Cape Cod – whales and birds (2)

This page will hit on a few of the more interesting birds and whales we saw on Sunday past. The whale highlight was the grand old lady of Stellwagen Bank, Salt. She was the first whale ever named and has now been known to have 14 youngsters that have accompanied her, over the years, back north to Cape Cod Bay. She is a grandmother to at least four whales. Pretty cool.
There have been thousands of shearwaters off the Cape this summer. The small fish have been profuse. Most of the fish seem to be young Menhaden (bunker or pogy), an oily forage fish of these waters. The small ones are about two inches long now and must number in the millions; maybe lots more. At one point they were the whole wrack line; no seaweed but tens of thousands of small fish glittering in the August and September sunshine. It was amazing. The edge of the sea had gulls and terns and shearwaters by the thousands. It was a glorious feast.
As we move into fall the older birds have returned to the southern hemisphere to nest (many nest quite close to Antarctica) leaving immature birds here for us to ogle. In many cases the adults simply don’t come here as breeding is a priority and breeding is geographically limited. The adults are probably already five thousand miles south of us. But there were some birds to see.

That may be confusing: the gannets nest in our summer to our north, the Cory’s nest in our summer in the eastern Atlantic. The Great Shearwaters nest on a few islands at the bottom of the earth with eggs being laid in the southern summer (November) and the young fly north starting May (usually).

The Northern Gannet is a diving bird; totally oceanic. The one in this image is at least five years old and probably bred to our north in the Canadian Maritimes. They have cushioning layers that keep them from getting concussions as they hit the water. They dive deep and then spear fish on their way back up – much like boobies in the tropics.
cory's shearwater
Cory’s Shearwater is an east-west migrant arriving here for our summer. Again, we see young birds as the adults are back in the eastern Atlantic on nests. The species are, or can be, found throughout the Atlantic and into the Mediterranean Sea. They probably range south to Brazil on our side of the ocean and all down the African continent on the eastern side. They are island/cliff breeders and colonies can be found in the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands, the Azores, and other places. Most winter off the coast of Africa. 
great shearwater
As I mentioned the wind was down, the day warm, and the birds and mammals pretty good. This Great Shearwater is cruising about as low as it can on a nearly flat sea. Again, we are seeing young birds as the adults are in the Southern Hemisphere on  islands like Tristan da Cunha and Gough (way in the southern waters) tending to their next generation.

We also saw a couple of Fulmar, which is a petrel, though in the same larger group as the shearwaters Procellariiformes. These birds live on salt water and eat from salt water and have to get rid of the salt they accumulate. They have glands in the head to remove the salt and small tubes on the bill through which the concentrated salt if removed. This adaptation is found in albatrosses, shearwaters, fulmars, petrels, storm-petrels, and diving-petrels. The highest diversity of this group is found around New Zealand. The northern hemisphere birds of a similar live style (puffins, razorbills, murres, dovekies) are not tubenoses and utilize a different method of avoid salting their metabolism.

humpback whale
The Lovely Frances saw this whale breaching from several miles away. Once we got the vessel sort of close it had mostly stopped. I snapped on picture from a mile or so and this is it. Breaching is an activity that baffles researchers. Is it fun, is it sending messages, does it remove parasites or barnacles or is there something else? It is an awesome (in the real meaning of the word) to see a 2-30 ton animal spring from the water and crash down with a huge splash – whatever it means or why-ever it’s done.
A chin-breach is another behavior that is seen. Much like spy-hopping it lifts the head out of the water. Maybe they are looking around. This animal is exhaling as it lifts from the water.
Flipper flapping must be a kind of splashy oceanic Morse-code; or maybe not. This is another activity that is rather often seen.  Remember that 99.9999 percent of a whales life is lived under water and unwitnessed by humans. I wonder what they talk about.

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