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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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!).
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!