So there I was, standing on the pier in Stonington. It was snowing. The ocean was as cold as the chilled air. I was about to board a small boat and head onto a swirling winter sea. I was thinking: “What could possibly go wrong?”

The answer is: nothing.

Last Saturday, Island Heritage Trust and Isle au Haut Ferry teamed up for the third annual Duck Cruise, and this one was as lucky as the first two. The long, cold winter abated long enough to entice 30 birders to search for wintering waterfowl. Harlequin ducks were the chief target, but we were game for anything.

An odd set of weather conditions persisted for the voyage. Though the sun shone through the thin clouds, the snow never stopped, nor did it ever get heavy enough to obscure visibility. It was the pleasure of winter without the pain. Thus inspired, I decided to do something I never do. I counted birds.

I dislike counting birds. I’ve participated in Christmas bird counts in prior years, but by the time I’ve counted the morning’s 50th chickadee, I’ve grown bored. However, this day was to be a search for harlequin ducks, in fact, many harlequin ducks. For decades, this brightly colored breeder from the frozen north has chosen the waters of Isle au Haut as a favorite wintering place. It is the largest concentration of harlequins in eastern North America.

The tally started fast. We were barely 20 minutes away from the dock and, boom, a pair of harlequins buzzed by the boat. The wind was mild, from the south. Captain Garrett Aldrich took the boat down the east side of Isle au Haut, which was a first for me. In previous years, we’ve proceeded through the thoroughfare and along the west side. I can now confess to a little bit of trepidation.

As the official spotter, it was my duty to point out unusual species. I was relying on my previous experience to give me an edge. I knew where unusual birds were likely to be on the west side of the island. On the east side of Isle au Haut, my edge was gone.

No matter. Aldrich steered us to some ledges that looked promising, and there I spotted something I had never seen before. I laughed out loud. Over a hundred purple sandpipers were roosting on a snow-covered ledge. Purple sandpipers are the color of wet granite. They blend in. Usually I have to work hard to spot them on the rocks. These guys were standing in the snow, as plain as the freckles on a Scottish lass. In the water, to the right, there were two more harlequins.

And so it went. Altogether, we turned up about 110 harlequin ducks, 50 long-tailed ducks, 26 black guillemots, 24 common loons, 11 red-breasted mergansers, five red-necked grebes and one horned grebe.

Experienced birders will exclaim, “You only saw one horned grebe?”

Yes, we saw only one, despite how common they usually are. Scoter numbers were light, too. We had 4 white-winged scoters, about the same number of surf scoters, and no blacks.

Experienced birders will exclaim, “You saw no black scoters?”

I blame the east side of Isle au Haut. I often do better with grebes and scoters on the west side.

On the other hand, the east route yielded seven great cormorants, four common goldeneyes, and five black ducks. Put a handful of buffleheads on the list, too. I didn’t bother to count the gulls, nor all of the common eiders. Refer back to the top of this column where I disclosed that I get bored with counting abundant birds.

I come awake when a rarity shows up. Thick-billed murres are relatives of the puffin but do not nest in Maine waters. The closest colony is Witless Bay in Newfoundland. They do stray into Maine in winter, and we almost ran one over during the return. What a relaxed bird! He neither dove nor swam away, and we circled back for another look.

This annual duck trip has become quite popular. The Isle au Haut Ferry also has increased the number of summer puffin trips to Seal Island, and these are becoming popular. I used to have the boat all to myself, but I think somebody has been spilling the beans about how much fun this is, maybe even putting it in the newspaper. When I find out who it is, he will get a piece of my mind.

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