Maine Audubon offers a pelagic (open sea) trip every year, and it occurred last weekend. Three birders and I set our alarms for 3 a.m., left home at 3:30 in the morning, met our carpool, went to Bar Harbor and arrived there in the dark. We boarded the boat with nearly 100 other avid birders.
There was much to talk about among new and old friends. The air was full of camaraderie, excitement and anticipation despite the weather.
Dawn arrived with fog and clouds, but that did not dampen spirits as the boat pulled away from the dock and headed for the open sea.
Our boat, the Friendship V, was speedy, quiet and comfortable as it took us far out into the Gulf of Maine.
Maine’s rivers and ocean currents propel a great gyre that moves counterclockwise in the Gulf of Maine. When the currents meet an underwater ridge, there is an upwelling that brings nutrients to the surface. That’s where we find the birds.
The nutrients are from dead fish, seaweed, silt and more. That material feeds many one-cell life forms that are eaten by small crustaceans, which are eaten by small fish, then larger fish, then pelagic birds.
The anticipation mounted as we started to see puffins. But the highlight of the day was seeing all three jaeger species, the avian pirates of the sea.
“Jaeger” means hunter in German. These birds are the size of gulls, but their bills are slightly hooked. They have small, webbed feet, as gulls do, but unlike gulls, jaegers have sharp curved claws on their toes. Equipped as they are, jaegers can force gulls and terns to give up their hard-won fish.
The first jaeger we saw was the biggest, the pomerine jaeger, the size of a herring gull but much faster and more aggressive. They chase down the largest gulls and force them to regurgitate their meal of fish, which the jaeger then eats.
Next we saw the parasitic jaeger, named because it eats food caught by other birds. And last, we saw the long-tailed jaeger, a small, graceful jaeger with a pair of long feathers in its tail. Most of these go to the Pacific for winter; they are rare in the Gulf of Maine.
Maine Audubon makes it possible for Maine birders to see pelagic birds, a rare opportunity full of excitement and learning. This group came off the boat with big smiles.
Participants came from around the United States. There were even two couples, all birders, from Japan. Out-of-state birders spend a considerable amount of money in Maine to see Maine’s beautiful environment and birds — if only for that, it’s well worth preserving.
For information on Fields Pond Audubon Center, call 989-2591.