The first of two “Search for Troppy” charters to Seal Island took place on Saturday, June 26th. Departing Stonington at 1pm with the good folks of The Otter from Isle au Haut Boat Services, we would be in prime time for the appearance of Maine’s Red-billed Tropicbird that has called the Gulf of Maine home for the past 17 years. For this first trip of the year, I was joined by Marion Sprague, co-coordinator of the Maine Young Birder’s Club, as my co-leader.
Unfortunately, the weather was not looking good. Dense fog, a moderate southerly breeze, and a forecast for marginal seas made us think twice. At the very least, Captain Garrett gave the talk about seasickness and where to find those handy bags. However, we were also receiving real-time weather data from a lobster boat hauling traps near the island, and we were being assured “it’s not bad out here.” But we were skeptical – Maine fishermen are tough!
Keeping us in the shelter of Isle au Haut for as long as possible, Captain Garrett plotted his course. A Merlin offshore was a little surprise, but otherwise we struggled to pull much out of the dense fog beyond the “big 5:” Herring and Great Black-backed Gull, Common Eider, Black Guillemot, and Double-crested Cormorant. A smattering of Common Terns and several occupied Osprey nests was about it.
As we began the crossing of open water to Seal, we soon became pleasantly surprised by the conditions. It was still foggy, and we had about 20 minutes of fairly rough seas, but the overall wave height was nothing like it was forecast and the winds seemed to be dying. Things were looking up.
We glimpsed a couple of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and a Northern Gannet on the way out and took the time to ease up to an Atlantic Puffin loafing (probably too full to bother flying). We just didn’t want to take anything for granted. But that was about it, until Seal Island materialized from the fog.
As we approached the surprisingly-sheltered shoreline of the island, puffins were everywhere! Fewer birds rest on the rocks in the fog, and so hundreds of birds were loafing on the water. With near-flat conditions in the cove, we just floated up to resting rafts. We got close to a couple of Razorbills too, and sorted through Arctic and Common Terns. Arctic Terns were also especially confiding today, often passing right over the boat and making repeated close passes.
We enjoyed the show of the tern colony and slowly crept along the shoreline. Spotted Sandpipers sounded off and made short flights, Common Eiders ushered their chicks around, and Black Guillemots were all around.
We spotted one Common Murre on the rocks, and with the water much calmer than we expected, we were able to round the southern tip to check out the Great Cormorant colony – the last in Maine. Working our way back towards the cove, we scored a much better view of a Common Murre on the water.
It was one of the best puffin shows I have ever had out here, and with the engine turned off, we just floated up to them while listening to the songs of Savannah and Song Sparrows emanating from the island.
But as joyous as this was, the reality soon became clear: the star of the show was not home today. Troppy disappears for 2-5 day periods and this was one of those periods. We were in the right place, at the right time, and had a couple of hours to search and be patient. But this time, our patience was not rewarded.
It’s always bittersweet when you depart Seal Island without Troppy, but that’s how it goes out here sometime. At least we weren’t miserable while searching! And we saw every other denizen, and wow, that puffin show! If you can’t find joy in that, perhaps birding is not for you.
The fog remained dense on the way back, and only a couple of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels and two gannets were spotted. We searched around Saddleback Ledge and a few other outcroppings, turning up only the big 5 and a whole bunch of seals (a few Gray out at Seal Island, but almost all Harbor Seals on the way in). With following seas and diminishing winds, we made great time, and before we knew it, we were at the dock and trying to get our landlegs back.
My observations of note over the past eight days included the following:
1 immature male/ female pair of ORCHARD ORIOLES, Green Point WMA, 6/21 (with Jeannette). Clearly paired up but no breeding behaviors noted.
1 immature male ORCHARD ORIOLE, 1 Yellow-throated Vireo (probably my first here), and 1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Fort Foster, Kittery, 6/22.
141 immature Bonaparte’s Gulls, Fort Foster, 6/22. The largest number of Bonies in the summer that I have seen in the south coast in a number of years.
1 Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, Seapoint Beach, Kittery, 6/22.
1 continuing SNOWY OWL, 6/25: Observed (with clients from AZ) from the Colony Beach parking lot in Kennebunkport, looking across the river to a house behind Gooch’s Beach, Kennebunk (new location; photos above).
1 out of place male American Kestrel, atop a cell phone tower in downtown Biddeford from Palace Diner, 6/25 (with clients from AZ).
1 continuing proposed TRICOLORED HERON X SNOWY EGRET X LITTLE EGRET HYBRID, Pelreco Marsh, Scarborough Marsh, 6/25 (with clients from AZ).
One of the highlights for me this week, however, was non-bird: 20+ Gray Seals feeding very close to Fort Popham in Phippsburg on 6/20 (with client from CT). While Harbor Seals are frequent here in the summer, I don’t recall seeing so many Grays inshore in this or other nearby areas.
My observations of note over the past six days included the following:
1 3rd-cycle LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL, French Island Ledge, Casco Bay, 6/6 (with “Birds of Casco Bay” tour group). Photo below.
1 Roseate Tern, The Goslings, Harpswell, 6/6 (with “Birds of Casco Bay” tour group).
1 COMMON MURRE, 4 NORTHERN FULMARS, 5 RED-NECKED PHALAROPES (FOY), 103 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (FOY), 1 Great Shearwater (FOY), etc, Boothbay Mini-Pelagic with Cap’n Fish Whale Watch, 6/7. Full trip list and tour report here.
June is an untraditional month for southern Maine pelagics, but our Boothbay Harbor departures, and a fast, steady boat allow us access to some prime areas. Few people had this in mind however on Monday, when instead, most people were just excited to escape the stifling heat on land!
The seas had died down overnight, and the mere 2 foot swell was often barely noticeable. A cooling breeze over the 56-degree water made us welcome our layers, but not at all miss the sweltering mainland.
There are few guarantees in pelagic birding…well unless you visit a seabird island! So instead of just searching for needles in the offshore haystack, we first headed over to Eastern Egg Rock. We sifted through many hundreds of Common Terns until everyone got good looks at Roseate (20+) and Arctic (20+) Terns. 75-100 Atlantic Puffins, 100+ Black Guillemots, 500+ Laughing Gulls, Common Eiders, a Spotted Sandpiper, Double-crested Cormorants, Herring Gulls, and Great Black-backed Gulls were all observed from the comfort of our limited-capacity boat.
A passerine on our way to Eastern Egg Rock may have been an oriole (awaiting photos to review), but that was our only non-seabird of the day. Kelsey pointed out lighthouses, islands, and other landmarks as we motored from the harbor out past Monhegan Island.
We then traveled over 20 miles to waters over 500 feet deep, and a ledge where the bottom rose steeply to a depth of only 380. On the way out, it was quiet. Really, really quiet. Uh-oh, is this was June pelagic birding is like around here too?
But traveling over fairly flat, often sandy or muddy bottom is not a good sample, and as we hit the deeper water and some topography, we began to see our first tubenoses of the day: Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, which have just arrived from their sub-Antarctic breeding areas.
With Ian chumming, petrels began to come in closer, and the first of our Northern Fulmars arrived to check things out. While we worked the ledge, and then double-backed on our chum slick, the birds kept appearing and Captain Mike did a great job keeping birds in the best lighting possible.
Some of the highlights included the rather late fulmars and an unseasonable offshore Common Murre, but I think the real highlight was how well we saw just about everything! Even two of our Red-necked Phalaropes were close enough to age and sex (they were adult female), and Ian’s chum brought fulmars and storm-petrels in close. While we only had one Great Shearwater on this early date, it too made a close pass, affording good looks for everyone.
The total seabird count away from Eastern Egg Rock (see estimates from there above) was as follows (not including gulls and other nearshore species)
103 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels
13 Northern Gannets
10+ Arctic Terns (out of sight of Eastern Egg)
5 Unidentified phalaropes
5 RED-NECKED PHALAROPES
4 NORTHERN FULMARS
1 Great Shearwater
1 COMMON MURRE
It was not the diversity of later summer and fall, and certainly not the numbers (at least once we left the magic of Eastern Egg), but we had a nice selection of “good” birds, great looks at them, and we did all of this in less than four hours in offshore waters. The convenience of a Boothbay departure, the accessibility of some rich feeding areas without heading too far, the speed and comfort of the boat (especially the grilled cheese sandwiches), and more resulted in another rewarding trip and a sure sign of the potential of these tours.
In fact, our next trip in July (no chumming on this one, unfortunately) with a similar itinerary of starting at Eastern Egg Rock is filling up fast. We’re also now accepting reservations for our October outing, which, based on last year’s results, we are already looking forward too!
Hmm…how do I spin this one? Well, it could have been colder, and it could have been a lot wetter. The crossbills were pretty amazing, and it was fun to find that Purple Martin.
But yes, as far as Monhegan Spring Migration Weekends go, this was a pretty slow and cold one. In fact, the 77 total species and only 10 species of warblers were both record lows (in 10 years of doing these trips on the last weekend of May). But it is not spin to say a slow day of birding on Monhegan is better than a great day of birding most everywhere else.
The very early spring this year had rapidly advanced vegetation. On many of our Memorial Day weekends, apple trees – one of the most important bird-magnets out here – are not yet blooming. This year, they were just about finished. Meanwhile, the dry and benign weather of the past few weeks have allowed migrant birds to proceed unimpeded. They were either going right overhead or stopping on the island only briefly before continuing onward. No traffic jams of birds held up by unfavorable weather, no concentrations at few and isolated foodstuffs, and certainly no fallouts. Well, at least the abnormally dry conditions we have been experiencing began to break this weekend.
More importantly, while the above complaints made for slow birding, they really made for a great migration for birds who don’t want to get stuck on an island or other migrant trap. Instead, they got to where they needed to go and many seemed to get right to work in order to catch up with the advanced season.
When we arrived on Friday, we found relatively few birds as expected given the preceding week’s beautiful weather. We quickly caught up with the pair of Blue-winged Teal that have been hanging around and possibly breeding out here – a very good bird on offshore islands. I was also happy to finally see my first Tennessee Warblers of the spring. And while diversity was not overly high, it was really nice out and we enjoyed really good looks at a lot of what we encountered, including the aforementioned Tennessee Warblers, Blackburnian Warblers, and our daily dose of the confiding and stunning Scarlet Tanager that was lingering around the village’s south end.
I had really high hopes for Saturday morning. With very light southerly winds and partly cloudy skies at dusk (I enjoyed a Common Nighthawk and an American Woodcock while watching the sunset with a friend), the winds became very light southwesterly after dark. Then, around 2:00am, some light rain began to fall, and the winds shifted to the northeast. The hopes for a fallout kept me awake as I listened to those first showers in the early morning hours.
Upon sunrise, it soon became clear that my hopes and dreams had been dashed. There was minimal bird movement visible on the NEXRAD radar before the rain arrived. A large area of low pressure passing to our south, with the northern edge of rain moving much further north than forecast, suggested the possibility of fallout conditions. But were there even any birds on the move before the rain? Or, were they cut off to our south by the approaching storm? Or – as we have been surmising on the mainland as well – have they just mostly passed by already?.
Light rain continued for our pre-breakfast walk, and it was very slow. There was definitely not a fallout, and there did not seem to be many birds around at all. That Scarlet Tanager stole the show again though. Great looks at things like Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, American Redstart, and Northern Parula soon followed.
Rain slowly tapered off during the morning, and while cameras were mostly sealed away, it was more than birdable. We heard a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (my first of the year), a Virginia Rail, and even briefly saw the vociferous Sora that incessantly called from the marsh throughout the weekend. Then, just before lunch, we found a female Purple Martin. Unexpectedly late, and rare out here in general, this was a nice find, and when we relocated it at Swim Beach, we had some great views to make sure it was indeed a Purple Martin.
The afternoon was dry, but the birding remained slow. We did get a better view of the dapper male Blue-winged Teal, and spent some real quality time with the flock of 18 Red Crossbills that contained a single White-winged Crossbill. Many folks got one, if not two, life birds in this flock, and we saw them as well as one could ever hope.
With a light northeasterly wind overnight, little to no migration was detected on the radar Saturday night into Sunday morning, but it was not yet raining. It was a little birdier than the day before, but the pre-breakfast walk only yielded two new species for us: a fleeting glimpse of a Lincoln’s Sparrow and a fly-by American Black Duck. But the crossbills entertained us once again! Also, Smooth Green Snake and Redbelly Snake side-by-side.
A large area of low pressure was rapidly developing off the mid-Atlantic coast, and the rain was heading our way. So we were grateful for another dry – albeit chilly – morning. A couple of late Bobolinks and a Merlin were new for us, and we glimpsed a less-than-cooperative Short-billed Dowitcher that had arrived and played hard to get for the next couple of days. With so little shorebird habitat out here, most shorebirds are noteworthy, even species common on the mainland. According to Brett Ewald, this was only the 16th record for the island, and 10th for spring. In fact, this was my 218th species on Monhegan! Even on a slow day, you never know what might show up out here.
Light rain had arrived by the time we regrouped after lunch and the northeasterly wind was picking up. We called it quits as the rain picked up in earnest around 3:00pm, retiring to our respective rooms – or, mostly, heated common areas – and got some reading and relaxation time in.
Overnight rain ended just about as our pre-breakfast walk got underway on Monday, with only light showers and a little drizzle for the next couple of hours. Given the forecast, this was most definitely a win. We checked gull roosts and other sheltered harbor nooks, turning up only a Savannah Sparrow as a new addition to our list. The rest of the morning was spent enjoying some of the birds we have been seeing for the past days, like the Blue-winged Teal and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.
After the weekend tempest, those of us who survived were rewarded with calm, following seas for our ride back to New Harbor. It was foggy, but we had some great sightings on the easy ride back with single fly-by Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, and a feeding Bonaparte’s Gull. Adding these three excellent birds helped our paltry list to a total of 77 species. With a long-term average of about 95 species in four days, you can see that we really did have a weekend of low avian diversity.
So alas, the weekend came to a close. A few good birds, lots of great looks at regular birds, and a few lingering chills. But, as usual, we ate well. Perhaps too well. But hey, we were burning off calories thermoregulating! Hey it happens, and the regulars all know that there will be a “bad” weekend once in a while to make the “best” tours that much sweeter.
Since folks who have been reading several years of these trip reports, I figured I would include the gratuitous food porn photo as usual. However, without the Novelty open, there was no pizza. Besides, we like to class it up once in a while, in this case, at the Island Inn.
(* denotes seen from the ferry only. **Seen only by the leader outside of group time)