My mother likes it when I write columns about colorful backyard birds. She is less enthusiastic about ducks and seabirds. Thus, I can already sense her disappointment in this week’s column. That is the secret to exemplary mothering: the ability to express disapproval in a loving, supportive way.
Yet I am compelled this week to write about birds out in the ocean. Birding in Maine has a distinct rhythm. In May and June, songbirds dominate the landscape. They sing upon arrival, they sing to attract a mate, they sing to protect their territory and they sing to teach their song to the young.
Then they shut up.
Shorebirds dominate Maine in August. Southbound hawks delight us in September. By October, winter birds start to filter back in. July is different. I am sometimes asked, “If northern birds go south in the winter, do southern birds go north in the summer?” The answer is yes and, to see it for yourself, get on a boat.
Birds that breed in the southern ocean are filling our northern ocean as you read these words. Although saltwater dominates the planet, the truth is that the southern hemisphere has more of it. About 60 percent of the northern hemisphere is ocean. For the southern hemisphere, it’s over 80 percent. So it’s natural that ocean birds breed where there is more ocean. For instance, nowhere is there more ocean than around the islands of Tristan da Cunha. This volcanic group of islands is the most remote archipelago in the world — hidden far out in the South Atlantic, closer to South Africa than South America. It is a breeding colony to many of the birds that spend summers with us. Other breeding colonies lie closer to Argentina, such as
the Falkland Islands and South Georgia.
It’s anybody’s guess which of the bird species is the most abundant in the world, but if you guess Wilson’s storm-petrel, nobody will laugh at you. There are many millions of these swallow-size seabirds. The vanguard of northbound migrants shows up in Maine waters in late May. By June, they are common. By July, they are abundant, having flown thousands of miles to get here. Great and sooty shearwaters are also southern hemisphere breeders who come up into the Gulf of Maine during their winter.
Cory’s shearwaters nest in the Mediterranean. Their visits to Maine have been increasing in recent summers. Manx shearwaters nest mostly around the British Isles. A few breed on our side of the ocean and a nesting pair was discovered on Matinicus Rock in 2007. They are regularly seen on boat trips.
The northern fulmar is similar to the shearwaters. Its breeding range begins in Atlantic Canada and stretches far north and west to Alaska. When not nesting, it wanders into our neighborhood. Petrels, shearwaters and fulmars are in a family known as tubenoses. They have a tube-like nostril on the top of the bill that helps them excrete excess salt and allows them to stay at sea without freshwater.
Seabirds go wherever the food is. It’s commonplace to see ocean birds in the vicinity of whales since they’re feeding off the same abundance. Whale-watch boats provide a daily opportunity to get offshore, and the Bar Harbor Whale Watch is my favorite. The skilled naturalists on board are keenly aware that birders frequent their trips and they take pains to point out interesting species. Their boats are fast and stable, which is an advantage for those who have a tendency to seasickness.
Maine Audubon takes over the boat one day each autumn to get farther offshore and spend more time looking for rare birds. This year’s trip is scheduled for Sept. 30 and reservations can be made by contacting Maine Audubon. Look it up on the event schedule at www.maineaudubon.org.
The Odyssey out of Portland Harbor gets some good birds during its whale-watch tours. Cap’n Fish’s Whale Watch shares a port with Boothbay Whale Watch and both competitors motor out of Boothbay Harbor all summer. Up the coast, the Eastport Windjammers sail out to Head Harbor Passage at the northern tip of Campobello where whales and seabirds tend to congregate. Even passengers on ferries to our offshore islands see a few.
You get the picture. There are lots of birds out there this time of year, including pomarine and parasitic jaegers, red and red-necked phalaropes, northern gannets and several members of the puffin family. Maybe I’ll write about those next time. Don’t tell my mother.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at email@example.com.