“Pffft,” I say to Vermont and many other states that border Canada. I know I shouldn’t tease them. It’s not their fault that they lack an ocean. Certainly we share many of the same northern forest birds, and a warbler is just as pretty in, say, Burlington, as it is in Maine. But the only way those poor folks are going to enjoy the spectacle of pelagic birding is to come visit us.
The word pelagic comes from the Greek and pertains to the open ocean. When applied to birds, it means those species that are typically found only at sea. There are a lot of them. Most nest on remote islands. Some nest in the colder regions of North and South America, then return to the ocean after breeding. My last column discussed one such family of birds — the tubenoses — which includes storm petrels, shearwaters, and fulmars. So what else is out there?
I received the following email from Jim Parker of Veazie. Not only do he and I serve together in the Maine Legislature and share a committee assignment, but Jim sometimes takes boat passengers out of Milbridge to see puffins and whales.
Jim wrote: “Off shore and some places near shore I have seen a dark colored (sort of chocolate brown colored) bird which acts something like a tern but bigger and which seems to chase and attack terns. Any thoughts on what it is? It is about twice the size of a common tern.”
It’s a jaeger. Parasitic and pomarine jaegers are regularly seen in Maine waters, while the long-tailed jaeger is rare. Jaeger comes from the German word for hunter. In reality, it is not trying to catch the terns. It is harassing them, trying to make them drop the food they are carrying. It is capable of eating rodents, small birds, and insects, and I’ve seen parasitic jaegers along Hudson Bay eating the eggs from a Canada goose nest, but they are mostly famous for acts of air piracy. Great and south polar skuas are larger members of this family and are sporadically seen harassing terns and gulls in Maine waters.
The largest pelagic bird seen offshore is the northern gannet. Its wingspan exceeds 5 feet. It takes five years to reach maturity, during which time it gradually changes color from brown to bright white. Sixty thousand pairs nest on Bonaventure Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Quebec. Two other colonies in the Gulf and three colonies off Newfoundland account for all of the North American breeders. Huge colonies off the British Isles, parts of Scandinavia, and France account for the rest. Gannets are plunge-divers, folding their wings and plummeting into the ocean from as high as 130 feet. Their massive size and feeding habits make them the easiest of the pelagic species to be seen from land.
Phalaropes are among the smallest birds to be seen offshore. The red-necked phalarope is a tiny wading bird in breeding season. It nests in subarctic regions around the globe. Then it heads for the sea and spends its winters in tropical ocean waters. During migration, many thousand congregate in the Bay of Fundy to take advantage of upwelling currents that bring food to the surface. Red phalaropes are slightly larger, breed farther north, and winter farther south. In late summer, both species mingle in Maine waters where they often appear to be a cloud of birds, swirling around vessels. It’s impressive.
While whale-watch boats are the best way to experience the pelagic birding spectacle, there are a few spots from which to try your luck on land. The northern tip of Campobello is best. The mammoth tides that rush through Head Harbor Passage and past the lighthouse on East Quoddy Head bring large amounts of food to the surface. Humpback, fin, and minke whales routinely feed close to shore,surrounded by great and sooty shearwaters. Northern gannets are usually visible.
Indeed, the gannets get close to land along our entire coastline, from Quoddy Head in Lubec, to Schoodic Point and Otter Cliff in Acadia, to the beaches of southern Maine. Easterly breezes and bad weather sometimes bring shearwaters and jaegers close to the rocks at Pemaquid Point in New Harbor and Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth.
Still, the best way to see ocean birds is to risk seasickness and get out on the ocean. Vermont will be green with envy. You’ll just be green.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.