My observations of note over the past fourteen days included the following:
Rare mid-summer SCOTER hat-trick with 4 Black, 2 White-winged, and 1 Surf, Simpson’s Point, Brunswick, 7/3.
4 Greater and 3 Lesser Yellowlegs, Wharton Point, Brunswick, 7/3.
Seawatching from Eastern Point, Gloucester, MA on 7/8 during Tropical Storm Elsa (with family): In about 2 hours where fog lifted enough to see, Great Shearwaters were passing at an average of 199 per 5-minute segment and Sooty Shearwaters were passing at an average of 314 per 5-minute segment. Plus 2 MANX SHEARWATERS, 1 unidentified JAEGER, and 1 Cory’s Shearwater.
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!
We were very excited to kick off a new partnership between Freeport Wild Bird Supply and Cap’n Fish Cruises with a half-day pelagic birding trip out of Boothbay Harbor on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 12th. We departed the wharf at 9:00am and returned at about 1:45pm.
Cap’n Fish’s Dominique Caverly joined me in narrating the tour, adding additional natural history information. Captain Tabor did an exceptional job keeping the boat as comfortable as possible, finding some interesting underwater topography, trying to position the boat to view birds in the best light, and catching up with those two jaegers! Ian Carlsen was our chummer extraordinaire, getting fulmars and Great Shearwaters within a few yards of the boat – while simultaneously keeping track of our eBird transects.
With a forecast for 2-3ft seas, we were not all that happy to find them more like 2-4 with the occasional 5-footer, but Captain Tabor did a great job in picking a track that maximized our time with comfortable following seas. There were a few bumps and splashes along the way, but so goes pelagic birding in the fall in the Gulf of Maine. We were just happy to successfully get offshore!
Heading into deeper waters of the Portland shipping channel about 20 miles offshore, we explored an area where the seafloor rises from 500 feet to 300, before dropping off again to over 600. What’s great about departing from Boothbay – and bodes well for future tours from here – is that we don’t have to travel too far to get to some good deep-water and interesting seabed topography.
Fall pelagics in the Gulf of Maine, especially in southern Maine, are a fickle beast, and can be really hit or miss. In fact, I have been out on whale watches in October that failed to record a single tubenose! But, having had a significant amount of success with Cap’n Fish’s whale watches during the fall, I was quite excited for the chance to head out on a dedicated bird-finding mission.
And it did take some work to find birds today. Even Northern Gannets and gulls were in very short supply. However, once we got to that aforementioned ledge, we had a lot of birds all around us.
But 3 Leach’s Storm-Petrels were anything but expected! Even one would have been a headliner, but today we had three – two of which were seen extraordinarily well for prolonged periods of time. I was hopefully for this species, but they are so hit-or-miss, I only included it on my “possible” list. And then I expected the sighting to be like our first – one zipping by and only seen by a few observers. Those second two, however: wow, just wow!
Any day with a jaeger is a good day in my book, and we had two good sightings of Pomarine Jaegers today, including one that was around us and reigning terror for a while. I called them both “Poms” in the field, but I looked forward to receiving photos to confirm their identify – no one should be above going to instant replay for jaegers! In fact, one early photo I received had me rethinking the first bird, but upon receiving a full set, the play was confirmed as called on the field.
Three Atlantic Puffins and 9 Northern Fulmars were more expected, but no less great to see. Unfortunately, the Razorbill was seen in flight by only a few. My tally of 91 Great Shearwaters is likely woefully conservative. When chumming, it became impossible to keep track of how many birds were circling us rather than just passing by for a look (and sniff!). And while this was indeed a birding-centric tour, we were disappointed to only encounter Harbor Seals and Harbor Porpoises during our travels; yes, this pelagic brakes for whales!
And finally, passerines are always exciting when encountered offshore, and always a challenge. I was a little surprised we didn’t encounter more as there had been a massive flight overnight, but the lack of a westerly component kept those birds from drifting offshore. In fact, both birds we saw were heading southwest, likely “onward” migration rather than compensating for overnight drift. One was relegated to “passerine species,” but photographs confirmed the other as a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Beginning and ending with Black Guillemots and Common Eiders in the harbor and returning to a lovely warm and calm afternoon in the sheltered town, we can unequivocally call the day’s outing a success…and yes, plans are already in the works for more trips together in 2021! Sat tuned!
Here is the annotated checklist from the day:
Common Eider: 23 beyond mouth of the bay; numerous in harbor.
Surf Scoter: 61
dark-winged scoter sp: 20
Pomarine Jaegers: at least 2 winter adults; possibly a third bird.
Razorbill: 1 fly-by spotted by Captain and a few participants.
Black Guillemot: x
ATLANTIC PUFFIN: 3
Ring-billed Gull: 2
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Common Loon: 15
LEACH’S STORM-PETRELS: 3. All photographed. First bird seen only by a few, second two birds seen insanely well and for prolonged periods of time.
Northern Fulmar: 9
Great Shearwater: 91 (very conservative count)
Northern Gannet: 30 (low)
Yellow-rumped Warbler: 1 (about 22 miles from land)
Passerine sp: 1 (probably a warbler but that’s as much as I can say)
Only marine mammals were Harbor Porpoises and Harbor Seals.