We were very excited to kick off a new partnership between Freeport Wild Bird Supply and Cap’n Fish Cruises with a half-day pelagic birding trip out of Boothbay Harbor on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 12th. We departed the wharf at 9:00am and returned at about 1:45pm.
Cap’n Fish’s Dominique Caverly joined me in narrating the tour, adding additional natural history information. Captain Tabor did an exceptional job keeping the boat as comfortable as possible, finding some interesting underwater topography, trying to position the boat to view birds in the best light, and catching up with those two jaegers! Ian Carlsen was our chummer extraordinaire, getting fulmars and Great Shearwaters within a few yards of the boat – while simultaneously keeping track of our eBird transects.
With a forecast for 2-3ft seas, we were not all that happy to find them more like 2-4 with the occasional 5-footer, but Captain Tabor did a great job in picking a track that maximized our time with comfortable following seas. There were a few bumps and splashes along the way, but so goes pelagic birding in the fall in the Gulf of Maine. We were just happy to successfully get offshore!
Heading into deeper waters of the Portland shipping channel about 20 miles offshore, we explored an area where the seafloor rises from 500 feet to 300, before dropping off again to over 600. What’s great about departing from Boothbay – and bodes well for future tours from here – is that we don’t have to travel too far to get to some good deep-water and interesting seabed topography.
Fall pelagics in the Gulf of Maine, especially in southern Maine, are a fickle beast, and can be really hit or miss. In fact, I have been out on whale watches in October that failed to record a single tubenose! But, having had a significant amount of success with Cap’n Fish’s whale watches during the fall, I was quite excited for the chance to head out on a dedicated bird-finding mission.
And it did take some work to find birds today. Even Northern Gannets and gulls were in very short supply. However, once we got to that aforementioned ledge, we had a lot of birds all around us.
But 3 Leach’s Storm-Petrels were anything but expected! Even one would have been a headliner, but today we had three – two of which were seen extraordinarily well for prolonged periods of time. I was hopefully for this species, but they are so hit-or-miss, I only included it on my “possible” list. And then I expected the sighting to be like our first – one zipping by and only seen by a few observers. Those second two, however: wow, just wow!
Any day with a jaeger is a good day in my book, and we had two good sightings of Pomarine Jaegers today, including one that was around us and reigning terror for a while. I called them both “Poms” in the field, but I looked forward to receiving photos to confirm their identify – no one should be above going to instant replay for jaegers! In fact, one early photo I received had me rethinking the first bird, but upon receiving a full set, the play was confirmed as called on the field.
Three Atlantic Puffins and 9 Northern Fulmars were more expected, but no less great to see. Unfortunately, the Razorbill was seen in flight by only a few. My tally of 91 Great Shearwaters is likely woefully conservative. When chumming, it became impossible to keep track of how many birds were circling us rather than just passing by for a look (and sniff!). And while this was indeed a birding-centric tour, we were disappointed to only encounter Harbor Seals and Harbor Porpoises during our travels; yes, this pelagic brakes for whales!
And finally, passerines are always exciting when encountered offshore, and always a challenge. I was a little surprised we didn’t encounter more as there had been a massive flight overnight, but the lack of a westerly component kept those birds from drifting offshore. In fact, both birds we saw were heading southwest, likely “onward” migration rather than compensating for overnight drift. One was relegated to “passerine species,” but photographs confirmed the other as a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Beginning and ending with Black Guillemots and Common Eiders in the harbor and returning to a lovely warm and calm afternoon in the sheltered town, we can unequivocally call the day’s outing a success…and yes, plans are already in the works for more trips together in 2021! Sat tuned!
Here is the annotated checklist from the day:
Common Eider: 23 beyond mouth of the bay; numerous in harbor.
Surf Scoter: 61
dark-winged scoter sp: 20
Pomarine Jaegers: at least 2 winter adults; possibly a third bird.
Razorbill: 1 fly-by spotted by Captain and a few participants.
Black Guillemot: x
ATLANTIC PUFFIN: 3
Ring-billed Gull: 2
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Common Loon: 15
LEACH’S STORM-PETRELS: 3. All photographed. First bird seen only by a few, second two birds seen insanely well and for prolonged periods of time.
Northern Fulmar: 9
Great Shearwater: 91 (very conservative count)
Northern Gannet: 30 (low)
Yellow-rumped Warbler: 1 (about 22 miles from land)
Passerine sp: 1 (probably a warbler but that’s as much as I can say)
Only marine mammals were Harbor Porpoises and Harbor Seals.
It sure felt good to have a normal tour run, well, normally, in 2020! Other than the requirement of wearing masks all day – despite the annoyance of fogged glasses in the 100% humidity, and some logistical and safety changes at mealtimes, it was as close to normal as 2020 gets. And that felt good. The birding was great, too!
Most of Friday’s participants arrived with me on the early Hardy Boat out of New Harbor, and we sure hit the ground running! A strong flight the night before yielded tons of birds, and it was very birdy right off the bat. Yellow-rumped Warblers were still darting overhead and were in every bush. White-throated Sparrows virtually littered the ground in places. Small flocks of Purple Finches seemed to be everywhere.
A continuing juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (a very good bird out here) and a Dickcissel got us started, while in the afternoon we found two Lesser Black-backed Gulls (a juvenile and a really messy 2nd Cycle) and at dusk, a fly-by from a late Common Nighthawk. We ended up with 63 species on the day, which isn’t bad for arriving at 10:15, and likely there were many other species around; we just couldn’t see them through all of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows.
But before you ask, I’ll let you know: No, you will not find the gratuitous annual photo of Novelty Pizza in this blog this year. It was different, and it was terrible. I was sad. But the handpies for lunch at the Trailing Yew made up for it (but I repeatedly remembered to take the obligatory photo only after it was rapidly consumed in its entirety).
We awoke to very dense fog on Saturday morning, and with very light southerly winds overnight, only a very light migration had occurred. There was a decent amount of call notes overhead (mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers) at what was supposed to be the time of sunrise, but these birds could have just been moving around. Nonetheless, throughout the day we found plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows once again, along with ample number of Purple Finches and Red-breasted Nuthatches. It was birdy, but the diversity remained rather low.
By the afternoon, things had slowed down quite a bit, but we grew our triplist steadily with pockets of activity here and there. Two continuing Rusty Blackbirds put on a good show for us, as did an unusually cooperative Ovenbird. It’s always nice to see Indigo Buntings; we had two today. Although it seemed rather slow and lacking in diversity, our thoroughness accumulated 64 species by day’s end.
We awoke to more dense fog on Sunday morning, with no detectable migration overnight on a southwesterly flow. But sometimes slower days allow us a chance to be more thorough, and by covering a good amount of ground today, we caught up with – and discovered – several very good birds.
We began with coffee in hand as we marched down to the Ice Pond to catch up with the three continuing Yellow-crowned Night-Herons which we had someone missed each of the previous two days. The drake Wood Duck – very close now to full-spiffiness (technical term!) added to the joy. Then, after breakfast we had the thrilling discovery (OK, Tom discovered it; he deserves the credit) of a Yellow-breasted Chat. Glimpses were fleeting, and through fogged glasses, were not always satisfactory. We then found a Marsh Wren at Lobster Cove, and continued to slowly add birds to the list, such as an Eastern Towhee, a few more warbler species, and the fog finally lifted enough for us to see the water and nearby islands to sort out Great Cormorants from Double-cresteds.
On Monday, our last day of the group tour, we had significant turnover in participants from the weekend, but less turnover in birds. With another night with little to no nocturnal movement on persistent southerly winds and fog. Only a few Yellow-rumped Warblers were calling overhead at coffee pot o’clock, and it was very slow on our pre-breakfast walk. Northern Flickers were definitely moving around though, so it’s possible a few of these birds were new arrivals overnight.
Like all of Maine, Monhegan is desperate for rain, but of course we selfishly were hoping it would not fall on us! The forecast was looking good to get most of the day in, rain-free, but when we reconvened at 9:15, there was a steady light shower. It did not last long, however, and we continued on, unimpeded. Once again, we spent a lot of time sparrow-workshopping, as we regularly encountered fun mixed flocks all weekend of Song, White-throated, Savannah, and often one other species, be it Chipping, White-crowned, Swamp, or Lincoln’s. The side-by-side comparisons are very instructive, and as a guide, I tend to pivot to whatever the birds were offering, and this weekend, they were offering a chance to study, learn, and appreciate the diversity and beauty of sparrows.
We covered a fair amount of ground in the afternoon, checking in with two of the three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, the continuing Wood Duck and 2 Rusty Blackbirds, and some blooming Fringed Gentian. At least 6 Baltimore Orioles were still present (we had a high of 9+ on Friday), and we had some really good looks at Cape May Warblers and others. Partial clearing in the later afternoon was just enough to get our first view of town from Lighthouse Hill. A mere 56 species by day’s end showed the lack of overall diversity after three full nights with some birds leaving, but very little arriving.
With the last boat of the day at 4:30, the Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend officially came to a close. However, one of Monday’s participants stayed on for a day of private guiding, so Kate and I continued on for a full day of birding on Tuesday. But, like the weekend, we awoke to more fog and another night of little to no migration on SSE winds. There was, however, some more swirling of Yellow-rumped Warbles around dawn, coming to and from Manana. It was very suggestive of zugunruhe (migratory restlessness) after four days of being stuck on the island with unfavorable winds. Or, it could have been some birds had indeed arrived overnight.
The extensive southerly winds had finally started to pay dividends, however, with the delivery of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Dickcissel continued, and we had our best look at it since Friday. With only two of us, we covered grown more quickly and efficiently, so we tallied several species that the group had not seen together, such as the two ridiculously cooperative Soras at the Pumphouse. We also found an unusually-cooperative Mourning Warbler, which is always a treat in migration.
With a storm a’brewing, Kate and I departed together on the 3:15 Hardy Boat, and were treated to a Cory’s Shearwater and a Northern Fulmar that materialized out of the still-thick fog. Once a rarity in these waters, the Cory’s was rather late in departing, while the fulmar was on the early side of their arrival. I don’t recall having seen both species on a boat trip on the same day before, and any tubenose is “good” in these nearshore waters.
So that officially brought the 2020 Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend tour to a close; ending on a real high note. Below, I will include Tuesday in the list, but I have separated out the species count for the four-day weekend for comparison sake. Please let me know if I missed something (it’s easy to do as I sit down and try to recall the day as the bed is calling my name!), but our tally for now was a solid 92 species – just two species below our average for the past 10 years.
However, the 12 species of warblers were well below our 10-year average of 18 species for the weekend. But given the accelerated migration season (food supply shortages due to drought and/or benign weather allowing migration to proceed relatively unimpeded), this was expected. And we made up for it with more sparrows than usual, and an impressive irruption underway. This was the most Purple Finches and White-breasted Nuthatches I can recall on the island, and along with a goodly number of Red-breasted Nuthatches and the first few Pine Siskins of fall, our island sample reflected what we are seeing on the mainland, and throughout the East.