for certain why  
they do this.

A special whale sighting was of a mother named Vertex who was  
traveling with her young calf.  This winter Vertex was satellite  
tagged to help scientists better understand the migration routes of  
large baleen whales.  Krill was able to get photographs of the  
satellite implant site on the left side of the dorsal fin and these  
images were sent to researchers in an attempt to help them assess why  
the tag failed and to track the healing of the wound.  As we watched  
this mother and calf, the calf started spinning head breaching and  
flipper slapping all to the delight of our passengers onboard.
Along with Humpback Whales, several nice views of giant Fin Whales  
were obtained, and at least one Minke Whale was briefly spotted.   
Besides the cetaceans, two Gray Seals were seen off the tip of the  
Cape, almost certainly from the huge colony located at South Monomoy  
NWR off Chatham.

With an interest in all things marine, our group took particular  
interest in the sight of two enormous Basking Sharks filtering  
plankton at the surface, much in the same way as the rare Atlantic  
Right Whale on a much grander scale.  Instead of using baleen like  
whales, however, Basking Sharks rely on their gill rakers to strain  
plankton from the surface waters.  Along with Whale Sharks, Basking  
Sharks are among the largest fish in the sea.
And speaking of plankton, a plankton tow late in the afternoon  
produced a jar full of gelatinous comb jellies, or Ctenophores, that  
keyed out to be a common species called Sea Gooseberry  
(Pleurobranchia pileus).  The same sample yielded thousands of  
copepods – a tiny crustacean that is the staff of life for many of  
the larger organisms occurring on Stellwagen Bank, including fish,  
seabirds, and whales.  Krill encouraged passengers to report  
sightings of basking sharks and ocean sunfish to NEBShark (the New  
England Basking Shark Project) in an effort to help scientists learn  
more about these amazing coastal pelagic fish.  NEBShark  
(www.nebshark.org) is a project supported by NECWA so some of the  
proceeds from this all day trip will be directed towards this project.

Among the hundreds of seabirds concentrated off the inshore rips from  
Provincetown to Truro our sharp-eyed birders were able to pick out  
Sooty, Greater, and Manx shearwaters, a single Northern Fulmar, and  
both Pomarine and Parasitic jaegers as they harried feeding terns for  
their hard-gotten food.  Notable by the date was a late-lingering  
Iceland Gull and a Black-legged Kittiwake, both species that are  
normally only found in these waters during the winter.
On the return voyage to Plymouth, passengers were treated to one of  
Krill’s famous raffles during which practically everyone is  
guaranteed to receive a special prize from the plethora of raffle  
offerings available.  Along with fresh fish chowder, it doesn’t get  
much better!  Thanks again to Krill Carson and her colleagues for  
organizing another wonderful marine experience for all involved.

We hope to see you in the fall on the Sunday, September 13th cruise!   
Go to www.necwa.org to learn more about the fall trip.

Brant – a group of five lingering individuals off Plymouth Beach
Common Loon – three summering birds seen offshore
Northern Fulmar – one light morph individual
Greater Shearwater – 500
Sooty Shearwater – 75
Manx Shearwater – 2
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel – 1100+
Northern Gannet – 300 (only one fully adult individual)
Pomarine Jaeger – 1
Parasitic Jaeger – 3
Unidentified jaegers – 4
Iceland Gull – 1very late immature
Black-legged Kittiwake – 1 immature

Humpback Whale – 24+ (including 4 mothers with calves)
Identified humpbacks include: Anvil and calf, Belly, Cardhu, Dome,  
Elephant, Lightshow, Milkweed, Music, Sloop, Scylla’s 2008 calf, Soft- 
serve, Vertex and calf, Whisk, Zeppelin and calf,
Fin Whale – 2
Minke Whale – 1
Gray Seal – 2

INVERTEBRATES from the plankton tow: A BIG thanks to Karsten on the IDs!
Ctenphores Sea Gooseberry (Pleurobranchia pileus)

Fish larvae: 1 Northern Pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus) and 1 larval cod- 
relative (5 mm) which was probably a hake.

Mysids (Mysidae) shimp-like crustaceans

Crab larvae

Bulk of sample were copepods (hundreds if not thousands) but not  
identified to genus or species

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