Tuesday, June 15, 2010

June 13, 2010 Seabird & Whale Tales Excursion

June 13th 2010 SAWT Excursion
8 am to 4 pm
Tails of the Sea

Below are trip reports from David Clapp and Joanne Jarzobski. Enjoy!

Trip Report by David Clapp

The day started a bit gloomy and it wasn't until we returned to the harbor eight hours later that we saw the sun. It was foggy offshore all day. It wasn’t cold but it was cool and the rain shower about thirty minutes away from the pier was a bit of an eyeopener. The Captain John boat with a group of hardy whale and bird watchers aboard headed east toward Stellwagen Bank.

The sands of Duxbury Beach were not visible through the fog but Long Beach (Plymouth Beach) was seen pretty well as we left the harbor. There are few mammal predators on the beach this year so the tern colony that has been on the sandy stretch was solid and even larger than last year. It appears that there are 5000 pairs of Common Terns and a few pairs of Arctic and Roseate terns. The Least Terns are there as well but their breeding numbers are a bit fluid. There have been as many as 100 pairs of Least Tern but there have also been years with none. We saw a single Black Skimmer as we returned to the harbor at about 4:00pm.

There are about 20 pairs of Piping Plover on the beach and a scattering of other nesting birds. Beach management has been improved and tightened in the past decade and it seems that nesting success has improved for all species. The limiting (or removing) of dogs, 4x4 vehicles, and casual use of the nesting areas has provided safe harbor for the birds.

We passed through the bay and on toward Provincetown. Though we had drizzle and fog the first Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters appeared in mid-bay. By the time we reached the SE corner of the bank we had a nice gathering of whales and sea birds.

There were over ten whales that Joanne Jarzobski and Krill Carson recognized by name and three of these had calves. Joanne has written an overview of the whale sightings from today's trip. So for more detailed information, see her report below. Helping with the humpback identifications were Kelly and Orla from the Whale Center of New England. In the mists out along the horizon there were spouts and blows all over the place. There could have been another 30 whales around us; there certainly were another fifteen. There were Humpbacks feeding all around the boat for almost an hour. there were a few Minke Whales that cut through the area as well.

The calves were a bit frisky and there was quite a bit of spy-hopping, tail lobbing, and breaching. The mothers were feeding continually and Sand Lance were evident in the water. The youngsters tagged along with the adults but were not competent feeders yet. It was a busy time for all of us; whales and whale-watchers.

There were quite a few Atlantic White-sided Dolphins as well. They are very difficult to count but there were times when 10-20 were in sight at once. If there were lots of smallish groups there could have been as many as 50. If there was jus one or two groups that kept appearing and reappearing then the number could be half that.

With Blair Nikula, Peter Flood, Jim Sweeney, Nancy Swirka, and David Clapp along, there were birders all over the deck. Though it was only mid-June and the water is still quite cool many sea bird species had been reported. There was even a report of a Cory’s Shearwater earlier this week. Our visibility was limited but we did pretty well. It is alway fun to listen to the birders as they compare notes and try to come up with reasonable sightings estimates. First you deal with the number; were there really 150 storm-petrels? After the number is derived the other questions pop up; Do you really think there were more Greater Shearwaters than Sootys?

After all was said and done we were sure that whatever number we cited it would relate only to what we saw within the small ring of visibility that we had and have little semblance to the number we could have seen on a clear or the number of bird that are out there. There are surely more birds and whales out there and the numbers would have been much higher if we had had better visibility.

David Clapp

Whale Report by Joanne Jarzobski

We ventured out across the southern edge of Stellwagen Bank, passing through the SW corner on our way to the SE corner. Both of these areas are historically good areas to find ways. It can vary from year to year or even month to month which is more popular to the whales, sometimes neither being productive enough areas for large congregations of whales; or perhaps another area being so productive they don’t move inshore to Stellwagen Bank.

On the SE edge of Stellwagen Bank we found 12+ feeding humpback whales! It was the first surface feeding seen out there in nearly a month, so an exciting display of behaviors to observe. Whales were kick feeding (smacking their tails against the surface of the water to help stun the prey) then blowing bubbles in clouds or nets to help trap the schools of sand eels (aka sand lance). Kick feeding is a unique behavior to Gulf of Maine humpback whales, as they do not demonstrate this behavior in other areas of the world. Humpback whales can be quite individually specific to a certain style of feeding and typically kick a specified number of times or always blow bubble clouds or bubble nets. All around the boat and in every direction we had feeding.

We began our trip with a pair, which included Scratch and Freefall. Scratch is a mature female first seen in 1979. She's had at least 7 calves since her first sighting in 1979, one of which (Stout) spent two years with her before being fully weaned. Most humpback whales leave their mother after 9-12 months, but Stout stayed with Scratch during its yearling year.

Scratch and Freefall had formed an association (traveling together). Associations among humpbacks may last a few hours, just minutes, or sometimes even days. While all baleen whale are considered solitary animals, humpbacks are very social and associations form, especially while feeding.

In the same area, we came across a mother and calf pair, Reaper and calf, which was one of the first sightings of this pair for the year, making it the 18th cow/calf documented to date. Reaper is well known for her dramatic kickfeeding, lifting her tail and kicking 2-3 times before circling down and blowing bubbles. She was coming up with her mouth wide open and dragged (swam with her chin/head out of the water) after each surface. This is a behavior that is also very individually specific--some whales drag, some do not--Reaper is a dragger. Reaper had very fresh, raw scuffing on her right jaw, indicative of bottom feeding recently. Like most humans, she is right handed, and feeds with her right side down. Only a small number of GoM humpbacks feed with their left side down when bottom feeding.

Reaper was born in 1987 to Andromeda and therefore is 23 years old this year. Her name was chosen for a mark on her left fluke that resembles the scythe of the grim reaper. This calf is her fourth known calf, as she also had calves in 1998 (her first), 2003, & 2007.

Reaper’s calf stayed very near to mom while she fed, as the calf is likely not eating fish yet and still surviving completely on nursing a high fat milk from Reaper. In the next few months, the calves will start to learn to catch fish and by late fall should be fully weaned.

We quickly recognized a few more feeding whales, including Milkweed and Wyoming. Wyoming is a mature male first seen in 1988. His exact age is not known, as he wasn’t a calf when first sighted. Milkweed is a mature 10 year old female, her mother is a whale named Zeppelin and her grandmother is Milkyway, both of which are seen regularly on Stellwagen Bank and in the Gulf of Maine. Humpback whales have very strong site fidelity and return to the waters their mothers brought them to as calves, as seen for 3 generations of this family. Milkweed has yet to produce a calf of her own that has been documented, but she hopefully will very soon.

As we watched these whales feed, more moved into the area. Bait could be seen breaking the surface of the water, looking and sounding like rain on the water’s surface. A mature male whale named Putter came into the area. Putter was born in 1993 to a whale named Mars. He was not seen again until he was sighted in 1998 pale and gray from a life threatening entanglement in fishing gear. Three attempts were made to disentangle him by a team from Provincetown, with the help of whale watching boats standing by. Some of the gear was successfully removed and the remainder of gillnet came off over the next few weeks. His grey, sloughing skin returned to a shiny black. Putter has been seen every year since his disentanglement. Today, he did not disappoint displaying very dramatic feeding, coming to the surface with his mouth wide open, giving us a chance to see his baleen plates. At one close passing off our bow, we could see some of the sand eels escaping out the sides of his mouth.

Two more mothers and calves were in the area feeding, including Cajun + calf and Whisk + calf. We also had Pele and Jabiru come through feeding. Dramatic green patches of bubbles could be seen right before whales surfaced through the center. For nearly 2 hours, we watched the feeding whales.

In addition to the humpbacks, we had a few sightings of minke whales (the smallest of the baleen whales we see here) and a pod of 30-50 Atlantic White Sided dolphins.

The dolphins were in association with one of the cow/calf pairs and seemed to be closely associated with the calf. One of the dolphins had a tag on it, and was likely a rescue from a stranding along Cape Cod this past winter/spring. We passed this information on to the stranding folks at the International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) who is responsible for rescuing stranded marine mammals along Cape Cod. Cape Cod has the second highest level of marine mammal strandings anywhere in the world, only surpassed by New Zealand. Frequently, marine mammals get stranded along our shores and teams of responders and volunteers work to get them back on the water safely.

Once the tide changed, the behavior also changed, which typically happens. Feeding almost always stops when the tide goes slack, which is also true for fishing. Thankfully for us, when the feeding stopped, the whales started doing aerials-- jumping out of the water! We had four different whales breaching (including one of the calves), but the most active was a whale named Pele. He appeared to be trying to form an association with one of the cow/calf pairs and was putting on a display of aerials, breaching and flipper slapping. We often see aerials when an association is joining or breaking apart, perhaps the whales are communicating something with such behaviors.

Joanne Jarzobski

Marine Wildlife Numbers:


Sooty Shearwater 200

Greater Shearwater 85

Northern Gannett 12

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel 100

Common Loon 2

Great Egret 1

Barn Swallow 1

Herring Gull xxx

Great Black-backed Gull xxx

Laughing Gull

Common Tern 1000+

Roseate Tern 1

Black Skimmer 1

Humpback Whales: (15)
Reaper and calf
Cajun and calf
Whisk and calf

Other Whale Species:
minke whales (4)
Atlantic white-sided dolphins (30 - 50)

Gray Seal (1) enjoying a dogfish lunch