Lesser black-backed gulls
Lesser black-backed gulls, a Eurasian species, has been showing up with increasing frequency in the U.S. and Canada. They are now a regular and expected bird on the Vineyard avifaunal list. The "four-year" gull picture here is molting into its third winter plumage. Photo by E. Vernon Laux

Thanksgiving waters

By E. Vernon Laux - November 22, 2006

Happy Thanksgiving to all.

It is the start of the winter in the natural world. The weather at this season runs the gamut from warm and pleasant to cold, nasty, and downright mean outside. Yet, despite the frequent appalling conditions, there is more life in, on, and under the waters surrounding the Island than at any other season. It seems counterintuitive to suggest that there is more life on and in the water at this season than in midsummer, but that is the fact.

The reason this is not fully realized by most residents and visitors is that most people don't get out on the water in late fall and winter. It is an entirely different matter, going out on a boat in midwinter than in the summer months. The only trip on the water most of us take at this time of year is on the ferry to and from Woods Hole.

Even this short trip can be very rewarding if one takes the time to check out what is going on outside the boat. A pair of binoculars and a sheltered spot out of the wind will provide a glimpse of what is going on in the marine environment. Proper clothing is essential with gloves and hat.

The less wind there is on deck, the better for observing the surface of Vineyard Sound. Conversely, when it is really windy, there is a far greater likelihood of seeing pelagic seabirds in Vineyard and Nantucket Sounds. There are always trade-offs, pluses and minuses, to birding in all weather conditions. Most noticeable is the abundant bird life, in fair weather or foul.

Compared to summer, when some terns and a few gulls are all one might notice, the waters are alive with birds. Common and red-throated loons, great cormorants, common eiders, three species of scoters, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers, several species of gulls or more, and occasionally those most entertaining and scarce of birds, the alcids may be seen.

Many a ferry crossing on a morning at this time of year can be remarkably productive, from both a birding and mammal spotting point of view. Best viewing conditions are when the water's surface resembles a mirror and anything rippling the surface stands out, making it is easy to spot. With these kinds of conditions fantastic looks at groups of razorbills in the water are almost assured. With more wind and choppy seas, great looks at flying razorbills, gannets, kittiwakes, loons and the occasional white-winged gull are likely.

Razorbills are football-sized, black-and-white alcids. Alcids are the northern hemisphere counterpart of penguins, only they are smaller and have not lost their ability to fly. They are generally hard to see inshore (inshore being the waters the ferry crosses) but occasionally will appear in some numbers after northeast storms. Right now they are occurring in substantial numbers in waters around the Island, with many feeding in Vineyard Sound.

Generally when these birds are seen, they are engaged in active feeding. This means they are underwater, flying around with wings open, chasing small fish. They only surface to breath and are very hard to glimpse. There were hundreds in Vineyard Sound last week and views of groups, resting and preening on the surface, were afforded to observers with spotting scopes. The looks were distant but good of apparently tired flocks of razorbills.

Birds are not the only things that there are more numerous in winter. Marine mammals, specifically seals, are becoming common in the winter and are something of a rarity in summer. Populations of both harbor and gray seals are on the increase. A trip down the Elizabeth Islands or to any of the undisturbed outlying islands on the Cape and Islands will reveal lots of their number hauled out and resting on beaches and rocks at low tide.

Active observers on the ferry ride will invariably find seals. Some will be seen at sea, as they come up to breathe in the outer Vineyard Haven Harbor. The approach into Woods Hole can be very rewarding for finding seals. The entire south shore of the Vineyard has an increasing number of gray seals feeding along it.

Not much to look at with the naked eye but stunning with a pair of binoculars, one can see seals resting on rocks and the shoreline of Naushon Island. Then right out in the middle of the channel at Woods Hole, just off the ferry slip, one can see upwards of 20 harbor seals, resembling large sausages, resting on rocks, especially at low tide.

Another marine mammal commonly encountered at this season, although very hard to get good looks at, is the harbor porpoise. These small mammals appear to spend all their time feeding or heading to feeding areas. They do not frolic or follow ships like many of their relatives. Small pods of from three to six animals can be seen, as they surface to breathe, constantly on the move.

The late fall and winter ocean is full of life. Most of these creatures are animals of the far north and are visiting us when the areas where they summer are a desolate frozen wasteland. This is the equivalent of the tropics for both the birds and mammals. They are terrific to view and present an opportunity that only can be taken advantage of at this season. Take some binoculars with you when heading to the shore to walk off some of Thursday's feasting.

Until next week - keep your eyes to the sky!

To contribute news about birding activities or sightings, call The Times Birdline, 508-693-6100, extension 33, or e-mail