Sunday, September 15, 2019

2-9. Cape Cod—Great White Sharks, Ocean Sunfish,
and Humpback Whales
3-5 September 2019

    typical morning at the Powder Hole

On the early morning of the 3rd of September, anticipating a mid-morning pick-up and return to the mainland, I headed down to the Powder Hole for one final encounter with my beloved shorebirds. On the walk down, I heard Bobolinks passing over, giving their pink notes.

Things were fairly quiet at the sandflats. No godwits, no Whimbrel. Just yellowlegs, dowitchers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, oystercatchers, Stilt Sandpipers, Willets, Black-bellied Plovers, and gulls and terns. Nothing had coming in overnight, but a few things had departed for parts south.

Back at the Lighthouse, I packed up, cleaned and straightened the house, and started freighting my stuff out to the landing on the Nantucket Sound. I used a wagon with balloon tires to move the heavier and bulkier stuff across the Poison Ivy-laced landscape.

Then I heard from my Fish & Wildlife Service hosts that because of the approaching threat of Hurricane Dorian, that plans were changing and my return to the mainland would be delayed.
The Service needed to batten down the lighthouse facilities and they also decided to keep the bird banders off the island until after the passing of Dorian.

    Downtown Chatham, Oyster Cove in the front, and Aunt Lydia's Cove in the back right

By 1 PM I was back in Stage Harbor (as mentioned in the preceding blog), which was filled with birds.

From the FWS HQ, I Ubered to the repair shop in Harwich, where the smashed back window of my car had been repaired (In the pre-dawn hours, when departing my campsite in Provincetown a week earlier, I had backed into a jutting treelimb that popped the back window—not a convenient thing to happen on the morning of my departure for South Monomoy!).

My plan to do a whale watch this afternoon was stymied by these bureaucratic delays, so I reverted to a fall-back plan—chartering a Cessna to search for Great White Sharks out of Chatham airport.

    Pilot Tim Howard, in his Cessna 172

At 4 PM I boarded the Cessna 172 with Tim Howard at the rudder. The two of us took off without delay and within 3 minutes we were tracking northward on the Atlantic side of South Beach, with beautiful Chatham to the southwest of us. And there down below in the pale green water was the dark form of a Great White.

    Yep, a Great White right at the surface, cruising for seal burger

We banked hard to allow me to photograph the beast, which was less than 100 yards off the shore, in shallow water with a white-sand sea bottom, making it particularly easy to see the dark dorsal surface of the shark.

    shark bait--Gray Seals foraging in the shallows northeast of Chatham

The sea surface also featured foraging Gray Seals, of course. These served as the sharks’ luncheon menu.

    Ocean Sunfish (Mola mola) the largest bony fish

But there was more. During our 40 minute flight, we also picked out 7 Ocean Sunfish floating flat on the surface of the sea, waggling a fin in their peculiar fashion.

    Look at the shadow of the Great White to understand how shallow the water is

We were looking mainly for sharks, and we found three different individuals in the flight, which took us almost to Truro. I had long wanted to see a Great White, and this did the trick!

    It seems to be the pectoral fin that is waved about by this very streange beast

Tim told me that finding Great Whites from the air is pretty easy during this time of the year, so long as the wind is down and the water relatively clear. The best time of all is the early morning when the sea surface is glassy and the sun is in the east.

    Note how long the pectoral fin is in this creature

After departing the airfield, I headed to Provincetown for the final night of my 6-week field trip. I dined that night at the Canteen in bustling downtown P’town with whale naturalist Dennis Minsky, who organized a morning whale watch for me the next morning.

    The dorsal fin  is almost out of the water

Early Wednesday morning I packed the car and headed out to Race Point Beach to see what was happening out over the water. Not much. I glimpsed one or two blows from Humpbacks, but no big collections of birds. I did glimpse a single jaeger swooping about out in search of a tern or gull to harass.

    Above Chatham. A view of South Beach in the very back (sand barrier), and Chatham's "deep south"

In mid-morning I road the Dolphin 11 out of Provincetown harbor on a fair morning with a decent crowd of anxious whale-watchers. I bumped into a nice threesome of birders from Michigan, who were eager to see some sea birds. We spent much of the trip together, watching birds, fish, and whales.

    Great Shearwater

This morning, the seabirds were few: 15 Great Shearwaters, 1 Sooty Shearwater, 1 Leach’s Storm-Petrel, 5 Red-necked Phalaropes, 5 Northern Gannets, and that’s about it.  Most of the Great Shearwaters we saw right in the mouth of the harbor. The open ocean was fairly bird-free.

    Mother and grown-up calf Humpback Whales, cruising

The boat passed several Ocean Sunfish, each one waving a sharklike fin above the surface.

    Showing the fluke

Our whale encounters were all of the Humpback variety. We spent quality time with two mother-and-calf pairs. The calves were all grown up, but still associating with their mothers.

    More fluke

One mother did a partial breach with a tail smash into the water, raising quite a splash.

    Mother making a ruckus!

The boat moved from sun to cloud to heavy fog and back, making for changing sea conditions.

    the "blow" - how one finds whales at a distance...

Back in the harbor, I started up my car and began my trip home.

    Coast Guard Beach, looking west toward Eastham

Wednesday, September 11, 2019

2-8. South Monomoy Island—Part II

    Adult molting Hudsonian Godwit preening in the Powder Hole. Note patchy belly

One thing I forgot to report in my last blog was that when I was ferried out to the island, we departed from Stage Harbor in Chatham. This is a gorgeous natural harbor surrounded by beautiful summer and year-round homes tucked into wooded hillsides. The surprise was finding two adult Peregrine Falcons hunting birds over the harbor. They glistened in the bright sunlight of the morning as we slowly wended our way out into Nantucket Sound.

    Beach view of the Lighthouse facility, where I was based...

One arrives on the Sound side of South Monomoy, on a beach landing about a half-mile from the lighthouse. One then learns something about the island vegetation. The sandy trail to the lighthouse is, in many places, fringed by abundant vines of Poison Ivy, with leaves turning red with the arrival of early autumn. Some parts of the island were “no go” to me because of the barriers posed by this noxious weed.

    The lighthouse from the far north of the island, on the Atlantic side... no people...

Otherwise the vegetation of the island is low and sparse and benign. A few low pines, bayberry, beach plum, cranberry, blueberry, and much more poison ivy. The wetlands feature Salt Hay and the taller Spartina alterniflora, and Phragmites, among others. Bare sand dunes are prominent in places. No closed forest anywhere. No tall trees anywhere. A number of lakes and ponds dot the island. These are frequented by a variety of ducks, but mainly American Black Ducks and Mallards.

    Tree Swallows enjoying the sunshine on an afternoon in the dunes

The island is a federal wilderness area, and no camping is allowed. I had a special use permit (#53514-19-11), which allowed me to stay on the island to survey shorebirds. That said, it is perfectly OK for day visitors to visit the island and hike here and there. Visitors mainly are fisherfolk and beach-lovers. I am told the surf-casting from the Atlantic shore is excellent for stripers and bluefish.
There are beaches on both the Sound (bay) side and Atlantic side. But it is the Atlantic strip of beach that is mind-blowing—backed by high dunes and very broad and very white. This beach is mainly the domain of shorebirds, gulls, and seals. There are few beaches along the Eastern Seaboard that have as few human footprints as this one.

     Northern sector of South Monomoy, east side, showing the broad white beach

The island is reputed to host a small population of White-tailed Deer, though I saw only a single discarded rack of antlers and yet no footprints in the sand. Creatures I did encounter were Garter Snakes and toads, which I was told are Fowler’s Toads.

     Two American Golden Plovers in the Powder Hole--adults in molt (SESAs in front)

I walked north of the Sound side one morning, in search of shorebirds. This is very peaceful and pleasant and the shore was littered with the shells of dead Horseshoe Crabs. It made me wonder why so many individuals of various ages had died this summer.

    Hudsonian Godwit on the wing over the Powder Hole

Walking the Atlantic is a bit more exciting—windy and very sunny because of the broad white sand beach. I saw a single blowing Humpback Whale, and also saw several waving fins of the weirdly-shaped Ocean Sunfish, that float on the surface of the water. The fin reminds one of a shark, but it is waved about willy-nilly. A shark’s dorsal fin is unable to do that.

    Juvenile Red Knot foraging in the Powder Hole

Sea ducks loafed in flocks off the shoreline. Common Eiders were around, and I also encountered all three species of scoters, Blacks being the most abundant.

    Common Eiders in eclipse plumage...

Of course, Double-crested Cormorants were omnipresent.

    Double-crested Cormorants

Gray Seals are abundant around the island. The seals patrol the shoreline, often popping their heads out of the water to look at me. Groups of seals would follow along the shore as I walked the beach. They are very curious.

    A curious Gray Seal eyeing me...

Twice I came upon large groups of 50 or more seals hauled out on the beach in the early morning. These includes big brutish males, smaller gracile females, and little ones of the year. Among these groups I saw seals with major gashes in their flanks. A product of shark attack?

    A young Gray Seal with a wound (from a shark?)

I spent more time at the Powder Hole mud flats than any place else, aside from the lighthouse where I was based. There were always shorebirds and gulls and terns at the Powder Hole, so it was always productive.

    A big haul-out of Gray Seals

I hunted for Baird’s and Western Sandpipers among the flocks of Semipalmated Sandpipers. I never did find a Baird’s, though I did locate several Westerns.

    Western Sandpiper juvenile

I did not see evidence of a lot of songbird movement. I had a few Bobolinks overhead, but few warblers. I think it was early in the season.

    Tree Swallows starting to swirl

Tree Swallows were starting to assemble in numbers. It was fun to watch the swarms that came together out on the beach or over the interior vegetation. Thousands!

    An adult Parasitic Jaeger over the Nantucket Sound's beach

One morning I was surprised to see a Parasitic Jaeger appear overhead. It circled me and then several times dive-bombed a foraging Northern Harrier.

    The jaeger takes off after a female Northern Harrier

South Monomoy continues to evolve, as winds, currents, and storms move sand and water in unexpected ways. The bottom of the island has grown into a large circular “bulb,” gathering sand that get’s carried south down the eastern face of the Cape.

    A resting flock of Semipalmated Sandpipers

Returning back to Stage Harbor after my week on the island, I was welcomed by an abundance of birds—Common Terns, flocks of Double-crested Cormorants, and an Osprey and Red-tailed Hawk.

                           Whimbrel foraging in the Powder Hole

Before heading home to Bethesda, I had a few more things to do on the nature front—take up a Cessna 172 in search of sharks and take a whale watch out of Provincetown. Those adventures will be featured in the next (last) blog of this current trip...  

    Yearling Gray Seal

    young and old Gray Seals

Monday, September 9, 2019

2-7. 25 August to 5 September. Cape Cod, MA

    Marbled Godwit flushing from Powder Hole

On Sunday morning early I drove from Newburyport through Boston (should be done before 0700 on Sunday) to the south shore and then onto Cape Cod, always a great destination in late August and early September for so many reasons.

    Atlantic view of the Lighthouse facility

I was headed to Cape Cod for shorebirds, seals, sharks, and whales... I camped that night at Dune’s Edge Campground just on the outskirts of bustling, festive Provincetown, out at the Cape’s very tip.
After setting up camp, I headed out to Race Point Beach, on the northern shore of the Cape, to see what was up...  A lot was up! Humpbacks were feeding in numbers offshore, and seabirds were swarming over them—a nice combination.

    Shorebirds of many varieties on the wing at the Powder Hole (HUGO in upper right)

I was able to scope out Corey’s, Great, and Manx Shearwaters in this frenzy. Also Minke Whales were moving around, and I could see them breaking the surface and showing their curved fin. But I was amazed to see 4-5 Humpback Whales blowing at once from my perch on the beach, that was new for me—seeing all this activity from shore.

    A pair of sleek juvenile Semipalmated Sandpipers foraging

The next morning I drove to Chatham to meet with the Fish & Wildlife Service’s Eileen McGourty to obtain my special use permit (as a research scientist) and to finalize details of my visit to South Monomoy Island. I will boat out there on Tuesday and stay through the Holiday weekend and be picked up the following Tuesday.

    Three species: Semipalmated Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover, and Red Knot

An afternoon visit to Race Point Beach again produced some whale encounters.

    American Golden-Plover in flight

By Tuesday at noon I was on South Monomoy, and had met the Mass Audubon bird-banding crew—Nicholas Dorian, Tucker Taylor, and Nancy Ransom. They were scheduled to depart the island the next day, leaving me alone on this “desert” island. They were going to brief me on the ins and outs of Monomoy.

    Ring-billed Gull and 2 American Oystercatchers

This afternoon, I joined the banding crew at the Powder Hole, as they did a count of the birds at this famous hotspot. It was literally alive with birds—gulls, terns, and shorebirds... This was where I would be spending a lot of time over the next week!

    Mass Audubon banding crew crossing the island

On this evening, we set up scopes with the setting sun to our back and scoped every last bird. This count would go into the system via Mass Audubon. The banding team did a varying survey every day...

                             Coyote tracks in white sand

My week of surveys focused on the Power Hole and the two beach fronts—bay and ocean. I did lots and lots of walking over the week, mainly counting shorebirds.

    A fock of dowitchers on the move

Monomoy is one of those most famous birding locations in New England, much like Plum Island. In fact, I had my first visit to Monomoy in early September 1969, exactly 50 years ago. On that wonderful birding day, I added 7 birds to my life list, including Hudsonian Godwit, Western Sandpiper, American Golden-Plover, and Wilson’s Phalarope—all birds I would see once again on this current visit.
    sunset from the lighthouse

In the 1970s, the Mass Audubon ran birding tours to Monomoy. At that time, Monomoy was a single island, and was easily accessible by boat from Chatham. The Audubon people had an old dune buggy that could carry 10 birders, and they trundled down and up the island, to all the best birding spots.
These days Monomoy is 3 islands—North Monomoy, South Monomoy, and Minimoy. The access by boat is much more difficult because of the ever-shifting sand shoals.

    shorebirds and gulls at the Powder Hole

On the southern “bulb” of South Monomoy, there remains an old lighthouse and its lighthouse keeper’s house. This is where I stayed. This recently-restored facility is no longer providing light for ships, but instead is used as a research base for the likes of the Mass Audubon bird banders and myself.

    Hudsonian Godwit molting adult (probably a female?)

I was on South Monomoy because historically, Monomoy has been the “last stop” for the migrating Hudsonian Godwits, who touched down here before launching out over the Atlantic for the nonstop multi-day flight to South America.

    Close-up of the lighthouse

Not as many godwits seem to stop over as they once did, but I wanted to experience this important place in the godwit’s story.

    Horseshoe Crabs were abundant on the Nantucket Sound side of the island

So I was out looking for godwits every day. First, I came upon a single Marbled Godwit, settled into the Powder Hole.

    Marbled Godwit on a stopover in the Powder Hole

A couple of days later, I watched as an adult Hudsonian Godwit winged down into the Powder Hole, exactly a half-century after I saw my first HUGO here on Monomoy. This was a bit like my experience with the Whimbrel on Schoodic Peninsula the week before...

    Hudsonian Godwit loafing amongst the dowitchers and Red Knots

           Northern Harriers were the common resident raptor on South Monomoy, seen many times a day. Often chasing                       shorebirds, but never catching one...

This godwit spent three days on the island before disappearing, perhaps on its lonely flight south across the Atlantic. Presumably it passed east of Hurricane Dorian, which was brewing in the Caribbean at that time.

    Pectoral Sandpiper

There were plenty of other shorebirds to study, count, and photograph. Monomoy remains a great stop-over site for these southbound migrants. The Powder Hole has become a favorite feeding site. Standing amidst the shorebirds there, the sound produced by the birds is remarkable—a SurroundSound of Semipalmated Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers, and six or seven other noisy species.

    Molting adult Red Knot showing off its green leg flag..

I managed to see all the species I first had observed here in 1970, which was a source of satisfaction.
Next will come part II of my Monomoy Blog... stand by!

    Whimbrel crossing the island. This species was seen daily.