I am not clueless. I realize that most readers love to learn about the everyday birds around them, and when I write about unusual, hard-to-see, not-in-my-backyard birds, I can hear the groans coming from neighborhood homes.
Let the groans begin. Today’s column is about ocean birds. Last Saturday, Maine Audubon conducted its annual pelagic birding trip. Every September, Audubon charters a fast catamaran from Bar Harbor Whale Watch and heads into the Gulf of Maine to enjoy the abundance of not-in-my-backyard ocean species. The trip is a combined sea-birding expedition and cookie-tossing competition.
The forecast for September 12 had me worried. The previous day had been stormy. The marine forecast called for winds to shift but not diminish, with 4-foot seas and patchy fog. In previous years, I’ve seen a few unfortunate participants hanging over the rail in choppy seas, involuntarily chumming.
Whenever fog obscures the horizon, it can cause disorientation, which encourages motion seasickness even when there isn’t much motion. Fortunately, the morning dawned without fog, and the swells seldom exceeded 3 feet. Our vessel, the Friendship V, was a large catamaran that easily cuts through the waves.
It’s a perfect day on the ocean when I see lots of birds and nobody throwing up. And what birds we saw! We sighted nine great skuas. Nine! It used to be a miracle just to see one — as rare as candor in a presidential debate. Skuas are the marauding pirates of the sea. Larger than gulls, skuas follow the other birds around and steal their food, harassing them until they drop their morsels.
Pomarine jaegers are in the same family. Though they are slightly smaller, they are still big enough to bully every fish-catching bird out there in the North Atlantic. It used to be that if we saw four during this annual trip, it was a good day. Last weekend, we counted 30!
Great shearwaters are South Atlantic breeders that come up here during late summer. They nest on four of the remotest islands on earth, halfway between South America and South Africa. The official count for the trip was 671 individuals, a number so precise that we must have had an accountant on board. Sooty shearwaters nest along the southern tip of Argentina, and we added 11 of those birds to our total. Wilson’s storm-petrels breed in the same Antarctic region. We tallied more than 240.
The largest birds out there are northern gannets, with a wingspan that can exceed 6 feet. They soar high, then plunge dive on fish, sometimes to a depth of 70 feet. They nest in very large colonies in Quebec and Newfoundland, and it’s common to see many during Audubon’s pelagic trip. We totaled over 200!
On the other end of the spectrum, red-necked phalaropes are miniscule shorebirds that breed in prairie potholes and subarctic ponds. They winter on the ocean, often in big flocks. The official count was 338, but given how big some of the flocks were, I’d say our scorekeeper is the master of creative bookkeeping.
Other rarities included five lesser black-backed gulls — a European species that sneaks over here now and then. We had a few puffins and razorbills. These are Maine breeders, but they can be hard to find once they leave their nesting islands. Eight Leach’s storm-petrels, three northern fulmars, two Manx shearwaters and one black-legged kittiwake also made the list. Judging by the number of exclamation points I’ve used in this column so far, it was a most successful trip!
One day later, I went to sea again. A couple of weeks ago, I mentioned that Chris Bartlett sees birds I don’t. Chris is a marine scientist who lives in Eastport. He has a small boat and is always finding absurdly rare birds in the passage between Maine and New Brunswick.
Last Sunday, I joined him for a foray into the channel adjacent to Campobello. These are treacherous waters, featuring some of the strongest tides in the world and the largest whirlpool in the western hemisphere. So Chris let his 13-year-old daughter drive. Sarah kept us alive.
Danged if Chris didn’t find me a little gull. This diminutive gull breeds in Europe, though there is a small breeding colony far along the shore of Hudson Bay in Manitoba. I’ve looked for little gulls all over Maine, but I’ve never found one so that I could check it off my Maine life list. And I still can’t count it. We were in Canadian waters. Dang again.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.