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A great spot to view rare seabirds? Go on a whale watch

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Mark Faherty
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Now that summer is fully here in tourism terms, it’s peak time for whale watches — a must on anyone’s list of summer activities, whether you’re a salty local or a wide-eyed weekly renter. I, of course, think of whale watches as birding trips where the boat keeps stalling irritatingly next to whales. I’m kidding of course. Wait — no, I’m not. The whales are indeed majestic and spectacular, gentle leviathans of the deep and all that. But if I’m on a whale watch, my eye level is a little higher than others at the rail, in hopes of spying some interesting feathered fare. The bubble feeding or flipper-flapping humpbacks are just a major bonus.

Being a birder on a whale watch can be frustrating, for sure. If the birds and whales aren’t feeding together, there’s nothing you can do to steer the boat elsewhere. Plus there’s no money back guarantee if you don’t see a shearwater or storm-petrel. Speaking of which, there’s a good chance you’ll see a shearwater or a storm-petrel. Shearwaters in particular have been around in good numbers, though not always in the same place as the whales. Look for gull sized birds with a stiff-winged, wheeling flight style, especially in a stiff wind. Shearwaters are aerial geniuses, using wind like a surfer uses a wave, and rarely need to flap.

We see Cory’s, Greater, Manx, and Sooty Shearwaters around here — all four are possible in the space of a few minutes. Greater and Sooty come from the other end of the planet to spend their winter here, Manx and Cory’s come from Europe and the Mediterranean, respectively. Thousands of shearwaters were feeding on the east side of Stellwagen Bank last week, though the whales were feeding on mackerel on the opposite side. Then, after few sightings, thousands were massing off Race Point on Sunday, then mostly gone the following day. Such are the vagaries of seabirding.

As with all birding, you never know what you might find at sea. On Monday, someone fishing about 80 miles south of Nantucket had a bird he’d never seen circling the boat. He snapped a few phone photos and posted to our local birding group on Facebook. The mystery bird was elegant and fast, white with swooshes of black on both wings and eyes. This was a Red-billed Tropicbird, a rare seabird more likely off West Africa or Oahu than Nantucket.

Back in 2015 a Canadian birder took his chances on a whale watch to Stellwagen, and bagged himself a Yellow-nosed Albatross. In fishing terms, this was like catching a marlin and a sailfish on the same hook while surfcasting. That’s obviously an exaggeration, done purposefully as exaggeration is a language fishing enthusiasts understand. The year before that, a photographer took a whale watch out of Boston and got photos of the state’s first ever Fea’s Petrel, a scarce and obscure species of the Cape Verde islands. In whale watching term, this was like seeing a blue whale, Moby Dick, and the original Flipper from the 60’s playing cards. It’s possible I went too far with that metaphor.

whale watch
Mark Faherty
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If you get a bit green about the gills, and worry your lunch may want to head overboard, there’s what I call the “landlubbers special” whale watch. Just get yourself out to Race Point beach and point your optics seaward. You may not even need to get that close to the water — last weekend my family and I saw at least a dozen humpbacks from the observation deck at the Cape Cod National Seashore’s Province Lands Visitor Center. But out on the beach, especially if you get close to Race Point lighthouse, you increase the chances for good seabirds. In addition to the thousands of Cory’s and other Shearwaters a few days ago, there were unexpected avian treats like a Royal Tern, plus a Pomarine Jaeger sitting on the beach.

However you do it, just get yourself somewhere with a chance of seeing the summer seabirds. Some came all the way from almost Antarctica to be here — the least you could do is briefly look up from the 17th humpback of the day and tip your cap to one of these globetrotting masters of the wind.

Mark Faherty writes the Weekly Bird Report.