Tuesday, February 9, 2010

North shore wildlife!

Rockport harbor - Leica D-ux 4 camera - 2/7/10

When most people think of New England their thoughts turn to quaint shore communities with lighthouses, sheltered harbors, and some of the best chowder and lobster rolls in the nation. These observations are undoubtedly accurate, but my focus (pun intended) has always been more on the natural areas and the unique wildlife it supports! What can I say, I'm wired a bit differently than most and despite the scenic marvel offered by the lovely sheltered Rockport harbor, while other tourists snapped pics of the buildings I was drawn to even the most common wildlife occurring here. For example, I turned to photographing the Herring Gull sitting on the post in front of the red building above....

adult Herring Gull digiscoped through Leica APO Televid spotting scope w/ D-Lux 4
...and even though they are abundant throughout the US and beyond, I still couldn't help but appreciate the behaviors of the Rock Pigeons here behaving "properly" as their name implies!

Rock Pigeon digiscoped with Leica APO Televid 82 spotting scope & D-Lux 4 camera
Winter isn't the typical time when most plan their New England trips, but I was thrilled to go up and attend the 2nd annual Cape Ann Winter Birding Weekend organized by the Cape Ann Chamber of Commerce and Mass Audubon. This area offers some fantastic bird & wildlife opportunities in winter to include hordes of sea ducks, loons, alcids, and marine mammals, among others.

rocky shoreline off Cape Ann, MA - 2/5/10, Leica D-Lux 4 camera
The rocky coastline as seen directly across the road from the scenic venue where the event was held, made for a spectacular location to show binoculars and spotting scopes. As there was much wildlife supported here.

Purple Sandpipers make their living on Northern rocky shores!
The rocks themselves attracted amazing birds like the Purple Sandpipers above and below. A flock of 30+ fed among the algae and barnacles that clung to the sides of the lowest rocks when the tide dropped. It seemed like a cold way to make a living for a guy visiting from Florida, but these birds are perfectly adapted for the task. The birds did well on the slippery rocks and were able to avoid the crashing surf effectively. I wouldn't have fared nearly as well and was happy to to shoot from a safe distance and increase the magnification on the scope rather than creep out onto their precarious perches. I was not eager to feel the water temperature to say the least! ;p

Purple Sandpiper digiscoped Cape Ann, MA 2/5/10
More distant rocks also provided a favorite haunt for Great Cormorants, the largest species in this family found in the New World. The birds below seemed very animated and I couldn't help snapping images of them despite the distance and harsh side lighting.

large Great Cormorants roosted & consorted on ice-covered rocks off shore - MA 2/7/10

Common Loons fed near shore & were joined by lesser numbers of Red-throated Loons, Horned Grebes & Red-necked Grebes.

winter Common Loon, digiscoped off Cape Ann, MA 2/7/10
Common Loons (above) have sturdier builds than the more dainty Red-throated Loon (below). Note the Red-throated's lighter brownish-gray coloration, slimmer build, and thinner bill which is sometimes described as appearing upturned due to the angle of the lower mandible. These more subtle differences are necessary to note if you want to separate these species in winter. They are easily distinguished by markings in summer though.

Red-throated Loons were occasionally seen near shore.

Winter ducks were another big highlight here. Buffleheads and Red-breasted Mergansers like the male seen preening below were commonly seen very close to shore.

male Red-breated Merganser digiscoped through Leica APO Televid 82 mm scope

This is also a fantastic area to find and study many of the species of "Sea ducks" which include Long-tailed Duck (formerly Oldsquaw), and the three species of Scoters: Black, Surf, & White-winged. We saw all of these species right through the window of the venue! Below are some pictures of some others I caught up with during my quick trip here.

The male Harlequin Duck digiscoped above was feeding along the famed granite jetty just North of the Rockport Harbor. This was a late evening shot captured through the Leica APO Televid 82 mm spotting scope with the D-Lux 4 camera. This was the only male that I saw in my 3 days here. In summer these stunning ducks move into clear fast moving streams near the arctic coasts to nest.

Common Eiders digiscoped near Gloucester, MA 2/7/10
Another wonderful treat was watching the behaviors of the large rafts of Common Eiders, the largest sea duck species found in North America!

Common Eider digiscoped with Leica APO Televid 82 mm spotting scope & D-Lux 4

Female and young male Common Eiders are mostly brown. The adult females found along the Atlantic are typically reddish-brown with dark coloring on the breast as well. Young males tend to lack the red tones and show light to white breasts. I would guess the bird above is a first year male molting and its breast is just starting to appear lighter.

adult male Common Eider, digiscoped Gloucester, MA 2/7/10
Adult males were easily seen and identified though. Their distinctive black and white bodies reflected light from great distances. You can note the black cap and yellow-green bill on the bird above.

digiscoped with Leica C-Lux 4 camera through Lica APO Televid 82 mm spotting scope
Closer inspection reveals that the dark crown is actually split with a thin white stripe and that the area behind the white cheek is washed with a subtle avocado green that is more notable when the face is in shadow (as seen below).

adult male Common Eider digiscoped near Rockport, MA 2/7/10

Males would often rise out of the water flapping letting their light breasts reflect light. I assume this behavior may be territorial as females don't seem to do this often. In some lighting the breast seems to reflect a faint rosy bloom. Studies in some white bird species like the arctic Snowy Owl suggest more reflective males are more successful breeders. Also, tern species like Sandwich, Arctic, Roseate Tern and others show a pinkish "blush" on their breasts when breeding as well. Clearly there is a lot we do not understand about the complex displays of birds, and ultraviolet wavelengths we do not see well are likely involved.

both adult & young male Common Eiders regularly display as above.

For the past 3 winters the Cape Ann area has hosted a local avian celebrity, an adult male King Eider! This bird is a bit smaller than the Common and shares a similar black & white body patterning. However, an adult male King Eider's face and head are a fabulous pale, powder blue and the bill is bright orange with a bulbous base. While I got no images worth sharing, I was fortunate enough to see this bird each day I was there including very close images from the deck of the Seven Seas Whale Watch boat out of Gloucester. This trip was the final birding event of the festival, and seeing this bird up close was a clear highlight for many of those aboard!

winter-plumaged Black Guillemot, Cape Ann, MA 2/6/10

The Alcids is the family of birds to include the puffins and their allies to include less universally recognized species like the Black Guillemot (seen above), Murres, Dovekie, Rozorbill, and even the extinct Great Auk. They are weak-flying birds that can dive to great depths. They are often black and white in plumage and superficially resemble penguins. They most likely fill the same ecological niche that Penguins do in the Southern Hemisphere. Each day from shore you could find small groups of Black Guillemots and Razorbills.
Harbor seals were also easily seen lounging on rocks & beaches and feeding (you guessed it) in the boat harbors in the area. The image above was taken aboard the Sunday whale watch trip by holding the D-Lux 4 camera behind my 7x42 Ultravid binoculars. This photographic technique has been dubbed "digibinning". Not surprisingly, this is not as precise as digiscoping where you have the scope on a tripod and the camera secured to the scope eyepiece, but in a pinch it does offer a great way to extend the reach of your small point & shoot camera by 7 to 10x!

The "spy-hopping" seal above was digiscoped from shore using my typical rig (Televid spotting scope & D-Lux 4 attached via mated digital adapter). We watched each other for a while. At one point I saw this anaimal eat some sort of crab. I took a video of the event and will have to view it large scale to see if I can make out any more details. There were also a few Gray Seals around but again I didn't get any images of these larger pinnipeds. They have large "horse-like" faces and heads with blocky features.

VERY distant adult Snowy Owl, digiscoped on Plum Island 2/5/10
One of my favorite birds to see is the Snowy Owl. This rare denizen of the high arctic and cigar box tops, is the main reason I started watching birds in the first place (but that's another tale for another day). Just before leaving on my flight North I searched for Boston area bird information and noted that these birds were being seen regularly on Plum Island. Armed with this information, I made a beeline here immediately after securing my rental car at Logan international airport. It was near 3 PM when I finally arrived and I swung through to get some more detailed information from the helpful staff at Mass Audubon's Joppa Flats facility located right at the entrance to the island's causeway. I read through the recent sightings log and the woman at the front information counter mentioned she had seen a very distant & very light Snowy from parking area 3 on the refuge earlier that day. The image above is this same bird and as promised it was indeed VERY distant. Bear in mind the image above is magnified 60x, so this bird was likely 1/2 mile away!
Have you spotted him yet?... It's not easy to see if you don't have a proper "search image" in your brain. Look just above and right of center in the image until you note the curiously reflective ovate blob peering through the short stumps/posts in the circular formation known as a staddle (used to store salt grass when haying). As hard as he is to see and as bad a view/image as this was (even with great optics), I'm happy to note that I apparently still have a knack for spotting these birds. I spotted the white oval above as I was still driving toward parking area 3! I spent 2 full winters searching for and trapping & banding these magnificent birds in upstate NY, but again this is another story. :)
yet anotherVERY distant adult Snowy Owl at Plum Island!
Continuing on I located another adult Snowy Owl a mile or more further south near the "Hellcat" observation tower. This one would have been easier to get close to as there was a path along a dyke that went very close to this one, but this portion of the refuge was restricted so I had to settle for 2 very distant views of these magnificent birds. A much better alternative to no views at all. Do you see this one?... just left of center now, below the right edge of the large tilted ice sheet!
the sun sets on Plum Island - Leica D-Lux 4 camera
Despite temperatures cooler than the ones I enjoy here in Florida, I had a fantastic time at this marvelous young event only in its second year. It was treat to see these hearty northern species and to meet many new people with similar interests, I'll be back to enjoy this again, surely. Some of you may want to mark your calendars for the third annual event in 2011 as well!


  1. Very interesting post with great photography!! I really liked the Common Eider...cool looking duck :-)

  2. thanks cindy these are great birds and fun to watch.

  3. rkluin@manomet.orgFebruary 9, 2010 at 5:05 PM

    Great stuff! Thanks for sharing your travels and great photos with us! The Rock Pigeon pic is a classic.

  4. Yeah, we want to make the 2011 event. When will it be, do you know yet?
    We have been to Bear Skin Neck and the area and to Plum Island in the summer which has so many flies, I think we would appreciate a winter visit there. Thanks for the photos and info. They are all so wonderful.

  5. Beautiful shots, Jeff! Thanks for sharing! :)

  6. Thank you all so much for taking the time to not only view but comment as well. I had a great time up there naturally, and happily was able to miss both winter storms!

  7. OK - I'm a little late to the party here.
    Glad you were able to make it up to N.E. and have a good time - you obviously got some really fantastic shots in the short time you were here. Maybe next time you can get an extra day or two in and I can take you birding in some of the farther reaching locations in the area - there's still lots for you to see up here!

  8. Yeah Chris, but you're always a walcome addition! I'd like to thank you for all of the help you already offered. I had a great time and will be coming back, if you're not careful I may just take you up on that offer. :)