Bird sightings abundant for whale watchers

Posted Aug. 22, 2009, at 2:49 a.m.

The small dark birds flew swiftly, appearing almost as mirages just above the surface of the water.

“Guillemots,” trip leader Derek Lovitch announced.

I found the birds with my binoculars and noticed the short, stubby bodies and the characteristic white wing patches. In the past I’d seen these birds closeup on the ocean’s surface; their shockingly red feet and legs noticeable beneath the water as they paddled about.

We were aboard the ship Odyssey, out of Portland, heading 13 miles out to sea toward a ledge known as “Pollock Nubble.” Ostensibly, we were on the lookout for whales — this being a whale-watching tour boat — but on the way Derek’s goal was to survey and count as many seabirds as possible.

Most of the passengers on board were there for the whales, but there was a sizable contingent of birdwatchers who had signed up for this trip. Optically armed and ready, we kept a close lookout for the pelagic birds we hoped to see.

The hazy, hot and humid air I’d hoped to leave behind stayed with us, shortening distances and blurring the horizon. The sea was almost flat-calm, “like a lake,” someone remarked, and the sun was merciless.

Things began to pick up, though. Harbor pup seals were spotted napping at the water’s surface, and harbor porpoises allowed us brief glimpses as they flashed above the water for a second. Then, a small group of red-necked phalaropes were seen.

These small, dainty shorebirds breed across the arctic regions of North America and Europe. In breeding season, it is the female that sports the most colorful plumage: the black head contrasts with a snow-white throat and a beautiful warm russet neck; the dark feathers on her back are edged in gold, and stand out from her whit-ish chest and underbody. The male is similarly patterned, but his colors are more muted.

The red-necked phalarope has an interesting way of gathering food, as the “Birds of North America,” species account whimsically describes: “Red-necked Phalaropes are famous, as are the other two species of phalarope, for lifting aquatic prey within reach by rapidly spinning in tight circles in a manner reminiscent of a slightly demented toy.”

Sadly we did not get to see this entertaining behavior, as the birds were just resting quietly on the surface of the water. I hope I get the chance to see it in the future, but many shorebirds, as well as other birds, are declining in numbers. According to the BNA, the red-necked phalarope formerly numbered in the millions in the Bay of Fundy, where they’d go to “stage” — build up reserves — in the fall prior to their long flights to wintering areas along the South American coast. These huge flocks “have disappeared.”

We left the phalaropes behind. Soon we began seeing very small, dark birds with white rump patches zipping over the water: Wilson’s storm petrels. These birds also have a highly amusing method of feeding, which we got to see in abundance.

Fluttering their wings so as to hover more or less in place, they hang in the air while paddling their feet in the water. This stirs up plankton, which they then capture in their beaks. So efficiently do they do this, it looks as if they are constantly tap-dancing on the water.

Ironically, their feet are useless on land, and they must resort to shuffling along on their stomachs and chests. Anyone unaware of this would think the bird was injured or partially paralyzed in some way, as a woman who was standing next to me recounted. She was a veterinarian, she explained; once someone had brought a storm-petrel in to her office.

The bird must have been blown inland by a storm and she observed the bird could not seem to support itself on its feet. A quick call to Derek at the Freeport Wild Bird Supply store answered her question, and she was much relieved to learn this was normal.

All told, we did see a good diversity of birds, just not many of each. Greater shearwaters, Cory’s shearwaters, a sooty shearwater, and northern gannets made an appearance, as did common loons, common terns, a laughing gull, and one semipalmated sandpiper, which flew swiftly over the boat.

Oh, and we saw seven minke whales, too.

bdnsports@bangordailynews.net

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