[CT Birds] Northwest Stellwegan Bank- July 26 2011 Pelagic K Mueller

kmueller at ntplx.net kmueller at ntplx.net
Wed Aug 3 13:14:28 EDT 2011

My phone rang Monday (July 26) afternoon and when I answered it, a  
voice exclaimed that ?codfish are back off Gloucester?! My  
Father-in?Law Andrew Weaver ?AD? being a long time fisherman and  
former professional lobsterman has been fishing off Gloucester for  
most of his life. I believe that he has codfish oil running through  
his veins. For me, spending a day ?sea birding? and cod fishing is an  
experience that is hard to beat. So after a brief phone conversation,  
there was only a short time to get the gear ready, pack and  
(hopefully) a few hours of slumber before the (very) early morning  
drive to Gloucester.

   We met at 2:30 am, and headed North on 95. The marine forecast  
stated light winds from the S/E changing to southerly at 10-15 knots;  
seas 1 to 2 feet with light passing showers than becoming sunny with  
temps in the low 80?s, a perfect forecast for late July on Stellwegan  
Bank. The dawn was cloudy with a hint of a light drizzle, but a little  
color could be seen in the East offering a glint of hope that the  
weather service was spot-on. As the lines were cast, the Yankee  
Clipper was underway. Looking over to Jodrey?s Pier, a few Common  
Eiders were swimming around the pilings of the pier. The drakes now  
plumed in unique monochromatic patterns of summer moult umber. A small  
crèche of hens with a handful of growing ?eider-lings? swam around the  
pier and tucked in behind the fishing fleet anchored at the pier.  
There has been a reported and photographed drake King Eider in the  
Harbor for the last few weeks. The drake was first seen in spectacular  
full dress, now also in summer moult. I searched through all the  
eiders that I could see from the vessel, but wasn?t able to find the  

   On the Eastern side of the harbor in a short distance just below  
the Yankee Fleet?s dock, on the roofs of the old buildings a few gulls  
were standing along the edges. The remnants of the many gull nests  
could be seen as the gathered nest vegetation was hanging over the  
edge of the roofs like festooning epiphytes in a rain forest canopy.   
Below in the water, a network of pilings supported these buildings.  
Between these pilings, gulls could be seen swimming through them,  
disappearing into the darkness of the shadows under the buildings.  
When we were broadside to the old buildings, the birds were close  
enough to see that they were all fledgling Herring Gulls, many with  
the last remaining downy filaments still projecting out from their  
developing head plumage. When we passed the buildings, I watched as  
two of these gulls made their first flight from the roof top. The  
birds leaned out with their nearly fully developed wings open, lunged  
forward and their first flight was underway. I was proud to be the one  
to see these beautiful birds fly for the first time; even if their  
flight was short ending with an awkward tumble and crash onto the  
water. The birds just shook it off and joined the other fledglings  
under the buildings.

   A cluster of Gulls and Cormorants were feeding heavily on a school  
of fish on the point just east of the Fisherman?s Monument. I looked  
through all the gulls which were 75% Greater black-Backed Gulls and  
25% Herring Gulls, with a single Laughing Gull in the flock. As we  
passed Ten Pound Island approaching the middle of the Harbor, I  
spotted a single small dark bird flying along the water heading  
towards the harbor mouth; a Wilson?s storm-Petrel. I looked across the  
water through my binoculars and spotted two more Petrels, than  
another, and another. At one point there were over 36 storm-petrels in  
the harbor. Some of the Petrels were very close along the western  
shore of the harbor. Many of the petrels crossed close ahead of the  
bow in their typical erratic flight. Nearing the Dog Bar Breakwater  
Lighthouse, a single Cory?s Shearwater flew across from the East and  
headed into the harbor.

    Heading N/E to Stellwegan, the drizzle stopped and the thick  
morning clouds began to dissipate. On the trip out, a steady  
appearance of Wilson?s storm-Petrels crossed the bow from all  
directions. Every minute or so a storm-petrel or two (or three) would  
appear twisting and turning often ?walking? and ?dancing? along the  
water in typical storm-petrel fashion only to disappear in the  
distance. As the storm-petrels faded into the horizon, they would be  
replaced by the next storm-petrel or two (or three). A single second  
year Gannet flew by at a distance, and a second one was swimming on  
the water about a half a mile farther. The Wilson?s storm-Petrels were  
continually present appearing in singles, pairs and small groups for  
the ride out to the fishing grounds. The trip to the area of the bank  
where we started fishing took an hour and twenty minutes from the  
Yankee Fleet dock. Nearing the fishing grounds, the Clipper passed a  
working trawler and a few working lobster boats. These boats were  
supported by a captive audience of roosting Greater black-Backed Gulls  
that were spread out on the surface of the sea waiting for the  
opportunity of a quick meal from the spilled or tossed back bi-catch.

   The Yankee Clipper slowed to a crawl then the diesels were cut and  
the vessel settled. An announcement from Captain Josh came over the pa  
system; ?OK?- I am marking a lot of fish below; one hundred seventy  
feet deep, let ?em go?. With that all thirty-five fisherman on the  
vessel dropped their lines to the bottom and the fishing began. The  
storm-petrels continued passing by all around the drifting Clipper.  
What seemed like a few seconds that my clam bait hit the bottom; a  
strong double tug from below, the hook was set, and the first cod of  
the day was being reeled to the top. Cod after cod came into the boat  
(and on ice); it became clear, the Captain found a big school of good  
sized fish. While we were fishing, I kept watching the steady  
procession of storm-petrels passing by the boat. AD and I reserved the  
port stern corner of the vessel and many of the birds flew by within a  
few feet of our corner. The birds passed so close a few times their  
wingtips brushed against the tips of our rods or lines. Because the  
wind and tide slightly quartered towards and away from the port stern,  
the birds were following the small slick that developed from the clam  
bait. The birds would then fly into the wind which brought them across  
the stern.

    As the day grew older, the sun appeared and so did the sun screen.  
The storm-petrels continued and the first of the Greater Shearwaters  
appeared. A dozen Greater black-Backed Gulls positioned themselves a  
short distance from the stern, and vigilantly watched the fisherman  
closely for the tossed over spent clam bait. Because codfish have a  
keen sense of smell, they are attracted to the strong odor of the  
fresh-cut sea clams. As the clam sits too long on the bottom, the odor  
is washed away and the clam bait needs to be refreshed. With the  
change of the fresh clam bait, the old is tossed over and the gulls  
are ready. Small and legally undersized cod are tossed back. Some of  
the time their bladders are full of air and need to be expelled before  
being returned. This is accomplished with a few gentle ?Heimlich  
maneuvers? to the fish?s belly. Sometimes after being tossed back, the  
fish will lay on the surface until it recovers and heads for the deep.  
It is at this time that the hawking gulls see an opportunity and try  
and take advantage of the small splashing fish. One of the smaller  
fish (sixteen inches) was tossed back and a very aggressive gull  
positioned itself near the swirling, splashing cod. It made a few  
attempts to pick up the fish to try and swallow it. The fish was  
obviously too large and heavy, but try it did. While the gull  
struggled with the squirming fish, five storm-petrels appeared and  
?walked? around the gull and fish picking at the waters surface. This  
lasted for a minute or two when the cod apparently gathered its senses  
and in one big splash disappeared into the depths.

    The fishing was steady all day long, as were the steady movement  
of storm-petrels both behind the vessel and flying by as far as I  
could see. A single fin whale appeared for a few seconds about a  
hundred yards off the vessel. It was the only whale I saw that day.  
The Clipper moved only four times that day; once drifting, and the  
other times anchored. The fishing was very steady, with everyone  
filling their coolers and burlap sacks with fish; all nice  
?market-sized? codfish from five to twelve pounds. AD and I filled up  
our two coolers with nearly our two limits of ten fish each. Up until  
that point, the Wilson?s storm-Petrels flew constantly, and there  
wasn?t more than a minute or two (at the longest) in duration between  
sighted birds.

   By 2:30 pm, I had already finished fishing for the day. I traded my  
pole for my camera and enjoyed trying to photograph the storm-petrels  
that were flying only a few feet from the stern which is like  
photographing a bee in the wind. The captain announced that it was  
time to ?pull em? up? for the day. With that, my Father-in-Law set his  
hook for his last fish of our limit, just in time!
Everyone was reeling up and getting their gear put away, I looked up  
and saw a small flock of birds heading towards the vessel. As the  
birds got closer to the Clipper, you could see that the birds were a  
flock of Semi-palmated Sandpipers and they were heading south towards  
the Cape.

   I always combine birding and fishing when I go on the cod boats. If  
the fishing is a little slow, I put my rod up and pick up my  
binoculars and camera. But one thing is certain; the best part of the  
day birding on a cod fishing boat is the return trip to port providing  
fish were caught that day. When the mates start cleaning fish,  
depending on the time of year, birds are attracted to the tossed over  
offerings of offal; fish frames and skin. Gulls, Greater Shearwaters,  
Gannets, Fulmars, Jaegers, Kittiwakes and of course Wilson?s  
storm-Petrels are attracted to the free buffet. When the diesels fired  
up and the throttle pushed, the Clipper headed west for home. The two  
mates Anthony and Josh sharpened their filet knives, and bags full of  
cod and a few haddock were piled on the filet table one fisherman at a  
time. Anthony and Josh?s filet skills were incredible; cutting the  
fish into clean filets in lightning speed.

   As the Clipper steamed home, the two mates flipped the fish frames  
and skins over the stern rail in perfect 4/4 timing, like rock  
drummers during a concert solo. The remnant fish parts disappearing  
into the Clippers wake would reappear for just a moment or two on the  
surface of the disturbed sea triggering a frenzy of rumbling Greater  
black-Backed Gulls. The gulls would tug and pull at the skin sheets  
with one or two victorious birds emerging with a prize. If the bird  
escaped in the chaos with a piece of skin or flesh, it?s possession of  
that prize would still have to survive a flying escape from the  
gauntlet of all the other hungry birds. During the feeding gull frenzy  
more Greater Shearwaters started appearing and mixing with the gulls,  
although on the periphery of the wrestling matches. The number of  
Wilson?s storm-Petrels also increased to at least fifty of more flying  
across the boats wake and feeding near the clustered gulls. The route  
of the petrels was similar; flying up the wake/fish oil slick to the  
stern of the vessel and pass just off the stern corner within a few  

   There were so many storm-petrels flying across and up the wake,  
flying right and left and coming and going, it was hard to determine  
if the birds were the same ones or additional ones. When it was our  
turn for Anthony and Josh to clean our fish, my largest fish that I  
caught that day was separated and weighed on the balance scale for the  
?pool winner? largest fish of the day. My fish was put on the other  
arm of the scale next to the largest fish of the day, and the scale  
moved a bit?.first it leaned towards my fish, but then it slowly  
balanced evenly and then a slight drop on the other side. I nearly had  
the pool winner. I missed it by a couple of ounces; a twelve and a half
pound cod!  The two mates cleaned fish for an hour and a half all the  
way into the entrance of the harbor. The Greater Shearwater numbers  
began to fade the closer that we got to shore. When we were within a  
few miles from shore, the shearwaters were gone.   There is an  
ordinance that you can?t clean fish in Gloucester harbor so the boat  
had to remain outside the harbor until all the remaining fish were  
cleaned; which took another hour. While we drifted outside the harbor,  
a large group of nearly one hundred (mostly Greater black-Backed)  
Gulls congregated in the water just off the stern. I looked through  
all the gulls for any different species: Laughing, or possible a  
summering Iceland or maybe the summering Glaucous Gull that has been  
seen in the harbor recently. The only other birds that were mixing  
with the gulls were Wilson?s storm-Petrels.

   When the fish were finally cleaned, the Clippers diesels were fired  
up again, and it headed back into the harbor. Nearing the Yankee  
Fleet?s dock, the same fledgling gulls were swimming in and around the  
pilings below their roof top nests. A few of the fledgling birds were  
swimming in the channel and struggled but successfully taking flight  
in front of the advancing vessel; another lesson learned for these  
fledgling birds.

   To sum up the day; I had a wonderful time on the water with ?dad?  
with endless Wilson?s storm-Petrels and plenty of codfish for the  
freezer. Tonight?s menu- steamed cod with mango salsa!

Keith Mueller      Killingworth, CT


Wilson?s storm-Petrels- 800 +/- (rough estimate-hard to count)
Greater Shearwaters- 23
Cory?s Shearwater-1
Greater black-Backed Gulls- 200+
Herring Gulls- 100+
Laughing Gull- 1
Semi-palmated Sandpipers- 19
Common Eiders- 56 (including 7 ?eider-lings?)
Double Crested Cormorants- 36 +/-
Fin Whale 1
Cod 300+
Haddock 3
Cusk 1
Ocean Pout 1
Cunner 1
Sculpin 1

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