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Nor'easters and Seabirds
by Chris Gentes




Pelagic Birding Directory

Seabird Areas New England

The Continental Shelf Edge

Nor'easter Birding

 

 

Introduction

When not on their breeding grounds, pelagic birds  are usually found on the open ocean.   There are, however, opportunities to see pelagic birds from land away from their breeding grounds. The waters off of New England provide a wide array of prey food for a variety of pelagic birds.  When there are onshore winds, pelagic birds taking advantage of these rich feeding grounds are often pushed close enough to land to view.  While the conditions that create these winds can be caused by a variety of meteorological conditions,  "nor'easters" are the most notorious. Usually these storms are associated with blizzards, damaging winds, and beach eroding waves and tides. For the land based bird watcher they provide a golden opportunity. Shearwaters, fulmars, storm-petrels, jaegers, and alcids are some of the pelagic birds which can been seen following these storms.

What is a Nor'easter?

A nor’easter is a storm systems in which the prevailing winds are blowing onshore from the northeast. Although there are several conditions in which this can occur, the one most commonly associated with a true nor’easter consists of a low pressure system that has developed in the southeastern United States. This system begins to rotate counter clockwise (similar to a cyclone) as it tracks up the coast toward New England. Warm water is pulled in from the Atlantic Ocean as it moves toward New England. 

Nor'easter Approaching Massachusetts

     This diagram shows a simplified version of a nor'easter approaching Massachusetts. The winds are blowing counter-clockwise around a low pressure system that has worked its way up the Atlantic seaboard. The storm system pulls water out of the Atlantic and dumps it (in the form of rain or snow) on the mainland. Nor'easters vary in size and can be as much as 1000 miles across. If a stationary high pressure system is off the coast, the low pressure system can stall and remain in position over New England for several days. These sustained onshore winds usually bring the most seabirds close to land, including, on occasion, the continental slope inhabitants. 
     As the storm system approaches New England the southeast coast of Rhode Island is receiving winds from the east and southeast. Point Judith in southeast Rhode Island is a good location to conduct a sea watch during these conditions.

Nor'easter Off Nantucket

In this diagram we see that the nor'easter has moved closer to the Massachusetts coastline. The islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket are bearing the full force of the southerly winds on the leading edge of the storm system. It is precisely during conditions as these that numbers of Cory's Shearwaters may be seen off the southern shores of these islands.  Cory's Shearwaters breed in Equatorial waters, and are usually encountered after their breeding season. They prefer the warmer waters south of Massachusetts, and are possible from July to early November, some years in greater number than others, depending on the availability of prey food.

If this hypothetical storm traveled due east, the eastern shores of Cape Cod would be receiving easterly winds. These conditions are favorable for bringing seabirds closer to shore for viewing from land. Chatham is one such location. 

The Classic Nor'easter

In this example we see the effects of a classic nor'easter. Easterly winds are blowing directly at Cape Ann. There is a good chance that seabirds are being blown toward land. Halibut Point and Andrews Point in Rockport are two locations to conduct a seawatch during these conditions. The northeasterly winds of the storm are also beginning to blow into Cape Cod Bay. Seabirds may get blown into this natural basin and fly in a counter-clockwise location looking for exit to the open ocean. There is a good chance that observers at Sandy Neck in Barnstable  will be getting good views of a variety of pelagic birds. 

Nor'easter 4

As time passes the storm system moves further out to sea. Now the winds are directly northeast off of Cape Ann. If the system is stalled for a few days and the easterly winds continue, there is always the possibility that the pelagic birds usually found along the continental slope will eventually be blown toward land.

Meanwhile, the winds have shifted to the northwest in Cape Cod Bay. The seabirds which are "trapped" in the bay will be blown toward Eastham and Wellfleet. Traditionally, if there has been a strong nor'easter overnight, birders will try to get to First Encounter Beach in Eastham at dawn to see these trapped pelagic birds seeking exit to the open ocean.

A Special Case

Richard S. Heil has conducted over twenty-five years of seawatches at Andrew's Point on Cape Ann. Of the many important observational discoveries he has made the following is of special interest.  When Cape Anne is receiving winds from the south, shearwaters and other pelagic birds often seek shelter in Ipswich Bay (located to the northwest of Cape Ann.) Here in these relatively calm waters the birds wait out the storm. After the winds have died down, the pelagics will return to the open ocean, often passing by Andrew's Point. Conditions as these can produce spectacular flights of shearwaters, and it is worth keeping abreast of weather conditions during peak migration times to increase ones chances of witnessing such a flight.  

One of the best times to look for pelagic birds from land is during their main migration (mid-October to November) in conjunction with a nor'easter.  The traditional nor'easter "season" is October through April. Richard Heil has observed that the best times to conduct such seawatches at Andrew's Point in Rockport is between 8-11 am, and he has also observed that if there are winds over forty miles per hour from any direction seabirds may be associated with them. 

If you are interested in maximizing your chances of viewing pelagic birds from land, keep an eye on the weather forecasts. Knowing that a nor'easter is on the way will help you plan your sea watch. Twenty-four hour weather channels and the internet are essential tools.  Keep an eye out for low pressure systems in the southeast United States, as well as jet streams which dip into the south; these are two key indicators that a nor'easter may be forming. Follow the progression of the storm system as it moves up the coast. Check to see if the system is stalled over New England - this will maximize your chances of viewing the rare pelagic birds. 

On-line Resources

Northwest Atlantic Wind Speeds and Directions      

New England Wind Speeds and Directions

The Continental Shelf-Edge - An Oceanographic Primer for Pelagic Birders  by Mike Gooley  

Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary  USGS National Geologic Studies of Benthic Habitats, Northeastern United States.

Cashes Ledge   Undersea Landscapes webpage.   

Wood's Hole Field Center  USGS 

Sources 

Bailey, Wallace.  Birds in Massachusetts. Where and When to Find Them. The College Press.  South Lancaster. 1955.

Blackshaw, Kenneth T.; Andrews, Edith F.  Birding Nantucket.  Nantucket. 1999.  

Flock, Gretchen; Hecker, Ann P., editors.  Birding Cape Cod. Massachusetts Audubon Society. Wellfleet. 1994.

Gooley, Mike.   The Continental Shelf-Edge - An Oceanographic Primer for Pelagic Birders. New England Seabirds website. http://www.neseabirds.com/wheretoshelfedge.htm. 2002

Heil, Richard S.  "Seabirds of Andrew's Point, Rockport, Massachusetts." Bird Observer. Vol. 29, No. 5, 2001.:p>

Petersen, Wayne R.; Veit, Richard R.   Birds of Massachusetts. Massachusetts Audubon Society. 1993.

Walton, Richard K.  Bird Finding in New England. David R. Godine Publishing, Inc. Boston. 1988.

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