Great Shearwaters are common pelagic birds found off the New England coast, roughly from June through October. Frequently spotted from fishing or whale watch boats, these stiff-winged gliders may also be seen from land at select coastal sites if food and weather conditions are right.
Spending nearly all of their life at sea, it's during our white season that Great Shearwaters visit land to nest. Large flocks assemble on a small number of islands in the South Atlantic, where each successful pair raises just one chick, who, if all goes well, will fledge by mid-spring. The adults then head north for their circuit through the North Atlantic, leaving their young to fend for themselves and eventually follow.
Great Shearwaters belong to an order of seabirds known as tubenoses (Procellariiformes), so named for the tube-like structures covering their nostrils. Salt glands allow these seabirds to desalinate ocean water on demand, with excess salt being excreted in solution from their nostrils.
To learn more about these pelagic birds, visit Audubon's Guide to North American Birds. To view the following images in full-size, click here.
Alcids are ocean-dwelling birds who, for the most part, only venture onto land during the summer nesting season. New England has six expected species that can be sorted into three size groups. The smallest species is the Dovekie at ~8" long; the largest three are Common Murre, Thick-billed Murre, and Razorbill at about ~18" long; and the middle group consists of the ~13" long Atlantic Puffin and Black Guillemot.
While all of these Alcids can, at times, be spotted from shore, the Black Guillemot is the only species found year-round in shallow coastal waters. During the summer, adult Black Guillemots are visually striking with large white wing patches on otherwise black bodies, and bright red legs. Their winter plumage is surprisingly different; birds are mostly white with variable dark mottling.
To learn more about Black Guillemots, visit All About Birds. To view the following images in full-size, click here.
Thick-billed Murres breed in colonies on select coastal cliffs north of New England. Their winter range includes the Gulf of Maine, but most individuals remain well offshore. Observation typically requires a spotting scope (and strong easterly winds) or going out on a winter boat trip, but occasionally birds may be seen close to shore, well within binocular range. Last weekend, several birders reported a Thick-billed Murre near the Portland Fish Pier, and on Sunday afternoon, I arrived to find the bird floating just yards from the pier.
Thick-billed Murres can dive to great depths to catch and consume fish, crustaceans, and other ocean creatures. In turn, they're caught and eaten by various predators including Peregrine Falcons, Gyrfalcons, Great Skuas, and humans. Other causes of death in modern times include pollution from oil spills and drowning in fishing nets. To learn more about Thick-billed Murres, visit All About Birds.