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End of Season Birdwatching Notes by John Conlon


John C. Conlon

Our 2009 whale watch season has come to an end. And with it so has our pelagic birding season.  As with the entire autumn, a steady progression of fronts and storms has affected this last week. But a few final bird sightings are worth noting.

October 11th gave us a pair of red phalaropes. They are on their way south for the winter non-breeding season but if you are out on a boat or spotting from shore with good optics they are still here to be seen. That same day offered gannets in flocks of 50 to over 70 in two places outside the Peaked Hill Bars as we headed toward the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank.

Strong winds from the northern quarter gave a great day of “pelagic”  birding on the 14th of October. We were again able to observe several flocks of shearwaters with more than 100 birds each. Shearwater numbers have diminished over the past few weeks so this was a treat for the autumn birdwatchers. Greater Shearwaters predominated while the Sootys were well represented. Careful inspection revealed occasional singles and pairs of Cory’s Shearwaters. Most of this day’s Manx Shearwaters were still as singles and pairs, and were outside the larger shearwater groups.

Of particular interest on this day however were the land birds. Several Fox Sparrows traveled past  and one spent about 10 minutes huddled up under the framing of the boat’s bow. This bird’s strong red tint to it s brown plumage gave it away. Dolphin Fleet field guide Dennis Minsky reported sighting Fox Sparrows that same day onshore. One male yellow-rumped warbler took the time to do several circles around the boat and over the bow before flying onward. A half dozen dark-eyed juncos made their appearance at different times. One set down onto the port quarter rail of the upper deck. And a second spend about 20 minutes on the deck of the fly-bridge. The former offered great looks for nearby passengers while the latter offered great looks to myself, Captain Brian, and first mate Lacy.

It is ironic that we would close the pelagic season with a good day of land bird sightings on the water. But they are worth mention for the well-being of the birds themselves. When land birds set down on the boat it is important not to disturb them. They can rest on the boat and take the ride back to Provincetown if they wish. Most birds not specifically adapted for life on the water do not produce the quantity of oil for feather preening that seabirds produce. Oil is important to feathers as a lubricant keeping barbules supple, and waterproof the feathers. Without sufficient waterproofing bird feathers become waterlogged. Waterlogged feathers lose insulating capability which quickly leads to hypothermia and death. That hypothermic death assumes that ravenous gulls offshore have not already killed the vulnerable land bird. (As an aside, bird feathers are made of the same protein, keratin, as whale baleen, and human nails and hair.) Enjoy the unexpected guests when they arrive on the boat!

October 15th was my last day on the boat this year. It was a brilliant autumn day. Eider Ducks were everywhere. Low-flying flocks of 30 to 50 were spotted on several occasions. All headed in a generally southerly direction. October 15th also offered looks at Northern Fulmars. These are always a delight as they glide low over the water. Of particular note was one dark phase fulmar. The majority of Northern Fulmars that we see on whale watch trips are the light phase that I’ve described in other notes but on rare occasions a dark phase shows up. Northern Fulmars are well known for  plumage variation. The rarity with which  we see “darks” one might easily think of a Sooty Shearwater but the robust fulmar proportion gave this bird away. This “dark” would likey be a from southeastern Canada as that region tends to have more “dark” breeding birds than areas farther into northern Canada.

Lastly, a HUGE THANK YOU to all of the bird watchers who added to the excitement of our “whale watch” season. We certainly look forward to seeing you all again next year. And, feel free to bring your birding friends with you!!!