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Wednesday, August 08, 2012

Pelagic Birding

Sooty Shearwater

Great Shearwater

One of the great birding things to do this time of year is to take a pelagic birding trip to find seabirds. You can up your birder life list and experience some pretty cool birds firsthand. Often the trips are billed as whale watch trips, but you can see pelagic birds as well as the whales, especially if the captain caters to the birders on board and tries to find pelagic species. Birds such as Great and Sooty Shearwaters can be seen in numbers.

Great Shearwater 

On a whale trip in the past we saw many seabirds, we weren't counting as much as looking and I was also photographing. The seabirds were out feeding with the whales, near Jeffrey's Ledge, a 33 mile long shallow glacial deposit underwater formation that stretches from off Rockport, Mass. to south of Cape Elizabeth, Maine. Because of nutrient rich upwelling from the deeper waters next to the ledge, it's very productive of food (small fish, mollusks, crustaceans) for the whales and other marine creatures. Here's a Great Shearwater in flight. By far, the most numerous seabirds we saw were Great Shearwaters. They have grayish brown upperparts, a dark cap and a variable white collar. This one has less of a collar. You can see the narrow U-shaped white patch on the rump.

We also saw a fair number of Cory's Shearwaters, shown here. The yellow bill is quite prominent, a help with their ID.

It ain't easy to photograph seabirds. First of all, you're on a moving boat. We were lucky in that the seas were calm, with no big swells. Some tips, brace yourself against the wall of the boat, keep you knees slightly flexed and plant your feet somewhat widely to steady yourself. Forget a tripod. The boat is crowded, rocking and you have to manuever around people. Use a telephoto lens with image stabilization. I had a Canon 300 mm IS lens with a 1.4 teleconverter (giving me 420 mm). If you can hand hold the heavy 500 mm lens or the 300 mm f 2.8 lens then good for you, they are too heavy for me.
Here's a Great Shearwater taking off, love the pinkish feet.

Another species we saw was this Sooty Shearwater, an easy ID because of its almost all over sooty color, except for the whitish on the underwing primary coverts.Here's what it really looks like, with lots of little shapes bobbing on the water. These are Greater Shearwaters, but you need to look carefully at each group of birds and all birds flying by to ID them.
There are many seabirds that can be seen in the Gulf of Maine from whale watch boats from NH and MA. The Granite State Whale Watch Trips leave from Rye, NH. and is a great trip to take if you live in that area.

Whale watch boat we took near Digby Neck, Nova Scotia, Canada a few summers ago.

Greater Shearwater, swimming

Of course, the whales are spectacular also. Here's a photo of mother and baby Humpback Whales I took from Nova Scotia. What a thrill to see such huge mammals up close.
While most were on one side of the boat watching the whales, I was the only person who ran to the other side of the boat to get some of these seabird photos. Look for a pelagic birding trip near you.

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