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Dolphin Fleet Bird Watching Notes 21 August to 8 September

Bird Watching Notes

by John C. Conlon

As we are coming around the end of August and through the first week of September the weather has been spectacular though we have had a few windy days including wind and swell action from the eastern quarter. For the most part though the skies through the latter part of these past two and a half weeks have been clear and blue with excellent visibility (when we have been able to get out as we have lost some trips due to wind and / or rain).

Cory’s Shearwaters have all but disappeared from my sightings. If we look hard though we are still coming up with a few. In contrast we are now seeing Manx Shearwaters regularly. They are easy to discern from the Cory’s, Greater and Sooty Shearwaters. The Manx are noticeably smaller at 13.5 inches in length and with a 33 inch wingspan and they have high contrasting dark backs and white undersides and they fly along with sharp “duck-like” wing beats. We are seeing these Manx as singles pairs and triplets primarily in the area of Race Point Channel north of Peaked Hill.

The changing in numbers and relative percentages of shearwaters is not unexpected. Indeed the numbers and relative percentages of virtually everything we look at during our trips varies considerably even sometimes from hour to hour. Everything came together for one truly amazing afternoon feeding frenzy of Sooty, Greater, and Cory’s Shearwaters, various gulls and terns, humpback whales, sand lance and krill on the afternoon of August 27th. Sand lance and three quarter inch long shrimp-like krill were jam packed against the water’s surface. Humpback whales lazily lunged through the krill. The shearwaters foraged ravenously! They they’d sit on the surface, wings outstretched and poke their heads in the water looking for sand lance. They’d then dive from the surface into an underwater flying “pursuit” of the fish. Other times they’d fly several feet above the surface and do shallow angle dives from the air. They’d grab a sand lance, pop back to the surface and within a minute take to the air, fly another 15 or 20 feet, and dive again only to repeat this sequence over and over again. All the while the krill that streaked the water red leaped from the water in such dense swarms they sounded like rain beating the water’s surface. Thank you to Captain Todd Motta for this spectacular afternoon.

While on the subject of krill and to a broader context crustaceans as food in general… the  Wilson’s Storm-petrels and the Red-necked and Red Phalaropes are shifting in relative numbers as well. All three birds feed on copepods and /or krill. We’re seeing relatively small numbers of the Wilson’s but we are regularly seeing groups of both phalaropes. Groups generally are in numbers of  4 or 5 up to 10 to 12. The Reds generally appearing more light gray while the Red-necked appear more brownish gray.

The past week has also brought scattered sights of Black Terns offshore of the Peaked Hill area.  And a few in the Wood End area. The Blacks are a relatively small tern that is a bit larger than the  Least Terns in size. Black Terns are some 9.75 inches long and 24 inches across the wings. They are coming into non breeding plumage so the black belly and head of breeding time is not to be seen. Instead the undersides are now white or in the case of juveniles an almost mottled gray. They have a noticeable white band on each side of the neck. On the 8th of September we picked up a mixed group of terns on the water north of Peaked Hill and that group had some 15 Black Terns.

Watch for the Parasitic and Pomarine Jaegers particularly around Race Point. If you’re fortunate you might even catch a Long-tailed Jaeger. All three can be seen in their kleptoparasitic acrobatics while chasing small gulls or terns or just sitting comfortably on the water.

A sign of the approaching autumn are scattered adult Northern Gannets. Another sign are the increasingly regular sights of White-winged and Black Scoters. In all cases there is not a lot of consistency in these specie. Yet!!!