April 25, 2018
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‘Grudge birds’ — the vexing birds that refuse to let me see them

Courtesy of John Berry
Courtesy of John Berry
Great skuas nest in the northern hemisphere, mostly on the offshore islands of Scotland, with colonies also in Iceland, Ireland, and Norway.
By Bob Duchesne, Special to the BDN

It is time for me to settle a grudge. Indeed, I have a number of grudges to settle. There are a handful of birds that refuse to let me see them. I believe they intentionally avoid me, because many other Maine birders have had no problem seeing them.

Others call them nemesis birds. I call these “grudge birds” because I hold a personal grudge against them. A bird does not become a grudge bird until I have actually attempted to find it on multiple occasions. It is a bird that I should have been able to see by now, given all of the times I have tried. This is the season when many of my grudge birds wander into Maine and, by golly, I’m going to nab one of them this September if it kills me.

I’m taking all of the proper steps. First and foremost, I am getting on the Maine Audubon pelagic boat trip, Sept. 14. Once a year, Audubon charters the Bar Harbor Whale Watch boat and makes a dedicated search for unusual seabirds. The term pelagic refers to critters of the open ocean. There are many birds that spend their lives at sea, returning to land only long enough to nest. Plenty of other birds are associated with water but are not technically pelagic species because they are equally happy on land. For instance, gulls are found at sea but prefer to loaf on shorelines and forage for food on beaches … and in McDonald’s parking lots.

There are two species of skua that visit Maine waters. I have not seen either one, despite repeated attempts. Skuas are pirate birds that subsist mostly by stealing food from other birds. They are capable of preying on birds and rodents on their breeding grounds, but most of their time at sea is spent merely robbing their meals. The smaller members of the family are called jaegers, which is the German word for hunter. Pomarine and parasitic jaegers are often seen along the Maine coastline. It’s the bigger members that are my nemesis. The south polar skua is spotted more often than the great skua, but both are sighted annually and several have already been seen this year. Just not if I am on the boat.

Thus it is that this year’s Maine Audubon pelagic trip is jinxed from the start. I will be on deck, sorting through the jaegers, shearwaters, storm-petrels, gannets, phalaropes, puffins, razorbills and murres, trying to identify my first skua. If past predicts future, I will fail again and dash the chances for the entire boat. But with the incredible number of other pelagic species out there, I expect to have a splendid time anyway, and so will everyone else.

Plus, I have a few additional grudges. I have seen lesser black-backed gulls in other states, but never in Maine. It’s my number one Pine Tree State nemesis. These European gulls nest as close to us as Iceland and sightings along our coast have increased over the last few decades. They resemble our great black-backed gulls, but they are smaller and their legs are yellow instead of pink. I really should have seen one in Maine by now, but I have a hard time making myself care enough about gulls to actually work at it.

One was easily viewable on last year’s pelagic trip and I was just about to settle the score and check it off my Maine list when I was informed that we were in Canadian waters. Son of a —-!

The annual pelagic trip is the top offshore birding event in Maine. The vessel is packed with experts spread throughout the boat, willing and anxious to help passengers spot the hard ones. The crew brings chum to entice the birds closer, and thousands of birds cluster around the boat. The speedy catamaran ventures farther and voyages longer than the typical whale watch, going wherever the birding is likely to be best. It’s a once-a-year adventure and one of the biggest events on the Maine birding calendar. For quick registration, just visit www.maineaudubon.org.

Do check the forecast and take precautions against seasickness. Everyone was pink when they left the dock last year, but a few returned green. (You know who you are.) If you come, be sure to look me up. I’ll be the one with a look of sheer determination on his face. Don’t expect eye contact if I’m staring out to sea. I have a score to settle.

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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