June 25, 2018
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Stormy weather can test birders’ patience

By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

I lead birding tours in my spare time. Wait, let me rephrase that. Because I lead birding tours, I have no spare time. But it has taught me the value of having a Plan C.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about Maine’s five puffin nesting islands. As it happens, I’ve been to four of them over the last four weeks. On Wednesday, I took a group to Eastern Egg Rock, the southernmost puffin colony in Maine. If any birding event could trigger my post traumatic distress syndrome, that one sure could. Last year, Eastern Egg Rock saved my bacon.

It all started when I received an inquiry from an Audubon group in Dayton, Ohio. I was asked if I would be interested in putting together a weeklong tour for June 2012. After some preliminary discussions, it became clear: I could put together my fantasy tour, and they would pay to go on it. Yee-haw!

We convened the tour in Portland and spent the first day unearthing birds in Scarborough Marsh. From there, it was off to the western mountains to have a go at finding the elusive Bicknell’s thrush. That succeeded, and our luck held until we got to Baxter State Park for two days of bad rain and good birding.

But the grand finale of the tour was to be the puffins of Machias Seal Island off the Down East coast. I pay minor attention to weather forecasts and major attention to weather radar. Even an incurable optimist could see the shape of a classic nor’easter moving up the coastline on the day before our puffin trip. The remnant of a tropical storm was on full display, spinning slowly counterclockwise and throwing wind and rain from the Atlantic back onto the mainland. Though the captain hadn’t officially canceled it yet, this puffin trip clearly wasn’t going to happen. Things are getting ugly.

Plan B. We spent the day birding Down East and then I sent the group to bed after an early dinner. We would arise pre-dawn and streak for Bar Harbor. We would clamber aboard the Bar Harbor Whale Watch and this group of determined birders would get their danged puffins after all. Everything went like clockwork the next morning and you can imagine my relief when we were all aboard the boat and motoring out of the harbor. You can imagine my anguish when we reached Schoodic Point and found the waves to be too big to continue. The captain apologized and turned us around ten miles from the nearest puffin. Now there’s only one thing worse than having to deliver bad news to a group of already disgruntled birders: spending the rest of the day with them while squeezed tightly in a van. It would be a dismal day unless I came up with …

Plan C. The Hardy Boat leaves New Harbor every day at 5:30 p.m. to visit the puffins at Eastern Egg Rock. “Everybody, get back in the van!” I told the group we weren’t giving up yet. We’d bird our way down the coast, arrive in time for the tour, and get those pesky puffins! As I suspected, the weather improved as the storm pulled away and the seas were almost normal by evening. As we approached the island, a puffin popped up next to the boat, then another. Soon, there were scores. There is an inner sense of accomplishment when one stares fate in the eye and fate blinks first. We’d be late getting back to the hotel and dinner would be a Big Mac and fries, but nobody was going back to Ohio puffinless.

And so it went this week. It was pouring rain again as I met another group in Portland. An ill wind blew from the east as the remnant of tropical storm Andrea pummeled the state. And here I was … about to lead another assemblage of distant birders onto a puffin boat one day later. This time, there was no Plan C. In the event of all-day downpours, the best I could come up with was a shopping spree at L.L.Bean.

The story has a happy ending. As Andrea pulled away, the winds shifted to the north and knocked down the rolling swells from the east. Though still drizzling and showery, the puffin trip went off on time.

Today is my first day off in three weeks. I’ve been guiding for 18 straight days. It rained for 19 of those.

I’m switching hobbies to mushroom collecting.

Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.


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