“Go west, young man,” Horace Greeley wrote in 1865, and I approve. That will make things less crowded for me Down East, which is where I am going.
The upper coast of Washington County is terrific any time of year, but September is magical. Head Harbor Passage, the channel between Eastport and Campobello, features the largest whirlpool in the Western Hemisphere. “ The Old Sow” gets its name from the grunting, pig-like sound it makes as it swirls and gurgles on the strong tide. Or it’s the corruption of “sough,” an old English word for moaning sounds. Opinions differ. The tidal rush of water here has been clocked at up to 17 miles per hour.
The absurd tide and frigid water create conditions for thriving sea life. Harbor seals and porpoises are abundant. Minke whales patrol the channel, swimming directly into the whirlpool when it suits them. Finback and humpback whales also visit the mouth of the passage.
But it’s the gulls that excite me. Bear with me here, and rest assure that I am normal. Gulls make me yawn, an opinion shared by many birders. But what happens in this channel is astounding. There is the usual complement of Maine’s common gulls: herring, great black-backed and ring-billed. These are joined by countless Bonaparte’s gulls and black-legged kittiwakes. By countless, I mean I am too lazy to count them. I’d estimate 20,000.
The kittiwakes are not a surprise. The southernmost nesting colony in eastern North America is just up the bay on White Island. Later in summer, they descend into the channel in big numbers, roosting on the islands at slack tides. You can often see them on the offshore rocks at Quoddy Head State Park in Lubec, too.
The Bonaparte’s gulls aren’t a surprise, either. This tern-like gull is the only gull in the world that nests in trees, taking over crow and jay nests around subarctic lakes and ponds. The gull is named after Charles Lucien Bonaparte, Napoleon’s nephew, who was a noted French naturalist in his day. Bonaparte’s gulls move to saltwater in autumn, entering Maine waters by the thousands.
While neither gull is a surprise in this channel, the sheer quantity of gulls is. When there are that many gulls, rarities are bound to show up. Chris Bartlett of Eastport is the marine extension associate for the University of Maine Cooperative Extension in the county. He gets his skiff into the channel regularly, and he is always taunting me with unusual bird sightings. There are three in particular.
The little gull is the smallest gull in the world. It’s a Eurasian bird, though there has been a small colony on Hudson Bay since the 1960s. It has the same black head as a Bonaparte’s gull, but it is slightly smaller, and the underside of its wing is blackish. A few of them get into Maine each summer, generally on southern Maine beaches and up in Head Harbor Passage.
The common black-headed gull is also a Eurasian bird. If you walk around London, you’ll see them everywhere. There is a small colony established in Newfoundland. This gull is slightly larger than a Bonaparte’s gull, and it is also dark under the wings.
The Sabine’s gull is the rarest of the three. It nests in the high arctic, winters in the tropics and avoids Maine, except in this spot, where one seems to pop up annually.
As winter arrives, other gulls descend from the north. Iceland gulls can be found in sparse numbers all along the Maine coast during the dark months. On my last winter visit to East Quoddy Lighthouse at the northern tip of Campobello, I was startled to see every gull swirling around was an Iceland gull.
Nor is the abundance of birdlife in Head Harbor Passage limited to gulls. With good binoculars, it’s often possible to find razorbills and common murres in mid-channel. These relatives of the puffin normally go out to sea after nesting, but some can’t resist the local bounty.
There was a time when red-necked phalaropes crowded into the channel. These tiny birds are classified as shorebirds, though they don’t act like other shorebirds. Rather than feed on mudflats, they swim with lobed toes and pick food off the surface. In the 1980s, tens of thousands could be found in the waters near Eastport. For unknown reasons, that population crashed, and birders would be pleased to find a few dozen nowadays.
Need more inducement to visit? The Eastport Pirate Festival is next weekend.
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 email@example.com.