June 20, 2018
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Hiking the rugged granite shore of Great Wass Island

Greg Westrich photo | BDN
Greg Westrich photo | BDN
Henry Westrich climbs a big rock along the boulder-strewn shore of Great Wass Island.

by Greg Westrich

Special to The Weekly


I sat looking at sea ducks bobbing in the water among the lobster buoys. There were

three eiders near a small rocky island. Ann, my wife was talking with two hikers, a middle-aged

couple from near Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Henry, 10, and Emma, 6, sat on the granite near

me looking out to the jumble of small and large islands.

We were nearing the end of the 5.5 mile circuit of The Great Wass Preserve — the first time Emma had walked the loop on her own.

We had walked the 2-mile Little Cape Point Trail from the car to the shore. There we explored the cobbled beach at high tide. Emma and Henry waded in the cold water.

Ann and I watched, eating our lunch. In the time we were there, the tide went out several yards.

An osprey with ragged wings flew out the way we had hiked and, after a slow turn over us, flew

south toward the end of the island. I checked all the offshore rocks for seals, finding none. Across Cape Cove, a pomarine jaegar — a large, brown, gull-like bird — swooped down over the herring gulls sitting on the rocks, causing an uproar. The jaegar wheeled around, looking almost like an immature eagle, and landed atop a cliff. I watched it through my binoculars as it calmly sat looking out to sea, the gulls still calling loudly nearby.

I’d never seen a pomarine jaegar before. They are usually seen only offshore, stealing food from gulls and other sea birds.

I wondered if we sat in this one place long enough all the local birds would eventually fly by. This was such a surprising bird to see on Great Wass Island that I didn’t feel comfortable with my identification until the next day after I consulted every bird guide I own and emailed birding expert Bob Duchesne, whose columns on birding are published regularly in the Bangor Daily News, to see.

We took our time on the 2.5 miles along the shore to Mud Hole, following blue blazes that took us over uneven rocks, atop spruce-covered Little Cape point, and along cliffs that dropped straight into the ocean. Flocks of dark sea ducks bobbed in the water or flew by in loose Vs, mostly black scoters. Gulls and cormorants sat atop rocks, but no seals were to be seen anywhere.

Henry found small, kid-sized granite faces to climb.

So, when we approached Mud Hole where the trail turned inland for the last mile to our car, I sat down and checked one last time for sea mammals. As I watched three eiders, a dolphin broke the surface near them. Excitedly, I pointed out to where I’d seen it. We all watched a pod of approximately five dolphins slowly make their way across Mistake Harbor toward Mud Hole. Every minute or so, their black bodies would break the surface for a moment as they took a breath.

As they entered Mud Hole — a narrow inlet bordered by dark spruce — we lost them. Either the dolphins had turned up the coast and out of sight or the dark reflection of the trees on the water in Mud Hole hid their passage. We waited patiently for them to reappear, the kids


wondering where they’d gone.

Henry noticed two black guillemots, making their way out of Mud Hole among the lobster buoys. The longer we watched, the more there was to see. Just as we were about to get up and start hiking again, a seal popped up out of the water directly in front of us. Less than 20 feet away, it calmly watched us for several minutes, then silently slid beneath the surface. It surfaced once more out among the buoys and was gone beyond a rocky islet.

Ann and I have been trying to help Henry and Emma learn that the best way to experience the world, to see what is around us, is by being quietly present to it, to move slowly down the path or along the shore, open to whatever happens.

Sometimes the best way to see wildlife is to sit quietly in one place and let the birds and animals come to you. In so doing we may not see what we anticipated, but we will be pleasantly surprised. It made me smile to see the lesson play out so clearly.

Greg Westrich lives in Glenburn and is the author of “Hiking Maine.”


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