The first of what I hope is many “Washington County in August” tours took place last week, and overall was a resounding success. While a dearth of seabirds and low shorebird numbers plagued us, we ended up with an impressive trip list of 107 species and quite a few highlights. Despite the lack of Helen’s Restaurant and its blueberry pie, we ate darn well too – which is a hallmark of all of my tours!
We assembled on Thursday (8/28) morning, and began our journey north and east. While the state’s first Crested Caracara failed to reappear, we poked around Central Maine, hitting a few interesting birding spots. But really, it was just something to do before we reached Washington County, which we did in the late afternoon.
While we had a full slate of birding activities planned for the coming days, one of the primary purposes/excuses for our visit was a charter out of Eastport to ply the waters of Passamaquoddy Bay and Head Harbor Passage. Seabirds have been few and far between this summer, and whales were late to arrive, perhaps due to the unusually cold water this season.
One lone tubenose – a single Great Shearwater – was shocking (hey, wasn’t this supposed to be a seabirds tour?), and only three Razorbills was much lower than expected.
A father Razorbill keeps an eye on his young chick.
An Atlantic Puffin was a pleasant surprise however, and 4 Atlantic White-sided Dolphins joined the show put on by the 4 Fin Whales (and later, two Minkes). There were plenty of Great Cormorants (26) and Bald Eagles (12) as well.
…including spiffy, fresh juveniles. We scanned the rocks for rarities…
But the stars of the show – and perhaps of the entire trip – were Bonaparte’s Gulls. We crudely guesstimated at least 10,000 individuals were present, and this spectacle is one of the primary excuses to offer this tour. While I failed to pull out a singe rarity from the masses (Little and Black-headed Gulls were seen the next day, and a Sabine’s Gull was seen a week prior) despite eye-straining effort, the show was still well worth the price of admission.
As the tide began to ebb, and the Old Sow whirlpool began to churn, the birds flocked in from their various roosts and began to feed in swirling clouds. Everywhere you looked there were thousands of “Bonies” in all directions. As our Captain adeptly and impressively navigated in and out of the Old Sow (and the little whirlpools around its edges which I learned are called “Piglets”), our heads were spinning nearly as much as the waters around us. No photos could do the scene justice, but here’s a couple of shots that at least (poorly) represent my favorite part of this tour (and what was listed as the highlight for most of the participants at the end of the trip).
After lunch and a little birding around Eastport (Surf and Black Scoters, along with some common shorebirds), I decided to run over to the Lubec flats for the evening. While my original itinerary for the day was not going to be this exhausting, I wanted to go for the Buff-breasted Sandpiper that had been seen earlier in the day. It’s just too charismatic of a bird to pass up, and with shorebird numbers also unusually low this season around here, I didn’t want to risk missing a “good one.”
An adult Hudsonian Godwit on the flats as the tide began to recede confirmed my decision to head here this evening; we did not see it the next day. Two unseasonable hen Northern Pintails were unexpected.
Of course, staying at the Machias Motor Inn not only provides wonderful backyard sunrises, but it also offers great birding – even from bed! A pair of omnipresent Bald Eagles, a smattering of shorebirds, Canada Geese, Ospreys, Double-crested Cormorants, American Black Ducks, and much more were observed before our birding day even begins.
With a decent migration overnight, we began the day with a walk down the multi-purpose trail through town where we found a pleasant variety of migrants. An Alder Flycatcher that burst into song was unexpected for the season, and the American Woodcock were flushed off the trail was as surprised to see us as we were to see it.
A couple of Boreal Chickadees and a Cape May Warbler were the highlights, but scattered mixed species foraging flocks of migrant warblers slowly built up our list. In case we didn’t get our fill from the boat, another 50 or so Black-legged Kittiwakes were in their usual spot off of the point.
A return visit to the Lubec Flats found even fewer shorebirds than the previous day, but we did get a second dose of the Buff-breasted Sandpiper. Today’s lower shorebirds tally was likely the result of the 1-2 Peregrine Falcons and the juvenile Northern Harrier that were patrolling the area.
Taking in the sights and people-watching of Pirate Fest in downtown Lubec, we foraged at the food vendors, and then made a big loop through the town and adjacent Mowry Beach Trail. Unfortunately, the time of day and an increasingly strong southerly wind reduced the fruitfulness of this jaunt. Monica’s Chocolates, however, never disappoints.
But that same wind resulted in a much more fruitful bout of seawatching off of West Quoddy Head. 125+ Black-legged Kittiwakes, two more Razorbills, and our first (shockingly) Northern Gannet of the trip were offshore. Enthusiasm grew when a juvenile dark-morph Parasitic Jaeger arrived on the scene, much to the chagrin of the kittiwakes.
About 30 minutes later, our excitement level tripled: 3 Parasitic Jaegers came tearing in towards some feeding kittiwakes and reigned down their jaeger-esque terror. The threesome (a dark morph juvenile – perhaps the same bird as earlier, a light-morph juvenile, and a light-morph subadult) made a few runs at several unfortunate kittiwakes before they flew off to the west in unison.
Personally, I never have enough time to see it all when I am Downeast, and like all good things, our tour had to come to an end. But, not until the day was done, so Sunday was not the time to put down your binoculars!
We began with a walk at the Boot Cove Preserve, one of my favorite trails in the area. Not that we really expect to see one at this season (but one could always hope!), no Spruce Grouse were detected, but it was about as good of a showing of Boreal Chickadees as I have enjoyed here. We spotted at least 7 different individuals; almost all of which were seen about as well as Boreal Chickadees are usually seen. A few mixed-species foraging flocks, mostly consisting of Black-throated Green and Yellow-rumped Warblers further enhanced our walk, as did the breathtaking scenery and fascinating plant life, such as carnivorous Pitcher Plants in the bog.
Two Wood Ducks along Rte 191 were our 100th species of the trip, and a short bout of seawatching at the end of Little Machias Road in Cutler yielded another Parasitic Jaeger.
White-rumped Sandpipers were finally added to the triplist (just 2, however) at Addison Marsh, but then it was time for a special culinary treat: Vazquez Mexican Take-out in Milbridge. You didn’t expect the best Mexican food in the state to be way out here, did you?
While I didn’t “need” seconds, I justified my gluttony with the need for “research” for future tours. Really, I did this for you.
To break up the trip home (or, simply to stall our re-entry into the real world), I took the Sebasticook Lake loop. While this year’s draw-down is yet to occur (and therefore the lake was shorebird-free), a pocket of migrants at one of the viewing points turned out to be incredibly productive for our triplist: a flock of Common Grackles, a Blackburnian Warbler, a Rose-breasted Grosbeak, and last but not least, our 107th and final trip bird: Baltimore Oriole.
And only then did it begin to rain in earnest. But, with great weather throughout the trip and nothing by highway ahead of us, we had no complaints as we chatted about the birds and memories of our trip.
The first year of any tour is always a learning process, and I have no doubts I’ll continue to refine and hone the itinerary for the coming years. While I can’t control the birds, I did think the low seabird and shorebird numbers were unusual here, so I look forward to our future tours – as if the whales, scenery, and 10,000 Bonaparte’s Gulls weren’t cause enough!
Keep an eye out for the next installment of the “Washington County in August” tour, likely in 2016. In the meantime, I hope you will consider joining us for one of our other exciting birding opportunities. Keep an eye on the “Tours, Events, Workshops, and Programs” page of our website for information about all of our journeys.
And here’s our complete trip list:
American Black Duck
Great Blue Heron
Great Black-backed Gull
CAPE MAY WARBLER
Black-throated Blue Warbler
Black-throated Green Warbler
Atlantic White-sided Dolphin
Reptiles and Amphibians:
(I am very grateful to Nancy Houlihan and Kristen Lindquist for sharing their photography from the trip).