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.
And then we waited. The conditions were prefect, and while the sun was not out, fog did not dampen our spirits, especially after last year’s first tour!
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.
We’ll try it again on July 10th (that trip is sold out, but email us to get on the waiting list), and hope that Troppy is in town that day!