Friday, September 11, 2015

August 27: Whales and Tails

Breakfast was in a coffee shop in downtown Portsmouth. While we ignored the House Sparrows looking for freebies, I took a moment to snap some more pics.  Low and behold, I found myself looking at the cannons that were confiscated by Oliver HazardPerry after victory over the British in the Battle of Lake Erie.  1813 cannons in the streets of Portsmouth from a battle that took place a few miles from my house. I had no idea.


A short stop at a local state park provided glimpses of Northern Mockingbird (a critter I had no idea could be found so far north along the coast) and Least Sandpipers along the beach. I was hoping for a seal but it was not to be had.

The remnants of shoreline fortifications were obvious.  During the World War II years, there was always the fear of coastal invasions.  Artillery was in place for defense. While the guns are long gone, the rails that allowed for an increase in the arc of fire are still in plain site. I suspect someone could think that they were giant fire pits, but……

By 11:00am, Nat and I were ready for what would turn out to be a highlight of the trip (I don’t believe in the concept of the highlight, I have highlights).

We went whaling.

Aw, shoot. That’s not right. Whale watching.  That’s what I meant.   No killing for meat and disguising it as scientific research. Nope.  Just shooting…with cameras.

The purpose of the watch was two-fold.  One, to give Nat the chance to see a whale up close (her fat slob husband doesn’t count) and two, for us to do some birding and score some birds we’ll likely never see in Michigan.  Even though we were 13 miles off shore, there are still birds to be had.  Seabirds, to be exact.

Basically, these birds spend most of their lives at sea. If they nest in the south Atlantic, for example, they migrate for the winter by moving north, not south.  Therefore, they are found frequenting our coastal waters during our summer (their winter).  It all sounds kind of odd, but it makes sense if you think about it.

The four hour run could not have been more pleasant. We’ve all heard the horror stories of tremendous waves, flying vomit and the groans of those that wished they had died. That was not the case here.  Imagine a walk across your family room floor or a grocery store parking lot.  It was that smooth.  How cool.

I won’t lie. The birding was hardly spectacular. One of the tricks to seabirding is to “chum” by dumping buckets of fish guts into the ocean behind the boat.  The birds will smell it from miles away with their tremendous olfactory sense and follow behind the boat offering great looks. No chumming here. It was a whale watch, not a bird watch.

That said, we scored numerous Wilson’s Storm Petrels. Not much bigger than a Robin, they would saunter past the boat but my camera (or its operator) struggled to secure a solid auto-focus. I take that back - definitely the camera's fault.

The one best shot I had of a Great Shearwater was exactly what I feared. It moved between the boat and the sun. With no clouds and the bright sun reflecting off the water, it was backlit, but I managed to save the image (I think….).

The odd bird of the trip was clearly the Chimney Swift. Thirteen miles out?  Wow!

All that said, the highlight of the trip had to have been 0050.  That is the official identity of a very particular humpback whale. Whale researchers are able to identify whales based on a patterns of spots on the underside of the fluke or other key features (like an injury).  With specific identities known, migration patterns and locations can be determined for the greater scientific good.

When the whale holds its breath during a dive, incredible amounts of carbon dioxide are generated. Since the air above the water is can be colder and less dense than the water the whale is in, upon exhalation, the water condenses and becomes a cloud of water vapor.  Sometimes, they blow before they reach the surface. Extra water is thrown into the mix.  Big blows can be seen at incredible distances.

This next picture was just plane lucky on my part.  It is a very unique part of the whale known as the blowhole.  It is basically the nostril found on other mammals (remember, whales are not fish) but it is located on the top of the whale’s noggin. 

Even more cool, the blowhole is not connected to the animal’s mouth.  Unlike you and me, for example, air and food never mix.  Food entering their mouth is channeled to the stomach via the esophagus but it never comes close to the lungs. By the same token, whales never get a giant case of the belchs because they don’t swallow air. Their internal plumbing is not connected like ours. 

Cetacean researchers (fancy speak for whale scientists) have moved forward with a new vocabulary.  In light of the recent presidential issues, they have made a motion to rename the blowhole the Trump-hole.  This is reflected in the fact that the whale expels hot air and mucous every time is surfaces from the deep, dark abyss. When it does, crowds of people stand around with the obligatory cheers, ooohs and aaaahs, but really have no idea about what they are cheering about.

With a vomit-free boat ride behind us, except for that little girl who was horribly embarrassed when she urped on herself, it was time to move along. Had she, however thrown up over board, we could have called it chumming and maybe seen more birds!  After a quick stop to secure needed things, we pressed on the Vermont-New Hampshire border.  It was sad to the ocean disappear in the rearview mirror. So much time along the coast and yet we hardly saw it.

Lodging was in the town of Lebanon, New Hampshire. Imagine our surprise when we found ourselves basically right next door to a brewery.  The Seven Barrel Brewery was a fine place.  The Shepard’s Pie was damned good and good beer made it better.  The Quechee Cream Ale, New Dublin Brown, Red #7, Champion Reserve IPA, Oatmeal Stout, and Quite Ryeit (#1616-1621) were all average. The Wicked Dark (#1622), however, was outstanding.  Dark (duh), caramelly (is that a word?), smooth with a touch of alcohol tones on the finish…mmmmm.  A “5” for sure. 

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