Sunday, July 22, 2012

An Afternoon on Stellwagen Bank: Humpback Whales and Two New Life Birds

A number of small islands and beaches stand guard at the entrance to Plymouth Harbor, providing habitat for both wildlife and people to enjoy.
When my girlfriend told me back in April that she wanted to take me on a whale watch for my birthday I have to admit I was pretty excited. I enjoy whales and dolphins, and back when I was in college I took a particularly good course on marine mammals which taught me a lot about these amazing animals, but of course being an avid birder I was also very excited by the prospect of adding some new birds to my year and life list. For our whale watching adventure we went out of Plymouth Harbor on a Captain John whale watch, and we had amazing weather with excellent visibility. During the 4 hours we were on the boat ( and a little time spent by the dock prior to departure) I was delighted to add 3 new species to my year list, two of which were new life birds for me. Shortly after parking I added species number 80 to my list for the year when I noticed a group of 3 or 4 Laughing Gulls circling overhead.

A Laughing Gull perched near the waterfront in Plymouth Harbor.

 As the boat headed out of the harbor there was plenty to see, including a wide variety of working and recreational boats, small sandy islands dotted with summer homes and an array of navigational markers, lighthouses and buoys.

In the foreground, a channel marker buoy lets boaters know where the channel lies and how to navigate it, in the background summer homes can be seen resting on a narrow, sandy island.
I have fond memories of going on whale watches as a kid, so it was great to be out on the water for the afternoon, scanning a vast sea open expanse of blue water, looking for whales and whatever else we might encounter. As it turned out, we had a very successful trip, sighting  some 7 Humpback Whales and half a dozen Minke Whales. One group of Humpbacks actually surfaced quite close to the boat a few times, giving everyone on board a great look at these impressive animals. The naturalist on board, who was a specialist studying Humpbacks, told us that scientists can tell individual members of the species apart based on the patterns visible on their tales - each whale has a design as unique as a human fingerprint, she told us. In the photo below, I was lucky enough to capture an image of the tale of a whale which researchers have named "Eruption."

Individual Humpback Whales can be identified by marine biologists based on the pattern shown on their tales. This Humpback has been named "Eruption" by scientists studying whales in massachusetts, and is a regular visitor in the summer to the waters of Stellwagen Bank,
One of the major highlights of the trip for me was seeing two new birds - Wilson's Storm Petrel and Great Shearwater. The Petrels were very fast and difficult to capture with my camera, but at least on Shearwater was cooperative enough to land relatively close to the boat, allowing me to take the photograph below.

A Great Shearwater rests on the surface of a fairly calm sea out on Stellwagen Bank in July.
A Laughing Gull flies past the boat on a clear summer day.

Being out on the water and watching whales and birds was a terrific way to spend a beautiful summer day,. Seeing these two pelagic species (Wilson's Storm Petrel and Great Shearwater) has definitely whetted my appetite for more pelagic birding and coastal exploration in general. In the next few months be sure to check back as I go afield with camera and binoculars to explore Long Island Sound, Martha's Vineyard and other natural treasures along the New England Coast.

Thanks for reading.

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2012.

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