100 Miles Offshore, "The Canyons" Offer a Last Frontier for New England Birding

Jul 23, 2014

White-faced Storm Petrel
Credit JJ Harrison / wikipedia

There is no place like being on the water, on a boat, at this time of year, if you want to see birds - specifically pelagic, ocean-loving birds. While ashore it is hot and crowded, out on the water the cool temperatures and seabirds conspire to make you mellow out and enjoy your vast surroundings. A human never feels as small as when out on, and in, the vastness of the open ocean.

When heading out on the sea, the chance for adventure, to see something extraordinary, to find and hopefully photograph some bird, fish, mammal or turtle that you have always wanted to see or something else completely unexpected is a real possibility. The reality is that most of the time the ocean can be pretty boring and you see little - but then, entering some new water, or passing through a temperature break, the ocean suddenly is full of life.

South of the Cape and Islands, some 100 miles further south of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard, is the edge of the Continental Shelf, where there are submerged submarine canyons that are very rich in marine life. Water temperatures at the surface along the edge of the shelf and further south are the same as off Florida or the Carolinas in August. That is because it is the very same water, running, in an “oceanic river” called the Gulf Stream.

It is readily apparent in infrared satellite images. Warm water shows up as red on the satellite image, cold-water dark blue with a wide range in between. The “river” is obvious and extensively bright red. This tropical water contains the same marine organisms off the New England coast as it does between Florida and the Bahamas.

Not only is this area fantastic for fish - marine mammals, turtles and almost anything else you can think of - it is the last frontier for birding in New England. Last weekend a dedicated pelagic birding trip left on the FV Helen H out of Hyannis at 2 A.M. on July 19th heading south for the canyons. On board were some 65 pelagic birders with expert pelagic birders as leaders, lots of chum and visions of all kinds of wild and crazy birds. The weather was perfect and they managed to find some rare southern species that probably occur in the Canyons far more commonly than we know about, only it is such a hard place to visit. Highlights from the trip included great views and photographs of the following; a White-faced Storm-Petrel, 10 Audubon’s Shearwaters and a couple of Long-tailed Jaegers. They also encountered lots of other neat stuff including a group of Striped Dolphins with some 300 or more individuals roiling the ocean.

The Cape and Islands are the beneficiaries of waters surrounding us that are as diverse as anywhere on the globe. Biologically the Cape is like a mountain range and acts as such to ocean currents. Because of all the divergent currents, water temperatures and varying tidal flow. To get a better grasp of what I am talking about, if you are in the Mid-Cape area go for a swim on the south side in Centerville at Craigville Beach then head across to the north side at Sandy Neck or Corporation Beach and jump in the water. Instead of traveling the roughly 7 miles across the Cape, you will think you went a thousand miles when you feel the difference in water temperature. The water is much colder in Cape Cod Bay and the tides are 6 times larger. It is amazing how different it is and this is important to all the organisms living here dictating their ranges.

So if you have a hankering for something different, jump on a boat, take a whale watching trip from any many different ports and go out on the sea for adventure.