June 20, 2018
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Looking for birds? Don’t forget to check the water

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
A Great Shearwater, which breeds in the South Atlantic but spends its winter in Maine.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

Three quarters of the earth’s surface is covered by ocean. Are you limiting yourself to just a quarter of the planet? There is a name for northern birders who enjoy songbirds but not seabirds: Vermonters.

In the last few weeks, I’ve gotten salty. Let’s start with Downeast Charter Boat Tours in Lubec. It’s a small boat that takes no more than six passengers into the channel between Eastport and Campobello. If you time it right, the tour will also take you through the Old Sow — the second largest whirlpool in the world. It swirls between Eastport and Deer Island. We timed it right and accomplished three goals in one trip.

First, we experienced the Old Sow in all her glory. It’s peculiar to feel the powerful rips heave the boat to and fro. Captain Ralph Dennison shut down the engine long enough for us to hear the gurgle of the circling water. It was awesome.

Second, it’s common for seals, porpoises and whales to treat the whirlpool like a buffet table. Strong tides concentrate food for marine life. So it was that we met Gonzo, a minke whale who has a penchant for breaching. Later we met Breadknife and Slice. The former has bite marks that give his dorsal fin a serrated edge. The latter is missing his dorsal fin altogether.

Third, the channel fills with gulls in late summer, which was my primary reason for being there. Bonaparte’s gulls move in by the thousands after breeding in the freshwater lakes of Canada. It has a black head, similar to a laughing gull, but is smaller and more tern-like. They are not rare, but three other black-headed gull species lurking among them are.

The common black-headed gull is abundant in Europe and breeds as far west as Newfoundland. Little gulls are subarctic breeders across Eurasia and a few now breed in northern Canada. As the name implies, it is the smallest gull in the world. The Sabine’s gull is a circumpolar arctic breeder that winters in the tropics. I try several times a summer to find one of these needles in the haystack, but so far the haystack has always won. I’ll certainly try my luck again with Downeast Charter Boat Tours.

And I’ll try my luck again with Robertson Sea Tours out of Milbridge. Jamie Robertson captains the Kandi Leigh, a 28-foot lobster boat, and Captain Jim Parker steers the 32-foot Elizabeth Rose. Both take a small number of passengers out to see puffins at Petit Manan and the whales beyond. I jumped on Captain Parker’s boat a week ago, knowing that every whale chase is also a bird chase. Both feed along the same undersea ridges. These ridges force cold currents upward, bringing a rich supply of food to the surface.

It’s a briny Serengeti out there. Visualize a thousand shearwaters in place of the wildebeest herd and you get the idea. When weather and tide cooperate, the ocean comes alive with large concentrations of marine life. On this day, great shearwaters and Wilson’s storm-petrels were particularly numerous. Northern gannets by the dozen were plunge-diving among the whales. Yet some birds were unusually scarce. I noted only three sooty shearwaters and just a couple of phalaropes. A single parasitic jaeger followed the boat briefly, but he was the only one of his kind on the trip. Every voyage is unpredictable, which keeps me coming back for more.

It’s a small world. Jim Parker and I served together in the Maine House of Representatives. We even shared the same committee assignments. For several years, he’s been showing me photos of his unusual offshore sightings. I’ve also been following Jamie Robertson’s exploits ever since I discovered he was doing puffin trips to Petit Manan. Frankly, I intended to check out Robertson Sea Tours long ago, and I’ve been kicking myself for not doing it.

Small boats have advantages. Ocean birds sitting on the water are less likely to flee the approaching vessel, and you’re only a few feet above them. Small boat captains have more freedom to deviate course to investigate odd sightings. Small boats have plenty of room at the rail so that your view is not blocked by crowds. Seasickness is less likely on a small boat for some folks, too. So when Captain Parker informed me that his afternoon run was not full and asked if I would like to go out again for another four hours, there was only one possible answer. Yes!

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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