I love birding Canada. It’s almost like birding in a different country. I especially enjoy Campobello and Grand Manan. Both are similar to Maine, but with health insurance. A combination of three natural factors make our shared waters some of the best in the world for birding.
First, our waters are so cold that only children will swim in them. The warm waters of the Gulf Stream bypass the Gulf of Maine. Our frigid sea provides rich nutrients that encourage micro-organisms to flourish. This creates an abundant food supply for larger marine life.
Second, our tides are among the highest in the world. The Bay of Fundy squeezes the incoming tide up a huge funnel, bounded by Maine and New Brunswick on the western shore and Nova Scotia on the east. While the shape of the bay is important, it’s actually the size of the bay that amplifies the tide. It is just the right dimension to make 110 billion tons of water slosh back and forth like waves in a bathtub. The moving water is equivalent to the flow of all of the world’s rivers combined.
Third, our undersea geology is a rocking and rolling place. In recent geologic history, it was shaped by glaciers when sea levels were very different. Much earlier, hundreds of millions of years ago, continents collided and separated along our shore, causing ridges that now force tidal currents upward as they pass over. Some of those ridges even combine to keep the warm Gulf Stream out of the cold Gulf of Maine. Georges Bank is the most famous of these ridges.
So we have the triple whammy: cold, nutrient-rich water surging over an uneven seafloor. You can certainly see it in Maine, especially Down East. The tide rips around Quoddy Head State Park as if it’s late for dinner. Next to Eastport, it generates the western hemisphere’s largest whirlpool, called The Old Sow. Only a whirlpool in Norway is bigger.
The same tidal surge that generates The Old Sow also rushes past the lighthouse on East Quoddy Head in Campobello. Finback, humpback and minke whales are seen regularly as they feed along the rips. In August and September, it’s a terrific spot for birding.
Black-legged kittiwakes and Bonaparte’s gulls roost on the rocks when they are not dining among the whales. Often, great and sooty shearwaters come in for close observation. Northern gannets also sneak in for a meal near shore. Rare common black-headed
gulls and little gulls are sporadic visitors, and a very rare Sabine’s gull has been spotted several times over the last three years. In winter, the number of Iceland gulls at the lighthouse can be impressive.
Grand Manan lies just across the channel. It is the Canadian island you can see from Quoddy Head State Park. The tides rush around this island with tremendous force, pushing food to the surface for the whales and birds to plunder. The critters come surprisingly close to land, and it is so much fun to sit next to a lighthouse and watch the show that it ought to be a sin. Thank goodness for fog or the residents would never get any work done amid all that beauty.
Although Grand Manan sits as close to the United States as it does Canada, you have to drive 50 minutes north into New Brunswick before you can take the ferry due south again to reach the island. It’s worth it. The ferry crossing is one of the best pelagic birding trips around. I usually encounter large flocks of shearwaters each summer. This year, I’ve been noticing many more puffins and razorbills. Manx shearwaters are somewhat scarce in Maine waters, but this seabird has been surprisingly common over the last six weeks.
Fees for the ferry are collected on the Grand Manan side. I suppose that means a person could walk onto the ferry at Blacks Harbour, not disembark on the other end, and ride the 90 minute ferry both ways for free — enjoying a fabulous pelagic birding trip at no cost. I’ve never tried it. If you do, remember: you didn’t get this idea from me. Besides, it’s only $10.90 for a pedestrian. It would cost you that much to park your car in Portland.
I guide several birding tours to Campobello and Grand Manan every year. On a cold day this winter, I’ll tell you more about it. We can put on some Jimmy Buffett music and dream about the islands.
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.