Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Sooty Shearwaters Take Outer Cove Beach

 After a relatively uneventful day birding the Southern Shore, I returned home. As I often do after being out, I check the discussion group and my e-mail to make sure that I am not missing anything. In my e-mail was a note from a birder that I ran into on the Southern Shore earlier in the day. The note said there was an "event" going on in Outer Cove.  I replaced the cold beer that I had just opened with a cold coke and headed out again.

When I got to the beach I was totally unprepared for what I saw. There were birds everywhere: Seagulls of all varieties, Kittiwakes (young and mature) AND most notably, there were Shearwaters (Sooty, Greater and one Manx.) My head was spinning as I tried to watch them all at once. A group of shearwaters is known as an "improbability" of shearwaters. Well, this is certainly fitting because this group of land-locked shearwaters is very unusual. None of the birders can ever remember such an event over the last 30 years.

 The first bird that I tried to focus on was the Sooty Shearwater. I had seen only one of these birds last summer while on a boat tour. It flew by in a flash and was gone again. This was not the case on this late Saturday evening. I looked many Sooty Shearwaters right in the eye.
 What caused this event? It was all about the capelin. Millions of capelin lingered off shore waiting to spawn. The capelin moved in closer to shore and so did the shearwaters. It is interesting that spawning took place on the night of a full moon and then they were gone. Right along with them, the shearwaters disappeared just as quickly as they had come.

Despite the thousands of birds flying around and the cacophony that filled the air, it was possible to isolate a single bird every now and then. I thought how fitting, I am getting "screeched in." It looks so calm and serene but trust me the scene was anything but calm. It made the bird activity at Bird Island pale by comparison.

This bird is brown/grey all over except for the pale under wing coverts.  The bill has external tube-like nostrils. I saw some similarity between the shape of these nostrils and the blow hole on the whales. I wonder if these birds blow out water....

The Sooty Shearwaters provided frequent fly-bys offering up lots of chances to practice panning the bird with the camera in the hopes of getting a crisp picture.
They would also quickly change direction and head straight toward us. With all eyes trained on the bird through view finders or scopes, it is a wonder no one was hit by these large birds.
 Some birds would miss their mark and fail to turn before making a hard landing on the shore. These are definitely not shorebirds. When the birds flew in (interesting that it was only the Sooty Shearwaters that hit the beach, not the Greater) they were so awkward and clumsy on the beach. Few shots were taken of the beached birds because it would happen so fast, and it was a spectacle to see them struggle so as they tried to get back to water.
It looked like their legs couldn't support them on land, especially on uneven and obstacle-ridden areas. Once they hit a clear area of the beach closer to water, they began to start the run on shore that continued as they ran across the water and lifted off again.

I will show images of  "water-walking" in my post for the Greater Shearwaters.

This was an amazing and exciting opportunity to see these sea birds up close and to be able to observe their feeding frenzy as I may never see anything like this again.

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