Thursday, July 1, 2021

Epic Rhode Island Whale Watch

   


   Over the last three years I've been on a handful of whale watches out of Galilee.  One was alright and the others sucked, sucked, and sucked some more.  Of the five or so I have been on, two of them did not have any whales. This isn't a bad thing because you get a free ticket to go another time. Usually, my friends and I root to not see whales. We go out there hoping to see birds. There are five species of birds that you really can't see from shore (a couple of them you may see in a storm). Four species of shearwater and Wilson's Storm Petrel are our goal. 

    Some of our whale watches have been devoid of birds also. Nothing worse than seeing the blowhole of a whale or two from a half mile away and not seeing any birds. One of the trips was so bad all we saw in four hours was one gull. Read that again, one gull, no whales!

   However things have changed this year southeast of Block Island. The name of the game is bait, and this year there is a lot of it! A few of my friends chartered a boat a few weeks ago and saw tons of whales, dolphins, and birds. It was so good, they couldn't wait to use their vouchers for a free whale watch trip so when Scott suggested we go soon, I set in motion a plan to go today, July 1. 

   We took the Francis Fleet whale watch out of Galilee today. This is the same boat that I have had so many disappointing whale watches on. Sometimes there just aren't any whales in Block Island Sound. Also, if there isn't any bait, there won't be any birds. The boat leaves at 1 pm and comes back at 5 pm. I think the cost is about $60/person after all fees.  After boarding the boat and going through the Harbor of Refuge, it made its way southeast of Block Island.

 


 Today, I saw more whales and more birds than every RI Whale Watch I had ever been on combined. We saw three types of whales: Humpback, Finback, and Minke. We had Humpbacks and Finbacks right next to the boat. The Minke was pretty close also. Dolphins you ask? We had hundreds and hundreds of Short Beaked Common Dolphins. No exaggeration, there were pods of all sizes all around the boat.   

   As for birds, there were a lot of them too. We had three Sooty Shearwaters. Great and Cory's Shearwaters were around the boat by the dozens. Wilson's Storm Petrels were also in the for to five dozen range. We didn't see any Manx Shearwaters, but the close up views of the other three were great. 

   My only complaint, and this goes for a great day like today or all the bad days, is the Captain  does not shut up over the intercom. No one needs to hear him talk that much. But, every trip I have ever been on, I have had to listen to him droning on and on. 

  Normally I don't publicize my Rhode Island Whale Watch trips other than to write about the birds. I normally do not think they are a good value. Against the Stellwagen trips that go out of Plymouth, Boston, and Gloucester, RI trips are pathetic. However, this year, as long as their is bait out there, they could be epic every single day. If you have any intention of going out of Galilee for a whale watch the time is now!



Last note- Despite seeing whales for an hour and a half straight, I didn't get many, if any good photo of them. I've been on many great whale watches (in MA) and have lots of good whale photos. On the other hand, I don't have many good shots of dolphins. So I concentrated getting photos of them. I found out quickly they are much harder to photograph than their larger cousins. They are small, quick, and do not pop up where you expect them to.  Needless to say, not a lot of good photos today.

   





Monday, June 28, 2021

Machias Seal Island Puffin Trip

 On Thursday I got to cross off one of my top priorities from my bucket list. I went to Machias Seal Island to see the puffins (other Alcids and Arctic Terns). This trip had been three years in the making. Luckily it did not disappoint. 

   I had reservation


 to take this trip from Bold Coast Charters since 2019. I was supposed to go on the trip June 2019. Unfortunately for me, I got weathered out by a storm that brought with it ten foot waves. My friend Laurie and I planned a vacation around the trip. After my cancelled trip, I did spend five days in Acadia National Park. So I rescheduled for Thursday June 25, 2020, but as we all know, nothing good happened in 2020, I rescheduled for June 24 and hoped the third time was the charm. When I rescheduled for this year. I asked my friend Sue Palmer if she wanted to take the trip. She said yes. 

Logistics-

 

The awesome little house Sue rented

 First off, you need to make a reservation. Reservation period usually starts just after the New Year. The sell out fast. As in, a day or two!!! When I made my reservations for 2019, they could be bought at 8:30 am Jan 5. I started calling right then and hit redial 38 times (exact count). I talked to Captain Andy and he answered all of my questions for five minutes. I also sent an email before I got through on the phone. Tickets for the year were sold out by the afternoon the following day!!!

   Reservations for 2021 were different. The people that got Covid cancelled had first dibs, Instead of calling them, they contacted me. I sent an email with the same day as last year. 

   The cost of a ticket is $160. Half is paid by check mailed to Bold Coast Charters after you make your reservations. The other half is due cash or check the day of your trip.

The boat holds 15 paying customers. Its name is the Barbara Frost which was Captain Andy's mother's name.

Website- https://www.boldcoast.com/

To find out when reservations for trips can be made check the website everyday after Christmas. If this is something you want to do, you need to know when reservations can be made and set an alarm on your phone so you can start immediately.

Getting there-  You probably aren't going to fly to Maine from RI so you will have to make the long drive to Cutler on the Bold Coast of  Maine. From the MA/RI border where I live, my GPS said it would take me 6 hrs 24 minutes. This was leaving my house at the god awful hour of 3:30 am Wednesday. This meant I got through all of the Boston traffic before it started. However, realistically it is a seven hour drive. I drove straight through stopping at one rest area just to use the bathroom and I got gas in Ellsworth. It still took me seven hours because of road construction near Bangor. My ride home took 7 hrs 30 minutes thanks to hitting the MA border at 3:30 pm on a Friday.

Accommodations-  When I got weathered out in 2019, I stayed at Cobscook State Park about 45 minutes from Cutler. The campground and park are beautiful. If you like camping, I highly recommend  it. This time around, Sue got an Airbnb. She rented a house for a few days in Roque Bluff. When I realized paying half would be about the same cost as camping, I asked if I could take the couch. So we were roomies for two night. 

  Despite being fifty miles north of the touristy Bar Harbor area, there were quite a few motels in the Machias area. So finding a place to stay should not be a problem.

 

Captain Andy (no I don't know his last name)

The boat trip-

   As I said, the cost is $160, with half paid up front. The trip last between 4-5.5 hours. The goal is to land on Machias Seal Island and go to the blinds. Inside the blinds, you photograph Puffins, Murres, and Razorbills for a little more than an hour. Assuming you make it that far, the birds can be as close as three feet. Some may even land on the roof of your blind. 

   The boat does not leave at a set time everyday. The time is tide, wind, and weather dependent. Our trip went out at 11 am. The Wednesday trip left Cutler at 9 am and the trip on Friday was scheduled for noon. 

If you read any part of this post please remember the following- Bold Coast Charters does not guarantee island landings. If sea conditions are unfavorable THEY DO NOT LAND! I can assure you Captain Andy knows how badly the paying customers want to land and see Puffins close up, but he errs on the side of caution. If he feels island landings are unsafe, he will not risk it. The cost is the same for landings or not since he can not predict the weather.  I don't know what the ratio of successful landings are in a given year. However, thanks to the big storm in the Atlantic, they had not put passengers on the island in a week!


Common Murre, notice the chocolate
colored head

Our trip

  Now that I got all of the logistics I could think of out of the way, it is far more fun to tell my first hand experience.-

   We met a few minutes before 11 am at Cutler Harbor. Parking is tight, but it is also allowed on street. Captain Andy met us with a little skiff to get us out to the Barbara Frost. As usual on these kind of trips, he went over what to expect, safety instructions, and a little history. We got on the main boat and took the main boat to Machias Seal Island. The trip is ten miles and took 45-50 minutes to get there.

  The boat had fourteen paying customers (one cancellation). Of the fourteen, Sue and I were the only birders!!! The other twelve people were photographers. Not really even birders that enjoy photography (like Sue and I), How do I know this? Well, Sue asked a couple people if they were birders or photographers and they replied photographers. But here was what got me, NONE OF THE OTHER TWELVE PASSENGERS EVEN BROUGHT BINOCULARS! They brought fancy camera equipment but they didn't bring bins. Captain Andy had three spare bins for people to borrow, and none of them took him up on it.

   Anyway, Sue and I birded the entire ride from Cutler to Machias Seal Island. We were rewarded with twenty two Wilson's Storm Petrels (exact count of those seen) and a Leach's Storm Petrel! Leach's is a rare bird and a lifer for Sue. Once we got closer to the island we had flyover Razorbills, Puffins, and Murres. For the ride over though, the Leach's was the star of the show.

   

Razorbill

Once we arrived at Machias Seal Island, Capt. Andy was cautiously optimistic we could land. However we did not land right away. He wanted the tide to ebb some more which should make the waves smaller. As we waited for the tide to drop we had alcids fairly close to the boat. We saw hundreds up on the rocks of the island. We circled the island very slowly and had birds all around. We also saw some seals. Most important to me, we saw some Arctic Terns flying. They were a lifer for me. Though they were too far away for a decent photo, I was happy to see them. 

   After about an hour, Andy got in the little dingy alone and motored over to the island to see if we could safely land. He came back so quickly that I was sure it was a no. But when he pulled right up to the side of the boat he gave us a thumbs up. The dingy only holds a few people so it took three trips to motor the fourteen of us and his two mates (Abby and Levi)

Once we were all on shore Levi walked us to the blinds in two groups. Each blind holds 3-4 people. Sue and I got put in a blind with a guy named Brian from Ohio. It worked out for Sue and I because we only had to share our blind with one other person. But it also worked out really well for Brian because we were willing to share our camera holes and rotate so we all had different angles for photos. 

   The birds were only feet from us. The majority of birds in front of us were Razorbills. There was a large group of Common Murres directly in front of our blind but too far away to get photos of single birds. I took a few dozen photos of the Murres but mostly I concentrated on Puffins and Razorbills since some were within spitting distance.

   Razorbills were everywhere around us. Dozens were sitting on rocks and sunning themselves, fighting, or chattering. The Puffins came and went. They didn't stay around too long. One would fly in, hop around on some rocks, then go down to its burrow. Though there weren't as many puffins as Razorbills, there was usually one for each of us to shoot at any given time.

 


 The "Money shot" of a puffin is to get a photo of a Puffin with fish in its beak to feed its chicks. We saw few birds with fish in their mouth. I saw one Razorbill and one Murre. There were a couple Puffins that came back with fish. But they moved so quickly to the burrows that getting a photo was proving fruitless for all of us. About ten minutes before we had to leave a puffin flew in right next to the blind with some fish. It landed on a rock within feet of me, and I had the best angle to see it. I shot off about seven photos in five seconds then I pulled Sue into my spot and she did the same. After her five seconds were up, She moved over so Brian could get the money shot. Did I mention how incredibly lucky Brian was to be in the blind with us? Oh, that's right, I did. Needless to say, Sue and I were stoked and we high fived. 

   Ten minutes later, Levi came and got us, but not before seeing a single Northern Gannet that has been hanging around the island. Levi walked us back to the boat stopping at the helicopter pad so people could use the outhouse. This was awesome because Arctic Terns nest in the mowed grass and are within two feet of the pathway. Nowhere else will I ever get an easier photo of an Arctic Tern.

   Capt Andy took us back to the boat in three trips again. Talking with others, and overhearing conversations, it seems like we lucked out with the Puffin with fish in its mouth. One of the blinds didn't have any puffins land at all with fish.  Despite having to wait three years to go on this trip, it was well worth the wait. The weather was perfect and the birds were awesome. We all went back to Cutler with full memory cards and a memory to last a life time.  Some of us even had binoculars to put back in our cars.     

    Many photos below-

Common Murres

Common Murre

Razorbills

My lens is in the shop. So I had to make due with my 
70-300 mm. This is what I was getting with it. Thank
goodness we got to go to the blinds. 

This photo and the next five are 
Atlantic Puffins






Nesting Arctic Tern



   

Friday, June 18, 2021

Brownfield Bog and Pondicherry

Brownfield Bog

Brownfield Bog 

    Some of the things on my bucket list aren't very hard. Some of them require nothing more than driving in a direction I don't normally drive. Such is the case of Brownfield Bog in Maine. This place has been on my to do list for a few years. I don't know how or when I read about it, but I have wanted to explore it for a while. Brownfield Bog is a great place to see many of the nesting birds that migrate through RI/MA in May. In fact all four vireos can be seen right from the parking area. Wilson's Snipe also breeds there. When I did my research earlier in the week, I was pleasantly surprised to find out it is only three hours and fifteen minutes from my house.

    I set my alarm for 3 am Thursday morning and when it went off I actually got up and made the drive to Maine. I reached the parking area at 6:40. Brownfield Bog is a Wildlife Management Area. There aren't a lot of trails. There is one main trail (a dirt road) that goes through multiple marshes and intermittent woods for a few miles. There is another much shorter path that leads to the Saco River. I followed both, though did not complete the one that goes along the river. The area is beautiful. Any time the trail opened up to marshes the backdrop behind it was rolling hills. I saw many species of birds on my hike. To make a long post somewhat shorter (most of this post will be about Pondicherry) I saw or heard thirty five species. I did not get the one I most wanted, Yellow Throated Warbler, however I did see some other nice birds. The species I was most pleased with were Least Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, and a great view of a Yellow Billed Cuckoo.

   All in all, Brownfield Bog lived up to the hype I had given it. It was a bit buggy, but it is a swamp in June, so that is to be expected. I'm sure I would have a higher species count if I knew more warbler songs. That is something I am going to work on much harder. I am quite sure I will make the pilgrimage there again next year or the year after.

 In Between time

    My plan for my two days was to go to Brownfield Bog Thursday morning and work my way to the White Mountains in NH after that. I hoped to find a campsite by noon or 1 pm then go for an afternoon hike. Friday morning I would bird Pondicherry. However, I knew there was a pretty good chance I'd be really tired and might need a nap. After my morning birding I headed north. I knew of some free campsites and if I was tired, find one and take a nap. Well, I was tired so I pulled into a vacant site. I only slept for an hour before moving on. Between birding an hour longer than I expected, napping, and grossly under estimating the distance to the mountains I didn't have my tent set up until well past 3:30. At that point, there wasn't any short hikes I felt were worth driving to. So I decided I'd go for an afternoon walk at Pondicherry. I was still planning on going Friday morning anyway.

 

Pondicherry Friday Afternoon

    Since birding is much better in the morning than afternoon, I really wasn't expecting much. I know Alder Flycatchers are a common breeding bird so if I heard one, that would be enough. Sometimes Lady Luck deserts you and sometimes she is on your shoulder making all of the right decisions. Friday afternoon she was on my shoulder and very generous sharing her luck with me. Pondicherry was so amazing, the best way to describe it is to write about it in sequential order.

   As I was driving to the parking area down Airport Rd out of the woods comes a MOOSE! It stood in the middle of the road while I was about fifty yards away. My big lens is in the shop so I had to make due with my 70-300 mm. The moose did not move while I was taking photos of it. Then I drove closer and it did decide to walk across the road. The way I looked at it, no matter what, going to Pondicherry was already worth it and I wasn't even parked yet!

   To reach the Cherry Ponds (Big and Little) you walk down a 1.5 mile access road. It is a wide gravel bike path that is almost completely flat. While I was walking down the road I came upon two butterflies I didn't recognize and tried to get some photos so I could ID them later. I found it rather amazing that in nature one minute you can be looking at megafauna like a moose, the next you hope a delicate butterfly stays still long enough for an ID photo.
White Admiral

Aphrodite Fritillary Butterfly


   Once I got to the ponds I went to Little Cherry first, birding along the way. I took the path off of the railroad track to the pond. While I was walking down the path I flushed a Ruffed Grouse. Pondicherry is a very reliable spot to see Grouse, but they are still by no means easy. 

   Continuing down the trail I heard a woodpecker banging. I looked up and found a Yellow Bellied Sapsucker climbing a dead snag. I watched it for a minute and it flew to  a snag out  my sightline. Then I heard another close tapping. I assumed it was the Sapsucker's mate. To my unbelievably happy surprise it was a Black Backed Woodpecker! This woodpecker is usually seen at very high elevations. However, they may be present in swampy areas. Though my photos suck I got to watch this bird for a solid five minutes. This was easily the best bird I saw on my little getaway.
Bad photo of a Black Backed Woodpecker

 
   After I left the Black Backed Woodpecker I went to Little Cherry Pond I didn't see much there except a duck too far away to ID. The trail to the pond is a loop. I decided to go back the way I came in case the Black Backed was still around. As I was walking back, I saw this very big bird glide through the woods and land out of sight in front of me. I knew it could be a Pileated Woodpecker. As I edged closer, I could see that it was a Pileated! It was on a cut stump about four feet off the ground. It was climbing and banging on the wood. My view was partially obstructed by some leaves of a nearby bush. This actually worked out for me because the woodpecker couldn't see me. Although the leaves made it impossible for a good photo, like the Black Backed, I got to watch the Pileated for a solid five minutes.
The head of the Pileated Woodpecker


   As if that weren't enough to watch a Pileated Woodpecker feed, as I was getting closer to it, I flushed another Ruffed Grouse. This one was only a couple feet from me when it flushed.

   After I came out of the woods I crossed the tracks and walked along big Cherry Pond (I don't think Big is part of the name so I didn't capitalize it). While walking along the water's edge a Red Squirrel climbed a branch on a spruce about three feet over my head and started scolding me. Now, if you spend enough time in pine woods you're going to see Red Squirrels, it's not as exciting as say a Moose or Black Backed Woodpecker. However, this guy just went at me forever exclaiming his displeasure from three feet from my face. I took some photo upgrades and moved on.


   Though, I didn't go far. I scanned the pond and saw a Common Loon and two babies trailing behind her. I don't remember the last time I saw baby loons if ever. I watched them for a few. Later on, I also heard the loon call. God I love that sound!


   Wait, there's more! The path along the pond is short, maybe five minutes not including watching the squirrel and loon. When I came out of the woods I was back on the railroad track. I always scan up and down the track with my bins ever since I saw the bear last year. As I looked down the track, about 120 yards ahead of me was a black moving blob. When I focused I could see it was a porcupine! Now, I'm not faster than most animals but I knew I could probably get close enough for decent photos. So I walked quickly up the wooden supports. I got to within 30 yards and stopped to look at the porcupine. To my surprise it wasn't walking away from me but towards me! I slowed down and got to within 20 yards, got on my knee, and started taking photos. I'll say this, sloths got nothing on a porcupine. This animal was moving so slowly I had time to play with my settings. It was walking right down the middle of the track towards me.
It walked straight at me


   He kept coming totally oblivious that I was in front of it. Finally it got to within eight feet of me and I thought if I don't get out of the way and it realizes I'm there, I could be in a world of hurt. So I stood up and backed off, and that is when it finally saw me! It walked off the tracks just far enough to go around me and walked back on the tracks. Since I had to pass it to get back to me car, it finally moved into the woods where I felt it was safer anyway. The tracks do have active trains. 
Uncropped, small lens


   Not wanting to go back to my car because I knew how special this afternoon was I went to the observation deck. It was covered in dragonflies. While I was sitting there an Alder Flycatcher started singing its song "free beer". I just smiled.

  I finally left and went back to my car. I drove back to my campsite. You're not going to believe this but only a couple hundred yards from my tent I had to stop because a bear cub was in the road! Yes, after all I had seen, my day ended with seeing a bear.

   Despite knowing there was a mother bear and her baby within a five minute walk of where I was sleeping, I fell asleep before it was dark. I did wake up multiple times though. I brought my summer sleeping bag and it got cold. When I finally got out of my bag at 6:30, my car thermometer said it was 40 degrees. I know it was colder than that during the night because I was warmer in my bag at 6:30 than I had been when I woke up at 4 am. So I'm sure it was in the thirties!

  I did go back to Pondicherry this morning. It was not nearly as good. I didn't see any of the  woodpeckers, grouse, or loon. The best thing I had were three singing Alder Flycatchers. I saw one of them. I left for home around noon time. As I was driving past the exit for Rt 132 in the Lakes Region I saw some little birds chasing a big bird. When I got a closer look I thought" that is a really big bird, it might be an eagle". Then it extended its wings to glide the way eagles do and I was pretty sure it was an eagle. Lastly it turned in the sunlight and I saw its white tail and white head. And I just laughed because, it couldn't have been a better way to end my trip.

More photos below of other cool things
Lady Slipper

Holes from Pileated Woodpecker

Dragonflies

Painted Turtle making a nest. Bad light but I 
didn't want to disturb her

Garter Snake

Red Squirrel

Hovering Osprey

Calling Wood Thrush


Wednesday, June 9, 2021

Da Bears

 

No cubs in the photo but this is a momma bear 
of two cubs

The motto for the Cape May Birding Festival is "So many birds". My entire time I was at Alligator River my brain paraphrased it to "So many bears!" Though I did the post of the one bear I did the photo shoot of I saw so many others. It is not like me to lose count but I did I had at least 13 encounters with eleven different bears in my trips to Alligator River. The best roads to check out bears are Buffalo City Rd, River Road, and Sawyer Lake Road. I saw bears throughout the day even on a hot humid, ninety degree afternoon. However, like you'd expect I saw the majority in the morning. 

   As best I can remember I saw a mother with two cubs, a mother with one cub, the two year old I saw multiple times, two big males, a single orphaned cub, and the backs of two bears that slipped into the woods. None of the photos I am posting are as good as the ones from my other bear post. Still, as I've said before, it's not about me. It is about the photo subject. I have seen very few cubs in my life and on this trip I saw four! I had never seen a bear stand on its hind legs before but one of the momma bears stood two different times for a combined 2-3 minutes. 


This post will conclude my Outer Banks Vacation. I am ending it with this post because seeing all those bears was the highlight of a trip with many highlights. I had hoped that I wouldn't need to go back to the Outer Banks because there are so many other places I want to go. But I have to go back. I need to go on the pelagic again. I spent way too much time sleeping or being exhausted to enjoy it like I wanted. When I go I plan on spending a couple of days at Alligator River, hopefully shooting more bears.