Category Archives: Private Guiding and Tours

2023 Down East Adventures Birding Tours.

Freeport Wild Bird Supply is very excited to partner with Down East Magazine’s Down East Adventures for our third year. In 2023, we are expanding our offerings to include two exclusive overnight trips, along with our popular ½- and whole-day targeted workshops.  Focused on skill-builder rather than list-building, there will be plenty of “life birds,” but also more knowledge and education about birds, habitats, birding, and much more about the natural world.

The full list of upcoming tours can be found here.   At the conclusion of each tour, I’ll post the trip report here.

  • Winter Waterbirds Workshop, January 15.

Caption: This Purple Sandpiper was about as cooperative as it gets for us at Sohier Park in York.  Later, it was joined by its friends (photo below).  This is really a lovely shorebird when viewed as well and as close as we experienced.

Extremely strong winds and very high seas presented a challenge as we sought out wintering waterbirds along the southern York County Coast. We worked hard to find sheltered water where we could observe birds well, but when we did find that secluded cove, peninsula lee, or rivermouth, we were treated to incredible looks at many of the birds we had hoped for.

We looked down on Red-breasted Mergansers at Perkin’s Cove, and you’ll never be closer to a Common Loon than we were at the Ogunquit Rivermouth. We checked a few more locations than I usually need to on this tour, but our most productive spot was the southern shoreline of Sohier Park at The Nubble. There, we were treated to close views of Black and White-winged Scoters, Harlequin Ducks, and a most-cooperative flock of Purple Sandpipers.  We then ended the day at hidden Abbott’s Pond, where we enjoyed a break for the wind, close comparisons to study details between Mallards, American Black Ducks, and hybrids thereof. 

Meanwhile, a group of 8 or so Black-legged Kittiwakes were feeding off of Short Sands Beach, and a stunning adult Iceland Gull passed by at The Nubble. Unfortunately, the seas were just a little too rough to find any alcids today, but we knew they were out there!

  • Spring Migrant Songbirds Workshop, May 14.
  • Rangeley Birding Workshop, June 6-8.
  • Shorebirds Workshop, August 10.
  • Monhegan Birding Workshop, September 23-25.

And since these Down East Tours fill up fast, don’t forget we offer a wide range of other tours, as well as private guiding services.

Boothbay Mini-Pelagic Trip Report, 10/11/22

Northern Fulmar

Our third and final ½ Day Pelagic with our partners Cap’n Fish’s cruises out of Boothbay Harbor took place on a glorious fall day on Tuesday, October 11th.

OK, let’s get right down to business: it was NOT a South Polar Skua. This is not the first time a mea culpa was issued over a Stercorariidae. It won’t be the last. Certainly not my last, anyway.  But yeah, I got this one wrong, and I apologize.

We spotted a large, dark, and very heavy-looking skua/jaeger in flight parallel to the boat. Captain Nick did an exceptional job of staying with it, staying parallel to it, affording incredible views for an unusually long amount of time.  We were traveling at 18.2 knots, and the bird was slowly taking the lead. When it looked like it was thinking of landing, I had Nick angle slightly away so as not to make the bird concerned. It worked! It landed, we slowly worked our way up to it, and almost circled it before it took off.  High-fives were exchanged. Smiles reigned. We got a skua!  Big, barrel-chested, thick dark bill, and short tail. The very cold tones and extensive molt strongly suggested South Polar Skua. It would be a life bird for many.

I was convinced in the field, and I was convinced when I got off the boat. Everyone I talked to was convinced too. Other than a small feeling that the bill looked a little long, and the bird looked a little, well, not-menacing on the water, I had little doubt. But as I announce on all of my pelagics, all jaeger and skua identifications are provisional until I can review photographs.

The doubt -err, fear – began in the evening, as I looked over Jeannette’s shoulder as she began to sort photos. Starting with the skua, I wanted to make sure it was in fact a South Polar, and not a Great. That was my only real concern.  But then I saw her pics. I was observing through 8x binoculars, she was shooting at 400mm.  Details would likely emerge that I could not see in the field.  And I didn’t like those details.

That rear end did look a little tapered. The bill did seem a little thin. And wait, is that barring in the underwings? Uh-oh. Are we sure? What about the location of white within the outer primaries? Is it too narrow? And boy, it looks cuter on the water than I expected. And that bill does look two-toned and kinda long.

Photos were sent to a friend. The shadow of doubt cast over the room. He immediately said “Pomarine.”  But we discussed, and he left it off as “but I could buy this as a skua.” Another friend “That’s a skua.”  “I’m flip-flopping…maybe a hint of barring on the undertail and underwing coverts, but it looks so skua-like…the molt pattern is identical to one I saw a couple of weeks ago.”  Back and forth with these three friends continued. I posted to the Skuas and Jaegers of the World Facebook page; “Definitely a skua…” said the first commentor. Books and papers were referenced.

More photos were received.  And discussion continued.  Some photos showed what could be nearly impossible to argue was anything other than a South Polar Skua. I only wanted to look at these.

I mean, look at that short little tail!
And those dark underwings!

Sheepishly – knowing how tired he must be after a long drive to and from in the same day, I asked my friend Bill Thompson to check his photos. He jumped right on it, and sent this.

Well, crap.

Is that the beginning of the long, round-tipped central tail feathers of a Pomarine Jaeger? They’re so broad. And the rest of the tail is a worn, ratty disaster. That would explain why it looked so short-tailed in the field. But that bill looks short, stout, and all-dark.

I asked for an underwing shot.

Yeah, that looks barred. But still, that bird was a massive keg.

These photos were entered into the various discussions, and uncertainty ruled as I finally passed out from boat and skua-induced exhaustion.

I awoke – stalled in turning my phone on – and what little glimmer of hope was crushed when I opened some emails from Tony Carapella that clearly showed a Pomarine Jaeger. I mean clearly, unequivocally, without a doubt.

“And upon further review, the call on the field is overturned. After the play, personal foul, unnecessary roughness on the trip leader’s self esteem. 15 yards…”

Sorry, folks, I got this one wrong.

But, hey, the rest of the trip was decent, too, even if we scratched the headliner off the top. Right? Please tell me it’s all OK?

Of course, this wasn’t the only quandary on the day either. Late in the trip, three jaegers gave us the slip. I am hoping someone got some distant photos that might yield a hint, but for now, they will go unidentified.  There were also two larger dolphins within a small group of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins.  Kelsey and I are still trying to figure things out. Stay tuned. They were not skuas, either, however.

Several Northern Fulmars included one that eventually gave fantastic views. We had a few Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Captain Nick did an amazing job getting us a close look at the first one that was loafing on the water. We also had an American Pipit fly-by, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler land in the cabin and rest for a while before departing.  

And it was an absolutely, insanely gorgeous day. The water had only a slight ripple, there was virtually no swell, and it was warm with plenty of sun (but just enough high clouds to reduce the glare). There could not be a better day to head into deep water in the Gulf of Maine.

In fact, the unreasonably benign conditions allowed us to motor even further offshore than usual to explore a new area. After finding two of our favorite spots a little, well, low on birds, we headed out about 28 miles to an area we found on the map known as “Mistaken Ground” where the bottom plunged to a depth of 918 feet.  I accept the name as a warning that maybe this would not be a good decision. But alas, it was where most of our action was. I could have spent all day here.

Northern Gannets

While the chum slick failed to work, perhaps because it wasn’t windy enough to waft the odor towards hungry birds, and there were long stretches with virtually no life in sight, overall, we had a solid list for merely 4.5 hours offshore.  The proximity to deep water and interesting underwater topography afforded by starting from Boothbay Harbor allows us to run these trips in a shorter timeframe, especially for those learning to get their sea legs. And today was definitely a day for building up one’s oceanic confidence. Confidence in skua identification, however, well, that is another story. Apparently, my “mistaken ground” was thinking I could identify these birds before studying photos on the computer! 

Here’s the annotated trip list:

  • 8 Canada Geese
  • 970 Common Eider
  • 113 Surf Scoter
  • 12 White-winged Scoters
  • 24 Rock Pigeon
  • 1 POMARINE JAEGER (see treatise above)
  • 1 PARASITIC JAEGER (one of the three distant birds that turned out to be identifiable from photos)
  • 2 Unidentified jaegers
  • 1 COMMON MURRE (spotted in outer harbor by a few observers)
  • 1 Razorbill (confirmed from jaeger photo bomb)
  • 9 Black Guillemots
  • 7 Black-legged Kittiwakes
  • 2 Bonaparte’s Gulls
  • 145 Herring Gulls
  • 1 Lesser Black-backed Gull
With Great Black-backed Gull (right)
  • 51 Great Black-backed Gulls
  • 3 NORTHERN FULMAR
With Great Black-backed Gulls
  • 1 Red-throated Loon
  • 15 Common Loons
  • 242 Northern Gannets
  • 75 Double-crested Cormorants
  • 2 Great Blue Herons
  • 2 Bald Eagles
  • 1 Merlin
  • 8 American Crows
  • 1 American Pipit
  • 1 Yellow-rumped Warbler
  • 1 Unidentified passerine.

Mammals:

  • 1 Minke Whale
  • 1 small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins
  • 2 unidentified larger dolphins (still working on ID possibilities but we have no conclusive photos yet)
  • 2 Gray Seals
  • # Harbor Porpoise
  • # Harbor Seals

Insects:

  • 1 Monarch

Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend, Sept 2022.

This Cape May Warbler was one of many birds that escaped the strong winds by finding large flies eating rotting apples that littered the ground all over the island.

I arrived on the island on Thursday (9/22). Be happy that the tour didn’t start this day. It rained. A Lot. However, I was greeted by 6 Lesser Black-backed Gulls on Smuttynose Island upon my arrival: 5 adults and 1 juvenile.  It turned out to be one of the highest counts ever on the island. That would also turn out to be my birding highlight of the day, as a short jaunt in the afternoon only yielded one species that I would not end up seeing with the group: a juvenile Ring-billed Gull, which is actually a very uncommon bird out here.

The sunset, however, was worth the trip, and the clearing skies foretold some good birding to come.

Overnight, a moderate migration on clearing skies brought many new birds to the island. The group met at 9:00, and we picked up the rest of the day’s participants as their ferry arrived. It was very windy today, but all day long, whenever we found a pocket of shelter, we found birds. It was mostly Yellow-rumped and Blackpoll Warblers, as expected for the date, but there was a decent smattering of diversity. 

Between the winds and the raptors, birds were keeping low though! But speaking of raptors – wow, the falcon show!  It was incredible. There is absolutely no way of knowing how many Peregrine Falcons and Merlins we saw today, with birds whipping by overhead. Some were hunting, and likely circling the island to do so, but it’s also possible that there was a steady flow of birds moving south, only pausing to wink at the island. It was impossible to quantify, but it was a whole lot of fun to watch!

Merlin.
Immature Peregrine Falcon
Northern Flickers had to stay low and out of sight to survive the day.

We enjoyed quality time with Cedar Waxwings, Monarch butterflies, and enjoyed some gorgeous Question Mark butterflies as well.  White-crowned Sparrows were rather conspicuous, and we had a good lesson in duck identification with Mallards, an American Black Duck, and a hybrid thereof all side-by-side.

Black-throated Green Warbler on post-cider-making apple mash.

Wind was whipping all night long and continued to gust well over 20mph as of sunrise. With a high-pressure system building in, and powerful Hurricane Fiona passing well to our east, the wind would just not let up. Several ferries were cancelled, and if you happened to be in the room that a screen door was slamming up against all night (ahem), then maybe you were not as rested as you would have liked.

The Gray NEXRAD radar was down, but the Caribou station showed a moderate flight of birds overnight with marginally lighter winds over the mainland. A light morning flight – mostly strong-flying Blackpoll Warblers – didn’t portend a lot of birds had arrived, but pockets of White-throated Sparrows and Yellow-rumped Warblers in places where they weren’t yesterday suggested otherwise.  In fact, there were a bunch of birds around, and it was a very productive morning!

We visited with two cooperative Dickcissels that have been around for days, caught up with the lingering Lark Sparrow, and were among the lucky ones who caught up with an early Orange-crowned Warbler.   All before lunch.

Dickcissels.
Lark Sparrow

And while the wind continued to gust, and uncountable falcons continued to wreak havoc, anytime we found a corner of shelter, we found birds – and often lots of them!  White-throated Sparrows littered the woods, and because of the wind, many birds were insanely easy to see.

One of the highlights were warblers on the ground – hatches of large flies were feasting on rotting apples below laden trees, and with no flying insects able to survive a foot into the air today, we spent a lot of time looking DOWN at warblers.

Blackpoll Warblers
Cape May Warbler.
We also made it over to the cliffs to see what may have been in the island’s lee.
Female Green-winged Teal
Scarlet Tanager
We saved this Gartner Snake from a cat’s mouth on our way to not seeing a Red-headed Woodpecker that was playing hard to get for us.

Finally, as dusk fell, the winds subsided. Unfortunately, by early nightfall, the winds were already a little more westerly than we would have liked. Come Sunday morning, a surprisingly light morning flight, dominated by Yellow-rumped Warblers almost exclusively, reflected the lack of the northerly component overnight.  Birds seemed to be in lower quantities overall – a lot of Blackpoll Warblers had apparently departed – and with calm conditions (so, so welcome), there were fewer concentrations of birds. 

Throughout the day, it was relatively slow by Monhegan standards, but we just kept adding new species to the triplist, and basking in repeated stellar views. The two Dickcissels were in their usual place throughout the day, a juvenile Lesser Black-backed Gull continued, and later in the morning we found a Marsh Wren – very uncommon out here.

Marsh Wren

In the afternoon, we had a splendid sparrow session. We had our longest looks yet at the Lark Sparrow, but after a report of one Clay-colored Sparrow at the same spot, we arrived to find three!  A Lincoln’s Sparrow even came out into the open to join the Song, Chipping, White-throated, White-crowned, and Savannah Sparrows, making for an impressive total of 7 species of sparrows from one spot!  Of course, the comparative experience makes all the difference in learning these species – as most look so very different from each other. Well, most of them did, anyway!  A solid 76 species were tallied by day’s end.

Clay-colored Sparrow with juvenile Chipping Sparrow
Lark Sparrow
Blackpoll Warbler.

The last day of the tour was Monday the 26th, and our time was winding down. So were the number of non-Yellow-rumped Warblers. Some light showers overnight may have put a few birds down, but winds were southwesterly thereafter, and the Caribou radar (the Gray station was still down) showed little movement.  The morning flight was therefore virtually non-existent.

We found an Indigo Bunting, and later, an Alder Flycatcher confused and disoriented, stuck in the ice cutting display building of the Monhegan Museum.  Three Clay-colored Sparrows were still present; we had good looks at two of them at the school and had another session comparing them to the variety of ages of Chipping Sparrows they were cajoling around with. The Lark Sparrow also performed nicely for us again.

Alder Flycatcher in the museum’s ice-cutting shed. It eventually figured out the lighting and got itself out.
Clay-colored Sparrow
Two of the three Clay-colored Sparrows, here, with a Chipping Sparrow in the middle.

It felt very slow, especially in the afternoon, when we took time to enjoy Fringed Gentian and repeatedly “dip” on a Red-headed Woodpecker that most everyone except us had eventually seen. Yet interestingly, we kept finding new species for our day’s list, and by the time the tour ended in time to catch the 4:30 ferry to Port Clyde, we had accumulated our highest species total of the weekend – a goodly 81.

The apparent abundance of some species – such as White-breasted Nuthatch, which we conservatively estimated included the presence of 4-6 pairs despite apparent omnipresence and Blackpoll Warblers on the ground – continued to impress as well.

Blackpoll Warbler.

With today’s new additions along with Laughing Gulls on our ferry ride back, our total trip listed amounted to 95 species! So despite the strong winds that howled for the first two days of the tour, and unfavorable southerly winds for the last day and a half, our 95 species was exactly average for the 11 years we have run the trip on this same weekend. 16 species of warblers was a mere one species below average. Taking our challenging weather into consideration, I would absolutely call this a win! Plus, we were on Monhegan, so all is well, as an average day/weekend on Monhegan sure beats the same anywhere else – for so many reasons.

* denotes ferry ride only           

23-Sep  24-Sep  25-Sep  26-Sep

Canada Goose 8 18 19 8
Wood Duck 0 1 1 1
American Black Duck 2 2 1 1
Mallard 15 24 24 24
Mallard x American Black Duck Hybrid 1 1 1 1
Green-winged Teal 0 1 2 1
Common Eider x x x x
Ring-necked Pheasant 20 12 12 8
Mourning Dove 20 15 18 18
Ruby-throated Hummingbird 2 2 1 0
Semipalmated Plover 0 0 1 0
Killdeer 0 0 1 0
Solitary Sandpiper 1 1 1 0
Black Guillemot 2 6 2 6
Laughing Gull 0 0 0 2*
Herring Gull x x x x
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL 2 0 1 1
Great Black-backed Gull x x x x
Common Loon 0 0 0 1
Northern Gannet 10 10 8 20
Double-crested Cormorant x x x x
Great Cormorant 0 0 0 3
Northern Harrier 0 0 1 0
Osprey 4 4 2 2
Bald Eagle 1 0 1 2
Sharp-shinned Hawk 1 0 2 2
Belted Kingfisher 1 1 0 0
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker 1 12 10 20
Downy Woodpecker 2 2 2 2
Northern Flicker 30 40 20 30
American Kestrel 1 2 3 4
Merlin 8 15 10 10
Peregrine Falcon 10 10 5 5
Eastern Wood-Pewee 0 1 0 1
Alder Flycatcher 1 0 0 1
“Traill’s” Flycatcher 0 0 0 1
Least Flycatcher 1 1 0 0
Eastern Phoebe 6 4 4 6
Red-eyed Vireo 10 10 6 8
Blue Jay 8 6 18 12
American Crow 6 4 4 4
Common Raven 1 2 2 2
Black-capped Chickadee x x x x
Golden-crowned Kinglet 0 0 4 4
Ruby-crowned Kinglet 1 2 6 6
Cedar Waxwing 50 2 38 38
Red-breasted Nuthatch 15 10 6 10
White-breasted Nuthatch 4 6 4 4
Brown Creeper 0 0 1 1
House Wren 0 0 1 2
Carolina Wren 3 3 4 4
MARSH WREN 0 0 1 0
Gray Catbird 6 8 6 10
Brown Thrasher 1 0 0 0
European Starling 18 18 18 18
Veery 0 0 1 0
Swainson’s Thrush 1 6 3 4
American Robin 4 4 8 12
American Pipit 1 1 1 0
Purple Finch 14 8 4 4
LARK SPARROW 0 1 1 1
American Goldfinch 8 10 14 14
Chipping Sparrow 0 10 15 15
CLAY-COLORED SPARROW 0 0 3 3
Dark-eyed Junco 2 10 6 10
White-crowned Sparrow 2 4 8 8
White-throated Sparrow 26 150 50 50
Savannah Sparrow 1 4 3 4
Song Sparrow 20 30 20 20
Lincoln’s Sparrow 0 0 2 2
Swamp Sparrow 0 0 1 2
Baltimore Oriole 2 2 6 6
Red-winged Blackbird 0 1 1 1
Bobolink 0 0 1 0
Rusty Blackbird 0 0 6 0
Common Grackle 12 24 24 24
Black-and-white Warbler 1 1 0 0
Tennessee Warbler 0 15 3 3
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER 0 1 0 0
Nashville Warbler 0 4 1 1
American Redstart 0 2 0 2
Common Yellowthroat 8 10 4 10
Cape May Warbler 5 10 6 6
Northern Parula 1 7 4 2
Magnolia Warbler 2 0 0 0
Yellow Warbler 5 3 2 2
Chestnut-sided Warbler 0 0 0 1
Blackpoll Warbler 50 75 20 15
Palm Warbler 2 4 10 6
PINE WARBLER 0 2 0 0
Yellow-rumped Warbler 70 50 50 75
Black-throated Green Warbler 5 3 0 1
Scarlet Tanager 0 2 2 2
Northern Cardinal 6 8 8 10
Rose-breasted Grosbeak 0 0 1 3
Indigo Bunting 1 0 0 1
DICKCISSEL 2 2 1 1

Day Total 67 71 80 81
Warbler day total 10 14 9 12

4-Day Tour total= 95
Plus on my own before the tour =2 (Ring-billed Gull and Tree Swallow)
Total warblers = 16

Blackpoll Warblers were the “migrant of the weekend” with unforgettable views and quality time each day.

2022 Seal Island Trip Report (The “not-so-search for Troppy), 7/23.

After 17 consecutive summers in the Gulf of Maine, “Troppy” the Red-billed Tropicbird failed to return to Seal Island.  Arriving in 2005, but continuing annually throughout the summer since 2009 exclusively at Seal Island, Troppy had become a mainstay of summer birding in Maine – and our tour calendar!

Arriving as an adult, Troppy was therefore at least two years old when he was first sighted in 2005.  Since most sorces seem to reference “16-30 years” as a lifespan, a 19-year old “Troppy” would be getting a little long in the tooth, err, bill.  But, as I romanticized in my 2019 article for Birding magazine, we all hoped he would find the long lost love. Maybe he did. Maybe he’s making a trop-ling somewhere in the Caribbean where he “should be.”  Yeah, that’s what I’ll think.  We need more happy thoughts these days.

Wherever he might be, it was not Seal Island or any other Gulf of Maine seabird island this summer, and with his absence, tours to Seal Island were few and far between. Our first one cancelled, but we were able to run our July 23rd departure with our friends at Isle au Haut Boat Services thanks to a dedicated group of birders who know how special Seal Island is, with or without the famous rarity.

And Seal Island most did not disappoint!  Even without a tropicbird (or a Tufted Puffin for that matter, which of course we all hoped would make a reappearance).

First, the weather: it was unbelievable! Actually, it was downright hot, even offshore, and especially away from what little breeze there was when we were not motoring. Seas were a gentle 2-3 feet, with an occasional slightly larger but inconsequential swell.  Falling rapidly, it was incredibly smooth in the coves of the island, and on the way back where we enjoyed following seas for a very flat and fast ride.

Shortly after departing Stonington, we spotted our first Atlantic Puffin before we even cleared Isle au Haut.  A few more, scattered small numbers of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (I tallied 41 in all), and a few Razorbills punctuated our trip out.  Not much was happening around Saddleback Ledge though.

Of course, the show realty began upon arrival at Seal Island.  The heat sent the alcids into the water, so virtually all of the Atlantic Puffins that were present were in the coves and often allowing close approach and stellar photo ops.

We worked our way around the island, slowly improving our views of Razorbills (at least 6) and finally finding two Common Murres. 

Razorbill
It took a while, but we finally found a Common Murre – it was even the uncommon “Bridled” morph.

We motored around the south end, where the swell was just enough to prevent us from getting too close to the Great Cormorant colony – Maine’s last. But the nests brimming with growing chicks was still thoroughly enjoyed.

Off the northeast end, we cut the engine and drifted among the alcids.  Off the open waters came a flock of 12 Whimbrel which we heard first before they flew close by. Likely having tanked up on blueberries in a barren Down East or in the Maritimes, they didn’t seem to consider pausing on the island. Later, 8 more flew by even further offshore.

Laughing Gull

While the lack of shearwaters all day was disappointing, the one Great Shearwater that we saw came in for a close look at us!

A little group of Sanderlings flew by, a few peeps were along the shoreline, and we spotted several calling Spotted Sandpipers.

And don’t forget about all of the dapper little Black Guillemots!

And of course, there were the terns. Hundreds of Arctic and Common Terns were present, with a goodly number of juveniles learning the ropes. Arctic Terns were particularly conspicuous today, with many making close approaches of the boat or disregarding our presence to take a bath.

Arctic Terns
Juvenile Common Tern.

I both enjoyed and lamented the fact that I didn’t have Troppy to stress over. In fact, without needing to be in position and waiting for him, we took advantage of the gentle seas to not only circumnavigate the island, but also spend ample time drifting in sheltered coves, photographing alcids and searching for a big, black puffin with punk-rock hair.

The eastern side.

But we still had a time limit for our charter, so we decided to spend our last moments enjoying the action at the tern colony. That’s when a Peregrine Falcon arrived.  While this is a most unwelcome guest at a seabird colony and we were conflicted about seeing it, it was also impossible not to sit back and watch the show. 

It surprised the terns by coming up and over the backside of the island, scattering the entire colony. Upon identifying the intruder, all of the adults made a beeline and began diving, mobbing, and otherwise trying to drive the predator away. Watching one of the world’s greatest – and fastest – predators in action was a real special treat, but we were also not upset that it came away empty; we were rooting for the terns.

If that wasn’t a grand finale, I don’t know what is.  Well, maybe the Parasitic Jaeger on the way back!

About halfway between Seal and Saddleback Ledge, I first thought it was a Peregrine tearing in after a lone Common Tern. But when it became clear that it was a jaeger, I yelled for Captain Mike to “step on the breaks.”  We watched the dogfight for several minutes, and it was spectacular to see. It was just far enough away that we couldn’t tell if the tern gave up its fish, but it definitely didn’t do it willingly. 

Shortly thereafter we began to run into little rafts of Razorbills (a conservative tally of 36, plus 7 more between Saddleback Ledge and Stonington) and scattered Atlantic Puffins. We had quite a few more Wilson’s Storm-Petrels on the way back, and finally some Northern Gannets.

Wilson’s Storm-Petrel

We even had time to check some rocky islets for roosting shorebirds (none), loafing Harbor Seals (lots), and maybe spot something like a Great White Shark (nope; but the boat had one the very next day!).

Gray Seals and Harbor Seals. Note the “horse’s head” profile of the Grays, verses the puppy-like Harbors.

In other words: what a trip! And exactly why it’s well worth a tour to Seal Island regardless. That being said, I must admit, it was not quite the same without “Troppy.”  But as a guide, my stress level was a lot lower!  Having seen him 9 times out of 12 visits to Seal, I consider myself beyond fortunate. I’m also so happy to have shared his glory with so many other birders on all these tours. So, wherever you are, Troppy, I’ll continue to lead trips to Seal Island in your honor!

Looking back at “Troppy’s Cove”

Boothbay Mini-Pelagic with Cap’n Fish’s, June 6, 2022.

The first of our pelagic birding opportunities for the year took place on Monday, June 6th, as I joined the good folks from Cap’n Fish’s Cruises in Boothbay Harbor for a special ½ day mini-pelagic. 

We motored our way east to Eastern Egg Rock, looking at Common Eiders, Black Guillemots, Ospreys, and many other inshore denizens. Once we got to Eastern Egg Rock, however, the fun really started!  The cacophony of the colony was evident on this gloriously calm day, and it was not hard to find plenty of Atlantic Puffins in the water near the boat. 

We worked the masses of Common Terns to isolate a few great views of Roseate and Arctic Terns. The bright sunny day was a delight except for when trying to judge grayscale. That made tern identification a little more challenging, but we worked our way through it before departing the island for deeper waters. We had a good total of 7 Razorbills on and around the island, which is no guarantee on a visit here, and while we didn’t have the one Common Murre that has been lingering on the rock, we did have one fly-by later in the trip.

Bright sunlight made tern identification more challenging!
Razorbills
Black Guillemot
Common Tern
Roseate Terns

With seas barely 1-2 feet, just a puff of wind, and abundant sunshine, it was just a gorgeous day offshore. We cruised through a wide stretch of uneventful, flat bottom, but once we hit deeper waters, we began to see a number of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. There were a lot more at our first deeper hole, but then when we got to our primary destination, it was clear how abundant they were.

We laid down a 4-mile long chum slick, and then slowly cruised back through it.  With the calm seas, it held together perfectly, and boy did it work!  It was actually incredible.  Unfortunately, other than a few Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, it was 100% Wilson’s Storm-Petrels!

One of the ways to find other storm-petrels among masses is to look for the lack of obvious wing molt. This bird caught Jeannette’s eye because the wing is so clean and not showing any signs of flight feather molt. It’s a Wilson’s though, but could it possibly be another subspecies? Individual variation? Age?
Or, just something slightly different to look at?

But what a show they put on! Dan, Jeannette, and I did our best to estimate the abundance, as this was truly a special event. Our estimate of a trip total of 2,600 birds included an estimate of 2,000 in our chum line! 

We spotted the occasional Northern Gannet throughout the trip, but we desperately awaited another tubenose. Checking flight style, foot extension, wing bars, and underwing patterns, but yup, pretty darn homogenous.  As a leader, I tried to check every bird. But the sight was impressive, and I couldn’t help but utter superlatives and occasionally just sit back and enjoy the show. 

First-summer Northern Gannet.

We had to increase speed to make it back to the dock on time, but we continued to tally Wilson’s Storm-Petrels on the ride in. And Jeannette, Dan, and I worked hard to find something – anything! – else pelagic!  We don’t have a lot of data on what is out here in June, and it’s likely different every year depending on water temperature and breeding success and/or failure of these “winter” visitors from the sub-Antarctic waters. In fact, one some June whale watches I have been on, I haven’t had a single species of tubenose – let alone 2600 of them.

After last June’s adult Pacific Loon, I did have to have Captain Nick slam on the breaks when I spotted a decidedly gray-naped loon. When it surfaced, it was evident it was just a young Common Loon with an unusual amount of wear or bleaching on its head. It was worth a try though!

While our species list wasn’t legendary by any means, I’ve never seen this many Wilson’s Storm-Petrels in one, relatively short boat trip. In fact, this is by far the most I have ever seen together in Maine waters. Additionally, we had great looks at some of the Gulf of Maine’s most sought-after breeding seabirds to kick off the day at the birthplace of the Project Puffin.  And the weather, wow, the weather – what a day to be on the water!  And a great introduction to pelagic birding: the most exciting (and yes, at times frustrating) part of pelagic birding is every day, every trip, is so different, and it takes a lot of trips to appreciate the best of them.

We have two more trips planned with Cap’n Fish’s this summer. On July 15th, I’ll be joining the on-board naturalist for a visit to Eastern Egg Rock followed by a little birding-while-whale-watching. Then, on October 11th, it will be the second of our dedicated half-day pelagics, including chumming. Since we won’t have activity at Eastern Egg Rock at that time of year, all our time will be dedicated to finding birds offshore.  Information and registration for these two trips – and our summer tours to Seal Island as well – can be found on the Pelagics Page of our website.

Here is our complete trip list, from the time the horn blew as the boat pulled out of the dock until we returned to the slip. Our estimates at Eastern Egg Rock are very conservative, and likely dreadfully low. Offshore, we worked hard at estimating individual groups of storm-petrels and tallying exact numbers of other birds offshore. There were also likely many more eiders, guillemots, and cormorants on the outer islands, but our focus was on finding more seabirds!

2 Canada Geese

2 Mallards

180 Common Eider

30 Rock Pigeon

1 COMMON MURRE

7 Razorbills

62 Black Guillemots

151 Atlantic Puffins

427 Laughing Gulls

45 Herring Gulls

15 Great Black-backed Gulls

15 Roseate Terns

1271 Common Terns

42 Arctic Terns

20 Sterna sp (offshore)

13 Common Loons

2, 600 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels (incredible tally!)

20 Northern Gannets

168 Double-crested Cormorants

1 Great Blue Heron

12 Ospreys

3 Bald Eagles

1 American Crow

10 Barn Swallows

4 European Starlings

4 House Sparrows

  • Other Marine Life:

2 Mola Mola

2 Gray Seals

6+ Harbor Porpoise

10++ Harbor Seals

Mola Mola (aka Ocean Sunfish)

2022 Monhegan Spring Migration Weekend Tour Report.

With so many great views of Black-billed Cuckoo(s) each day over the weekend, it was hard to argue against this being the bird of the trip. It was unusual how well, and how often, we saw this usually reclusive bird.

How about we just fast-forward to Sunday?  Sunday was delightful.

After two quiet days, which I will eventually confess to, we had a bunch of birds. And no fog. And colorful birds in good light. The pre-breakfast loop was actually downright great, with a good variety of warblers. One copse of trees alone featured 3 Blackburnian Warblers, 4+ Blackpoll Warblers, 2 each of Yellow, Common Yellowthroat, Northern Parula, American Redstart, and 1 Magnolia Warbler

It was nice and birdy after breakfast as well, with more Blackburnian fun, a single Cape May Warbler, and a nice birdy walk through the woods (Winter Wren, Carolina Wren, and House Wren singing one after another) to Whitehead where we actually got to see the ocean – and a Great Cormorant for those visiting from afar. Bird activity and birdsong was pleasantly consistent throughout the day, and in most places we visited.

We caught up with a continuing immature male Orchard Oriole for all to see, and while perhaps one could argue it was still fairly slow for Monhegan by Memorial Day Weekend standards, it was a lot better than Friday and Saturday! In fact, the 59 species and 11 species of warblers was more than the first two days combined. A few of us who stayed out late even got to see an American Woodcock as it displayed over Horn Hill at dusk. It was a good day. 

Blackpoll Warbler was definitely the migrant of the weekend. Besides being by far the most numerous passage migrant, they constantly offered crippling views throughout the tour. The male is above, and the female is below.
This American Robin nesting in lobster traps was a delight to watch. The parents had to run a gauntlet of 5 or 7 traps to enter and exit the nest. It was a great demonstration of how lobster traps work.
Laura shows off her handiwork. Hey, on a slow day, I’ll take all of the birds I can get!
Northern Parula
Immature male Orchard Oriole

Friday got off to a rocky start. Really rocky actually, as in few people were even able to keep their breakfast down on the two ferry rides. Dense fog and near-zero visibility resulted in virtually no birds being seen, and well, let’s just not talk about these boat trips anymore…it was one of the worst I have ever experienced on the way to or from. Thankfully, I am not predisposed to feeling how many people felt upon arrival, but it was still a challenge to shake it off, and all of us were moving slowly by day’s end.

The sheltered waters of Deadman’s Cove were deceiving, but I think you get the idea!

Of course, it didn’t help that there were so few birds around! The huge wave of birds that arrived the previous weekend had cleared out, and nothing had arrived to take their place over the last few nights. With such strong winds, it was a challenge to find sheltered pockets, and when we did, we didn’t find many with many birds.  Only Blackpoll Warblers were to be seen in numbers.

That being said, what we did see – especially the aforementioned Blackpolls and the continuing world’s most cooperative Black-billed Cuckoo(s) – we saw really well. A few of us even saw the Virginia Rail for a second. The dense fog also precluded scanning the water, so our checklist is even more pitiful for the day. Ring-necked Pheasants put on a show though, from confiding snazzy males to adorable little chicks.

There was no shortage of Cedar Waxwings this weekend, with numbers growing in the final two days of our stay.
We definitely took advantage of the lull in birding to do some botanizing, including taking the time
to stop and smell the Twinflower (Linnea).
What migrants were around, however, were often low, close, and confiding, such as this Red-eyed Vireo.

I had hopes for Saturday – it really couldn’t be any worse than Friday anyway! – based on the forecast. However, only a light flight was detected on the radar overnight, despite light southerly winds. It was mostly cloudy, but I couldn’t help to wonder if we were just running out of migrants.

Rain that could have resulted in a fallout of what little was airborne overnight didn’t arrive until after sunrise, but it only caused a 20-minute delay to the start of the day. That was it though, and certainly we were lucky that Saturday was not the washout that was predicted as of a few days prior. It was still slow, but once again, we had exceedingly great looks at everything that we did encounter, including more quality cuckoo time, a stunning male Indigo Bunting that was just glowing in the soft light, Blackpoll Warblers, Northern Parulas, American Redstarts, and more colorful splashes to brighten another gray day. And it wasn’t raining.

But it’s hard to sugarcoat just how slow it was – like Mid-June-kinda slow. Luckily, the fog lifted just long enough to see some waterbirds, and we took advantage of that for an impromptu gull workshop. 

A tease. The fog returned shortly thereafter.
It was news to me that Red-backed Salamanders were on the island. Upon finding that out, our Saturday afternoon walk in the woods featured a lot of log-rolling to sample. Apparently, they are rather widespread, as we found them throughout the spruce forest of the next few days.
Sunsets on Monhegan are always memorable, but Saturday night’s was even more exciting
as it meant an end to two days of solid fog.
Tomorrow would be better, this scene promised. And it most certainly was!

A brief shower at dinnertime ushered in a cold front and skies began to clear at dusk, with the fog finally lifting.  That led to the delightful Sunday I was talking about.  And Monday wasn’t too shabby either, as we again started the day without fog, a very light wind, and evidence of some bird migration on the radar overnight. And, with the southwesterly flow continuing, we had even higher hopes for finding the “mega” that would make up for the so-far lackluster species list.

Starting the morning with a Black-billed Cuckoo sunning itself in a tree right in front of the Trailing Yew was a solid start, and there were more Eastern Wood-Pewees and a decent number of Blackpoll Warblers around.  Again, a rather slow day by Monhegan standards, but we really had more great looks at everything we did see. Today’s magic tree was by the Ice Pond, with a pair of Blackburnian Warblers, a pair of Blackpoll Warblers, Yellow Warbler, Common Yellowthroat, and finally a Bay-breasted Warbler.

We also finally had some rarity excitement. First, a Spizella sparrow flushed in front of us and a very quick glimpse in the scope suggested a Clay-colored Sparrow, which is a great bird in the spring. But just to be sure, we searched for it, but to no avail. Luckily, its identity was confirmed the next morning went it put on a show in the exact same spot it didn’t want to return to today.

Later, a female Purple Martin made an appearance…OK, fine, I could not completely rule out a Gray-breasted Martin. I was trying.

The tour officially concluded in the afternoon, but Jeannette and I remained to enjoy a 24-hour vacation.  Don’t worry, you didn’t “just miss” something, as all we had new in the afternoon was a Savannah Sparrow.

It’s already baby bird season!
Cedar Waxwings were the most numerous passerine on the island – or at least, the most obvious, with a flock of 60 that grew to at least 150 by Tuesday afternoon.
Common Yellowthroat.
Eastern Kingbird

Also, don’t worry that you missed the day Monhegan legends are made of on Tuesday. You did not.  It was still fairly slow, but we had a little uptick in diversity. The pulse of late-migrating flycatchers that I had expected finally arrived, there was a good Northern Gannet show off Lobster Cove in the morning, and a steady trickle of commuting Atlantic Puffins in a small sample of afternoon Lobster Cove seawatching.  

Eastern Wood-Pewee

We picked up three Willets well offshore to the south from Lobster Cove in the morning, eventually following them into the harbor where they landed for a spell.  As for that “probable” Clay-colored Sparrow that was nagging me all afternoon and night, well, I am thankful that it returned to the exact same spot as where we first glimpsed it. I received a text that it had been observed, photographed, and confirmed by others, and it obligingly remained long enough for us to catch back up with it.

Clay-colored Sparrow

Overall, there were many fewer warblers around on Tuesday, likely as many of the passage migrants had departed overnight.  But it would have been nice if this diverse day with several quality birds and good seawatching fell during the official tour!

The 11 species we added after the group tour ended therefore were as follows:

  • Savannah Sparrow
  • White-winged Scoter
  • Surf Scoter
  • Atlantic Puffin
  • WILLET
  • Alder Flycatcher
  • Yellow-bellied Flycatcher
  • Bobolink
  • Pine Siskin
  • Hermit Thrush
  • Red-bellied Woodpecker (where were you hiding these past 4 days?)
Common Eiders
Black Guillemot
American Redstart
Northern Parula
Ring-necked Pheasant. No need to work on primary projection beyond the tertial step to identify this one!

Furthermore, on the Hardy Boat back to New Harbor, we added 2 Red-necked Phalaropes (personal first-of-year) and a Razorbill.  With those 13 species, we had a total of 88 species over the 5 days, with a couple of more “quality” birds and that would have produced a much more respectable tour list! But alas.

So yes, by Monhegan standards, it was a pretty slow weekend. In fact, the 75 species on Friday through Monday was a record low (by two) for this annual tour. 16 species of warblers wasn’t too bad (last year’s soaker only produced 10), and we had some great birds. We also had such good looks at so many things, especially those – like Black-billed Cuckoo – that just don’t give such great looks very often, let alone daily! 

Here is the official trip list (not including the 13 additional species from Monday afternoon through Tuesday evening when we got off the boat in New Harbor):

*denotes ferry ride only
27-May28-May30-May31-May
American Black Duck1+chicks1+chicks1+chicks1+chicks
Mallard14+chicks16+chicks12+chicks10+chicks
Common Eiderxxxx
Ring-necked Pheasant6+chicks6+chicks4+chicks5+chicks
Mourning Dove810616
Black-billed Cuckoo1121
Chimney Swift0010
Ruby-throated Hummingbird1121
Virginia Rail1h.o.h.o.2
Sora0h.o.h.o.h.o.
Greater Yellowlegs0101
American Woodcock0010
Black Guillemotx83050
Laughing Gullx*164
Herring Gullxxxx
Great Black-backed Gullxxxx
Northern Gannet1*010
Double-crested Cormorantxxxx
Great Cormorant0011
Osprey0013
Belted Kingfisher0011
Merlin0010
Eastern Kingbird4466
Eastern Wood-Pewee1138
Willow Flycatcher0122
Blue-headed Vireo00h.o.0
Red-eyed Vireo23410
Blue Jay44148
American Crowxxxx
Common Raven0001
Black-capped Chickadeexxxx
PURPLE MARTIN0001
Barn Swallow0022
Golden-crowned Kinglet01081
Cedar Waxwing60606080
Red-breasted Nuthatch0221
House Wren2242
Winter Wren00h.o.0
Carolina Wren0h.o.21
Gray Catbirdxxxx
Brown Thrasher0022
European Starlingxxxx
Eastern Bluebird0001
Swainson’s Thrush0h.o.00
American Robin888x
Purple Finch0121
American Goldfinch681015
Chipping Sparrow0010
CLAY-COLORED SPARROW0001
Song Sparrowxxxx
Red-winged Blackbird8151515
Common Gracklexxxx
ORCHARD ORIOLE0011
Baltimore Oriole0010
Ovenbird0001
Northern Waterthrush0h.o.00
Black-and-white Warbler0132
American Redstart56128
Common Yellowthroat10151515
Cape May Warbler0010
Northern Parula48108
Magnolia Warbler1163
Bay-breasted Warbler0001
Blackburnian Warbler0043
Yellow Warbler34810
Chestnut-sided Warbler0021
Blackpoll Warbler1083020
Black-throated Blue Warbler00h.o.0
Black-throated Green Warbler0414
Canada Warbler0100
Northern Cardinal6445
Indigo Buntingh.o.112
Day Total37486259
Warbler Day Total6101212
4-Day Tour Total=75
Total Warblers=16
A cuckoo a day keeps the birders….coming back.

This Week’s Highlights, May 21-27,2022 (including 3 days on Monhegan)

This Sandhill Crane was more than a little shocking as it arrived on the island and flew right over several us eating lunch before landing on the shoreline. It was a most unexpected “island-bird” for me,
and a real special treat for my client.

If I was going to top last week’s spectacular week of migration, it was going to require a visit to Monhegan. And Monhegan definitely delivered, even if the largest number of birds this week moved over the weekend, before I arrived on the island. Here are my observations of note over the past seven days.

  • 17 species of warblers, led by 16 Common Yellowthroats and 9 American Redstarts, but also including 5 Bay-breasted Warblers, Florida Lake Park, Freeport, 5/21 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk group).
  • 1 Yellow-bellied Flycatcher (FOY), Florida Lake Park, 5/21 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk group).
  • 15 species of warblers, led by 11 Common Yellowthroats and 8 Yellow-rumped Warblers, Florida Lake Park, 5/22 (with clients from Maine).
  • 10 Common Nighthawks (FOY), our yard in Pownal, 5/22.
  • ~40 Short-billed Dowitchers, flying high over our Pownal yard on 5/22 (with Jeannette). Interestingly, the third record for our yard of high spring migrants.

Three days on Monhegan with a client from India on 5/23 through 5/25 yielded 91 species and 18 species of warblers.  Monday was incredible, with lots of diversity, lots of quality, and just incredible looks at everything. Blackpoll Warblers were by far the dominant migrant each day, as expected. Here are our daily highlights:

5/23:

  • 1 SANDHILL CRANE – I almost dropped my hand pie as this came cruising over the Trailing Yew, circled the meadow, and landed on the shoreline at a tidepool where observed by almost everyone on the island – birders and bird-curious alike.  Photos above.
  • 1 immature, I believe continuing, BROAD-WINGED HAWK.
  • 1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo (FOY)
  • At least 4-5 Black-billed Cuckoos, including this incredible observation of such normally shy birds!
  • 1 imm. male ORCHARD ORIOLE
  • 1 EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILL (FOY, and a self-found island bird from my bedroom!)

5/24:

  • 1 continuing SANDHILL CRANE. In the meadow in early morning before reportedly being observed later flying toward the mainland.
  • 1 imm. male Orchard Oriole
  • 1 continuing EASTERN WHIP-POOR-WILL (with client, Kristen Lindquist, Bill Thompson, and Jess Bishop).
  • 1 leucistic (and nearly pure-white but with normal bare parts) Herring Gull.

    5/25:
  • 1 female ORCHARD ORIOLE
  • 1 Green Heron (FOY)
  • 1 Wood Thrush

Our first pelagic with our partners Cap’n Fish’s Cruises out of Boothbay Harbor will run on Monday, June 6th. It includes a visit to Eastern Egg Rock and chumming deeper offshore.  Info here: https://www.freeportwildbirdsupply.com/pelagics

I found a Northern Parula building a nest at Florida Lake Park last week, and was enthralled
with watching its progression.

10/11/21 Boothbay Mini-Pelagic with Cap’n Fish’s Cruises.

Well that sure was fun!  What a day!  All the superlatives.

Fall pelagics in the Gulf of Maine are few and far between, especially in October. With whale watches ending early to mid-month each year, opportunities to board vessels to look for seabirds become greatly limited. There’s so much to learn about what is out there at this time of year.

Furthermore, fall weather is temperamental, and planning for a day of deep-sea birding months in advance is a crapshoot. And even when the conditions are great, there are days where there just seems to be no life out there. I’ve certainly been on whale watches in October without a single non-gannet seabird.  Those can be long days, especially in rough seas.

Monday was NOT one of those days. In fact, it was incredible. Following up on our success of last year’s trip on October 12, and several extremely productive whale watches over the years with our partners for this tour, Cap’n Fish’s Cruises, we had high hopes, but reasonable expectations. Because pelagics. In the Gulf of Maine. In October.

The first of our wishes had come true: the boat was going to run!  Although there would be some swell offshore (and there was), there was no concern about getting far offshore today. The winds were light, the air was warm, and it was basically about the nicest day one could hope for in a normal October in Maine.

So that was a good start. But soon, it got even better.  Shockingly so.

Just a few minutes out of the dock, a few folks spotted what they thought was a Red-throated Loon. I took a look, expecting the first Red-throated Loon of the season, but was shocked when I saw the puffy head and bright gray nape of what could only have been a Pacific Loon!  In full breeding plumage!

What the what?

This stunning bird – rare but regular in Maine but extremely rare in such stunning breeding plumage – was with a Common Loon right off our bow. And we had not yet even left the harbor’s no-wake zone.

We were in the boat channel, and luckily, there was no traffic coming or going, so Captain Steve adeptly turned us around and we slowly worked our way closer to the loon, attempting to get the bird in the best light possible for photographs.  And this was no easy feat – we were in a narrow channel and if there were any other boats coming or going, this maneuver might not have even been possible. But alas, luck was with us already, and many folks had a life bird, year-bird, or “life-plumage” before we even left the harbor. I for one was not ready for this…I was still organizing, and we were still plotting a course! And I clearly needed to finish that cup of coffee (words? What are words? And how do I use them again?)

Could this day get any better?  Spoiler alert: it did.

The great thing about our partnership with Cap’n Fish’s is that we have a great, fast, comfortable boat that can cover a lot of ground when we need to. However, there’s something special about this area at this time of year that means we usually don’t have to. In fact, shortly after clearing Damariscove Island, we started picking up Northern Gannets and the first few scattered Great Shearwaters. There just wasn’t a long stretch of “worthless” ground to be transited before we start to see life.  This was even more evident on the way back, as we were tallying seabirds until we were right up to the eastern side of Damariscove.

In between, we covered a fair amount of ground at a steady speed, setting two chum slicks over promising areas. Covering a couple of ledges and a long contour line where we have had great success in the past, there was rarely any lengths of time we didn’t have a pelagic species or two.  We never went further than 20-25 miles offshore, mostly working an area near the Portland ship channel that has been productive for us in the past. At times we were in waters up to 500ft deep but were more interested in places where upwelling might occur – such as near ledges, ridges, or “holes.”

Unfortunately, birds were just not excited about the chum today, so we didn’t have a ton of birds close enough to touch. But, our captain did his best to get us close to the occasional raft of loafing Great Shearwaters for example.  Northern Fulmars seemed to be “sniffing out” our offerings, but excitement never developed. Lots of great, close passes however, with others sitting on the water here and there. I was conservative in my count as I thought 4 birds were making a wide circle around us for a spell, but it’s possible there were a lot more individuals.

Great Shearwaters

I now expect Atlantic Puffins off this boat at this time of year, but we did not expect to tally 32 of them (which seems quite low in hindsight). I was surprised to not see any Razorbills until we were almost back inshore, but then we had some good looks within site of the outer islands.

It took photo review to confirm the two jaegers (including one frustratingly distant one) as the expected species, Pomarine. But still, any day with a jaeger is a good day.

There was a good 2-4 foot swell offshore, but little chop. You could feel the roll though, and a few sharp turns were definitely noticed. It was just enough to limit how quickly we could stop on a dime and go back for a loafing bird, or change course to chase down a jaeger. But overall, it was a decidedly pleasant day on the water!

I think most people would have been satisfied if the only “good” bird was the Pacific Loon, but we had a challenger for best bird of the day. Now, the looks we had and the gorgeous plumage of the loon put it ahead for many, but from a rarely-encountered perspective – along with the fact that this is THE bird(s) we hope for on this trip – the excitement among participants reached its crescendo when I yelled the magic word: “SKUUUUUUUAAAAAAAAA!”

Just about 2/3rds of the way through the trip and about 20miles offshore, a dark, menacing terror of the ocean came roaring towards us and passed in front of the bow. It took a half-hearted swing at a Herring Gull before, unfortunately, continuing on. I spotted it as it was coming towards us at 11:00 (the bow of the boat is 12:00), but most folks got on it only as it came out of the sun glare by 1:00 or so. Therefore, most of our photos are of the bird heading away.

My initial reaction was Great Skua based on my impression of a reddish-tone to the upperparts in particular. I thought I saw a darker crown and I didn’t see a pale blaze on the face. Great Skua is a little more likely in this season, but we are still far from understanding the true ranges of it, and its southern Atlantic counterpart, the South Polar Skua, and especially differences in age classes (and their respective molt patterns).

However, after trying my best to give useful and enunciated directions to all the observers on board, I got back on the bird to study it only as it was going away. I was surprised by the cold, dark brown appearance it now had, as opposed to that first impression.

We threw out some chum to try and stir the pot, but it just kept going. We began a chase, but that did not last long – the skua smoked us!

The first photo I looked on the back of a camera seemed to confirm the reddish tone that would be indicative of Great Skua.

So that temporarily confirmed the call on the field, but as I made clear, I wanted to review as many photos as possible. And as I began to receive them, I could not get over how most of them showed a very dark, cold South Polar-like color impression.

The instant replay was now under review. Some skuas are straightforward, but this was not one of them, in large part because of the distance it passed and the lighting we were able to photograph it in. I have sent photos to several friends more fluent in skua than I, and I awaited their analysis. There are a few things that are just not computing for me, but I – like 99.9% of birders – just don’t have enough experience with skuas, especially in fall when many are a molting mess.

Unfortunately, a head-on or side shot might give us a definitive head pattern, but that is not apparently in existence. The lack of blond streaks on the back is a knock against Great, but some non-adults are really dark and minimally streaked at this season. And no photos show the nape, either.

So this is the best that we have to go on at the moment.  I’ve included a series of photos here, and more can be found on eBird. I will update this blog as I receive more information and continue to study the incoming photos  but I do believe at this time that this is a 1st-year South Polar Skua. That would explain the pattern of molt (similar to what an adult Great Skua should look like now) and those worn outer primaries that gave many folks – myself included – an impression of a paler, warmer brown. Also, those new coverts on the upperparts are so blackish – I can’t seem to find photos of Great Skuas suggesting that kind of deep, dark color. (I will add comments and commentary at the end of this entry as I receive them. I’ll also update the photo suite if I receive anything new and revelatory.)

Anyway, skuas are awesome, even if their identity is often in question  – and realistically, cannot always be answered. But we had _a_ skua, any skua, and that is the apex of a fall pelagic trip, especially the further west and south you get.

(Oh, and since I am thinking of it, here’s a link to the pelagic-by-cruiseship that Jeannette and I investigated a few years back. That was a skua fest and resulted in my first confirmed Great Skua for Maine – which had been a nemesis until then. We were talking about this trip on the boat and wanted to share the link. )

So yeah, a Pacific Loon and a <insert identity> Skua! Lots of puffins, Great Shearwaters, Northern Fulmars (another target of the season), and so much more. And yes, we had a couple of Minke Whales, lots of Harbor Porpoise and Harbor Seals, several schools of Bluefin Tuna, and a really lovely pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. 

The following counts were adjusted to reflect total number of individuals (and not double-counting birds in and around the harbor while traveling to and fro) tallied in separate eBird transects kept by my trusty co-leader, chummer, and list-keeper, Ian Carlsen.

I’ve annotated the checklist with photos from Jeannette and others, as I received them. I’ll add more, especially if any pertinent to the skua ID discussion surface.

  • 500+ Common Eiders
  • 300+ Herring Gulls
  • 173 Great Shearwaters
  • 100+ Double-crested Cormorants
  • 85+ Great Black-backed Gulls
  • 94 Northern Gannets
  • 32 ATLANTIC PUFFINS (high!)
  • 31 Rock Pigeons (dock)
  • 16 Common Loons
  • 15 Black Guillemots
  • 12 NORTHERN FULMARS
  • 8 Razorbills
  • 3 Bald Eagles
  • 2 POMARINE JAEGERS

Bird #1:

Bird #2:

  • 1 Surf Scoter
  • 1 SOUTH POLAR SKUA (*see discussion above)
  • 1 Black-legged Kittiwake (juvenile)
  • 1 PACIFIC LOON (no, seriously!)

Today was a good day!

Skua Identification feedback (coming soon):

  • From Michael O’Brien:

“It’s tough to see much detail on this bird, so hard to be 100% sure about it. Having said that, I think I would lean toward a first year South Polar. It has fresh inner primaries, which fits the molt pattern of an adult Great or first year South Polar. The outer primaries seem quite worn/faded, which is why I’m thinking it’s a first year bird with old juv outer primaries. In terms of color, it seems fairly cold toned, and in particular, what looks like fresh greater coverts seem dark and cold toned vs normally paler, warmer, and more mottled (and contrasting with darker secondaries) on a Great. So that’s my take on it, at the risk of reading too much into some distant photos! “

2021 Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend Tour Report.

This Blue Grosbeak was among the highlights of an incredible weekend on the island.

“It was like the good ol’ days!” When every other bird you saw was a rare one, and you barely walked 10 steps before finding more birds.  But this was not what we were expecting, and the weekend sure didn’t start out that way!

After a very rough boat ride, we were still putting ourselves back together when one birder said “Go back, there are no birds here.”  Apparently, it had been a dreadfully slow week of little migration, but at least nice weather. This weekend, the weather wasn’t supposed to be very nice. So without many birds on the island, and quite a bit of rain on the way, were less enthused about arriving than usual…well, that might have had something to do with the boat ride.

And I am not sure if it helped that one of the first birds I looked at was a rare hybrid Herring X Great Black-backed Gull.  I am not sure if anyone was ready to take in gull hybrids yet.  Even more when we feared that this could be our best bird of the trip if the pattern held.

And sure enough, it was a very slow afternoon. But we did have good luck. We found a Sora that walked out into an open patch of mud, quickly caught up with the adult Lesser Black-backed Gull that has been hanging around, and after lunch immediately found the Least Sandpiper and Spotted Sandpiper at Lobster Cove that have been playing hard to get all week. There was also a good Northern Gannet show, which is always a treat. So at least we were seeing what was around, which sadly, really was not very much.  But hey, it still hadn’t rained!

Least and Spotted Sandpipers – shorebirds are few and far between on the island.

A period of rain, heavy at times, fell overnight, but the band was much narrower and less heavy than forecast. It did not rain all night, and it even appeared that a light flight of migrants had developed on the radar after midnight. And sure enough, come dawn, there was a light Morning Flight overhead. It was mostly Yellow-rumped and Blackpoll Warblers, but hey, there were new birds around!  And once, again, it was not raining.

A fly-over Dickcissel or two, a calling Gray-cheeked Thrush, and more. Birds!  Yay!

Then, after breakfast, I went to spread some seed in my favorite corner to attract some birds for the group to enjoy this morning.  Turning the corner near the famous “Chat Bridge” a shockingly bright flash of the most intense yellow you can imagine. And blue wings, and a flash of white in the tail. Prothonotary Warbler I exclaimed to no one around.

I raced back towards the group meeting point and sent them on their way. Kristen Lindquist took off running.  I eventually made it back with the rest of the group and we divided to conquer. Kristen and about half the group spotted it repeatedly, while it remained tantalizingly out of view from where I and others were standing. 

As other birders converged, a classic “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” occurred. First, there were two Dickcissels, then I spotted a Yellow-breasted Chat making a short flight over the brush. While searching for that, Ilsa spotted a Yellow-billed Cuckoo that would sit still, preening, for well over and hour.  It might have been the most cooperative cuckoo ever on the island!  Another group had a brief look at a Clay-colored Sparrow.

Unfortunately, the Prothonotary Warbler was never seen again.

Yellow-billed Cuckoos don’t usually sit this still for this long. This bird was likely exhausted
after just arriving on the island.
In case you didn’t see it’s yellow bill.

It was already a pretty amazing day for one that we thought would be a wash-out. And it was still not raining.  After our lunch break, we convened at the Monhegan House at 1:30, and spent the next hour and a half on its lawn, and going no where else.

One Dickcissel became two, and then four, and when the group finally took off together, we were shocked to confirm a genuine flock of 8 Dickcissels – exceptional, even for Monhegan. And there were not one, but two Clay-colored Sparrows!  And other birds just kept arriving, as standing in one spot saw our list quickly grow: American Redstart, Brown Creeper, Warbling Vireo, etc, etc. One “Western” Palm Warbler became 4, a couple of Cape May Warblers paid us a visit, a Savannah Sparrow dropped in…

It was truly incredible! It felt like my first tours here 15 years ago. By now, a light shower was falling, but we didn’t seem to care. We finally pulled ourselves away as the action waned, wanting to see what the next hot corner would offer.  After spotting at least 8 Baltimore Orioles along Pumphouse Road, the rain finally arrived in earnest by about 3:30pm. We called it quits, but considering the day we had, no complaints were to be heard.  It was a really special day; one that will not soon be forgotten.

While it was more accurately “180-degree misorientation” and other forms of vagrancy and not “reverse migration” that brought us so many good birds, I brought a special beer out
just in case we had a day like we did today!

Rain fell overnight again, and come dawn on Sunday (Day 3), dense fog had rolled in.  There were a few Yellow-rumped Warblers overhead, especially during a short respite from the fog, but there were not nearly as many birds around as the day before. But, with fog overnight, we expected birds who were on the island to stay, which was good, because yesterday was awesome and there were still a few birds we had not yet encountered.

It might be a while before they are “countable” again, but the Ring-necked Pheasant population
seems to be booming in town.

We delayed the start of the after-breakfast walk to let a batch of heavier rain clear through. We were stuck in such an odd fall weather pattern, with virtually no west-east progression of weather systems. But we had been so lucky with the timing of the rainfall so far, that a little delay was of no concern.  Regrouping at 10:00, light showers gave way to just some lingering drizzle by 11, and it soon became apparent that there were new birds around.  We had two Prairie Warblers, a Scarlet Tanager joining the growing flock of Baltimore Orioles, and a Blue-winged Teal joined a Green-winged Teal in the marsh.  Two Cliff Swallows and a Barn Swallow foraged over Manana, and we had our second Yellow-breasted Chat of the trip – this one in the Island Farm garden on Pumphouse Road. And another Clay-colored Sparrow?

There was a really impressive number of Baltimore Orioles on the island over the weekend.

Pockets of Yellow-rumped Warblers here and there often contained another warbler species or two, and we had good looks at stuff all morning, even often-challenging birds to see with a group like Lincoln’s Sparrows. 

And after lunch, the sun was out!  We had the Lesser Black-backed Gull again, more looks at Clay-colored Sparrows, and finally the immature male Blue Grosbeak showed up for us, and show it did!

It wasn’t as birdy once the sun was out, but a light raptor flight, including at least 6 Peregrine Falcons helped make up for it.

On Monday, our last day of the tour, it appeared that little moved overnight on a light southwesterly flow aloft. But that had our daydreams going for rarities from our west and southwest.  And sure enough, while some of us were dallying over breakfast, a Western Kingbird that Kristen Lindquist found earlier flew right over us at the Yew and alighted nearby!

After breakfast, we “cleaned it up” for the group when we relocated it at the cemetery, affording great looks for all.  A slower day finally gave us an opportunity to head into the deeper woods. And while we expected fewer birds in the island’s interior, a couple of mixed-species foraging flocks finally put Red-breasted Nuthatch on the list, and we found the first Pine Warbler of the weekend. 

“Look at my tail!” Just in case anyone had hopes of stringing it into a rarer western Tyrannus.

Jeannette joined us by lunchtime, and after lunch, we had a frustratingly brief glimpse of the original Yellow-breasted Chat, along with more great looks at Clay-colored Sparrows. 

The tour came to a close with the 3:15 departure back to New Harbor, bringing our incredible four days together to the always-bittersweet end. 

Jeannette and I birded the rest of the afternoon together, picking up a few things, like my first “Yellow” Palm Warblers of the weekend and a Solitary Sandpiper.  Our walk to dinner yielded a second Pine Warbler, and at the harbor: a juvenile Ring-billed Gull (actually fairly rare out here in the early fall) and another view of the lingering Lesser Black-backed Gull.

On Tuesday, Jeannette and I enjoyed our day off on the island, and Kristen Lindquist joined us for most of the day.  A diminishing light southwest wind overnight gave way to a little bit of northwesterly winds by dawn, but it didn’t appear that much had arrived on the island overnight.

At least two, if not three, different Prairie Warblers were around the island.
Getting late, a few American Redstarts helped bump up our impressive warbler tally.

However, we soon located a Lark Sparrow found yesterday by Bryan Pfeiffer, the immature male Blue Grosbeak paid us a visit, and we heard the Sora briefly.  We then found an Orange-crowned Warbler out past the Ice Pond, my 20th warbler species of the weekend! Unfortunately, we were sans cameras with a little light rain falling.

This Scarlet Tanager was often cooperative at the grape arbor.
As per tradition with this tour report: at least one gratuitous “food porn” photo. Here’s the colorful and fresh avocado toast from the Trailing Yew.
And here’s one of the island’s resident Black-capped Chickadees…just because.

After lunch, we were excited to find two Lark Sparrows sitting next to each other at the cul-de-sac, there were now two Ring-billed Gulls in the harbor, and yes, there were still at least 4 Clay-colored Sparrows and several Dickcissels around! 

Just for a change of pace, we decided to walk the diffuse trail along the island’s southwestern end, but were soon distracted by something large in the water in the distance.  Retrieving my scope, it was clear that it was indeed a dead whale, and eventually it floated close enough to identify it as a dead (and rather bloated) Minke Whale.  A handful of gulls were around it, and briefly, a quick pass by a jaeger that was too far to claim the identity of.  It was a fascinating, if not rather sad, end to our visit as by now it was time for Jeannette and I to head to the dock to return to the real world.

A much more pleasant boat ride back, this time to Port Clyde yielded a number of Common Loons and plenty of Northern Gannets, and a surprise of a small pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins.  I’m not sure if I have seen this pelagic species from a Monhegan ferry before, or this close to land at all.

And finally, one last “good” bird: a pair of truant American Oystercatchers on Dry Ledges (off of Allen Island)! Interestingly, we had a pair on the same exact ledge on our way back from the island on October 5th of last year.

At least 8 Dickcissels, at least 4 Clay-colored Sparrows, 2 Lark Sparrows, and an Orange-crowned Warbler from the Midwest. A Western Kingbird from the West.  A Prothonotary Warbler, 2 Yellow-breasted Chats, and a Blue Grosbeak from the South.  105 total species (102 with the tour) including 20 species of warblers.  Yeah, that was a good trip  – and the stuff that Monhegan legends are made of, at least sans fallout.

Four of a flock that grew to an impressive 8 Dickcissels, often found in the swale behind the
Monhegan House throughout the weekend.

And finally, here is our birdlist from the extraordinary weekend:

9/24 = * denotes ferry ride only
9/27 = * with just Jeannette
9/28 = with Jeannette; *denotes ferry ride only
24-Sep25-Sep26-Sep27-Sep28-Sep
American Black Duck00111
Mallard310262424
Mallard x American Black Duck Hybrid00011
Green-winged Teal0101*0
Blue-winged Teal0101*0
Common Eiderxxxxx
Ring-necked Pheasant613121610
Mourning Dove622301518
YELLOW-BILLED CUCKOO01000
unidentified cuckoo00010
Common Nighthawk00000
Sora10001
Semipalmated Plover01000
Least Sandpiper10201
American Woodcock10000
Spotted Sandpiper10100
Unidentified jaeger00001
Solitary Sandpiper0001*0
Black Guillemot23103
Laughing Gull1*0003
Ring-billed Gull0001*2
Herring Gullxxxxx
LESSER BLACK-BACKED GULL1011*0
Great Black-backed Gullxxxxx
GREAT BLACK-BACKED X HERRING HYBRID1000
Common Loon1*0006*
Northern Gannet2002043
Double-crested Cormorantxxxxx
Great Cormorant03311*
Great Blue Heron01103
Bald Eagle2*111*1
Sharp-shinned Hawk00021
Belted Kingfisher00111
Yellow-bellied Sapsucker04382
Downy Woodpecker00143
Northern Flicker4541010
Merlin00486
Peregrine Falcon00686
WESTERN KINGBIRD00010
Eastern Phoebe00011
Blue-headed Vireo00010
Warbling Vireo01000
Red-eyed Vireo01081210
Blue Jay61881618
American Crow46xxx
Common Raven22022
Black-capped Chickadeexxxxx
CLIFF SWALLOW00200
Barn Swallow00100
Golden-crowned Kinglet044158
Ruby-crowned Kinglet02034
Cedar Waxwing3048406050
Red-breasted Nuthatch00003
White-breasted Nuthatch00022
Brown Creeper02111
House Wren01101
Carolina Wren04478
Gray Catbirdxxxxx
Brown Thrasher02000
European Starling1818181818
GRAY-CHEEKED THRUSH01000
Swainson’s Thrush04111
American Robin03034
American Pipit00010
Purple Finch01000
LARK SPARROW00002
American Goldfinch210413
Chipping Sparrow086108
CLAY-COLORED SPARROW024414
Dark-eyed Junco00021
White-crowned Sparrow00010
White-throated Sparrow21061510
Savannah Sparrow03301
Song Sparrowxxxxx
Lincoln’s Sparrow01315
Swamp Sparrow00212
YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT01110
Bobolink06050
Rusty Blackbird02010
Common Grackle06964
Brown-headed Cowbird01000
Baltimore Oriole08151612
Northern Waterthrush10421
Black-and-white Warbler00110
PROTHONOTARY WARBLER01000
Tennessee Warbler10000
ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER00001
Nashville Warbler03224
American Redstart01202
Common Yellowthroat26544
Cape May Warbler13002
Northern Parula05433
Magnolia Warbler01210
Yellow Warbler05432
Blackpoll Warbler1158106
Black-throated Blue Warbler00010
Palm Warbler0441410
PINE WARBLER00023
Yellow-rumped Warbler306075300150
Prairie Warbler0022*1
Black-throated Green Warbler03345
Wilson’s Warbler01221
Scarlet Tanager00210
Northern Cardinal410886
Rose-breasted Grosbeak04443
BLUE GROSBEAK00101
Indigo Bunting00044
DICKCISSEL08754
Day Total3465667477
Warbler day total513141515
4-Day Tour total=102
Plus with Jeannette after the group =3
Total warblers =20

This Week’s (Non Sandy-Point) Highlights, 9/24-9/30: Monhegan Island

This Blue Grosbeak was among the stars of the show from an exceptional weekend of
great birds on Monhegan Island.

I haven’t yet posted a Monhegan tour blog from last weekend, so I figured I’d at least post some of the highlights from our extremely exciting weekend chock-full of great birds!

9/24 (with Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend tour group):

  • 1 adult GREAT BLACK BACKED X HERRING GULL HYBRID
  • 1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • 1 Sora

9/25 (with tour group):

  • 1 adult PROTHONOTARY WARBLER. Found by me at “Chat Bridge” and refound nearby a short while later by Kristen Lindquist and part of my group.  Only bird of the weekend not seen again.
  • 1 YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT
  • 8 DICKCISSELS (in flock together at one point)
  • 2 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS (in flock with 8 Dickcissels).
  • 1 Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush (presumed Gray-cheeked)
  • 1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo

9/26 (with Tour group):

  • 1 YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT
  • 1 immature male BLUE GROSBEAK
  • At least 4 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS
  • At least 7 DICKCISSELS
  • 1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

9/27 (with tour group):

  • 1 WESTERN KINGBIRD (found by Kristen Lindquist. Refound by us at the Trailing Yew, then later by our group again at the cemetery. Last sighting?)
  • At least 5 DICKCISSELS
  • At least 4 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS
  • 9/28 (with Jeannette and Kristen Lindquist):
  • 1 immature male BLUE GROSBEAK
  • 2 LARK SPARROWS
  • At least 4 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS
  • At least 4 DICKCISSELS
  • 1 Orange-crowned Warbler
  • 1 unidentified jaeger at a floating Minke Whale carcass offshore.
  • 1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

Other Highlights:

  • 2 AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS, Dry Ledges off of Allen Island from Port Clyde Ferry, 9/28 (with Jeannette).

And don’t forget, our next pelagic with Cap’n Fish’s out of Boothbay Harbor is coming up, on October 11th. Information and registration can be found here.

OK, back to work on my Monhegan blog.