Sunday, January 5, 2014

Jan 5 (Day 5) - Cape Ann shines with thick-billed murre + king eider!

Cape Ann is situated approximately 30 miles northeast of Boston. With its numerous art galleries, seafood restaurants, and whale watching opportunities, Cape Ann is a popular summer tourist destination. The coastline here is particularly rocky and convoluted, and numerous scenic drives dot this picturesque New England coastline. During winter, tourists are replaced with birders who flock to Cape Ann to see the loons, grebes, sea ducks, and alcids that spend the winter nestled into the rocky shoreline. Winter birding on the cape is surely a unique experience. The Massachusetts Audubon Society annually sponsors the "Super Bowl of Birding", a friendly birding competition centered on Cape Ann and the surrounding Essex County. This cold-weather event is always scheduled for the weekend before the NFL Super Bowl and acts as a foil to the "World Series of Birding" held in the warmer climes of New Jersey in May of each year. There is also an annual Cape Ann Birding festival that takes place in February of each year, so this might be a good event for a new Cape Ann birder.

Cape Ann is split into 2 main municipalities: the smaller Rockport and larger Gloucester. Rockport features many art galleries and is certainly the more quaint of the two. Gloucester, on the south side of the peninsula, was at one point the largest fishing community in the United States. The town was featured in Sebastian Junger's book "The Perfect Storm". This novel was based on actual events and chronicled the struggles of a band of Gloucester Fisherman that ultimately met their demise in a huge storm in 1991. The book was eventually made into a major motion picture staring George Clooney and Boston's Mark Wahlberg. Gloucester's prosperity was derived from the cod stocks that once populated the the George's Banks that lie several hundred miles to the east of Cape Ann. These cod stocks were once thought to be inexhaustible, but the lack of proper management over time has lead to the complete collapse of the fishery. Regulators have essentially closed the fishery on which Gloucester depends, and this is a very politically charged issue in the community. Here is a shot of a section of Gloucester harbor, and a map of my route today which totaled 23 miles.

OK, enough with the history and demographics. Let's get back to the birds! I had 6 target birds for today: harlequin duck, red-necked grebe, razorbill, black-legged kittiwake, king eider, and thick-billed murre. I easily got the harlequin duck, red-necked grebe, and razorbill at Andrew's Point on the north side of Rockport. There were also a dozen purple sandpipers, which although not new for my year, are a personal favorite. I have seen these birds here many times so this was completely expected. The shoreline was much too icy for photos today, so I have included some stock photos of these species from my website for reference.


Harlequin ducks (from my stock)

 Harlequin duck (from my stock)

Razorbill (from my stock)

Purple sandpiper (from my stock)

Andrew's point is particularly good when the wind is from the northeast as it pushes seabirds in towards the shore. However, today the wind was from the southwest so the seabirds for which I was hoping, most notably black-legged kittiwake, would not be found today. As I was about to pack up at Andrew's point, I got a phone call from a local birder, Miles Brengle, saying that he had found a thick-billed murre in Gloucester Harbor. THE CHASE WAS ON! I packed up the tripod, secured things on the bike, and sprinted the 5 miles back to Gloucester in time to tick the murre. I would have offered to buy Miles a beer but he's only 14! Keep your eyes open for this rising birding star, especially once he gets a driver's license! The bird stayed around most of the day, and was at times joined by a dovekie (maybe the same bird as yesterday). Cape Ann comes through again. This bird is tough to see in Massachusetts, and can't be reliably found anywhere south of the state. The murre today was too far away for photos so I have included a shot from last year instead.

Thick-billed murre (from my stock)

Well it was now 11am, and I had collected 4 of the 6 species. I decided it was time to head over to the eastern side of the peninsula to search for the male king eider that had been seen the last few days. In fact, this same bird has spent the last 6-7 winters in the exact same spot. King eider, like thick-billed murre, can be really tough to find, so having one staked out is key. As I arrived at the eider's haunt, folks informed me that they had him in the scope already! Bingo! 5 out of 6 by noon, it was a fantastic morning. I have unfortunately never photographed king eider. It's one of my most wanted birds for photos. One day......

With the wind from the southwest, the kittiwake wasn't going to happen today. I really did as well as I possibly could have today. Knowing that I'll have other shots at the kittiwake, I decided to take it easy in the afternoon and rest my legs. I am way ahead of schedule, and I am going to try to make it to Boston tomorrow to plan out my route south to Rhode Island. 

Stay tuned!


  1. Looks like you're off to a terrific start. And thanks for the mention!

  2. Wow, what a really nice day of birding. I love Harlequin ducks - fantastic birds! Love the blog posts so far. Following your blog from the chilly state of Wisconsin - hope it warms up before it hits you guys on the east coast (high of -10 today with winchills in the -50s!). Best of luck this year - looking forward to keeping up with your trek to 600!