Day Twelve - The Coast
male Red-breasted Merganser (Gloucester Harbour)
Up pre-dawn and on the road soon after, day two was sidelined for the very north-east corner of Massachusetts - The Gloucester and Plum Island coastal area north of Boston (thus travelling across the state coast to coast). After an arduous journey incorporating the latter's rush-hour and an unforgettable maniac in a pick-up truck, we reached the Mass Audobon visitors centre at Joppa Flats, Plum Island, for around 0945. Greeted by a northerly that felt like it'd whipped up a billion slivers of glass and a barren landscape more comparable to tundra than marshland, we checked basic details with the awfully nice lady behind the desk and headed onto the reserve in search of our suitably arctic quarry.
Conditions were sunny and clear and well below freezing, but the wind-chill added an extra challenge... few birds were foolish enough to inhabit the expansive, frozen terrain except for half a dozen Northern Harriers (including one adult male), but it mattered not. A few minutes of scanning the whiter-than-white panorama of the marsh and there it was (10 out of 10 Pauly) - a cracking male Snowy Owl.
A group decision to walk out onto the frozen ice-rink to get a closer view was perhaps foolish but well worth it, and we enjoyed excellent views of the bird yawning, blinking and taking little waddles out along the snow. Beautifully framed in the scopes, but well beyond the reach of the DSLRs (and too cold to attempt digiscoping), it was one of those experiences that's hard to forget in a hurry.
Mr. Paul Cook, your author and brother Neil - the Snowy Owl is stage right, the ambulance left
Other raptors present included another close-up American Kestrel by the road (a female this time), a few Red-tailed Hawks, and an adult Bald Eagle - at one point, the Snowy Owl, the eagle and two Red-tails were in the same field of view.
Hackney Birders a long way from the mothership - Paul, MJP and Mr. Laurence Pitcher
Suitably sated and (almost) warmed by our success, we made for nearby Gloucester Harbour, a working fishing port known to attract gulls and other seabirds. Immediately we were into quality - scanning above, below, on the boats and roofs in the crisp sunshine, one white-winged gull after another gradually gave itself up; unbeatably close views of about five 'Iceland' Gulls in first and second year plumage. After much educational (and enjoyable) debate and observation we came to the consensus that we were watching Kumlein's Gulls from various points on the accepted spectrum of the form / subspecies / species (depending on where you stand), and that 'pure' Iceland Gull as we know it was missing in action.
Several birds were particularly interesting, on account of features including the darkness of the primaries, dark tail bands and dusky washes across the belly. With e.g. Thayer's reported from the harbour recently we spent plenty of time on each bird, but with a lack of experience of e.g. darker Kumlien's / paler Thayer's, it's doubtless best to play safe (although larophile wisdom welcome). The accompanying photographs (see post above) show several birds illustrating the range of plumage variation.
Glaucous (centre) and Kumlien's (right) Gulls
Standing on the edges of warehouse walls, dodging fork-lift trucks and nodding to the fishermen like we were there everyday, we had fantastic views of not only the gulls but of e.g. Red-throated and Common Loons, White-winged Scoters, Buffleheads, Goldeneye, Red-breasted Mergansers and Eiders at point-blank range.
With the sun beginning to wane and daylight at a premium, we made for the rocky coast a kilomtere or so east of the harbour (and eventually found a spot to park up and view from the beach that wasn't already commandeered by private property). A few exposed rocky outcrops close in shore were sprinkled with plenty of gulls; scoters, loons and two Red-necked Grebes were offshore, but the larids kept our attention.
On each scan, Kumlien's Gulls of all ages seemed to be appearing out of nowhere; perhaps 20 or more were battling with commoner congeners for preening space. And it didn't take too long to nail a first-winter Glaucous Gull, at one point joining five Kumlien's and a single American Herring Gull on an over-populated rock.
A memorable and exhilarating day in the field. As with the rest of the coastal birding time, it was perhaps slightly surprising we didn't come across a rarer gull or seaduck, but the days were dominated by the success of not only connecting beautifully with the five-star species, but being able to enjoy both the scarcer and commoner birds in such ideal and enviable circumstances.