Monthly Archives: August 2014

The Nova Star Ferry to Nova Scotia

I love birding Nova Scotia, but it’s been a few years since I was last there. This year, with the rebirth of ferry service from Portland, I knew it was time; there were no more excuses.

I finally got a chance to make the voyage this week, with two primary agendas: explore the birding potential of the Nova Star (and scout for the potential of making this a new weekend tour), and visit with my friend Eric Mills for a little southern Nova Scotia birding.

Ever since we lost the Scotia Prince, I have been hoping for a bird-able boat that traverses the Gulf of Maine. The short-lived, high-speed catamaran that replaced the Scotia Prince was of little value – it had almost no outdoor space whatsoever, and it moved far too fast.  With the return of ferry service, and this time with a ship that moved at a more reasonable speed for birding, I was optimistic for a new pelagic birding platform.

I waited until August to take my trip, as the warmer late-summer waters host more pelagics now (especially birds that arrive from their sub-Antarctic breeding grounds). Furthermore, the high cost of a trip on the Nova Star would not permit me to take many journeys this year, unfortunately (and will clearly be the biggest hurdle in running a tour that utilizes this boat), so I had to choose my dates wisely.

Boarding at 8pm on Tuesday night for the 9pm departure, I settled into my spartan, but plenty comfortable, bunk.

Next, I walked every corner of the boat in search of the best location for my birding. There’s no access to the top deck, the bow, or anywhere close to it on the sides. The only forward-view was the piano bar with occupied tables, and less than a desirable view to the sides. Really, the only places to view are outside decks on the stern. Not expecting a big ol’ cruise ship to attract many following birds, I was concerned about the birding potential. Quite concerned (especially at this price).

Come morning, the viewing locations were the least of my concerns, however. We were socked in with fog, too thick to see a thing.

It wasn’t until we were about to enter Yarmouth Harbor that we finally exited the fog, but other than a single Northern Gannet, there would not be any seabirds for me this morning.


Entering the harbor, however, the sun was shining, gulls were busy with newly-arrived Herring trawlers, and the mudflats were lined with shorebirds.



After disembarking (and I must say, having the relatively few walk-ons wait until every car had offloaded was just stupid; I get why we couldn’t walk down the deck with traffic, but had we been allowed to go first, we all would have been clearing customs before the first cars were being offloaded, but I digress), I met Eric, who I had not seen in four years; it had been way too long.  After the usually greetings and pleasantries, we of course immediately began birding.

The first order of business was Yarmouth Harbor, where I was evaluating the birding potential of a vehicle-free tour. Good shorebird habitat, with decent numbers of Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers were close by, and we encountered perhaps the last two Laughing Gulls (rare but regular in Nova Scotia) from the fall-out of this species that was caused by Tropical Storm Arthur – the first addition to my Canada list on the trip. A couple of thickets and small parks hold potential for migrant landbirds.

Moving on, we drove up and down the Yarmouth Bar (Nelson’s Sparrow, Peregrine Falcon, more shorebirds) and north to Mavillette Beach Provincial Park (more Nelson’s Sparrows). After dipping on two Black Skimmers that had also been lingering post-Arthur, we met up with local birder Ronnie D’Entremont for a shorebird survey at Cook’s Beach on Pinkney’s Point. Well, the survey was easy! All of the birds were jam-packed into one gravel spit due to very high tides. The estimation, however, was not easy, but we came up with about 1500 Semipalmated Plovers (a very impressive count), joined by about 750 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 100 Least Sandpipers, 51 Short-billed Dowitchers, 20 White-rumped Sandpipers, 17 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 Killdeer, and 1 Ruddy Turnstone.

What was particularly cool about the roosting Semipalmated Plovers was that once we rotated to the side of them, we saw how carefully lined up they were in little, linear depressions in the cobble beach.

One last check of Yarmouth Harbor – OK, there are three lingering Laughing Gulls, apparently – and then it was beer o’clock and dinner time at Rudder’s brewpub.

On Thursday, the birding hotspot (to say the least) of Cape (Sable) Island was our destination, and it surpassed all expectations!  Jeannette and I birded here in late September during our first visit to the province beyond Yarmouth 8 years ago, but here in August shorebird season. it was in its full glory.  First, we twitched a vagrant American Avocet that had been present for about a week, finding it within seconds of pulling over.

While we missed peak shorebird density at Hawk Point by perhaps as much as an hour, one of the 4 pairs of American Oystercatchers in the entire province were visible, as were plenty of shorebirds, with a combined guesstimate of several thousand Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, with smaller numbers of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Least and White-rumped Sandpipers, along with handfuls of Ruddy Turnstones, “Eastern” Willets, and Sanderlings. Only one Whimbrel, however, and no Hudsonian Godwits.  I was still impressed – especially if we had missed the peak – and thoroughly enjoyed the waves of shorebirds streaming overhead and out of the bays, heading towards their high-tide roosts on the sandy barrier island of Cape Sable.

Next up was South Side Beach at Daniel’s Head. Wow. Simply, wow. We knew there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper here, and we knew a lot of shorebirds roost here at high tide, but we definitely did not know there would be this many birds!  The narrow strip of sand was coated with shorebirds – the best Eric has ever seen here, and we estimated around 10,000 total birds!  Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers led the way, followed by goodly numbers of White-rumped Sandpipers, 3 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 “Eastern” Willets, and 1 Short-billed Dowitcher.




Oh yeah, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper was there, too.

After lunch, we picked up another staked-out rarity in a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, as my Canada list grew nicely. Back at South Shore Beach, we found very few shorebirds – another birder saw two harriers flush them out, so Eric and I considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have hit the beach at prime time. While we were there chatting, small numbers of bird began to return as the tide just barely began to recede.

The weather forecast for the day had been a concern, leading us to expect rain on and off throughout the day. But we lucked out, as the rain stayed away until around 2pm, at which time we were already working our way back to Yarmouth, with a detour to Lower West Pubnico.

My short trip was coming to an end on Friday morning, but the most important part – professionally anyway – was about to begin. Eric and I said our goodbyes (after a quick check of the harbor once more), promising it won’t be nearly as long this time until we see each other again, and I boarded my vessel for the return trip.  Unfortunately, the view in the harbor, and for quite some distance offshore, looked familiar.

We departed at 10:00am ADT with nearly zero visibility.  A small hole in the fog just outside the harbor presented a Red Bat that circled the boat a few times before moving on.  It wasn’t for an hour and a half that the fog lifted enough to see much else, and a short-lived hole produced several Great Shearwaters and Northern Gannets: a frustrating tease as the fog closed back in.

We were in and out of dense fog for the next two hours, but whenever there was visibility, I was on deck, scanning the gentle (today!) seas. Great Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and two Atlantic Puffins were welcome, and then several Leach’s Storm-Petrels. I could only help but wonder what was out there as thick fog once again swallowed the boat, and I set off to find some lunch (the buffet was not very good, especially for a hefty $17…it felt like a mediocre college dining hall; breakfast was only marginally better).  Sitting at the window, doing my best to get the most out of my dollar, the fog started to clear, and views of Leach’s Storm-Petrels sent me scrambling for the deck at 1:10 EDT. I sat down again at 6:25 EDT.

When the fog cleared, the winds were light and the seas were fairly calm, and birds were everywhere. As it turned out, my scouting of birding locations worked out – the corners of Deck 9 provided a decent view from about 2:00 (using the bow of the boat as 12:00) on out. I couldn’t see what was crossing the bow, but I could pick birds up before and after. And, the height of boat gave me great visibility to see well away on either sides, where I spotted most of the action.

Nonetheless, I would not have guessed that the birding would have been this good!  Shrouded in fog, I was beginning to think my money had been wasted. By the time we arrived in Portland, I was thinking about how I could bring a group aboard and when I could afford to take the trip again (a rather large hurdle, especially for a tour).

I swept all of the expected tubenoses (4 shearwaters and 2 storm-petrels), with the count of Leach’s Storm-Petrels most impressive. While most phalaropes were too far to ID, there were plenty of Red Phalaropes to be seen. Four Fin Whales, 9 Mola Mola (including a patch of five in close proximity), a pod of wake-riding Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, and a breaching Blue Shark were among the non-avian highlights.  At nearly the mid-point of the crossing, well south of Mt. Desert Island, a wayward Yellow Warbler came aboard.

When all was said and done, I had one of the better pelagic birding trips that I’ve had in Maine (list not including near-shore stuff on either end, plus Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls of course):
173 Great Shearwaters
167 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels
131 Northern Gannets
105 unidentified phalaropes
55 (!!!) Leach’s Storm-Petrels
10 unidentified storm-petrels
10 Laughing Gulls
7 unidentified terns
3 Cory’s Shearwaters
2 Sooty Shearwaters
2 unidentified jaegers
2 Atlantic Puffins
2 unidentified passerines
1 Manx Shearwater
1 Common Tern
1 Ruddy Turnstone
1 Yellow Warbler

While the height of boat preclude great photography opportunities, I did alright with “documentation” shots of Leach’s Storm-Petrels as they flew around, bounded like sea-worthy nighthawks.


Great Shearwaters, however, were a little more cooperative.

Passing south of Matinicus Rock…


…and Monhegan Island!

So while the birding situation is not optimal, clearly the boat passes through some productive waters. I’m sure not every trip will hit this much activity (‘tis the nature of pelagic birding), but at least my concerns about the feasibility of birding (at least for a small group) from the Nova Star are alleviated. Fog and inclement weather will always be a concern; this is the Gulf of Maine after all.  As for a future weekend tour, I have a plan in mind. Let me give this some thought (and make some calls). But at the very least, suffice to say that birders traveling to and from Nova Scotia, or those just looking for a ride to sea, have another option now, albeit an exceptionally expensive one.

Birding By Schooner 2014!

There are no promises when you lead birding trips by sailboats, but the 2014 Birding By Schooner Aboard the Lewis R. French Tour once again delivered!  This is a very unique trip – not just unique in terms of the tours I lead, but unique for Maine, and as far as we know, everywhere else.

While last week found us plagued by beautiful weather – yup, plagued, we need wind! – great birding, great food, and good company were thoroughly enjoyed.  While our total trip list of 78 species of birds (plus 5 mammals: Harbor Porpoise, Harbor Seal, Gray Seal, Minke Whale, Red Squirrel, one amphibian: Red-backed Salamander, several dragonflies, and 6 species of butterflies) was below our average, we had a few real treats…one in particular.

The wind direction and intensity (or, as in this week, lack there of) dictates where we can and cannot go over the course of our 6 days at sea. Luckily, the first day found conditions acceptable for heading to our number one goal: Seal Island.  Departing Camden Harbor, we set sail directly to this remote seabird island.

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Perhaps our only true “schedule” of the week, our goal was to arrive at a very specific time, for a very specific bird. Captain Garth Wells adeptly navigated our way to arrive about 10 minutes before show time.

“Troppy,” the famous Red-billed Tropicbird that has called Seal Island and vicinity its home for the past 10 summers arrived right on queue. I first spotted it flying around the island in the distance.


Then, he made a sharp turn towards us…


…and proceeded to circle our boat several times at an increasingly close proximity…

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…Before turning away and heading back to the island, often escorted by Arctic Terns.


Oh yeah, there were several hundred Atlantic Puffins in the water too, and later, as we hosted the Seal Island biologist crew aboard for dinner and conversation, a Parasitic Jaeger.


As the sun set, fog rolled in, and by 10:30, we began to hear the cackles and chatters of Leach’s Storm-Petrels as they commuted to and from the island in the cover of darkness. Several of us awoke in the middle of the night to listen, and we were rewarded with a constant cacophony of this intriguing, and a bit disconcerting, sound. Since we have the luxury of anchoring off of Seal – weather permitting of course – we not only have a great success rate with Troppy, but we also have the rare opportunity to listen to the nocturnal chorus of this pelagic specialty.

Come sunrise…

Seal Island Sunrise,8-5-14

…we enjoyed countless puffins, Black Guillemots, and Arctic Terns, along with at least a dozen Great Cormorants from the local breeding colony, a couple of re-orienting migrant Yellow Warblers at dawn, and several singing Song and Savannah Sparrows.  Surprisingly, we tallied 9 species of shorebirds (plus Sanderling the day before): the locally-breeding Spotted Sandpipers, but also 40+ Semipalmated Sandpipers (plus another 50 unidentified peeps), 9 Ruddy Turnstones, 9 Short-billed Dowitchers,  3 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Semipalmated Plovers, 3 Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Least Sandpipers, and my first White-rumped Sandpiper of the fall (and a pretty good bird out here).  A single Red-winged Blackbird dropped in from high above, and we spotted another Parasitic Jaeger.

Shorebirds – a continued theme throughout the trip – were one of the benefits of conducting this tour two weeks later than usual. We also had high hopes for pelagic shearwaters, but our doldrums had set in. Little wind was present as we traveled from Seal to Matinicus Island, and therefore any shearwaters in the vicinity were likely sitting tight, conserving their energy. Two unidentified jaegers, 5 Red Phalaropes, and 28 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, along with several more Atlantic Puffins and a few Northern Gannets kept our interest however.

Arriving at Matinicus Rock…


…we saw plenty of puffins and more Arctic and Common Terns, but our late departure date cost us: Common Murres and Razorbills were nowhere to be found (don’t worry; we resume our usual third week of July itinerary next year!). But, we did have a treat with a single cooperative Manx Shearwater!

As we made a pass around Matinicus Rock, it was time to read the winds (or once again, the lack there of) and make a choice. We had hoped to turn towards Monhegan Island for birds (and the brewery!), but that would have been a very long, perhaps even uncomfortable slog. So instead, we turned inland, and set a course of Port Clyde.

We traveled through some relatively deep and open waters, but shearwaters were nowhere to be found. Another Parasitic Jaeger, 100+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, 21 Northern Gannets, 4 migrant Short-billed Dowitchers, a Minke Whale, and two Mola Molas were enjoyed, as were the numerous Harbor Porpoise that were constant companions throughout the tour, easily seen in the often glass-calm waters.

Rounding Metinic Green and passed Marshall Point Light, we dropped anchor in the quintessential mid-coast harbor of Port Clyde.  In the morning, we hopped ashore, and took a bird/plant/sightseeing walk to the lighthouse, slowly but steadily building our trip list. A Broad-winged Hawk being mobbed by a half-dozen or so American Robins was the avian highlight.


Once again, our goal was Monhegan, but once again, barely a puff of breeze was available. Even if we pushed our way out there with our yawl boat, we would have had a hard time making it back the next day – no wind was forecasted, and we only carry so much fuel!  We also have to plan one step in advance, and set ourselves up for where we needed to be the next day. Mutiny was considered, but the difficult decision to turn east was made.

Heading towards North Haven, another 16 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were added to the tally, but our chumming attempt in these inshore waters was expectedly futile (but we had to try as we had picked up bait in the morning.  Unfortunately, the deepest water that we were to pass through was traversed in the middle of a rather heavy thunderstorm, which we were not able to outrun sailing at a mere 3 knots (well, until the storm itself was upon us!).

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We entered the Fox Island Thoroughfare and dropped anchor in a little bay off of Amesbury Point on North Haven Island. Another delectable dinner was then served by Chef Scott – who is not your average schooner cook!


The storm clouds cleared by dusk…


…and we heard several shorebirds calling from up the bay, and two Snowy Egrets passed by overhead.  Therefore, we decided to mix things up a little with a pre-breakfast row to check things out.


I took the helm, and somehow guided us successfully to and from the boat.


I was just happy to not run into anything, but a nice mix of shorebirds included 8 Least and 2 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 2 Spotted Sandpipers, and one each of Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs.

A short sail (again, little wind) through the Thoroughfare yielded the first Bonaparte’s Gulls of the trip, some Common Loons, and plentiful Ospreys.  Dropping anchor off of the Calderwood Island Preserve, much of the boat hit the water, including our Captain.


Then, it was time to row ashore for one of everyone’s trip highlights: the lobster bake!  While things got cooking, I led a walk around the preserve, adding a few landbirds to the list. Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats were especially conspicuous, but I couldn’t help but wonder what migrants the extensive raspberry-gooseberry-juniper thickets that covered much of the island would hold…and rarities?


Storm clouds built up once again…


…But the lobster bake went off without a hitch…


…perhaps with the exception of Nihls, who bit off a little more than he could chew.


Returning to the boat, we adjusted our position for the night, and scoped a small rocky islet that as the tide rolled in, amassed 64 Bonaparte’s Gulls and several families of Common Terns – adults were commuting to and from the island with fish for their hungry fledglings.


It was clear and calm once again at sunrise (we joined the Mary Day at anchorage last night), but a Winter Wren serenaded us from the island. We rounded the southeast corner of North Haven Island, and headed for Islesboro.

The waters of Penobscot Bay are not overly birdy at this time of year – other than plentiful Black Guillemots, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, gulls (mostly Herring and Great Black-backed with smaller numbers of Laughing, Bonaparte’s, and scattered Ring-billed), Common Eiders, scattered Common Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, and so on. But as we passed various little islands, our triplist slowly grew with the likes of a migrant group of Tree Swallows, a single Barn Swallow, a hunting American Kestrel, and plenty of Harbor Seals. Ruddy Turnstones were also scattered about.

But once again, the day’s calm conditions gave way to building thunderstorms…

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…but we managed to make it to the shelter of Gilkey Harbor off Islesboro before things got too hairy today.

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And as it had for the last three days, the storms cleared for lovely sunsets…

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…more delectable food, and evening entertainment from the crew.


Several flight calls early in the night overhead suggested that the front had finally cleared, and fall migrants were once again on the move.


Another lovely morning greeted us on our final day aboard the French, but not before we raced ashore for one last birdwalk. This time, we checked out Warren Island State Park.

We added several species to our list in one single Paper Birch just off the pier (Brown Creeper, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Black-and-white Warbler) while a delightfully birdy stroll added Hermit Thrush and Gray Catbird, plus great views of a variety of other species as we also spent time looking at plants and discussing the ecology of the Maine islands once again (and ranting about invasive plants).

But alas, all good Birding By Schooner tours must come to an end, so sails were set and we headed for home.



Turkey Vultures over the Camden Hills and Chimney Swifts over the harbor were our final 77th and 78th species of the journey and we pulled into the dock. Goodbyes were said, belongings were gathered, and Captain Garth and I immediately began to plot for next year’s trip.

A special thanks go to Jenny and Garth Wells, and the crew of the Schooner Lewis R. French for making this special trip a reality, and as always, making it a resounding success.  I hope you will consider joining us next year.  For more information, check out The “Tours, Events, Workshops, and Programs” page of our website, or visit the the Lewis R. French

Here’s our birdlist of 79 species from this year’s tour, listed in order of appearance:
Canada Goose
House Sparrow
Herring Gull
American Crow
Rock Pigeon
Song Sparrow
Cedar Waxwing
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Great Blue Heron
Black Guillemot
Double-crested Cormorant
Common Eider
Ring-billed Gull
Laughing Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Gannet
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Atlantic Puffin
Arctic Tern
Common Tern
Savannah Sparrow
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Short-billed Dowitcher
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Semipalmated Plover
Yellow Warbler
Black-bellied Plover
White-rumped Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch
Bald Eagle
Mourning Dove
American Black Duck
Blue Jay
European Starling
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Yellowthroat
Gray Catbird
American Robin
Chipping Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-throated Green Warbler
Broad-winged Hawk
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Greater Yellowlegs
House Finch
Snowy Egret
Swainson’s Thrush
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Bonaparte’s Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Winter Wren
American Kestrel
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Brown Creeper
Northern Parula
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Hermit Thrush
Gray Catbird
Turkey Vulture
Chimney Swift

“Chebeague Birds” – quite possibly the greatest thing on the internet, ever.

After a friend posted this to Facebook yesterday, I have been sharing it all over the place. It is just so well done, so adorable, and quite educational. So, as I head offshore next week for my annual “Birding by Schooner” tour aboard the Lewis R. French, I leave you with this awesome video that simply needs to go viral. Enjoy.

“Chebeague Island School – Mrs Hoidal’s Kindergarten – 2nd Grade students made a movie about the birds they studied the last month. They have had so much fun and have learned so much and today shared with their parents this video and the birds and nests they made along with their research for the movie.”