Well that sure was fun! What a day! All the superlatives.
Fall pelagics in the Gulf of Maine are few and far between, especially in October. With whale watches ending early to mid-month each year, opportunities to board vessels to look for seabirds become greatly limited. There’s so much to learn about what is out there at this time of year.
Furthermore, fall weather is temperamental, and planning for a day of deep-sea birding months in advance is a crapshoot. And even when the conditions are great, there are days where there just seems to be no life out there. I’ve certainly been on whale watches in October without a single non-gannet seabird. Those can be long days, especially in rough seas.
Monday was NOT one of those days. In fact, it was incredible. Following up on our success of last year’s trip on October 12, and several extremely productive whale watches over the years with our partners for this tour, Cap’n Fish’s Cruises, we had high hopes, but reasonable expectations. Because pelagics. In the Gulf of Maine. In October.
The first of our wishes had come true: the boat was going to run! Although there would be some swell offshore (and there was), there was no concern about getting far offshore today. The winds were light, the air was warm, and it was basically about the nicest day one could hope for in a normal October in Maine.
So that was a good start. But soon, it got even better. Shockingly so.
Just a few minutes out of the dock, a few folks spotted what they thought was a Red-throated Loon. I took a look, expecting the first Red-throated Loon of the season, but was shocked when I saw the puffy head and bright gray nape of what could only have been a Pacific Loon! In full breeding plumage!
What the what?
This stunning bird – rare but regular in Maine but extremely rare in such stunning breeding plumage – was with a Common Loon right off our bow. And we had not yet even left the harbor’s no-wake zone.
We were in the boat channel, and luckily, there was no traffic coming or going, so Captain Steve adeptly turned us around and we slowly worked our way closer to the loon, attempting to get the bird in the best light possible for photographs. And this was no easy feat – we were in a narrow channel and if there were any other boats coming or going, this maneuver might not have even been possible. But alas, luck was with us already, and many folks had a life bird, year-bird, or “life-plumage” before we even left the harbor. I for one was not ready for this…I was still organizing, and we were still plotting a course! And I clearly needed to finish that cup of coffee (words? What are words? And how do I use them again?)
Could this day get any better? Spoiler alert: it did.
The great thing about our partnership with Cap’n Fish’s is that we have a great, fast, comfortable boat that can cover a lot of ground when we need to. However, there’s something special about this area at this time of year that means we usually don’t have to. In fact, shortly after clearing Damariscove Island, we started picking up Northern Gannets and the first few scattered Great Shearwaters. There just wasn’t a long stretch of “worthless” ground to be transited before we start to see life. This was even more evident on the way back, as we were tallying seabirds until we were right up to the eastern side of Damariscove.
In between, we covered a fair amount of ground at a steady speed, setting two chum slicks over promising areas. Covering a couple of ledges and a long contour line where we have had great success in the past, there was rarely any lengths of time we didn’t have a pelagic species or two. We never went further than 20-25 miles offshore, mostly working an area near the Portland ship channel that has been productive for us in the past. At times we were in waters up to 500ft deep but were more interested in places where upwelling might occur – such as near ledges, ridges, or “holes.”
Unfortunately, birds were just not excited about the chum today, so we didn’t have a ton of birds close enough to touch. But, our captain did his best to get us close to the occasional raft of loafing Great Shearwaters for example. Northern Fulmars seemed to be “sniffing out” our offerings, but excitement never developed. Lots of great, close passes however, with others sitting on the water here and there. I was conservative in my count as I thought 4 birds were making a wide circle around us for a spell, but it’s possible there were a lot more individuals.
I now expect Atlantic Puffins off this boat at this time of year, but we did not expect to tally 32 of them (which seems quite low in hindsight). I was surprised to not see any Razorbills until we were almost back inshore, but then we had some good looks within site of the outer islands.
It took photo review to confirm the two jaegers (including one frustratingly distant one) as the expected species, Pomarine. But still, any day with a jaeger is a good day.
There was a good 2-4 foot swell offshore, but little chop. You could feel the roll though, and a few sharp turns were definitely noticed. It was just enough to limit how quickly we could stop on a dime and go back for a loafing bird, or change course to chase down a jaeger. But overall, it was a decidedly pleasant day on the water!
I think most people would have been satisfied if the only “good” bird was the Pacific Loon, but we had a challenger for best bird of the day. Now, the looks we had and the gorgeous plumage of the loon put it ahead for many, but from a rarely-encountered perspective – along with the fact that this is THE bird(s) we hope for on this trip – the excitement among participants reached its crescendo when I yelled the magic word: “SKUUUUUUUAAAAAAAAA!”
Just about 2/3rds of the way through the trip and about 20miles offshore, a dark, menacing terror of the ocean came roaring towards us and passed in front of the bow. It took a half-hearted swing at a Herring Gull before, unfortunately, continuing on. I spotted it as it was coming towards us at 11:00 (the bow of the boat is 12:00), but most folks got on it only as it came out of the sun glare by 1:00 or so. Therefore, most of our photos are of the bird heading away.
My initial reaction was Great Skua based on my impression of a reddish-tone to the upperparts in particular. I thought I saw a darker crown and I didn’t see a pale blaze on the face. Great Skua is a little more likely in this season, but we are still far from understanding the true ranges of it, and its southern Atlantic counterpart, the South Polar Skua, and especially differences in age classes (and their respective molt patterns).
However, after trying my best to give useful and enunciated directions to all the observers on board, I got back on the bird to study it only as it was going away. I was surprised by the cold, dark brown appearance it now had, as opposed to that first impression.
We threw out some chum to try and stir the pot, but it just kept going. We began a chase, but that did not last long – the skua smoked us!
The first photo I looked on the back of a camera seemed to confirm the reddish tone that would be indicative of Great Skua.
So that temporarily confirmed the call on the field, but as I made clear, I wanted to review as many photos as possible. And as I began to receive them, I could not get over how most of them showed a very dark, cold South Polar-like color impression.
The instant replay was now under review. Some skuas are straightforward, but this was not one of them, in large part because of the distance it passed and the lighting we were able to photograph it in. I have sent photos to several friends more fluent in skua than I, and I awaited their analysis. There are a few things that are just not computing for me, but I – like 99.9% of birders – just don’t have enough experience with skuas, especially in fall when many are a molting mess.
Unfortunately, a head-on or side shot might give us a definitive head pattern, but that is not apparently in existence. The lack of blond streaks on the back is a knock against Great, but some non-adults are really dark and minimally streaked at this season. And no photos show the nape, either.
So this is the best that we have to go on at the moment. I’ve included a series of photos here, and more can be found on eBird. I will update this blog as I receive more information and continue to study the incoming photos but I do believe at this time that this is a 1st-year South Polar Skua. That would explain the pattern of molt (similar to what an adult Great Skua should look like now) and those worn outer primaries that gave many folks – myself included – an impression of a paler, warmer brown. Also, those new coverts on the upperparts are so blackish – I can’t seem to find photos of Great Skuas suggesting that kind of deep, dark color. (I will add comments and commentary at the end of this entry as I receive them. I’ll also update the photo suite if I receive anything new and revelatory.)
Anyway, skuas are awesome, even if their identity is often in question – and realistically, cannot always be answered. But we had _a_ skua, any skua, and that is the apex of a fall pelagic trip, especially the further west and south you get.
So yeah, a Pacific Loon and a <insert identity> Skua! Lots of puffins, Great Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars (another target of the season), and so much more. And yes, we had a couple of Minke Whales, lots of Harbor Porpoise and Harbor Seals, several schools of Bluefin Tuna, and a really lovely pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins.
The following counts were adjusted to reflect total number of individuals (and not double-counting birds in and around the harbor while traveling to and fro) tallied in separate eBird transects kept by my trusty co-leader, chummer, and list-keeper, Ian Carlsen.
I’ve annotated the checklist with photos from Jeannette and others, as I received them. I’ll add more, especially if any pertinent to the skua ID discussion surface.
500+ Common Eiders
300+ Herring Gulls
173 Great Shearwaters
100+ Double-crested Cormorants
85+ Great Black-backed Gulls
94 Northern Gannets
32 ATLANTIC PUFFINS (high!)
31 Rock Pigeons (dock)
16 Common Loons
15 Black Guillemots
12 NORTHERN FULMARS
3 Bald Eagles
2 POMARINE JAEGERS
1 Surf Scoter
1 SOUTH POLAR SKUA (*see discussion above)
1 Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile)
1 PACIFIC LOON (no, seriously!)
Today was a good day!
Skua Identification feedback (coming soon):
From Michael O’Brien:
“It’s tough to see much detail on this bird, so hard to be 100% sure about it. Having said that, I think I would lean toward a first year South Polar. It has fresh inner primaries, which fits the molt pattern of an adult Great or first year South Polar. The outer primaries seem quite worn/faded, which is why I’m thinking it’s a first year bird with old juv outer primaries. In terms of color, it seems fairly cold toned, and in particular, what looks like fresh greater coverts seem dark and cold toned vs normally paler, warmer, and more mottled (and contrasting with darker secondaries) on a Great. So that’s my take on it, at the risk of reading too much into some distant photos! “
Overall, it was a great week of sparrow migration, with a nice high count on 10/8 from Wolfe’s Neck Center of 125 Song, 100 Savannah, 75 Swamp, 25 White-throated, 2 White-crowned, and 1 Lincoln’s.
Sabattus Pond season is underway as well! On 10/8, I had early-season tallies of 76 Ruddy Ducks (first of fall), 33 Lesser Scaup, 18 Greater Scaup (first of fall), 2 Ring-necked Ducks, 2 Red-breasted Mergansers (first of fall), etc.
“It was like the good ol’ days!” When every other bird you saw was a rare one, and you barely walked 10 steps before finding more birds. But this was not what we were expecting, and the weekend sure didn’t start out that way!
After a very rough boat ride, we were still putting ourselves back together when one birder said “Go back, there are no birds here.” Apparently, it had been a dreadfully slow week of little migration, but at least nice weather. This weekend, the weather wasn’t supposed to be very nice. So without many birds on the island, and quite a bit of rain on the way, were less enthused about arriving than usual…well, that might have had something to do with the boat ride.
And I am not sure if it helped that one of the first birds I looked at was a rare hybrid Herring X Great Black-backed Gull. I am not sure if anyone was ready to take in gull hybrids yet. Even more when we feared that this could be our best bird of the trip if the pattern held.
And sure enough, it was a very slow afternoon. But we did have good luck. We found a Sora that walked out into an open patch of mud, quickly caught up with the adult Lesser Black-backed Gull that has been hanging around, and after lunch immediately found the Least Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper at Lobster Cove that have been playing hard to get all week. There was also a good Northern Gannet show, which is always a treat. So at least we were seeing what was around, which sadly, really was not very much. But hey, it still hadn’t rained!
A period of rain, heavy at times, fell overnight, but the band was much narrower and less heavy than forecast. It did not rain all night, and it even appeared that a light flight of migrants had developed on the radar after midnight. And sure enough, come dawn, there was a light Morning Flight overhead. It was mostly Yellow-rumped and Blackpoll Warblers, but hey, there were new birds around! And once, again, it was not raining.
A fly-over Dickcissel or two, a calling Gray-cheeked Thrush, and more. Birds! Yay!
Then, after breakfast, I went to spread some seed in my favorite corner to attract some birds for the group to enjoy this morning. Turning the corner near the famous “Chat Bridge” a shockingly bright flash of the most intense yellow you can imagine. And blue wings, and a flash of white in the tail. Prothonotary Warbler I exclaimed to no one around.
I raced back towards the group meeting point and sent them on their way. Kristen Lindquist took off running. I eventually made it back with the rest of the group and we divided to conquer. Kristen and about half the group spotted it repeatedly, while it remained tantalizingly out of view from where I and others were standing.
As other birders converged, a classic “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” occurred. First, there were two Dickcissels, then I spotted a Yellow-breasted Chat making a short flight over the brush. While searching for that, Ilsa spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that would sit still, preening, for well over and hour. It might have been the most cooperative cuckoo ever on the island! Another group had a brief look at a Clay-colored Sparrow.
Unfortunately, the Prothonotary Warbler was never seen again.
It was already a pretty amazing day for one that we thought would be a wash-out. And it was still not raining. After our lunch break, we convened at the Monhegan House at 1:30, and spent the next hour and a half on its lawn, and going no where else.
One Dickcissel became two, and then four, and when the group finally took off together, we were shocked to confirm a genuine flock of 8 Dickcissels – exceptional, even for Monhegan. And there were not one, but two Clay-colored Sparrows! And other birds just kept arriving, as standing in one spot saw our list quickly grow: American Redstart, Brown Creeper, Warbling Vireo, etc, etc. One “Western” Palm Warbler became 4, a couple of Cape May Warblers paid us a visit, a Savannah Sparrow dropped in…
It was truly incredible! It felt like my first tours here 15 years ago. By now, a light shower was falling, but we didn’t seem to care. We finally pulled ourselves away as the action waned, wanting to see what the next hot corner would offer. After spotting at least 8 Baltimore Orioles along Pumphouse Road, the rain finally arrived in earnest by about 3:30pm. We called it quits, but considering the day we had, no complaints were to be heard. It was a really special day; one that will not soon be forgotten.
Rain fell overnight again, and come dawn on Sunday (Day 3), dense fog had rolled in. There were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers overhead, especially during a short respite from the fog, but there were not nearly as many birds around as the day before. But, with fog overnight, we expected birds who were on the island to stay, which was good, because yesterday was awesome and there were still a few birds we had not yet encountered.
We delayed the start of the after-breakfast walk to let a batch of heavier rain clear through. We were stuck in such an odd fall weather pattern, with virtually no west-east progression of weather systems. But we had been so lucky with the timing of the rainfall so far, that a little delay was of no concern. Regrouping at 10:00, light showers gave way to just some lingering drizzle by 11, and it soon became apparent that there were new birds around. We had two Prairie Warblers, a Scarlet Tanager joining the growing flock of Baltimore Orioles, and a Blue-winged Teal joined a Green-winged Teal in the marsh. Two Cliff Swallows and a Barn Swallow foraged over Manana, and we had our second Yellow-breasted Chat of the trip – this one in the Island Farm garden on Pumphouse Road. And another Clay-colored Sparrow?
Pockets of Yellow-rumped Warblers here and there often contained another warbler species or two, and we had good looks at stuff all morning, even often-challenging birds to see with a group like Lincoln’s Sparrows.
And after lunch, the sun was out! We had the Lesser Black-backed Gull again, more looks at Clay-colored Sparrows, and finally the immature male Blue Grosbeak showed up for us, and show it did!
It wasn’t as birdy once the sun was out, but a light raptor flight, including at least 6 Peregrine Falcons helped make up for it.
On Monday, our last day of the tour, it appeared that little moved overnight on a light southwesterly flow aloft. But that had our daydreams going for rarities from our west and southwest. And sure enough, while some of us were dallying over breakfast, a Western Kingbird that Kristen Lindquist found earlier flew right over us at the Yew and alighted nearby!
After breakfast, we “cleaned it up” for the group when we relocated it at the cemetery, affording great looks for all. A slower day finally gave us an opportunity to head into the deeper woods. And while we expected fewer birds in the island’s interior, a couple of mixed-species foraging flocks finally put Red-breasted Nuthatch on the list, and we found the first Pine Warbler of the weekend.
Jeannette joined us by lunchtime, and after lunch, we had a frustratingly brief glimpse of the original Yellow-breasted Chat, along with more great looks at Clay-colored Sparrows.
The tour came to a close with the 3:15 departure back to New Harbor, bringing our incredible four days together to the always-bittersweet end.
Jeannette and I birded the rest of the afternoon together, picking up a few things, like my first “Yellow” Palm Warblers of the weekend and a Solitary Sandpiper. Our walk to dinner yielded a second Pine Warbler, and at the harbor: a juvenile Ring-billed Gull (actually fairly rare out here in the early fall) and another view of the lingering Lesser Black-backed Gull.
On Tuesday, Jeannette and I enjoyed our day off on the island, and Kristen Lindquist joined us for most of the day. A diminishing light southwest wind overnight gave way to a little bit of northwesterly winds by dawn, but it didn’t appear that much had arrived on the island overnight.
However, we soon located a Lark Sparrow found yesterday by Bryan Pfeiffer, the immature male Blue Grosbeak paid us a visit, and we heard the Sora briefly. We then found an Orange-crowned Warbler out past the Ice Pond, my 20th warbler species of the weekend! Unfortunately, we were sans cameras with a little light rain falling.
After lunch, we were excited to find two Lark Sparrows sitting next to each other at the cul-de-sac, there were now two Ring-billed Gulls in the harbor, and yes, there were still at least 4 Clay-colored Sparrows and several Dickcissels around!
Just for a change of pace, we decided to walk the diffuse trail along the island’s southwestern end, but were soon distracted by something large in the water in the distance. Retrieving my scope, it was clear that it was indeed a dead whale, and eventually it floated close enough to identify it as a dead (and rather bloated) Minke Whale. A handful of gulls were around it, and briefly, a quick pass by a jaeger that was too far to claim the identity of. It was a fascinating, if not rather sad, end to our visit as by now it was time for Jeannette and I to head to the dock to return to the real world.
A much more pleasant boat ride back, this time to Port Clyde yielded a number of Common Loons and plenty of Northern Gannets, and a surprise of a small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. I’m not sure if I have seen this pelagic species from a Monhegan ferry before, or this close to land at all.
And finally, one last “good” bird: a pair of truant American Oystercatchers on Dry Ledges (off of Allen Island)! Interestingly, we had a pair on the same exact ledge on our way back from the island on October 5th of last year.
At least 8 Dickcissels, at least 4 Clay-colored Sparrows, 2 Lark Sparrows, and an Orange-crowned Warbler from the Midwest. A Western Kingbird from the West. A Prothonotary Warbler, 2 Yellow-breasted Chats, and a Blue Grosbeak from the South. 105 total species (102 with the tour) including 20 species of warblers. Yeah, that was a good trip – and the stuff that Monhegan legends are made of, at least sans fallout.
And finally, here is our birdlist from the extraordinary weekend:
9/24 = * denotes ferry ride only 9/27 = * with just Jeannette 9/28 = with Jeannette; *denotes ferry ride only
I don’t usually post my Sandy Point Morning Flight totals here, but today was more than worthy of a little something extra. After 8 nights with little or virtually migration (well, at least not a big flight on ideal winds), clearing skies and a light northwesterly breeze finally opened the floodgates. Here are the 1:00am reflectivity and velocity images, for example.
I am sure Monhegan – where I just spent 5 glorious days (despite the lack of a huge flight; more on that soon!) – was great, Sandy Point was just outstanding. In fact, it was my 3rd highest all-time flight!
Early on, clouds made everything into little black shapes as the intense flight proceeded at all levels. Wind, a cacophony of kinglets ringing in my ears, and the two loudest and most vociferous Tufted Titmice who just stayed screaming in the magic birch all conspired to further reduce my ability to identify birds. But mostly, waves of dozens at a time were simply clicked as “unidentified” as I tried to keep pace with quantifying the flight. Furthermore, there were at least 3-4 hunting Merling, a Cooper’s Hawk, and a Peregrine Falcon, which added to the swirling chaos. It was a challenge, that’s for sure. “I do this for fun?” I asked Matthew.
Here’s the scorecard from the Morning Flight of birds that passed over and through Sandy Point, Cousin’s Island, Yarmouth this am:
3 Swainson’s Thrushes – including two observed crossing.
3 Tufted Titmice
2 Scarlet Tanagers
2 unidentified vireos
2 Yellow Warblers
2 Red-breasted Nuthatches
2 Tennessee Warblers
2 American Goldfinches
1 Chestnut-sided Warbler
1 Pine Warbler
1 White-crowned Sparrow
1 Broad-winged Hawk
1 White-breasted Nuthatch
1 Hermit Thrush
1 unidentified Catharus
1 Red-bellied Woodpecker
X Common Yellowthroats
1 YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO – my 7th all-time here. Made 4 “false starts” before crossing at 10:04am.
For a grand total of 5,487 birds, my *3rd highest all-time count. So yes indeed, birds have very much been backed up.
Meanwhile, adding to the excitement (and chaos) this morning was a massive feeding frenzy of Double-crested Cormorants and gulls. While I am sure a few migrants snuck by overhead, I couldn’t help but take a few moments to enjoy it…and make sure there were no rarities among the gulls! 15-20 Laughing Gulls and 4 Bonaparte’s Gulls joined 75-100 Ring-billed Gulls in snatching the baitfish that the Double-crested Cormorants had pushed right up onto the sandbar as it slowly emerged from the tide. It was quite a show!
Similarly to last week, my birding time was woefully limited thanks to excuses including a trade show and a morning meeting. Therefore, my birding this week was mostly limited to our Saturday Morning Birdwalk and one great flight at Sandy Point.
Speaking of Sandy Point, I did not make it out for what was presumably a light flight on Monday morning, and of course a Clay-colored Sparrow – a long-overdue Patch Bird – was found. It wasn’t until Wednesday morning that I had a chance to look for it. While I didn’t find it, I did get a consolation prize. With a flock of about 400 Semipalmated Sandpipers in the cove on the north side of the point – the largest peep flock that I have seen here, I grabbed the scope. Among them was a single Sanderling, but also a single molting juvenile Dunlin – my 191st all-time species at Sandy Point!
There was a big movement of White-throated Sparrows this week however, augmenting productive feeder-watching. Granted, my extended period of afternoon feeder-watching on Monday was mostly limited to the entertainment of a constant dog-fight between a Sharp-shinned and Cooper’s Hawk for backyard supremacy
Now, let’s hope the forecast for the weekend is a little drier than currently called for! That being said, the pattern that we are in looks really good for southern vagrants (see photo above), and especially after 5 days of poor winds for migration, once this mess clears, the migration could be huge!
I didn’t get out birding much this week, other than at Sandy Point (see tallies here), and when I did, it was mostly just enjoying the local, regular passerine migrants.
In fact, my only observation of note was a good evening at the Walsh Preserve in Freeport on 9/14 with Jeannette, where a great late-season array of shorebirds included: 1 juv. LONG-BILLED DOWITCHER, 1 juv Dunlin (FOF), 76 Lesser Yellowlegs, etc,
Meanwhile, limiting most of my outings to local dog-walking patches and our two yards (home and the store), afforded the opportunity to enjoy lots of up-close migrants this week, including a Nashville Warbler that has been frequenting our dripper at home. Unfortunately, the LARK SPARROW that Will and Jeanne had here at the store on Monday, 9/13, has not returned.
Comparing my notes to last year, the first stages of the “super flight” of irruptives over the winter was already prevalent in these parts with many more Red-breasted Nuthatches and Purple Finches than normal, and the first Pine Siskins of the season. This year, Purple Finches have been in short supply so far, Pine Siskins have been virtually non-existent, and migrant Red-breasted Nuthatches have been limited (although it seems we had a good breeding season locally). Also at this time last year, a massive early flight of Dark-eyed Juncos and well-above normal numbers of White-throated Sparrows were around, likely signaling a low year of seed productivity. This year, those species are around in more seasonable numbers so far this season
In addition to the Sandy Point Morning Flight tallies posted to our store’s Facebook page – and elsewhere, my observations of note over the past seven – exceptionally productive and birdy – days also included the following:
3 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, Lubec Bar and Flats, 9/6 (with Allison Anholt, Cameron Cox, and Jeannette).
Pelagic from Eastport through Head Harbor Passage, New Brunswick, 9/7 (with Allison Anholt, Chris Bartlett, Cameron Cox, Beth Edmonds, Dan Nickerson, Andy Patterson, Erin Walter, and Jeannette): 1 Pomarine Jaeger, 9 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, 30-35 Common Murres, 210 Razorbills, 1 Great Shearwater, 3000 Bonaparte’s Gulls, etc.
Whale Watch from Eastport through Head Harbor Passage, New Brunswick, 8/7 (with Allison Anholt, Cameron Cox, Beth Edmonds, Dan Nickerson, Erin Walter, and Jeannette): 1 Pomarine Jaeger, 1 ARCTIC TERN, 7 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, similar number of alcids but perhaps even more Common Murres, etc.
1 Great Egret, Machias Causeway, 9/8.
1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull, Roque Bluffs State Park, 9/8 (with Jeannette).