My 7th (now annual) Birding By Schooner aboard the Lewis R. French tour got underway on Monday morning from Camden Harbor with sunny skies and a light breeze perfect for a little sailing. Black Guillemots, Common Eiders, and Laughing, Herring, and Great Black-backed Gulls escorted us out of the harbor, as Ospreys kept a close eye on the proceedings.
Out in the bay, Harbor Porpoise were soon spotted (they were very plentiful on this trip) and plenty of Harbor Seals. Merlin, Bonaparte’s Gulls, and Common Loons were quickly added to the list. Sailing towards the Fox Islands Thorofare, we picked up an unexpected inshore Great Cormorant, an immature hanging out with Double-cresteds on Scraggy Island. Burnt Cove Harbor on Swan’s Island was our destination for the evening.
In the morning, we took a walk onshore, birding and naturalizing our way to the lighthouse. A Red Crossbill flew over calling as we landed at the dock, my 132nd all time Birding-by-Schooner species! The walk sampled the common denizens of the Red Spruce-dominated Acadian habitat of the region, with numerous Black-throated Green Warblers and many others. A White-tailed Deer crossed our path, and we spent some time learning the local trees.
As we checked out the feeding station at this house, we couldn’t help but feel as if we were being watched…and we were! I remember being creeped out by this doll when we last landed here a few years ago.
Back on board, the fog had lifted, and we sailed through Blue Hill Bay, arriving at tiny Babson Island for the evening. Usually, the famous lobster bake is the finale of the trip, but this tour’s focus is having the chance to get out to Seal Island – far offshore and needing a narrow suite of conditions to make it possible (or, at least comfortable). Therefore, Captain Garth decided to mix things up a bit and take advantage of a pleasant evening and a lovely little beach. Much food was consumed. Several more Bald Eagles were noted.
Tobias, visiting us from Sweden, shares the story – and flavors – of Skane aquavit, while Dan shares stories of Garth as a young mate.
Once again, Garth nailed the window, and conditions were absolutely perfect for a trip out to Seal Island, part of the Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge. We passed between Stonington and Isle Au Haut, and cruised by Saddleback Ledge and into open water. I became more vigilant.
One of the reasons I most look forward to the annual trip is for the chance to visit Seal Island. Our goal is to head out there every year and spend a night anchored offshore. It’s a very unique and special opportunity, and of course a chance at some great birding. Not the least of which is the chance to see “Troppy,” the Red-billed Tropicbird that has come to the island for the past 10 summers (and 11th year in the area overall). But this year, my anticipation about a visit was stoked even more with a spate of other rarities recently, including a Royal Tern, a Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, and – two days prior to our departure, an inconceivable 1st Western Atlantic seaboard record of a Great Knot! A bird that breeds in Siberia and winters mostly in Southeast Asia and Australia, this is truly an incredible record. Needless to say, it was not on my annual list of Next 25 Birds for Maine! I was showing symptoms of rarity fever.
Also, needless to say, I couldn’t wait to get out there! But, at the mercy of the wind (or often, lack thereof), I had little say in whether or not we’d have a chance to look for it (although I really had zero expectations of it sticking around), Troppy, other rarities, or simply enjoy puffins, Common Murres, Razorbills, and calling Leach’s Storm-Petrels through the night.
With Seal Island on the horizon, we scanned the open waters, which we found to be unusually quiet. Commuting Common Terns and several Arctic Terns (who recently regained the crown of longest-distance migrants in the world: up to 55,000 miles a year!) began to appear, a sign that we were getting close. Under full sail (we often have to motor-sail to get this far out on a nice enough day), we spotted a lone Northern Gannet, and as we neared the island, numerous Atlantic Puffins became visible.
Juvenile Arctic Tern
We slowly plied the waters off the islands southwest side, enjoying close up puffins, practicing our tern identification, watching Great Cormorants, and keeping an eye out for…
Troppy! Just a few minutes ahead of schedule at 4:17pm, the famous Red-billed Tropicbird appeared. I was able to spot him as he was flying low, and dropped in for his usual (as long as it is sunny!) afternoon bath. Captain Garth and 1st mate/co-Captain Dan adeptly positioned the boat to slowly approach him on the water, without flushing him. We got incredibly close and cameras clicked away (my photos are a little distant as I decided to try for video this year when we were making our closest approach). Soon, he relocated to his more-usual bathing location closer to the island.
Success! And with happy birders and a Captain basking in his glory of once again perfectly timing our arrival to once again put us in perfect position for an enjoyable view, we sailed over to the Eastern Bight and dropped anchor for the evening. Besides our incredible success rate of seeing Troppy (5 out of 6 visits to Seal now, a great batting average), this tour also – again, conditions permitting – affords the unique opportunity to spend a night off of this incredible and remote island.
As per tradition, we invited the Seal Island crew of Puffin Project biologists aboard for dinner (thanks to the talents and perfect planning of our cook, Carla and her Mess Mate, Genevieve) and a visit, giving the crew and participants a chance to pepper them with all sorts of questions. We all kept an eye out for shorebirds passing or rounding the island, and Keenan and crew took the opportunity to survey the growing contingent of Laughing Gulls that have been congregating on the island. The sunset was particularly spectacular this evening as well.
But we weren’t done with the “unique experiences” yet! In addition to the remoteness of our anchorage, spending the night at Seal also gives us a chance to listen (and perhaps even see) Leach’s Storm-Petrels, vocalizing as they return to their nesting burrows under the cover of darkness.
While staying up a little later, or getting up a little earlier, would likely yield some calling birds, I don’t want to just hear them; I want to experience the cacophony to its fullest extent. Therefore, I suggest people wake up in the middle of the night for a listen. This year, I proposed waking up at 3:00am, and since several folks wanted to also see them, staying up through the twilight until sunrise.
As I stumbled to the deck at 3, I was pleasantly surprised to see seven people had joined me in the insanity. And, with a light fog rolling in (perfect!), the birds were calling a lot – and some giving their almost-sinister, cackling chatter very close to the boat. Five of us stayed up right through daybreak, and although we didn’t actual spot a Leach’s (although Dan glimpsed a shadow of what was undoubtedly one), we thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Adding to the mystique was the low fog, and the low, deep moans and groans of baying Gray Seals.
We were, however, anxiously anticipating the arrival of morning coffee and muffins!
A Savannah Sparrow briefly alighted on the boat before returning to the island, puffins and guillemots were abundant, and terns were busy, heading to and fro. We only saw one Razorbill on the water, and no Common Murres on this visit, and sorted through the handfuls of shorebirds that were around (migrants, mostly Semipalmated Sandpipers and a smattering of others, along with local and vocal family groups of Spotted Sandpipers).
The skies cleared after breakfast and with a light south-southwest wind, we decided to head out for a little offshore sailing. We passed along Seal, hoping for another visit from Troppy, but then turn around the north end of the island and tacked our way offshore. Dan, Garth, and the sailing fans were having fun, while the birding fans enjoyed the numerous commuting puffins. We also spotted a few good pelagics: led by a Cory’s Shearwater, my first ever from the windjammer, soon followed by a second sighting. A single Great Shearwater passed close by, shortly before encountering a more-distant raft of 36. There were painfully few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, but we did have a Minke Whale, and moments after I said we “could use a Manx Shearwater now” a Manx Shearwater passed by!
We had hopes of sailing around Matinicus Rock, but time and wind suggested it was time to head inshore. We rounded Wooden Ball Island, still under full sail, but then the wind ran out. Drifting mostly with the incoming tide, and soon into dense fog our progress was slow. But napping was in order, and this was the perfect opportunity.
We needed our yawl boat to push our way past Vinalhaven and into the Fox Island Thorofare where the fog finally lifted. Anchoring between the village on North Haven and a dock on Vinalhaven, our day came to a close. Unfortunately, we arrived too late in the day for an evening walk.
Look? We saw “the green flash” at sunset!
Tobias’s breakfast of champions.
It was a lovely, albeit humid and rapidly warming, morning, which began with a pair of vocal Merlins from the boat. Making up for lost time, we hopped to shore, and I lead a walk in the North Perry Creek Preserve on Vinalhaven. Northern Parula, Black-and-white Warbler, Ruby-throated Hummingbird, and many others were added to our triplist, but most birds were Black-capped Chickadees, Golden-crowned Kinglets, Black-throated Green Warblers, or Red-breasted Nuthatches. Twelve-spotted Skimmer (a dragonfly), Smooth Green Snake, Wood Frog, and a spiffy diurnal moth, the Virginia Ctenucha were also observed.
We extended our loop a bit, but our selected return trail turned out to be more rugged than expected, so we made it back just in time for lunch. After another scrumptious, and this time well-earned, meal, we pushed to the east, then set sail and turned north into East Penobscot Bay.
While the occasional Razorbill is regular in the bay, small groups are often found after storms, and at this time of year fathers leading flightless juveniles are regularly encountered. But earlier in the season, Garth had started noticing 30-40 regularly in a particular area, roughly between Eagle, Butter, and Bradbury Islands. Seeing them often enough, it was more than a random occurrence.
Needless to say, I was intrigued (and a little bit proud, I must say!), and since we only had one distant Razorbill out at Seal, it seemed like a good plan to check it out today. As we approached the area, I spotted one Razorbill in flight, then a group of 5 passed by. Black Guillemots were even more numerous than usual, and gulls (including several Bonaparte’s) were more common than elsewhere in the bay. But no rafts of Razorbills.
I kept scanning, but noticed Garth was looking a little disappointed. Then I asked Dan to check out what appeared to be a large raft of birds. I immediately thought Razorbills, but the group was so big, I doubted myself. It was way more than 30-40. Were they just eiders distorted by distance and heat shimmer, or were we about to see something really, really exceptional?
We’re going to go with the latter. But no, there were not 30-40 Razorbills anymore. There were now 252. And while there were a few fathers escorting kiddos, the majority of the group were adults. I need to do some research, but this is probably an unprecedented number for inshore waters, and perhaps even a summertime record for Maine? Regardless of the statistics, it was amazing, and as we simply drifted among them, many photographs were taken, and we were even able to hear many of them growling, and one of the juveniles piping.
I also spotted a spec in the distance, which I photographed for later analysis. Blowing it up on the computer, I can confirm the 134th species to be seen from the Lewis R. French during the Birding By Schooner Tour: Red-throated Loon (a rare but regular summertime lingerer that I have been expecting to spot at some point).
But, did I mention all the Razorbills!?
With another extraordinary experience under our belts, we pulled into Gilkey Harbor on Islesboro for the night.
Carla at work.
I was up early the final morning, hoping to add a few more singing birds from the mainland to what was a paltry total triplist. But once again, the dawn chorus was nearly non-existent, and for the first time, species such as Swainson’s Thrush and Winter Wren went undetected during our tour. Was it just because of our few-days-later-than-usual outing? Did the drought lower productivity and birds have already cleared out? Or, was it an early and successful breeding season and birds have already finished doing everything other than secretively undergo molt?
While we did have 1 or 2 fewer walks than usual, we had a better seabird tally than in most years. But no migrant swallows? And a low diversity of migrant shorebirds. So our total checklist was well below average, so I was working hard to pad the list: American Black Duck and Belted Kingfisher in the harbor, and as we slowly sailed back to Camden: Turkey Vulture and Red-tailed Hawk over the Camden Hills.
Of course, no one would have traded Troppy, three shearwaters, countless calling Leach’s Storm-Petrels, or an unprecedented aggregation of Razorbills for a few more total ticks!
As Ospreys called around us as we entered Camden Harbor – the same ones that announced our departure, and the trip came to a close, another successful, unique, and bird-tastic Birding By Schooner tour was in the books.
One of the first birds we saw was also the last, this Common Loon, apparently with a broken lower mandible, sneaking away from our docking boat.
Here’s our complete list from the trip:
- Canada Goose
- American Goldfinch
- Yellow Warbler
- Rock Pigeon
- European Starling
- Cedar Waxwing
- American Robin
- Song Sparrow
- Chimney Swift
- Double-crested Cormorant
- Herring Gull
- Great Black-backed Gull
- Black Guillemot
- Laughing Gull
- Common Loon
- Ring-billed Gull
- Bonaparte’s Gull
- GREAT CORMORANT
- Bald Eagle
- American Crow
- Mourning Dove
- RED CROSSBILL
- Red-breasted Nuthatch
- Purple Finch
- White-throated Sparrow
- Black-capped Chickadee
- Gray Catbird
- Dark-eyed Junco
- Yellow-rumped Warbler
- Black-throated Green Warbler
- Common Yellowthroat
- Savannah Sparrow
- Broad-winged Hawk
- Hermit Thrush
- Eastern Phoebe
- Great Blue Heron
- Spotted Sandpiper
- ARCTIC TERN
- Semipalmated Sandpiper
- Northern Gannet
- ATLANTIC PUFFIN
- RED-BILLED TROPICBIRD
- Greater Yellowlegs
- Semipalmated Plover
- Ruddy Turnstone
- LEACH’S STORM-PETREL
- CORY’S SHEARWATER
- Great Shearwater
- Wilson’s Storm-petrel
- MANX SHEARWATER
- Common Raven
- Blue Jay
- Downy Woodpecker
- Northern Parula
- Black-and-white Warbler
- Ruby-throated Hummingbird
- Northern Flicker
- Chipping Sparrow
- RED-THROATED LOON
- American Black Duck
- Belted Kingfisher
- Turkey Vulture
- Red-tailed Hawk
And the list of mammals, and a selection of other critters:
- Harbor Seal
- Harbor Porpoise
- Red Squirrel
- White-tailed Deer
- Orange Sulphur
- Gray Seal
- Minke Whale
- Wood Frog
- Twelve-spotted Skimmer
- Smooth Green Snake
- Virginia Ctenucha
- Great Spangled Fritillary
- Red Admiral
Since every year’s tour is so different, if you would like to look back on previous trips and their respective birdlists, please click on the links below. Furthermore, for more (and better!) photographs of the birds we see, check out the tours (2015 + 2013) that Jeannette was on!
Hope to see you aboard next year!