It was late in the afternoon as I went in search of seabirds in the waters of Casco Bay.
The day had been bright and somewhat mild; only the wind kept the climate on the cold side. Peaks Island, House Island and Cushing Island glowed golden with the setting sun, and a newly risen full moon gleamed palely above them, partially hidden at times by tatters of pinkish-gold cumulous clouds. Farther southeast, a heavier band of nimbostratus clouds stretching far out over the ocean took on a brilliant pink-purple hue.
So far, I had seen the usual suspects. A few common eiders plied the waters for food, and I could see small groups of the long-tailed ducks continually flying into the bay, cruising along low over the water at considerable speed. Compared to the heavier, large-bodied eiders, they appeared dainty and swallowlike in their flight.
Closer in to shore, pairs of long-tailed ducks dove for food or preened on the surface of the water. Their calls reached me from a considerable distance, and not for the first time I thought how odd and unbirdlike their vocalizations sounded. A few red-breasted mergansers, elegant with their tufted crests, also foraged for food, diving quickly and cleanly beneath the surface in the blink of an eye. Above all, the ubiquitous herring gulls patrolled the shoreline, ever watchful for an easy meal to steal.
Erratic gusts of wind ruffled the surface of the bay as I carefully scanned it with binoculars. Spotting two smallish birds out on the water, I focused sharply and noted mottled gray and white plumage, with indistinct, small white wing patches. One of the birds reared its sternum out of the water and vigorously flapped its small, tapered wings. I hadn’t seen them in quite a while, but I realized I was looking at immature black guillemots.
The first time I remember identifying a black guillemot, I was standing on the cliffs overlooking Ship Harbor on the western side of Mount Desert Island. The day was brilliant, the tide was in, and the water as it entered the mouth of the harbor was the deepest blue I had ever seen. The black birds with the startling white wing patches were easy to pick out; the bird identification book I had with me also emphasized their red feet and legs, which were clearly visible beneath the water as they paddled.
Black guillemots are part of a family of pelagic birds known as alcids, which includes murres, auks, dovekies and puffins. They breed on coastal islands from Maine northward into Atlantic Canada and Greenland; there are also smaller populations along the northeastern Alaskan coast. They nest in colonies in rocky crevices or fissures on the ground or in cliffs, much as puffins do. According to “The Birds of North America” species account, some may use the earthen burrows of rabbits, or even enlarge cavities made by bank swallows. Nests may barely be scrapes in the ground, sometimes composed of such things as pebbles, seaweed, and the bones of birds and fish.
Guillemots generally tend to winter in the vicinity of their breeding areas, according to the BNA, but juveniles — such as the birds I’d seen — tend to disperse more. I wondered where the pair I was observing had hatched, glad they had found the waters of Casco Bay to their liking.