Of Whales and Birds

Provincetown, at the tip of Cape Cod, is a mecca for anyone interested in whale watching. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary is about an hour north by boat, and this is where large numbers of humpback, fin, and minke whales routinely congregate for the summer.

humpback whale

Humpback whale near Provincetown, Mass.



whale02A whale-watching trip is also a great opportunity for birders seeking pelagic species—sea birds not commonly seen from shore. Large numbers of these birds will often congregate with feeding whales, hoping to snare small fish and squid churned up in the roiling water.

humpback whale and birds feeding

Herring gull and great shearwaters feeding with humpback whale

Shearwaters are the species most commonly seen from the boats, but storm petrels, jaegers, kittiwakes, and Northern fulmars have been spotted too.

In August 2006, I had the good fortune to be on a whale watch that also produced large numbers of shearwaters—mostly great shearwaters with the occasional sooty shearwater. Great shearwaters breed in the southern Atlantic and migrate north for the summer.

humpback whale feeding

Humpback whale feeding

This summer (2014) the waters around Cape Cod have been teeming with Cory’s shearwater, a summer visitor from island nesting grounds in the eastern Atlantic (and perhaps the Mediterranean as well).

On a whale watch in July, we had good numbers of Cory’s, great, and sooty shearwaters, so I learned how to identify each species. We may also have had several Manx shearwaters, the final member of the quartet of possible species, but I’m not sure I saw them.

great shearwater

Great shearwater, Puffinus gravis. Note the dark cap and black bill.

Cory's shearwater

Cory’s shearwater, Calonectris diomedea. Note the heavy yellow bill.

All in all, it was a wonderful day on the water, and I highly recommend the trip to anyone interested in whales, birds, or both!

whale watching near Provincetown, Mass.

There go flukes!


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