This is binocular month. Over the last two weekly columns, you’ve read about how to use them. You’ve read about how to assess your old ones. Today, you’ll get some tips on how to purchase new ones. First, you should…
Beep! Beep! Beep! We interrupt this column for a special bulletin. Hades has frozen over. The jinx has broken. Bob Duchesne has added two new birds to his life list!
On Aug. 31, this column explained that I had a grudge against certain birds that refused to reveal themselves to me. I even went so far as to say, “By golly, I’m going to nab one of them this September if it kills me.” Apparently, the birds took pity on me because Maine Audubon’s annual pelagic boat trip on Sept. 14 was one of the best ever.
The Friendship V pulled away from the Bar Harbor Whale Watch pier just after 6 a.m. Within an hour, I was able to knock the first bird off my grudge list. I’ve explained in previous columns that my search for a lesser black-backed gull in Maine has been forever futile. At long last, there it was, circling the stern of the catamaran, looking very much like a great black-backed gull, but smaller, grayer, and yellow-footed. Jackpot!
The gull would become No. 315 of the birds I have seen in Maine. It was not, however, a lifer. I had seen three in previous years — two in Virginia, one in Canada. No, the distinction of being my next lifer would have to wait another 50 minutes. Suddenly a cry rose above the sea breeze that a skua could be seen in the distance. This was the bird I was truly after. There are two species of skua. The great skua is a breeder on northern European islands and moors. The south polar skua breeds along the Antarctic coastline. Both are the size of heavy gulls and get much of their food by bullying other birds. A few get into Maine waters, but not when I’m around. I’m a jinx, or so I thought.
Let me explain something about the Bar Harbor Whale Watch boats. They are the biggest, fastest whale watch boats in North America. How fast? Fast enough to chase down a flying bird. The skua was doing about 35 mph. The boat was doing slightly better and won the five-minute chase, whereupon the skua circled and flew directly over our heads, confirming itself to be a south polar skua. Jackpot.
I knew that a great skua was now too much to be hoped for. Never in the 17-year history of Maine Audubon’s annual pelagic trip had both rare species been encountered on the same day. Plus, I may have rid myself of one jinx, but the other remained. Jinxes don’t give up easily.
So, 2 hours and 15 minutes into the voyage, I prepared myself for disappointment when the cry went up that another skua had been sighted. Even from a distance, it was clearly not the same bird. This one was missing several flight feathers. We were too far to judge the color, but we were gaining on it more quickly than the last. South polar skuas are grayish brown, great skuas are grayish gray. As we drew closer, this one was … grayish gray. Jackpot again.
We continued toward Machias Seal Island. Not long after crossing into Canadian waters two more skuas appeared, one of each species, totaling four for the day. With my luck clearly changing, I would have bought a lottery ticket right then and there, except that I was 30 miles out to sea.
Experts on board kept count for the day. Altogether, the cruise totaled 384 common eiders, 21 pomarine jaegers and 2 parasitic jaegers. Among the shearwaters, we tallied 370 greats, 84 sooty shearwaters, and one manx. The ten lesser black-backed gulls represented a new high for the trip and we did well to witness seven northern fulmars.
This ends the bulletin. We now return you to your regularly scheduled column, which this week was about buying binoculars. First, you should… What? I’m out of time? Drat.
One final announcement: The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon visits Sea Dog Brewing Co. in Bangor next Friday night, Oct. 4, for “Moose Tales and Ales.” IFW moose biologist Lee Kantar delivers the talk about Maine moose at 7 p.m., but get there early for dinner.
That’s my plan, and I expect to be one beer ahead when the lecture starts.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.