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The Birds Are Back in Town

March 27, 2024

Research fishery biologist Katey Marancik participated in the winter 2024 Ecosystem Monitoring Survey and was treated to sea bird species she normally doesn’t see during the spring or fall surveys. Puffins and loons and scoters—oh, my!

A small black and white bird with a bright orange beak swims on the ocean’s surface.

Picture it—a lonely ship, miles from shore, horizon in every direction, 
“Puffin! Puffin!” 
I run to the port side and stare intently at the sea.

There were five of us on the bridge of NOAA ship Henry B. Bigelow that morning. Allison Black and Nick Metheny—our sea bird, marine mammal, and sea turtle specialists—scanned the horizon keeping species counts as we transited to the next station.

A collage of two photos with two at-sea scientists using binoculars to look out a ship's window at the sea.
Sea bird, marine mammal, and sea turtle specialists Nick Metheny and Allison Black keep their eyes on the water from the bridge. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katey Marancik

During the winter survey, I spent most of my free time on the bridge, hoping to see whales and learning how to spot sea birds. I’m notoriously bad. I joke that there are two species: penguins and not-penguins. It’s a bad joke. I’m learning. An Atlantic puffin would be pretty cool to see.

Allison’s keen eyes tracked the bird across the water’s surface. She and Nick had seen a couple puffins this trip already. I kept missing them.

We tend to think of birds flying south in the winter, but for many birds, the waters off New England are south!

A black a white bird with a black beak swims at the ocean’s surface.
The common loon is not a sea duck. But they’re another species that will overwinter in New England’s coastal waters before returning to inshore lakes to breed. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Allison Black

There are many sea duck species that are only seen in the United States when they hang out in the offshore waters during winter months. Winter EcoMon gave us a rare opportunity to observe and count sea ducks. We saw white-winged scoter, black scoter, and red-breasted merganser during the inshore portion of our track.

View of a clouded-over ocean with a few birds in the sky.
Gulls fly by NOAA Ship Henry B. Bigelow during Winter EcoMon 2024. Credit: NOAA Fisheries/Katey Marancik

I tried again that afternoon. Nick pointed at something close to the ship. And this time… I saw it! A small bird, compared to the gulls and gannets we’d been seeing, scurrying along, splashing in a line before taking off into the evening sky. Not the first winter EcoMon puffin. But, this one was mine.

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