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.
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
- 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! “