[CT Birds] Saturday Pelagic to Nantucket Shoals, 6-25-2011 Keith MUeller

kmueller at ntplx.net kmueller at ntplx.net
Mon Jun 27 13:43:33 EDT 2011

It is great to be back home in New England after spending most of June  
with good friends teaching an art class on the Upper Peninsula of  
Mich. The UP is a spectacular location showcasing its quiet isolation  
and extremely pleasant weather (with the exception of the mosquitoes)  
it is framed by endless expanses of red pines, white birches, white  
cedars surrounding the extensive network of ponds, lakes, swamps and  
sloughs.  The bird life was evident, but because of the vastness of  
the forests, they were often heard but not seen. My teaching schedule  
which started just after dawn and continued until after dark left  
little time for birding. With the long schedule and because I didn?t  
bring my camera, binoculars or scope made it almost unbearable. My  
birding centered around ?road birding? on the ride from the lodge to  
the teaching facility in the early mornings, and what I could see on  
the property which had a 4 acre lake. Although not the best birding  
situation, I was able to see and hear (on a daily basis): Pileated  
Woodpeckers, Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers, Flickers, Bald Eagles,  
Sandhill Cranes, Ravens, Broad wing and Red Shouldered Hawks, and many  
assorted Warblers and Vireos. Unfortunately, I never saw the  
Black-backed Woodpeckers which I have seen the last two years. The UP  
is a fabulous place, but I was ready for a day of New England coastal  
birding, and a pelagic trip was at the top of my list.

    I returned home in time for the Brookline Bird Clubs June pelagic  
trip to Nantucket Shoals this past Saturday. Jen and I drove up to  
Hyannis on Friday making sure we were well rested for the long day on  
Saturday. As expected, I didn?t sleep much that night being excited to  
be back on the water with seabirds. The weather forecast was a bit  
bleak with indications of thunderstorms and fog, and Saturday morning  
the weatherperson unfortunately finally got it right-FOG!!

   Arriving at the Helen H dock, everyone was beginning to show up and  
gather, and even with the fog, everyone?s spirits were high. As we  
boarded the vessel, the favorite rail positions were sought out and  
reserved, mine of course being the ?figurehead? on the whale walk  
platform on the bow of the vessel. With everyone aboard, gear stowed  
and positions secured, the 100 plus foot Helen H cast its lines and we  
were underway. As we headed out of Lewis? Harbor, the visibility was  
about a half a mile; hopefully it would improve as the morning wore  
on. A few Least and Common Terns were fishing at the mouth of the  
harbor near Kalmus Beach where we photographed the very rare  
Yellow-legged Gull a few months earlier. Also two Ospreys were seen;  
one perched on the roof of a small fishing boat, the other on the  
channel beacon just outside the harbor.

    Heading S/SE towards Nantucket Shoals, it became very obvious that  
the birding was going to be tough and very slow. The visibility became  
very poor with a thickening shroud of fog, and if any bird was going  
to be seen, it would have to be within an arms reach of the vessel.  
For the first hour the only birds we saw were a few Common Terns which  
flew out and then back into the thick fog. A Common Loon swam past the  
bow only to disappear back into the fog.  For the next fifteen  
minutes, the eeriness of the heavy shroud left little hope of seeing  
anything other than the waves that appeared only a few feet from the  
bow, soon to join and fade into the remnant bow spray and wake.

     As events often have a way of materializing under unusually timed  
circumstances, Steve Mirick one of the trips bird guides and experts  
walked up on the bow to see what was happening. Just as he arrived  
there to say hello, the first words out of his mouth were ?there is  
the first pelagic bird of the day?. As he pointed over the bow rail a  
single WILSONS STORM PETREL flew across the bow, hugging the water  
with its characteristically zig-zagging flight. Although a common bird  
on a June pelagic, or any cod or tuna fishing trip, it was a welcomed  
site with the dismal conditions of the morning. As we continued along,  
the emptiness of the morning was broken by six more single Storm  
Petrels appearing one at a time over a fifteen minute stretch of time.  
The reason was obvious for the Storm Petrels appearance from out of  
the fog; a single barely visible lobster boat off the starboard side  
was working the line of traps sending the odor of fresh fish oil into  
the water.  As we all started settling back into our patient mode Jen  
spotted a single bird which appeared from the starboard side and  
quickly flew across the bow offering a good look; a GREATER  
SHEARWATER. Again, not a rare seabird, but one that got everyone?s  
heart rate up just a bit.

As we approached the shallower waters of Nantucket Shoals, the blanket  
of fog was so thick you could barely see the large bell buoys marking  
the shoaling waters. The announcement stated that the waters off the  
Shoals were quite shallow and treacherous and much colder causing the  
pea soup (or ?chowda? on the Cape) to thicken. The Captain decided to  
head out and find warmer water temps which should hopefully reduce the  
density of the fog. About ten minutes underway, the density of the fog  
appeared to lessen and you could barely see the small circular outline  
of the sun between intervals of broken fog overhead. A few W Storm  
Petrels appeared followed by 3 Greater Shearwaters, and then our first  
SOOTY SHEARWATER of the day. I looked to the starboard side and  
noticed what appeared to be two gulls sitting on the water about a  
hundred yards out. As I pointed to the birds, they took off, one was a  
Grtr Black-backed Gull and the other was a bit smaller (Herring Gull  
sized) and completely dark. Immediately an announcement came over the  
loudspeaker-?SKUA, SKUA, SKUA?! The boat turned hard starboard towards  
the birds, but they disappeared into the fog. The boat continued in  
the direction, and within two minutes, the bird reappeared and flew  
out across the bow again at a hundred yards. I tried at first for a  
few shots, but the fog prevented my autofocus from locking on, so I  
quickly changed over to manual focus with hopes of maybe capturing a  
chance shot or two. Since my viewfinder in my camera was ?fogged? and  
so were my glasses, I took a long succession of shots as the auto wind  
purred not knowing if I captured anything on my flash card in focus or  
not. The bird suddenly vanished into the fog, leaving as quickly as it  
appeared. I could not tell if I secured any images of the bird as my  
LCD pad was also ?fogged up?.

    With the excitement of the Skua a mere distant memory and behind  
us, we continued to warmer waters. The Captain kept announcing the  
water temps were starting to increase from the low 50?s to the  
mid-50?s. With this the fog began to show signs of opening a bit and  
the sun started to peek-through above from time to time. With that  
more birds appeared; Wilsons Storm Petrels and Greater Shearwaters. As  
the ID calls from the vessel bellowed across the deck, a single CORY?S  
SHEARWATER appeared giving everyone on deck another glimmer of hope.  
More W Storm Petrels and Greater Shearwaters began to show up in good  
numbers, than a single MANX SHEARWATER came from the port side  
followed by another Sooty.

    At this point there were many W Storm Petrels and Greater  
Shearwaters in the area that the crew began running a chum line. What  
seemed like seconds, a group of Herring and G Black-backed Gulls  
appeared off the stern followed by W Storm Petrels and Greater  
Shearwaters. The birds were following the chum line to the vessel, and  
more and more appeared. The vessel would reverse course and follow the  
chum line picking up a large group of feeding birds. More and more  
appeared and the ?show off the stern? was great with many G  
Shearwaters landing in the Helen H?s slow moving wake, and the Wilsons  
Storm Petrels so close to the stern you could almost reach out and  
touch them as they fed a mere few feet off the stern. In all the  
birding feeding excitement, the sun broke out and the fog passed to  
the distance near shore. The Captain announced we were 20 miles S/SE  
of Chatham and the water temps were nearing the high 50?s. We  
continued along the chum line, and the Petrels and G Shearwaters  
continued, but more Sooty Shearwaters appeared. Again Cory?s  
Shearwater was announced over the speakers, than another Manx, this  
one in the company of 1 Greater and 1 Sooty Shearwater. The Manx  
circled the vessel closely and offered everyone good looks and good  
photos. Suddenly a NORTHERN FULMAR was seen in the wake of the chum  
line and the Helen H turned around?.there it was in all of its  
beautiful splendor. The bird flew close to the vessel and landed in  
the chum for nearly ten minutes. This is another species I never grow  
tired of seeing, especially on those windy November cod fishing trips  
off Coxes Ledge and Gloucester.

    At one point a few whales were seen in the distance: Humpback, Fin  
and Minke. The birds continued to feed along the chum line, when a  
call came out LEACHES STORM PETRELS! Looking into a small gathering of  
W Storm Petrels that were feeding on the chum were three pointed wing,  
fork tailed beauties with their typical ?fluttering? flight. They gave  
everyone a show for a few minutes and then they disappeared in the  
distance. More Sooty Shearwaters appeared and than another Cory?s.  
This bird was closer to the vessel giving everyone a great look; a  
spectacular shearwater species.

    There was a continual showing of birds: W Storm Petrels, Greater  
Shearwaters, more Sooty Shearwaters, a few Leaches, Cory?s and a  
Fulmar or two including a blue morph. A single working trawler was  
spotted on the now open horizon, with the typical flock of gulls  
swarming all over the stern and trailing behind in the wake  
voraciously feeding on the spilling over bi-catch. The waters behind  
the trawler were literally covered with birds. The vessel headed  
towards the trawler and the bird numbers began to pick up. I was  
looking through my binoculars at the birds on the water, and I spotted  
a single bird at a distance that appeared different. As I identified  
the bird as a Murre sp., a voice excitedly bellowed over the  
speaker-ALCID!  I picked up my camera and unable to relocate the bird  
on the water, I began to shoot random shots on the distant sea in the  
direction that I thought the bird was not knowing if my camera was  
pointed where I saw the bird. Again, I shot a quick barrage of images  
in the area, and hopefully caught something on the flash cards. I  
picked up my binoculars an found the bird again, it was long bodied  
with a long slender bill, and the black margins of the side pocket  
margin feathers could be distinguished even at a distance: COMMON MURRE.

   As we continued along the chum line towards the trawler, the  
distance closed. Greater Shearwaters would literally fly along the bow  
of the vessel and pass directly below us who were standing on the  
whale walk in front of the bow-that was incredible to be standing a  
few feet above the shearwaters as they flew under your feet!

    We began to see more breaching whales, and the bird numbers  
continued to increase. A few more Cory?s Shearwaters made appearances,  
and the number of Sooty Shearwaters also increased and began to  
overtake the numbers of Greater Shearwaters. Another Manx Shearwater  
appeared off the Port side, and W Storm Petrels were everywhere,  
surrounding the vessel. Within a half of a mile of the trawler, the  
water was covered and blanketed with birds as far as the eye could see  
in all directions. We were surrounded by mostly Sooty Shearwaters  
hundreds and hundreds of them with fewer Greater Shearwaters in the  
flocks. They were all feeding heavily, and I took a nice photo  
sequence of a Greater Shearwater coming to the surface and then flying  
away with a squid that it just caught. All of the sudden the water  
around the Helen H began to boil with swimming, surfacing, landing and  
taking off birds: Sooty and Greater Shearwaters, Wilsons and a few  
Leaches Storm Petrels, a few more Cory?s Shearwaters and Fulmars and a  
single GANNET. Adding to the excitement came from the sudden  
appearance of feeding whales, breaching Giant Tuna (Blue fin, Yellow  
fin and Big Eye) and splashing Striped Bass. The water around the  
Helen H was boiling with sea birds, whales, tuna and stripers. At one  
point the Helen H just drifted amongst the huge feeding frenzy and we  
all watched with amazement. There wasn?t an open space along the rails  
on either side of the vessel. For over half an hour we drifted in the  
middle of all the feeding activity, with many of the birds popping up,  
and the tuna breaking the surface just below us along the boat.

    When the majority birds, whales and tuna began to move away from  
our area (still plenty to watch) the Captain began to steam ahead to a  
new location when you could hear a voice on the loudspeaker exclaim  
?JAEGER?!! Off in the distance about a hundred and fifty yards a  
single bird with large broad wings was flying away from the vessel.  
Another voice shouted it landed on the water ahead. The Captain  
steamed for that direction, and there it was. A single Jaeger was  
sitting on the water and swam directly towards the Helen H to within  
twenty yards. It was a large and quite impressive bird, and it became  
clear that it was a molting juvenile POMARINE JAEGER. The bird swam  
close and then flew off, and again we followed the bird to the same  
results; many good looks and photos on the water and flying off. The  
bird took off and headed towards the horizon, but everyone on board  
was quite excited and exhilarated by the close encounter.

    Off in the distance, another large raft of Sooty Shearwaters and  
feeding W Storm Petrels were seen and the Captain headed towards them.  
On the way, another Cory?s Shearwater made an appearance among the  
large flying groups of Sooty Shearwaters. Again a voice reached out  
over the loudspeaker-?another JAEGER?!! This time the bird flew near  
the Helen H and began to ?walk? on the sea and feed with a small group  
of W Storm Petrels. This bird was much smaller and quite delicate in  
appearance. Supporting nearly adult dress, it was clearly a PARASITIC  
JAEGER. The bird offered many good close looks both swimming and  
flying, and at one point circled the bow of the Helen H many times  
giving fantastic photo ops-WOW!!

  With the Jaegers behind us, along with the 1,000 + + + Shearwaters  
and Storm Petrels behind us, we made way back to port. What an  
unbelievable day!! As we steamed back towards the Southern tip of  
Monomoy Island, more Shearwaters, Petrels and a Cory?s Shearwater made  
a brief appearance. We made one last stop at the S/E tip of Monomoy to  
look at the 150+ Grey Seals that were hauled out on the beach. Along  
with the Seals were a dozen and a half Common Eiders, a few gulls and  
D C Cormorants also on the beach. A few Least and Common Terns were  
feeding along the rips, and the Helen H headed home.

    As we pulled into the slip, and the lines were secured, we all  
disembarked the Helen H quite exhilarated from the incredible birding  
adventure. I have been on many pelagic trips; this one by far was the  
best. It was well run like a fine tuned machine. The chumming was  
continual, and the mates did a fabulous job of spreading the offal  
chum and fish oil for maximum yield of birds?.and did the birds come!!

    Thanks to Brookline B C especially Ida Giriunas, Steve Mirick,  
Jeremiah Trimble, and Marshall Iliff for a premium pelagic.

Species Highlights:



*SKUA SPECIES - 1 (in the fog)

















    I will post this report with images from the day on my Coastal  
Birds blog soon along with other trips from earlier in year.

Keith and Jen Mueller    Killingworth, CT

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