Saturday, January 06, 2007

The Clouds Break

Okay, first an admission: I did not take this picture. I stole it from the Wikipedia website's article on the dovekie, that tubbly little seabird that sends birdwatchers crazy around here. I wanted to post a picture of it as it represents the high point of a strange, productive and thoroughly enjoyable day's birding on Cape Ann.

There are great advantages to birding in a group; apart from spending time with new or old friends and sharing expenses and driving duties, there is the valuable opportunity to learn from experienced and knowledgeable birders who usually know where the birds are most likely to be found. And, of course, there are all those eyes! Eyes darting everywhere, searching every little branch, wave, rock, whatever that might harbor something that flies (or swims and dives).

I went out with the Brookline Bird Club's outing today, led by Bill Drummond. We started in downtown Gloucester at the State Fish Pier, in a thick fog and intermittent rain (I would say the conditions were chilly except for the fact that we were actually about twenty degrees warmer than we should have been for early January) looking for gulls. In particular, the Common Gull, a possibly European vagrant that's been seen here recently. We didn't see it, but that was fine with me. I'm still in the infancy of gull identification (actually, I might have graduated to toddler this year) - these are difficult birds to distinguish from one another, and great patience is involved when looking for rarities in a giant flock of several hundred flying, swimming, resting and generally wheeling about everywhere in the Gloucester's inner harbor. But we found some others- Iceland Gull, Glaucous Gull and Black-headed Gull along with the more common Herring, Great black-backed and ring-billed. I was especially excited by the Black-headed gull, which I've never seen before and is a smallish gull with a red bill. We watched two of these guys fly round and round a particularly productive stretch of water, occasionally fluttering just above the water and then crashing into it head first, usually coming back up and out with a small, wriggling fish held tight between their bill. Swallow fast or a big bad great black-backed gull will get you!

We moved on to the southern tip of Eastern Point where we saw a distant but recognizable Barrow's Goldeneye. As we walked out the long jetty that is Dog Bar Breakwater, the skies lightened and the temperature rose, but we could see the dense fog still lying thickly about downtown Gloucester.

We kept moving. The whole experience of birding in a group like this is somewhat comical - I would be tempted to make fun of it if I didn't enjoy it as much as I did and respect the other folks who I was birding with. Oh well, I can make fun of myself, can't I? Though we carpooled, there were still several cars full of birders; we kept in touch by FRS radio walkie talkies, which have a range of anywhere from twenty feet to about a mile. As we drove there was constant chatter such as "Redwing, this is falcon one; do you have the eared grebe? Over." or "Put on your left blinker and turn into the Dunkin' Donuts. After a quick pit stop we'll cruise by the Elks Lodge to look for the King Eider. Redwing out." You might have guessed by now that this is a far cry from walking softly in the wilderness; however, once we are out of the cars and in the bird's territory, we are very careful and respectful (of birds as well as private property and general etiquette).

Anyway, we had some good birds, we got the eared grebe and the king eider, as well as purple sandpipers and guillemots and kittiwakes, but the highlight came when we stopped for lunch at Andrews Point, which is just south of Halibut Point (possibly my favorite piece of real estate in Massachusetts). The sun came out here in full force, and I mean full force. Many of us went down to t-shirts at this point and there was actually a warm breeze. Though I find this weather somewhat disturbing and the spectre of global warming frightening, for the hour and a half that we sat on the rocks at Andrews Point I was seriously loving it. Of course it doesn't hurt that we saw the dovekie, and had truly stellar views of it.

Stellar views of a dovekie are different than the stellar views you might have of many other birds. In the dovekie's case, it means several repeated sightings of the bird for the one second it spends at the surface between dives, hopefully from a close enough vantage to actually recognize it. It helps that there's nothing else quite that small, that tubby, with that distinctive tuxedo black and white plumage.

I'm not too humble to mention that I was the first person in our group see it positively - I saw a brief flash of white as something small dove about forty yards off the rocks. I mumbled something about seeing 'something' and kept my binoculars at the same spot, hoping it would come back up within the same view. About ten seconds later it did, and was unmistakably a dovekie, at which point I somewhat overexcitely called it out and somewhat awkwardly tried to describe exactly where it was, or exactly where it wasn't as it kept diving about exactly one second after surfacing. But I kept seeing it rise again and again, about seven times or so, slowly moving left before we finally lost sight of it. Not everybody saw it at this time, which I felt bad about (and wondered if I could have pointed it out better) until we picked it up again about fifteen minutes later. This time, it came in as close as about ten yards and two or three times rested on the surface as long as three or four seconds, a lifetime to a dovekie watcher. Of course, the sun was shining and the warm breeze was blowing, and everybody, myself included, had a very nice smile on their face.

A very nice day all in all. I saw several birds I didn't see all last year: glaucous gull, black-headed gull, king eider, eared grebe, black-legged kittiwake, black guillemot. A nice first outing for 2007.

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