National marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers closed to the public; waters remain open

NOAA's national marine sanctuary offices and visitor centers are closed to the public while the waters remain open for responsible use in accordance with CDC guidance and local regulations. More information on the response from NOAA's Office of National Marine Sanctuaries can be found on

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Winter 1996

Advisory Council Appointed
Sanctuary Currents
Education Digest
Alcids--Birds of Winter


Advisory Council Appointed

What can fishermen, environmentalists, educators, communicators, scientists, and members of the general public have in common? For the members of the first Sanctuary Manager's Advisory Council (SMAC) that commonality is a strong belief in the intrinsic value of Stellwagen Bank and its resources.

Meeting for the first time on September 24, the 15 members and 15 ex-officio members were introduced to each other and to the on-going management, enforcement, research, and education programs now underway in the Sanctuary.

Members of the Council will serve for one two, or three-year terms (based on luck of the draw at the next council meeting); all subsequent seats will offer three-year terms. In order to allow as much feedback as possible from the public, council members will be limited to a single 3-year term (those drawing one or two-year terms during the first round may serve a second term if so willing). The members will select their chairperson at the next meeting in December. Members of the first Sanctuary Manager's Advisory Council are:

Howard Nickerson (representing commercial mobil gear fishing)
Mr. Nickerson is executive director of the Offshore Mariner's Association based in New Bedford. Previous experience includes 25 years of dragging and sea scalloping, and more recent experience teaching about fisheries issues at several Massachusetts colleges.

Robert MacKinnon (representing commercial fixed gear fishing)
Mr. MacKinnon is President of the Massachusetts Netters Association and co-founder of the New England Harbor Porpoise Working Group. As a member of several marine mammal protection groups, he has worked to reduce interaction of mammals and fishing gear through education, gear modification, and acoustic devices. For the past 20 years he has fished commercially in and around the Sanctuary.

Roger Jarvis (representing party and charterboat operations)
Captain Jarvis is the operator of Jazz Sport Fishing out of Duxbury and a past president of the Cape Cod Charter Boat Association. He was a participant in the process to designate Stellwagen Bank a National Marine Sanctuary. This is now his 26th year as a charter captain with much of that time spent on Stellwagen Bank fishing for bluefin tuna or bottom species.

Louis Gainor (representing recreational boating)
Mr. Gainor is a recreational boater who regularly visits Stellwagen Bank, as well as the host of a weekly, one-hour radio program on station WATD-95.9FM called "Nautical Talk Radio." His program features nautical news, boating safety, Coast Guard and law enforcement updates, and marine-related interviews.

Aaron Avellar (representing whale watching)
Mr. Avellar is the owner of the Dolphin Fleet of Provincetown and considered to be the founder of commercial whale watching in the area. A converted fisherman, he was the first to realize the commercial and tourism value of bringing the public out to view whales in their natural environment. Over the past 20 years his fleet has made numerous voyages into what is now the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary.

Dr. Clifford Goudey (representing the research community)
His interest in the sustainability of commercial fisheries leads Mr. Goudey to believe that the Sanctuary offers a unique chance to answer some of the scientific questions facing fisheries managers. He is Director of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) Sea Grant Program Center for Fisheries Engineering Research and a recipient of a 1996 FIG grant for development and demonstration of a low-bycatch, low-bottom-impact trawl for small-mesh bottom trawling. His work at MIT's Underwater Vehicle Laboratory led to the design of the RoboLobster and autonomous underwater vehicle Odyssey.

Terry Tessein (representing the media)
A freelance writer with a strong commitment to environmental issues, Mr. Tessein provides the Sanctuary Manager's Advisory Council with important public outreach perspectives. He is the author of a monthly column for New England Out-of-Doors entitled The Salt Line and a weekly column, Cape Cod Outdoors, which appears in the Community Newspapers on Cape Cod. This recreational angler was a founding member of the New England Coastal Conservation Association.

Dr. Michael Williamson (representing the educational community)
"My philosophy regarding conservation and management of marine resources has always been 'with knowledge comes wisdom,'" says Dr. Williamson, an Associate Professor of Science at Wheelock College in Boston and the Principal Investigator for the WhaleNet Internet-based education project. He has 25 years experience in education, much of it in marine science, along with 20 years experience in whale watching and whale research.

Nathalie Ward (representing education and public outreach)
Author of the critically acclaimed "Field Guide to the Whales, Sea Birds, and Marine Life of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary," Ms Ward provides expertise in both natural science and public education. She teaches graduate level courses at the Boston University Marine Program in Woods Hole on marine mammals, conservation and management, and science writing. This founding member of the Stellwagen Bank Steering Committee also has strong ties to our sibling sanctuary at Silver Bank in the Dominican Republic.

Janet Gray (representing the nontraditional educational community)
The former Acting Curator of Education at the New England Aquarium is now attending school for a graduate degree in education while continuing to manage several Aquarium program. Ms Gray has had extensive experience in educating the public about the riches of Massachusetts Bay and Stellwagen Bank, as well as work in grants management, teacher training and curriculum development.

Mason Weinrich (representing environmental/conservation organizations)
Mr. Weinrich serves as the Director and Chief Scientist of the Cetacean Research Unit in Gloucester, a non-profit organization dedicated to research, conservation and education pertaining to marine mammals and the marine ecosystems of New England. As a field biologist and licensed captain of CRU's research vessel, he has an intimate knowledge of all of the waters of the Sanctuary through thousands of hours spent in and around it. Mr. Weinrich was another active member of the steering committee for the Stellwagen Bank Coalition, which helped to garner support for sanctuary designation. For the past two years, he has served as chairman of the Coastal Advocacy Network.

Russell DeConti (representing environmental/conservation organizations)
This former member of the Stellwagen Bank Coalition steering committee actively fought for the strongest sanctuary possible, which meant testifying in Washington, DC. Mr. DeConti serves as Director of Conservation for the Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, the organization that was one of the two sponsors of the sanctuary nomination. "We had a positive impact on the creation of the Sanctuary then, and I very much welcome the opportunity to work with you now on developing this sanctuary into a national model for marine research, conservation, and education," he notes. Mr. DeConti is a former environmental planner, board member of the Association for the Preservation of Cape Cod, and presently co-owner of a small shellfish mariculture company in Nantucket Sound.

Eleanor Dorsey (representing environmental/conservation organizations)
Ms Dorsey is a Staff Scientist with the Conservation Law Foundation specializing in issues related to pollution from municipal sewage treatment plants, management of New England groundfish, disposal of contaminated dredged materials, seafood contamination, and protection of right whales. "Many of these issues of of direct concern to the Sanctuary," she observes. Prior to her move to CLF in 1988, Ms Dorsey obtained a master's degree in zoology and gained 11 years experience in cetacean studies working with Dr. Roger Payne at the Whale Conservation Institute.

Thomas Broadrick (representing the public, at-large member)
This Planning Director for the Town of Duxbury has a long-standing interest and love for the marine environment. His planning experience spans seven years, two with Duxbury and five with the Town of Dennis on Cape Cod. Prior to his work in Massachusetts, he was employed as a Park Ranger and biologist at the John Pennekamp Coral Reef State Park in Key Largo, Florida. At that time the Key Largo National Marine Sanctuary was gaining national and international recognition, and Mr. Broadrick ably assisted in public outreach programs for both the State Park and National Sanctuary. His training and skills in planning and years of experience with another sanctuary will be of value to Stellwagen Bank.

William Golden, J.D. (representing the public, at-large member)
Mr. Golden provides the Sanctuary with a wealth of experience in marine and environmental issues. As a solicitor for the City of Quincy, he became appalled by the polluted shoreline while jogging along Wollaston Beach one summer morning in 1992. This concern led to action and the initiation of the historic lawsuit to clean up Boston Harbor. As a State Senator from 1985 to 1990 he actively promoted environmental measures while serving on the energy and natural resources and agriculture joint committees. He was one of the founders of Save the Harbor/Save the Bay, as well as the South Shore Coalition and Massachusetts Public Interest Research Group, East (MassPIRG). He is now a partner in the law firm Burns and Levinson in Boston.

Ex-Officio Members of the Sanctuary Manager's Advisory Board include representatives from the following agencies and organizations:

  • NOAA, National Marine Fisheries Service--Habitat Branch

  • 1st US Coast Guard District--Fisheries Law Enforcement

  • US Army Corps of Engineers, NE Division

  • US Environmental Protection Agency, Region 1

  • Northeast Fishery Management Council

  • National Park Service, Cape Cod National Seashore

  • US Geological Survey, Atlantic Branch

  • Massachusetts Coastal Zone Management Office

  • Massachusetts Marine Fisheries Commission

  • Mass. Dept. of Environmental Management, Ocean Sanctuary Program

  • Massachusetts Board of Underwater Archeological Research

  • Massachusetts Water Resources Authority, Environmental Quality Dept.

  • Representatives from the offices of Senator John Kerry, Senator Edward Kennedy, Congressman Gerry Studds, Congressman Joseph Kennedy, Congressman Peter Torkildsen, Congressman Barney Frank, and Congressman Joseph Moakley; and Arnold Carr, Special Advisor, Underwater Search and Survey.

A hearty welcome to all members of the Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary Manager's Advisory Council.

Tidings -- Message from the Sanctuary Manager

The new fiscal year for the Federal Government (which began October 1) ushers in a revised name and expanded outlook for this National Marine Sanctuary, in particular, and a renewed enthusiam in the National Program, in general.

With reauthorization, a bipartisan Congress reaffirmed their support for the protection and management of important marine resource areas, including expansion of one Sanctuary (Flower Garden Banks off Texas) and the possible future designation of another (Northwest Straits in the State of Washington). In honor of the work and dedication Congressman Gerry Studds exhibited over years of service to Congress, much of it in the now defunct Merchant Marine and Fisheries Committee, the House proposed and both the House and Senate approved the renaming of this Sanctuary to the Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Mr. Studds has been a friend to the Sanctuary Program and was a major force in reauthorization of the program in 1988, 1992 and again this year. It was through his (and Senator John Kerry's) leadership that this Sanctuary became a reality in 1992.

Recently we've also wecomed new faces on both the national and local fronts. We look forward to working with NMS Program Director Stephanie Thornton on program-wide issues as well as the many important resource questions that are unique to this region. We also salute the incoming Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary Manager's Advisory Council. It is our hope that this outstanding group of individuals will provide us with insight and expertise so that we might better serve the public by providing balanced and appropriate management strategies to protect the valuable resources at Stellwagen Bank.

As we celebrate our fourth anniversary as a Sanctuary (on November 4th), we look forward to the challenges that lie ahead as we continue our important work to better understand, and thereby better manage, this marine ecosystem.


Santuary Currents

Congress Honors Congressman Studds; Sanctuary Renamed
Included within the 1996 National Marine Sanctuaries Preservation Act is recognition for retiring U.S. Congressman Gerry Studds (D-MA) who was a key player in the process of designating the Stellwagen Bank sanctuary, in particular, and providing support for the sanctuary program, in general. In his honor, this sanctuary has been renamed the "Gerry E. Studds Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary."

In 1988 Congressman Studds proposed amendments to the National Marine Sanctuary Program that a prospectus on the proposed Stellwagen Bank sanctuary be submitted to Congress by September 1990. This Prospectus and a draft Environmental Impact Statement and Management Plan were published in February 1991. During the formal comment period, 860 written comments were submitted to NOAA as well as petitions signed by more than 20,000 persons supporting designation of the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

On October 7, 1992, Congress, upon the urging of Congressman Studds, passed legislation reauthorizing and amending the law that created the National Marine Sanctuary Program. This legislation, which was signed by President George Bush on November 4, 1992, designated Stellwagen Bank as the 12th National Marine Sanctuary.

In supporting the 1996 legislation to reauthorize the sanctuary program and rename the 12th site, Representative Don Young (R-AK) said: "Gerry has long been a leading proponent in the Houser of the protection of the marine environment -- most prominently when he served as chairman of the former Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries. Now that Gerry is leaving after 24 years of service, I believe this is a fitting tribute."

For Congressman Studds, the honor bestowed upon him by his colleagues was both surprising and gratifying. He noted, "One would be hard pressed to find something that would have meant more to me than Stellwagen Bank."

National Sanctuary Program Reauthorized
The U.S. Senate joined the House of Representatives in unanimously reaffirming support for marine sanctuaries with the passage of the National Marine Sanctuaries Preservation Act. The President signed the bill on October 18, 1996. The Act authorizes $45 million for the next three years for continued management of the 12 marine sanctuaries presently in the system and for developing final federal approval for the proposed Northwest Straits sanctuary in the Pacific Northwest.

"As we continue to work with sanctuary communities around the nation toward healthier marine environments and healthier coastal economies, it is good to know that we have Congress's full support and confidence," said Sanctuary Program Director Stephanie Thornton. "That we were able to receive unanimous bipartisan support sends a clear message that it is important to the American people that our oceans and coasts be preserved now and for the future."

Thornton Leads NMS Team
The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary welcomes Stephanie Revesz Thornton as the new director of the National Marine Sanctuary Program. With a resume that covers 30 years of wide-ranging experience, Ms Thornton combines expertise in marine science, business management and resource conservation. Her special expertise is in fisheries.

Ms Thornton's career has been built upon a series of positions that allowed her to diversify her expertise in the marine field. She began as a fisheries biologist studying Pacific salmon with the California Department of Fish and Game and later worked for the National Marine Fisheries Service focusing on albacore tuna migration. Subsequently, she served as manager of the Humboldt Fisherman's Marketing Association, representing a 350-member trade association for salmon, crab, and herring fishermen.

Ms Thornton became directly involved in marine resource management through her participation in the development of the Salmon Management Plan for the Pacific Fishery Management Council and her working relationships with the California Department of Fish and Game and the California State Legislature. During this time, she was appointed by former Governor Jerry Brown as a California Commissioner to the Pacific States Marine Fisheries Commissioner (PSMFC). She served four years as Commissioner to this five-state interpact. These cumulative work experiences led to the opportunity to create and administer the Coastal Resources Center (CRC), a nonprofit organization with a mission to preserve, maintain, and enhance marine fish and their ecosystems in coastal California.

When CRC was still in the conceptual stage, Ms. Thornton was hired to develop the organization into a fully operating entity. Throughout the CenterÕs existence, she created and implemented over 15 applied marine conservation projects, as well as comprehensive public education efforts. She served as CRCÕs Executive Director for eight years until its recent closing.

Her academic background includes a B.S. in Fisheries Biology, with an emphasis in Marine Ecology, from Humboldt State University and an MBA from Golden Gate University.

In addition to Ms. Thornton's academic training and broad based work experience, her professional association, and appointments have strengthened her leadership capabilities. She served three years as President of the American Fisheries Society, Humboldt Chapter and was founder and President of the Women's Fisheries Network, Northern California Chapter. Currently, she is a Board member to the National Research Council's Marine Board where she is a representative to the Marine Area Governance Committee. Good luck Stephanie and welcome to the Sanctuary program!

Sanctuary Program Funded for 1997
The National Marine Sanctuary Program has received level funding for 1997 under the FY97 Omnibus Spending Bill/Continuing Resolution (CR) which was passed by Congress and signed by President Clinton on September 28. Massachusetts Senator John Kerry, in support of the bill, testified: "Another ocean program very important to my State is the National Marine Sanctuary Program. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts is an excellent example of Federal activity that provides both environmental protection and economic enhancement. This marine mammal feeding area is popular with whale watchers and fishermen, and protection of the bank has received wide support -- not only among my constituents, but Nationwide. The funding provided in the CR will help to maintain this important national program, especially Stellwagen Bank."

Oceans Top Space in Public Survey
By a 71-19 percent margin, the American public believes that ocean exploration is more important than space exploration, according to a new national poll of public attitudes towards the world oceans. The poll also reveals a deep concern among Americans over the declining marine environment. The poll was funded by The Pew Charitable Trusts, a national philanthropy and major supporter of environmental protection, and conducted in mid-May by the Washington, D.C.-based Mellman Group. Other poll results indicate that 82 percent agree that the oceans are threatened by human activity, explicitly rejecting the idea that "the oceans are so vast and plentiful that there is little humans can do to destroy them"; and 85 percent of respondents agreed that "the federal government needs to do more to help protect the oceans."

Site Characterization On-Line
The Stellwagen Bank Sanctuary offers its long-awaited Site Characterization study on-line via our web site at The document provides information on the site designation, the significance of the resources, and detailed information on environmental, historical, and cultural conditions that shaped the sanctuary. Management and conservation issues included in the characterization cover marine mammal protection efforts, dredge material disposal, monitoring, mariculture, and fisheries.

Education Digest

MIMIFest '97 Scheduled
The Third Annual Plymouth MIMIFest, sponsored by the Sanctuary and The Barn School Trust, has been scheduled for the week of May 19-23, 1997. Teachers interested in bringing their students to the Fest should contact Sanctuary education coordinator Anne Smrcina or office manager Sandi Dentino as soon as possible. Last year's Fest was highly successful, with over 1,800 students taking part. For information and reservations, call 508-747-1691 or send an e-mail to (provide your name, e-mail address, day and evening phone numbers please).

Lefty Takes to the Road
"Lefty," the Sanctuary's 50-foot inflatable right whale, has been taking some excursions this past summer, including three visits to the Boston Children's Museum. The walk-in whale and accompanying hands-on exhibits have introduced hundreds of children and their parents to the wonder of this magnificant animal and the very real threats to its continued existence. The Sanctuary is investigating the possibility of developing a Docent Corps of trained volunteers who would be charged with the "care and feeding" of Lefty. To volunteer for the corps or for more information, call the Sanctuary offices.

Sanctuary Hosts Boston University Interns
During the past summer, students from Boston University's Graduate Programs in Science Communication and Mass Communications, devoted many hours of work towards development of Sanctuary-related education products. Several of the feature stories in this issue of the Newsletter (as well as several slated for the next issue) were written by Andrew Wilson. Urmila Ranadive and Jennifer Connor worked on a soon-to-be-released CD-ROM on the food web at Stellwagen Bank, while Joshua Ulick assisted in the writing and editing of a curriculum package with naturalist Richard Wheeler. These students' dedicated efforts have resulted in exemplary products that will enhance public understanding of the resources of the Sanctuary.

Traveling Photo Exhibit Planned
Snaggle-toothed wolffish; other-worldly diatoms; magnificant leviathans. The Sanctuary is preparing a traveling exhibit of marine life photography, using wonderful images provided by generous local photographers. Among the contributors are: Andrew Martinez (whose work has been seen in the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine and his own book Marine Life of the North Atlantic), Norman Despres, David and Susan Millhouser, Jeff Hannigan, Jonathan Bird of Oceanic Research Group, and others. The schedule is still in development; look for future updates on this project. Underwater and surface photographers interested in adding their works to the exhibit should contact the Sanctuary (photos should include creatures that reside in or visit the Sanctuary). Organizations with exhibit space that are interested in hosting the exhibit should contact the Sanctuary as soon as possible by calling (508) 747-1691 or e-mail to:

Video Complete; Auk Curriculum in the Works
In 1991, Richard Wheeler followed his heart and the migration path of the extinct Great Auk and completed a marathon sea kayak trip that became a NOVA show. Following up on that program, the Sanctuary is supporting the development of a curriculum about that voyage as well as the issues of extinction, survival and the sustainable use of marine resources. The Great Auk, the penguin of the north, probably wintered in the waters of Stellwagen Bank. The educational unit will focus not only on the auk, but the cod and right whale too. As part of the curriculum package, a 15-minute video has recently been completed which looks at bank environments in the northwest Atlantic, in general, and Stellwagen Bank, in particular, and the reasons for their attractiveness to marine species. A curriculum book and audiotape by master storyteller Jay O'Callahan are in the making. The videotape will be available to schools free of charge as of January 1, 1997.


Alcids - Birds of Winter

The waters over Stellwagen Bank can appear desolate during the winter. The humpback, finback, and right whales have migrated south, and the swallow-like storm-petrels no longer can be seen bouncing along the surface of the water. But awards still await the hardy nature lover willing to brave the wind and waves.

The return of the cold marks the arrival of the alcids-a group of stocky black-and-white seabirds that include one of the most recognizable of all birds, the rainbow-billed puffin.

Alcids are the northern hemisphere's equivalent of penguins, although the two groups are not related. In fact, a now extinct alcid, the flightless Great Auk, Pinguinus impennis, was called a penguin long before the southern hemisphere penguins were described. Like the penguins of the Antarctic, alcids walk upright -- their legs set towards the backs of their bodies. And like penguins, alcids thrive in the cold water. They nest in dense colonies along the rocky coasts and islands in the high latitudes of the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and the Arctic Ocean. On shore, alcids waddle clumsily, and in flight, they resemble giant, stubby-winged insects, but in the water, where they spend most of their lives, they are agile swimmers and prodigious divers. Using their wings as flippers, alcids swiftly pursue crustaceans and small fish, such as herring, at great depths, often emerging with their bills filled with multiple prey to bring back to their nests. One species, the Common Murre, has been recorded diving to depths of 550 feet.

During the summer, spectacular colonies, often containing thousands of birds, cram themselves along ledges, inside crevices, and between boulders. In sites supporting multiple seabirds, the species segregate themselves. For example, on an island off the coast of Newfoundland, Black Guillemots nest at the base of the cliffs, Common Murres on ledges along the cliffs, Razorbills in crannies along the cliff face, and Atlantic Puffins in the grassy slopes on the tops of the cliffs. Most species are monogamous and produce one brood per year of one to two chicks. In some species, pairs may remain together for several years. Chick mortality is as high as 90% during the first year. Gulls prey on chicks, and others succumb to the harsh conditions at sea. But birds that survive the first few months of life often live into their twenties.

Their habit of nesting in dense colonies and their awkwardness on land made alcids easy targets for hunters seeking eggs, meat, and feathers. In the early 19th century, this overexploitation led to the extinction of the Great Auk -- a two-and-half-foot tall flightless alcid that formerly nested from Newfoundland to Britain. By the 1840s, colonies of other alcid species had also disappeared from most islands in the Gulf of Maine. Currently, some alcids are recolonizing their former nesting sites. Starting in 1973, Stephen Kress of the National Audubon Society and current director of the Maine Coastal Sanctuary program pioneered efforts to restore seabirds to their historical nesting sites off the coast of Maine. Kress and other scientists and volunteers of the Audubon Society's Puffin Project transported Atlantic Puffin chicks from Newfoundland to Eastern Egg Rock in Muscongus Bay, placed decoys and ceramic eggs around potential nesting areas, and played audio tapes of nesting puffins and chicks. In 1981, for the first time in 150 years, puffins returned to the island to nest. Today, over 15 puffin pairs are nesting on Eastern Egg Rock. Conservationists have also lured puffins to two islands near the mouth of Penobscot Bay. Twenty-five pairs are nesting on Seal Island, and over 150 pairs, along with 60 to 80 pairs of Razorbills, are nesting on Matinicus Rock. Puffin Project workers are currently deploying decoys and audio tapes to lure Razorbills to Seal Island and Common Murres to Matinicus Rock. They have also used these methods to reestablish colonies of other seabirds, including Common, Arctic, and endangered Roseate terns.

Kick-starting these colonies is a real challenge, according to Steve Edwards, an Audubon Society naturalist aboard a puffin-watch cruise that visit the new colonies. Edwards estimates that of the 3,000 islands off the coast of Maine, 30 are suitable for recolonization. The islands must contain enough suitable habitat to support many nests, because alcids "like being a face in the crowd." Islands must also be free of humans and introduced mammals such as rats or foxes that consume chicks and eggs and be far enough off the mainland that owls and other predators can't make the journey over to prey on the colonies.

Even after the colonies are established, the sites need constant maintenance, according to Stephen Kress. Gulls, having benefited from the proliferation of garbage dumps and fishing boat waste, have replaced humans as the pilferers of nesting alcids. Not only do gulls compete with alcids for nesting sites, they eat both young and adult birds. Therefore, gull populations on these islands must be constantly monitored and controlled.

Alcids are now protected in the Gulf of Maine. But hunting is not the only activity that threatens alcid populations. Kress says that in the waters off of Newfoundland and northern Europe, the commercial fisheries compete with alcids for bait fish such as sand lance and herring, and that overharvesting of these fish may be contributing to regional declines of alcids. Scores of diving birds become entangled in drift nets and drown. But oil spills are the conservationist's greatest nightmare. An oil spill in the wrong place could wipe out entire colonies, putting a severe dent in the world population. For example, 90% of all Common Murres nest in only three colonies in Canada. By increasing the number of nesting colonies, conservationists hope to lessen the impact of localized disasters such as oil spills.

As summer ends, alcids leave their nests and scatter southward seeking productive, ice-free waters where they can dine on the bounteous fish and marine invertebrates. Stellwagen Bank is one such site. The number of alcids off the Massachusetts coast likely varies depending on the distribution of food and the severity of the winter. A deep freeze up north forces many birds south, and storms, particularly in late fall and early winter, may push alcids towards shore. But because few people venture out over the Bank during the winter to survey the birds, data on the numbers of alcids that frequent the sanctuary are scarce. During years when the weather cooperates, birders survey the sanctuary during the annual Stellwagen Bank Christmas Bird Count in mid-December. However, most sightings come from land. Good locations for spotting alcids from land include Andrews and Halibut Point in Rockport, Race Point in Provincetown, and Nauset Lighthouse in Eastham. First Encounter Beach in Eastham can also be a great place to observe alcids following severe northeast storms in November.

Those who do go out seeking alcids must not only be impervious to the cold, but they must have sharp eyes. Alcids are difficult to spot as they bob among the waves, only to dive and stay under water before the boat can approach close enough to get a decent view. The fact that alcids spotted during the winter are often immatures or in their winter plumage makes distinguishing the species especially challenging.

Six species of alcids breed in the North Atlantic and migrate to the waters off the coast of Massachusetts in the winter. The following are descriptions of what to look for. Wayne Petersen, field ornithologist for the Massachusetts Audubon Society, provided the information.

Alcid-seekers plying the waters over Stellwagen Bank or staring out from the headlands on Cape Cod or Cape Ann are more likely to see Razorbills than any other alcid, especially from November through January. Razorbills are black on top and white below with a pointed tails that are often cocked upwards. But their most distinguishing feature is their large, laterally-flattened bill. A vertical white band running through the middle of the bill is also characteristic of adults. The bills of immature Razorbills are easy to confuse with those of murres. Juvenile bills are shaped the same as adult bills, but are smaller and lack the white band. In flight, Razorbills have a hunchbacked, bull-necked appearance. Other helpful fieldmarks for flying Razorbills include a white trailing edge on the wing and white on either side of the black tail.

Razorbill art

Two species, the Thick-billed Murre and the Common Murre, nest in the North Atlantic Ocean. During most winters, bird watchers usually report seeing a handful of Thick-billed Murres along the Massachusetts coast, most often in late winter. But during some seasons, the numbers increase dramatically, especially during cold winters when extensive icing closes large areas of their winter range. Following a major storm in December, 1976, birders reported seeing a record number of 3,000-5,000 Thick-billed Murres flying past the Massachusetts coast.
Common Murres rarely venture close to shore, but they may occur regularly over Stellwagen Bank. However, following oil spills off of Cape Cod and Nantucket, oiled murres regularly get swept ashore, indicating that they do winter at sea off of Massachusetts. The two species are difficult to distinguish from each other. In winter, both birds are black on top and white below with white throats and cheeks. However, the dark hood of the Thick-billed Murre extends below its eyes, whereas the Common Murre has a dark stripe running from its eyes to its cheeks. The Common Murre also has a sharper, slenderer bill and is browner on the back than the Thick-billed Murre. In flight, murres appear more streamlined than the thick-necked Razorbills.


Murre art

Dovekies are chubby, starling-sized alcids that feed on planktonic crustaceans. They are believed to be especially concentrated at the upwelling zones along the edge of Georges Bank where food is particularly abundant. During the fall, storms often deflect Dovekies towards land, but Dovekies are seldom seen from shore in Massachusetts after December. Like all alcids, Dovekies are black above and white below. However, their small size, short necks, and stubby beaks make them easy to distinguish from other species, both in the water and in flight.

Dovekie art

Atlantic Puffins
Atlantic Puffins are undoubtedly regular visitors to Stellwagen Bank and waters off the Massachusetts coast from October to mid-winter. They are chunky, black and white birds with white cheeks and enormous triangular, tricolor bills, inspiring the nickname "parrots of the sea." Puffins are smaller than Razorbills and Murres but not as tiny as Dovekies. In winter, Atlantic Puffins shed the colorful bill plates, so their bills are smaller and less gaudy, but still the same triangular shape. Their white cheeks also turn gray. In flight, puffins can be identified by their rounded, solid black wings, bright orange feet, and big-headed appearance. Juveniles have much smaller, gray, unpuffin-like bills. However, juvenile puffins can still be identified by their gray cheeks and chunky shape. Some ornithologists speculate that juveniles, after fledging, actually drift south to the Massachusetts coast, following the Labrador current instead of flying.


Puffin art

Black Guillemots
Black Guillemots are slender, duck-like alcids with fairly long pointed bills. More than any other North Atlantic alcid, Black Guillemots stay close to rocky shores. During the winter, they can often be seen off of Provincetown, Cape Ann, and Boston's outer harbor islands, but they usually do not venture as far offshore as Stellwagen Bank. In winter, Black Guillemots are white molted with black, and have large white patches on top of the win
gs. They also have orange legs and feet.


Guillemot art


Other Birds

There is never a shortage of gulls over Stellwagen Bank, and winter is no exception. Because most gulls take three to four years to reach their adult plumages, and because they have several distinct immature plumages, identifying species can be tricky. The following descriptions are of adult winter plumages, although immatures, particularly first year birds, are also common during the winter.

Black-legged Kittiwakes
Black-legged Kittiwakes, which feed on small fish such as sand lance, are abundant over Stellwagen Bank during the winter. They are small (half the size of a Herring Gull), have black legs, an unmarked yellow bill, and pure black wingtips that look as if they had dipped their wings in ink. In winter, Black-legged Kittiwakes have a dusky spot behind each eye. The much larger Herring Gull has a gray mantle (back), pink legs, a yellow bill with a red spot, and black wingtips with white spots. In winter, herring gulls have heavy brown streaks on their heads and necks. The large and distinctive Great Black-backed Gull has a heavy yellow bill with an orange spot on it and a black back and wings that contrast sharply with its snow-white head and undersides. Glaucous Gulls and Iceland Gulls often attend fishing boats during the winter. They are gray above with white underparts, pink legs, and yellow bills with orange spots like the Herring and Great Black-backed gulls. Both species lack black wingtips. The less common Glaucous Gull is larger and has a heavier head and bill than the Iceland Gull.

Northern Gannets
Northern Gannets are large, white seabirds with black wingtips, a yellowish wash on their heads, large bills, and pointed tails. Juveniles are variously molted with brown and white. Gannets catch fish by hovering up to 40 feet above the ocean, then plummeting head first into the water.

Other Northern Fulmars and Great Skuas winter well offshore, but occasionally can be seen in the Sanctuary, particularly after storms.

(Information provided by Wayne Petersen, field ornithologist for the Massachusetts Audubon Society)

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