Dolphin Fleet Birdwatching Notes
by John C. Conlon
Summer has progressed to autumn. Swallows are migrating by the thousands through the Pilgrim Lake area. Canada Geese are showing up in greater numbers as they migrate south and Wild Turkeys are showing up in groups along the sides of route 6 along running between Wellfleet and Provincetown. Oak leaves are beginning to fall around my house!
A sign of autumn on the water is the scoters. Scoter numbers increase dramatically around the Cape beginning in October. Flocks of 10 to 25 White-winged Scoters are common. Black and Surf Scoters are also arriving. Watch for mixed flocks that may be flying low or high over the water. White-winged Scoters nest across much of central Canada, central Alaska and northern Eurasia. Surf Scoters nest throughout Alaska and northern Canada. And Black Scoters nest primarily across northern Eurasia though nesting colonies are known in western Alaska and some isolated spots in central and eastern Canada. All three will make it to the southern Canadian Maritime provinces, and the New England and Mid-Atlantic states of the USA for their non-breeding season. White-wings and Blacks are often found in relatively large flocks while the Surfs tend to be in smaller rafts. All are nonetheless visible from whale watch boats, though while we are offshore the scoters are usually seen on the wing. All will also be visible from shore as the seasons progress.
Northern Gannets are also now showing up in steadily increasing numbers. We’ve seen scattered groups of juveniles throughout the summer months but the numbers are now increasing and adults are regularly seen. For those folks not familiar with Northern Gannets they are a close relative of the tropical and subtropical boobies but instead they are found mainly in temperate and higher latitudes. They are a giant bird with a wing-span the better part of 6 feet, with noticeably conical shaped heads, and overall they resemble a mini SST. The adult body is mostly brilliant white with deep-black wingtips and a pastel yellow head. Northern Gannets nest in coastal cliff areas of eastern Canada and migrate southward for the non-breeding season. Most are just passing through our area for other winter areas stretching from south of Nantucket and the Vineyard along the east coast of the USA and into the Gulf of Mexico. From a distance their diving from high above the water gives them away. There is nothing to confuse these birds with even from great distances. Nothing else is that big or dives from that high above the water. The end of our whale watch season in October and on through December as well as the beginning of our season in April and May are great times for Gannet watching. Again, go to the beaches along the outer Cape anytime during the winter and look offshore as they are here for the entire winter.
I’ve seen precious few Northern Fulmars this year. But the 4th of October was a good day. We had 3 Northern Fulmars wheeling around the boat off the southeast corner of Stellwagen Bank. In measurement they are comparable to the Greater and Cory’s Shearwaters but they are quite stout in all proportions even when compared to the Cory’s. They are 18 inches long with a 42 inch wingspan. Northern Fulmars have relatively short bills and very blunt heads compared to the other two. Most Fulmars that I spot are clean white underneath while being gray-white above with quite noticeable white oval patches toward the outer ends of the wings. Their soaring is reminiscent of that of the shearwaters though if you are able to follow the Fulmars they will make huge loops out into the distance and then circle back into view. This can give the impression that more are being seen than are actually around. It takes a steady hand, binoculars, to follow them through their loops but it is a behavior worth following. We never really see many Fulmars but strong easterly winds will push them inshore and they are more likely to be seen between mid-September through the winter into May than they are to be seen in the summer months.