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Massachusetts Pelagic and Whale Watching

I got my first real taste of pelagic birding this weekend, and I have to say I am hooked. A group of friends and I signed up for a school trip to Plymouth, MA for whale watching. Despite some second thoughts at 5am, we got out of bed and boarded the bus to Massachusetts. After about a five hour bus ride, we arrived in Plymouth and boarded the Captain John & Sons IV out of Cape Cod Bay. Time to see some whales...

This is my favorite shot of the day. A great shearwater cutting through the air. 9/17/16.

This is my favorite shot of the day. A great shearwater cutting through the air. 9/17/16.

...at least, that's what everyone else had in mind. I was super excited to see some seabirds. After checking reports from similar boats all week, it seemed we would run into some good birds. I had a few target species in mind, and came out with almost all of them. Here is a list of notable species from the trip:

  • Great Shearwater
  • Cory's Shearwater
  • Sooty Shearwater
  • Manx Shearwater
  • Arctic Tern
  • Roseate Tern 

All but great shearwater were life birds for me! We had about a billion gulls and various terns out there as well. It was impossible to look into a flock and attempt at picking out different species. I got lucky with artic and roseate terns, which were singled out in smaller groups throughout the trip. 

Here are the four species of shearwater:

Great Shearwater

I couldn't get really on this bird because it was so close. This shot is a little soft. 9/17/16.

I couldn't get really on this bird because it was so close. This shot is a little soft. 9/17/16.

Sooty Shearwater

This may be my favorite of the shearwaters. 9/17/16.

This may be my favorite of the shearwaters. 9/17/16.

Manx Shearwater

I may be wrong, but I believe this is the smallest of the four birds. There were quite a few zipping around. 9/17/16. 

I may be wrong, but I believe this is the smallest of the four birds. There were quite a few zipping around. 9/17/16. 

Cory's Shearwater (ID shot)

I missed a few good photo ops with these birds. For the most part, they weren't very close on our side of the boat. 9/17/16. 

I missed a few good photo ops with these birds. For the most part, they weren't very close on our side of the boat. 9/17/16. 

I saw my first shearwater (great shearwater) this past summer on Hoglate, and it was a rarity for both the time of year, and how far inshore it came. So I was stoked to have seen all four of species of shearwater on the trip, and get amazing looks at all of them. The entire trip, all of the birds were zipping right by the side of the boat. The photo opportunities were numerous, but I did end up butchering a ton of them, due to a few different factors. Well first off, these birds fly FAST. Especially when they are right next to you. The waves also play a huge part in the difficulty of photos, as both you and the water are moving. Lastly, I find that focusing is difficult. When the water is so close behind the bird, there really isn't any depth of field. So a lot of times, the camera doesn't know what to focus on. I had this problem this summer when shooting skimmers from above. It could also be the older focusing system that my camera uses. Who knows! I lock on quickly in other case scenarios, like birds in the sky or in front of clean, distant backgrounds.  

We had a TON of whale action out there yesterday. Almost the whole time, we were surrounded by humpback and minke whales. I had never seen a whale before, so it was super exciting to see their tails up above the surface. The shear size of the whales is unbelievable. I could not wrap my mind around it. There were at least 5 full size humpback whales around the boat. They were hunting side by side together!

Humpback whale tail. 9/17/16.

Humpback whale tail. 9/17/16.

Then all of a sudden, we heard a boom, followed by a massive explosion of water... A whale had breached the surface. Then three more times, whales came flying out of the water right in front of us! I was able to snap a few pictures:

An endangered humpback whale flying out of the water! 9/17/16.

An endangered humpback whale flying out of the water! 9/17/16.

...and another! 9/17/16.

...and another! 9/17/16.

An explosion of water, following the breach. 9/17/16.

An explosion of water, following the breach. 9/17/16.

What a super treat. I could not believe my eyes when that first whale left the water. A dream come true! Here are a few other shots from the trip:

I'm beyond stuck on this tern. I want to say Arctic, but I'm not entirely sure! Any ideas? 9/17/16.

I'm beyond stuck on this tern. I want to say Arctic, but I'm not entirely sure! Any ideas? 9/17/16.

This sooty shearwater was hanging right next to the boat. 9/17/16. 

This sooty shearwater was hanging right next to the boat. 9/17/16. 

Great shearwater topside. 9/17/16.

Great shearwater topside. 9/17/16.

That pretty much wraps it up. What an awesome day it was. Despite the long (and uncomfortable) bus ride, I'm so happy we all went. Plus, it was nice getting out to the coast again. It was my first time in Massachusetts as well and I will say, it is pretty beautiful! I may or may not be going back in two weeks for something else.... more on that to come! :)

I would recommend going into the recents page to check out those shots on full screen!

Kyle