Friday, November 15, 2013

What a Difference a Day Makes

In our last outing on Halibut Point we accompanied the Brookline Bird Club in shirt sleeves. That was Saturday, November 2nd. The next day Joel and I met local birding guide Peter Van Demark to explore the coastline. As I dressed before dawn a spooky wind spoke “long johns.” They turned out to be the saving layer.

Peter termed it “a dirty day.” That meant not just cold, windy and overcast, but choppy water that might obscure the birds. But the Ray boys were rarin’ to go. Joel had a plane to catch, and we had a PLAN to carry out at Andrews Point. According to the masterful research of Rick Heil *, these blustery conditions should be perfect for initiating the fall migration of shorebirds that had been so absent the day before. Peter assented with curiosity for both nature and man.

Peter Van Demark scoping at Andrews Point
We leaned into the 30 mph gusts, threading our way across the moors to the high-scour line. Wow, the skies were zipping with duck things in flying wedges and soaring things free-wheeling above the waves. Everything was in motion.
Joel photographing from ‘shelter’
Joel was determined to get closer. He set up his camera behind a clutter of boulders to minimize the wind and spray. His portfolio below accomplished Step One of our PLAN. 

Gannet and black scoters
Scoters were on their way south in groups of hundreds. Evidently they were prompted not just by the falling temperatures, but by a boost from the howling air. Interestingly, their flight path crossed rather than followed the wind, leading me to speculate that, like sailors, they don’t make their best speed directly downwind.

White-winged scoters flocking south
Coming out of the north-northeast, roughly from the Isles of Shoals, this wind brought a tremendous number of gannets our way. With 6-foot tapered wingspans they make the hard work of maneuvering aloft seem playful. But of course they were hard at the serious business of fishing on a stormy day, far from their usual offshore haunts.
Gannet, the soaring spear
Peter warmed us with accounts of gannets on pristine days. “They are pelagic birds, living out over the ocean. I’ve seen them nesting in Scotland on cliffs along with kittiwakes and oystercatchers and harlequin ducks. They’re a very striking bird. Even two miles out, they look like bright white dots, especially if it’s sunny.  One time there must have been a school of herring or something miles out in the Ipswich Bay. It looked like rain with these white dots dropping out of the sky. Gannets can dive for fish from as high as 200 feet, just like pelicans. It’s incredible how high they can dive from.”

I was entranced enough to seek further details on Wikipedia. Gannets can achieve speeds of 60 mph as they strike the water, enabling them to catch fish much deeper than most airborne birds. They have a number of adaptations which enable them to do this:
· nostrils located inside the mouth rather than externally;
· air sacs under their skin of face and chest that cushion the impact with water;
· eyes are positioned far enough forward to give them binocular vision, for judging distances accurately.

Recording bird lore
Suddenly yesterday’s trophy premonition was realized. Peter lifted his binoculars. “A bird just landed out there. Two birds. It might be harlequin ducks. Yes! My goodness. There they are….a  gorgeous duck. Like the Commedia dell’arte character they have all sorts of colors.”

The Harlequins
Thus satisfied Joel and I got busy on Step 2 of the PLAN. His pop-up tent took shape easily on a flat rock, with ropes straining against a perimeter of sandbags. We were experimenting with a winter station.

I don’t have to give you captions or conclusions about being snug inside THE PLAN. We’ll have a little heater, thermos, and chairs for three.

* Richard S. Heil, "Seabirds of Andrew's Point, Rockport, Massachusetts." Bird Observer. Vol. 29, No. 5, 2001

1 comment:

  1. I'm really happy about your bird watching relationship with your brother. You guys are cute... in a hard-core kind of way. Inspiring.