December 15, 2017
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Birders boat through a snowstorm to spot a ‘crazy’ duck

By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

It was a dark and stormy night.

The last snowstorm of the winter engulfed southern Maine on April Fool’s Day. All week I had been watching bad weather march across the map, threatening to cancel the annual boat trip around Isle au Haut. We were to search for the harlequin ducks that congregate there every winter.

By Friday afternoon, I was so sure the storm would overtake our plans that I began to lay in a supply of Maine-style emergency provisions, including Cheetos and Allen’s coffee brandy.

Small craft warnings were in effect. Up to a foot of snow was expected in southern Maine.

Clearly we weren’t going. But I was the official spotter and couldn’t risk being derelict in my duties, so I called the trip sponsor, Island Heritage Trust, just to make sure.

I was surprised to reach a live human, and I was even more surprised by the answer: “We’re going for it!”

Garrett Aldrich is an expert captain, which is my favorite kind of captain. We would be onboard Mink, the older of two boats operated by the Isle au Haut Ferry.

Garrett figured we could tuck into the lee of the islands and navigate Mink through waves that were not likely to exceed four feet. Since I’ve been on that boat in 8-foot waves, the plan seemed reasonable.

Two dozen birders agreed. That number is less than half of what Mink can hold, and most passengers chose to hunker down in the warm cabin until something exciting happened. It was snowing as we departed the pier in Stonington — snowing sideways, that is.

Excitement came quickly. At the five-minute mark, a rogue wave knocked over two benches on the outside deck. We weren’t using them anyway, so we pushed them against the stern rail and resumed our vigilance, which was promptly rewarded. A large, ghostly gull came up behind us — a glaucous gull!

If you want to mis-name a bird, glaucous is a great word to use. From the Latin, it means a bluish-gray or greenish color. But a mature glaucous gull is much the same gray-and-white color as our herring gulls, though lacking black wing tips.

Immature glaucous gulls, such as the one we were looking at, are a uniformly off-white color.

Maine’s great black-backed gulls are the largest gulls in the world, nudging glaucous gulls into second place. Glaucous gulls nest high in the Arctic. Only a few winter in Maine, and it’s been three years since I’ve seen one.

So, 10 minutes from the pier, we’d already gotten a rare sighting. I looked forward to telling the world, assuming we survived the trip.

The seas calmed as we entered the lee of Isle au Haut. As usual, black guillemots were everywhere. These puffin relatives are familiar throughout Maine coastal waters, and are particularly abundant residents of this area.

There were a few small rafts of surf scoters, some red-breasted mergansers and red-necked grebes, dozens of long-tailed ducks, plus several common loons. We were seeing seabirds off the right side of the boat in reasonable numbers, but virtually nothing off the left side, because the sideways sleet was blinding.

We reached our next hot spot south of Isle au Haut’s Duck Harbor, reluctantly turning our eyeballs into the sleet to view a flock of 30 purple sandpipers cartwheeling around a ledge. They were watched over by a pair of great cormorants. Both species are normally seen only in winter, and most of the passengers dutifully left the cabin to take a look.

Finally, we reached the south end of the island. As if on cue, we spotted a tight flock of 30 harlequin ducks paddling in the raging surf.

No other species dares to go into this zone, where crashing waves can pummel birds. Harlequins feast on small fish and invertebrates in this turbulence without competition. In summer, they breed on the dangerous whitewater rivers of Subarctic Canada. Half of the entire eastern population winters in Maine, with most choosing the rough surf of Isle au Haut. Harlequins are unusual, colorful and crazy.

Half the harlequins decided to fly around Mink and settle on our leeward side. We watched for a while, then gripped tightly while the crew turned the boat around in the giant swells. We motored home, scattering more flocks of black, surf and white-winged scoters on the way.

This was to be the last storm of the season. But I have an emergency supply of coffee brandy tucked away just in case.

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.

 


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