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Marine Birds of Cape Cod

Here the amateur naturalist and bird watcher has the opportunity to see some of the most fascinating avian life on our planet. These birds, called pelagic seabirds, are free roaming oceanic species, several of which are here on a trans-equatorial migration from their breeding grounds in the southern hemisphere. They have come to the western North Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Maine during their winter. Just as familiar nesting species in our area go south for the winter, they come north. Shearwaters and storm-petrels make up the majority of these long range migrants, but other species of birds are found here as well during our whale-watching trips that depart daily from mid April through October, many have come from far away, some are local species.

Three species of Shearwaters are commonly found in our waters during July and August; the Greater Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater and the less common Manx Shearwater. All are a good bet on a typical day on the water. They fly with stiff wings, gliding close to the water, beautiful to behold. The sooty is uniformly dark brown with slightly paler underwings. The greater is brown above and white below with a dark cap and a white rump patch, while the manx is notably smaller bird, chocolate brown above and pure white below.

Remember to use your binoculars all the time and look carefully at all the birds. Visitors from the Arctic, usually arriving in our waters in mid-July are the jaegers (yay-gers). The Parasitic Jaeger is the most commonly seen and is often observed chasing terns with the intention of stealing fish the tern may be carrying. But jaegers are kleptoparasites, they steal food by harassing other birds until they drop or even disgorge their stomach contents, which the jaegers greedily gobble up. A larger species, the Pomerine Jaeger, although larger, is often difficult to separate from parasitic. Even experienced birders refer to the sighting as jaeger (species). Jaegers appear gull-like but fly fast and determined. They are dark above, often showing white flashes just before the tip of the wing, jaegers have pale, creamy colored undersides.

Another rarely seen species is the Northern Fulmar, like a stocky gull, gray above and white below in its commonest form, this stiff-winged wanderer is seen during spring and fall. More common birds to look for during your July or August outing are the three common species of gulls found in our waters; Great-black Backed Gull, Herring Gull, and Laughing Gull. Common Tern and the endangered Roseate Tern may also be observed.

Look below for some of the species you may encounter while whale watching

Some of the species we see are right within our harbor. The protection from the stone breakwater not only protects the inner harbor, it also provides a man made habitat for some of our resident birds.


Double Crested Cormorant
Phalacrocorax auritus auritus

Length: 29 to 35 inches; spread 50 to 53 inches.
Range: Newfoundland,Ontario to gulf coast of Florida
Breeding: In colonies on cliffs, islands, trees nest: sticks and seaweed
Description: Upright figure when perched, neck long and slightly curved, and tail is used like a prop. Often seen standing with wings spread to dry, may be recognized instantly.


Great Black-backed Gull
Lorus marinus

Length: 28 to 31 inches; spread about 65 inches
Range: Greenland to Florida
Breeding:Colonized groups in a variety of ground habitats nests: A variety of materials from seaweed, shells, sticks, chips and shells
Description: One of the largest gull species in our area.lack winds and white body separates this gull from others. An aggressive gull lives mainly along the New England coast. Seen year round on-shore as well as off-shore.


Northern Gannet
Moris bassona

Length: 33 to 40 inches; spread about 72 inches
Range: Newfoundland, Iceland. Winters from Virginia to the Golf of Mexico
Breeding: On sea-cliffs or near them, on islands nests: Chiefly of seaweed.
Description: Gannets are often seen diving from heights to capture fish. Mature birds are white with black wing-tips with a yellowish cap, young are a rough grayish color changing over a three year span.


Herring Gull
Lorus argentatus smithsonianus

Length: 22 to 26 inches; span 54 to 58 inches
Range: Widely dispersed from New England, great lakes to the Bahamas
Breeding: same as the Great Black- backed Gull
Description: black band near the tail and a reddish orange spot on lower beak. seen both in fresh and salt water. Herring Gulls like most gulls are scavengers.


Common Loon
Gavia immer immer

Length: 28 to 36 inches; Spread 52 to 58 inches
Range: Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, Maine to southern Indiana
Breeding: Within it’s ranges as above nests: a mere hollow in the ground or a mass of vegetation.
Description: Known for it’s call, there sounds are like crazy laughter. This black and white bird is seen often in the spring within Cape Cod Bay. The pattern is unmistakable with it’s ringed neck, patterned wings and pointed beak. this sea bird like many others have it’s legs further back from it’s body making it difficult to walk on land.


Laughing Gull
Larus atricilla

Length:15 to 17 inches; spread about 40 inches
Range: Southern Maine to Florida
Breeding: Same as the Great Black- backed Gull
Description: Often identified by it’s vocal ha ha ha call before being seen. This smaller gull has a black head and is often seen within the feeding groups of whales. Laughing Gulls are often seen shore-side where people are likely to drop or leave food.


Northern Folmar
Fulmarus glacialis glacialis

Length: 18 to 20 inches; spread 42 to 45 inches
Range:Northern Greenland to New England (also Scotland and Ireland)
Breeding:Greenland, Ireland, Scotland nest: A slight depression on grassy shelf’s of sea cliffs, sometimes grass lined
Description: In flight unmistakable; straight, stiffly held, outstretched wings with long glides and rapid wing beat. looks much like a dwarfed gull.



Greater Shearwater
Puffinus gravis

Length: 18 to 20 inches; spread 42 to 45 inches
Range: Labrador, Greenland to Faroe and Orkney Islands
Breeding: Faroe Islands nests: A burrow in the ground
Description: Two-colored effect on side of head; dark cap appears black with white throat by contrast. often seen rafting together with other species of shearwaters. Flies low to the water hence it’s name.


Parasitic Jaeger
Stercorarius parasiticus

Length: 15 to 21 inches; spread 40 inches
Range: Central Greenland to Virginia and Gulf of Mexico
Breeding:Northern sea coast nest; a hollow in marsh or tundra
Description: A falcon like sea bird with two color phases,all dark or dark above and light below. A smaller elongated tail as with the Pomerine Jaeger. As with other Jaeger’s they will be seen chasing other sea birds with food provoking them to drop their catch, stealing the other birds food.


Sooty Shearwater
Puffinus griseus

Length: 16 to 18 inches; spread 40 to 42`inches
Range: Same as Greater Shearwater
Breeding: Same as Greater Shearwater
Description: Uniform dusky brown, appears black from a distance glides along just above the sea waves. Often seen within other groups of shearwaters within the Stellwagen Sanctuary and other feeding areas.


Pomarine Jaeger
Sterocarius pomarinus

Length: 20 to 23 inches; spread 48 inches
Range: similar to Parasitic Jaeger
Breeding: Same as Parasitic Jaeger
Description: The largest of the Jaeger family, has a pointed not twisted tail feathers that extend 3 to 4 inches beyond the tail. Jaeger’s are usually seen in the later part of the summer.


Manx Shearwater
Puffinus puffinus

Length: 12 inches to 14 inches; spread about 32 inches
Range: Same as Greater Shearwater
Breeding: Same as Greater Shearwater
Description: The smaller of the Shearwaters we see along our shores, this Shearwater is often notices within others by it’s rapid wing beats between glides. Similar to the Greater Shearwater as seen in photo above (Manx below the greater in photo)


Common Tern
Sterna hirundo hirundo

Length: 13 to 16 inches; spread 29 to 32 inches
Range: Wide range, worldwide
Breeding: world wide nest; ground built from pebbles with shells, fish bones, grass, seaweed. Usually in an open area
Description: Slender white bird with gray mantle and black cap. Can be seen on the shoreline as well as out in areas where small fish are abundant.


Atlantic Kittiwake
Rissa tridactyla tridactyla

Length: 16 to 18 inches; spread about 36 inches
Range: Arctic Islands to New England
Breeding:Arctic Islands and south nests; in colonies on cliffs, built with seaweed, grasses and mosses
Description: a small gull with black legs and black tip of wing clearly defined. A photo of a young Kittiwake above. A sea bird, it lives most of it’s life off- shore seen rafting with others of it’s kind. Usually seen off-shore in the fall during our trips.


White-winged Scoter
Melinitta deglandi

Length: 19 to 23 inches; spread 34 to 41 inches
Range: New England to Florida (also on the west coast)
Breeding: Central East-coast nest; On ground with grass and twigs covered with down
Description: Seen in early spring,this scoter will travel in large groups. A stocky sea-duck with white patches on it’s head. This duck will travel long distances for migration.

There are many species of birds that you can see while visiting Cape Cod but many of the species we have shown can only be seen while off-shore. These pelagic birds will rarely come to land and when they do they only stay long enough to nest then return once again to the sea. These birds we have shown are not the only bird species we see but are sighted more often while whale watching. After stormy weather from the northeast we can often have pelagic birds blown closer to shore which gives us the opportunity to view rare species.


Wilson Storm Petrel
Oceanites oceanicus

Length: 7 to 7 1/2 inches; spread 16 inches
Range: all oceans
Breeding: antarctic nest; A burrow in ground or under rocks
Description:This tiny bird is the size of a cardinal and appears all black with a white rump patch. Only one species of storm-petrel is commonly found on Stellwagen Bank and surrounding water, the Wilson’s Storm-petrel. The other possibility Leach’s Storm-petrel, is very rarely seen. These two-ounce birds you see on an August whale watch may very well be nesting among penguins on the continent of Antarctica as you celebrate New Year’s Day.