Whale Watch Bird Watch

As I briefly noted in my last entry, I spent a few days in New England a couple of weeks ago. Although I grew up in Massachusetts, I’d never been on a whale watch and I’d been told by a few birder friends that in addition to seeing whale (awesome!), most whale watches have some decent birding. I chose to go out with 7 Seas Whale Watch, out of Gloucester. They are known to have quite a few birders on staff, so it seemed like a win-win.

The weather wasn’t great. We had intermittent showers and low visibility, but the temperatures were comfortable, and the boat had a decent amount of cover out of the heavier rain and spray.

Gloucester Harbor, as we departed.

At the harbor entrance there were loose rafts of Common Eiders. The males were in eclipse plumage (a darker, more drab coloration), indicating that the breeding season is pretty much over for these ducks. I was happy to see Bonaparte’s Gulls, still sporting their summer-time hoods. These gulls are in their winter plumage by the time they arrive in Florida and have only smudgy “ear” patches on an otherwise whitish head (Sorry, but my photos did not come out due to the heavy mist and dim lighting).

I met one other dedicated birder on the boat, Mark Kosiewski and his companion Sasha. I compared notes with Mark periodically and we puzzled out the identification of a few birds together. I had hoped to exchange contact information with them before the morning was over, but I wasn’t able to catch up with them after the boat docked and we debarked. Interestingly, Sasha was an art major at Bridgewater State College (now University) at the same time I was (before I switched to Geography). We knew some of the same professors and she dated some local guys that were in my sister’s graduating high-school class. She graduated a couple of years before I did, so we didn’t have any art classes together, but I probably saw her around the art building at the time. She also has some family ties to the Space Coast. Small world, yeah?

As we transitioned into the open water, the first “pelagic” (oceanic) birds to appear were the shearwaters. There are four species of shearwaters that frequent the area near Stellwagen Bank: Cory’s, Manx, Great, and Sooty. We saw all four, and all were life-birds for me.

A Cory’s Shearwater on a pass close enough to get a recognizable photo.

Of course, the main reason for the whale watch did come into view soon thereafter. We repeatedly encountered two 3 year-old Humpback Whales named UFO and Barclay. The video I posted last time was of UFO diving and showing us some good flukes. Here’s the video again.

The whales were feeding near each other and at times interacted. These whales can travel quite fast, too. At one point we went off to another part of Stellwagen Bank at what I thought was a fairly quick pace, but when we arrived at our new spot, the two whales were already there ahead of us!

Every Humpback has a unique pattern of light and dark under their flukes. These are used by people to identify individual whales throughout their lives.
Humpback Whale after a lunge where its head came out of the water. It did this with a surprising amount of speed an power, as you can see from the splash!
Here you can see the whale’s blow-hole and some of the “stove bolt” knobs on top of its head.

The further out we got, the more Cory’s Shearwaters there were. Other shearwater species came into view, too. Manx and Sootys are noticeably smaller than the Cory’s and Great Shearwaters, but size can be deceiving when distances are hard to gauge. Fortunately, I had several sightings where Manx and Cory’s or Sooty and Cory’s were flying close together, so it was easy to tell the differences in size and proportions.

I was hoping to see a couple of storm-petrel species, but only Wilson’s Storm-petrels seemed to be out and about (another life-bird for me). These birds look almost like swallows or swifts, as they dash about the waves. Occasionally they will stall up and dip their feet on the surface of the water in a behavior called “pattering”. It is assumed they do this to attract or gather prey, but I don’t know exactly how that works.

One of the better views of the relatively small and fast-moving Wilson’s Storm-petrels.

As we traveled from place to place around Stellwagen, we got quick glimpses of Minke Whales and some pilot whales. Minke Whales are very fast moving and don’t stick around. A few quickly surfaced near the boat, showing their characteristic pointy dorsal fins, before diving out of sight.

The young Humpbacks were never too far away at most of our stops. Barclay got quite close to the boat a few times, even treating us to a tail slap. I noticed that our boat’s captain never tried to purposefully get too near the whales, but let them come to us. A few other boats in the area would dash up to the whales quite quickly, which I thought was a bit rude and unsafe.

The Humpback Whale got its name because of the particular way they hunch their backs before diving.

As we headed back toward the harbor, we saw more shearwaters and storm-petrels in addition to Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, and a surprise adult Northern Gannet.

Here’s my complete eBird list, including birds seen at the dock area before and after the whale watch:

I love pelagic trips. I had fun just being on the water and seeing what was around me. The whales were stupendous, and I got 5 life-birds out of the experience, too. If you even have the opportunity to go on a whale watch, I suggest you take it!


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