If you are on a boat with me, you will not see a skua. Other than that, Maine Audubon’s annual pelagic birding trip went just fine.
Last Sunday’s weather for the boat trip was abysmal. But abysmal was a little late arriving. By the time the rain came, the Bar Harbor Whale Watch folks had us pounding past Schoodic Point on board the Friendship V, making the best speed we could while trying to keep breakfast down.
True, it was a bit rough on the way out. We were heading into the swells of the previous evening’s storm. I usually rely on a few pieces of candied ginger to help prevent queasiness. For many people, ginger has wonderful qualities for calming the stomach. For the rest, it improves the flavor of vomit.
But I digress.
Pelagic birding involves the pursuit of birds that are seen offshore. Once a year, Maine Audubon organizes an extended trip out to sea in search of species that can’t normally be seen from land. Most of the state’s well-known bird experts, many enthusiastic Mainers of all experience levels, and bunches of out-of-state visitors flock to this trip. It has been a must-do event for decades.
The forecast called for serious rain. But I’ve guided so many birding trips in the rain over the last few years that I now rely more on radar. I called up the maps online at 4 a.m. and noted that the next band of storms had just crossed over Cape Cod and was heading directly toward our planned route. I surmised it would hit us at about 7 a.m., about an hour after we left the dock. I missed my estimate by 20 minutes. The deluge at 6:40 a.m. swept all birders from the top deck, as they crawled down the pitching stairs to the covered deck below.
But a funny thing happened. The downpour soon abated and intermittent sprinkles became the norm for the next several hours. The seas calmed. Meanwhile, we were speeding toward Machias Seal Island. For captains and spotters, pelagic birding involves a lot of guesswork. It’s a big ocean. You know the birds are congregating out there somewhere and it’s just a matter of figuring out where.
The Friendship V is a fast boat. We reached Machias Seal Island less than two hours after departing Bar Harbor. In summer, the island is a renowned puffin colony. But on this day, it contained a handful of unimpressive gulls and little else. We moved on to a spot not far from Grand Manan. There, we hit the mother lode.
At first, we were thrilled to encounter increasing numbers of great and sooty shearwaters. Gull numbers swelled, including a couple of lesser black-backed gulls. This rare species breeds in Greenland, Iceland, and Europe. A handful reach the United States every year, but I have not personally seen one in Maine and I couldn’t count these on my state list because we were in Canadian waters. (Well, we were in disputed Canadian waters. Ever since the Treaty of Ghent ended the War of 1812, the exact boundary between the United States and Canada has remained unresolved. But I digress.)
Shortly, we were surrounded by whales. There were finback whales in every direction, augmented by a few minke whales. The whales and the currents were pushing food to the surface and this was what was attracting all the birds. The surface of the sea was now covered by thousands of shearwaters. Jaegers were drawn to the feast, ready to pilfer a meal at any opportunity. Jaegers breed in the subarctic where they raise their young on lemmings and whatever they can steal. At sea, much of their food comes from harassing gulls and terns until they are forced to drop their catches.
Multiple pomarine jaegers and a couple of parasitic jaegers swept past the boat. I’ve included a photo of a pomarine jaeger so that readers can appreciate the streamlined appearance of the bird, the apparent strength, and the impossibility of taking a good photo in the rain. I was pleased by the multitude of jaegers, but the truth is I was on the boat for one purpose. I’ve never seen a skua despite numerous tries. Great skuas and south polar skuas are also aerial pirates and are closely related to jaegers. They are stockier but less agile. This year’s pelagic trip did not turn up any. Although there were hundreds of birders on the successful trip, it’s clear who the jinx is. Me.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.