Jeannette and I enjoyed a summer roadtrip to the Atlantic Provinces of New Brunswick and Prince Edward Island from August 15th through 23rd. Shorebirds were our birding focus, because August, but our expectations were far surpassed! Here are a few photo highlights from the journey.
It’s hard for still photos to do the scene true justice however, so we posted a few videos to our store’s Facebook Page. They can be viewed here.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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!
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!
I think it is safe to say that the inaugural “Coastal Quick Hit” van tour was a resounding success! We not only found all of the target species that we were after, but also a few surprises, and we saw all of our target species incredibly well! And we really lucked out with the weather, as the only rain we encountered was a brief downpour while we were driving. I have “no” doubt that all future tours will be this successful.
We receive numerous requests for guiding for several local breeding species that can be hard, if not impossible, to see elsewhere. While Bicknell’s Thrush is my number one request, there are a number of coastal species that are also sought. Folks travel from far and wide for our annual “Bicknell’s Thrushes of the White Mountains” van trip, and often I get requests for private guiding for many of the other species before and after that tour. Therefore, for efficiency and economy, we introduced the “Coastal Quick Hit” tour.
We had four visitors from California on board who were here to take part in the weekend’s thrush tour, plus three local birders out for the day. The eight of us met here at the store on Friday morning, and worked our way south.
Beginning in Scarborough Marsh, we had the opportunity to study Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows side-by-side, and ponder over some hybrids as well. We compared their songs and subtleties of identification – and learned how to simply leave many, likely hybrids and intergrades, as unidentified. Meanwhile, “Eastern” Willets and many other marsh denizens were numerous, and several sparrows and Willets posed for photos.
Walking the Eastern Road Trail, a Fish Crow was unexpected, and we enjoyed Little Blue Herons, Great and Snowy Egrets, and more. We then found this wading bird, which immediately brought to mind one of the ultra-rare Tricolored Heron x Snowy Egret (and now, possible a backcross there of) that calls Scarborough Marsh home.
However, it soon became clear that this was a “pure” Little Blue Heron – nothing about its shape, size, structure, or behavior (a regular adult was nearby, and sometimes in the same field of view) was suggestive of anything else (or partly anything else), and so I hypothesized about a leucistic Little Blue Heron. Immature (1st through 2nd summer) little blues are piebald, but this was much, much paler than what I usually see, with more of a uniform “wash” of the purple-blue on the body and wings. What threw me off a bit were the essentially fully-developed head and back plumes (the “aigrettes”) that I did not think were present on a bird who’s plumage was this early in development. A little research showed those plumes were just fine for a 1st-summer bird, even one in which so little adult-like plumage had been obtained. Therefore, unless this bird looks exactly the same come fall, I think it’s just a paler-than-average 1st summer Little Blue Heron. Nevertheless, it was a fun bird to study and ponder – offering a lesson in comparing shape, structure, and behavior in two birds that didn’t look the same.
Also off Eastern Road, we noted Glossy Ibis, American Black Ducks, and a White-rumped Sandpiper in spiffy breeding plumage – a treat for folks from the West Coast, and not a bird we see many of in spring here in the Northeast. It was hanging out with 4 tardy Semipalmated Sandpipers.
A drake Gadwall at the Pelreco marsh was a nice sight as well.
Four unseasonable Brant greeted us at Pine Point, where we soon spotted one of our most sought-after species, Roseate Tern. At least 8, and likely many times that, as birds were coming and going, were quickly picked out from the crowds of Common Terns, with plenty of Least Terns zipping around.
This tour was designed to have at least two chances at all of our target species, but we “cleaned up” in Scarborough, so we elected to brake up our upcoming drive with a stop in Webhannet Marsh near Moody Point for a visit with the King Rail that, for the second summer in a row, has occupied a small corner of the marsh. While waiting for it, we spotted more Willets, and had another great view of a Saltmarsh Sparrow or too.
The rail never called, but about 2/3rds of the group, myself NOT included, were able to spot the rail as it crossed two successive small openings in the marsh grass. The rest of us were just a little too far up the road, and it never made it to the third clearing we were stationed at. But still, a King Rail in the middle of the afternoon! A loafing Surf Scoter with Common Eiders offshore was also unexpected.
A delicious lunch fueled the rest of our drive south and the timing of the rainfall could not have been better. Traffic was relatively minimal as we fought our way through the outskirts of Boston, arriving at Revere Beach just as a thunderstorm passed to our south.
While this is not exactly the most aesthetically-pleasing stop of the tour…
…it was incredibly rewarding, as in short order, we picked up our last two target species, Piping Plover…
…and, believe it or not, Manx Shearwater…
…from land, in a city, and not very far offshore!
This incredible phenomena (they are clearly nesting locally, but where!? One of the Boston Harbor Islands?) was the icing on the cake to a most-successful trip. Based on these results, you can expect to see the “Coastal Quick Hit” van tour again in 2018 and beyond. Stay tuned to the Tours, Events, and Workshops Page of www.freeportwildbirdsupply.com for more information about this and all of our tours.