June 26, 2019
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Paddling with sharks and walking with snakes proves birders are nuts

Bob Duchesne | BDN
Bob Duchesne | BDN
Harlequin ducks are miracles of nature. They breed in Canadian whitewater rivers, and winter along the New England coast, where they seek out the roughest surf they can find. They forage in the turbulence where no other bird dares to go.

Birders are nuts. I had time to think about that while surrounded by sharks a couple of weeks ago.

I was in the Everglades, paddling a rented kayak into Snake Bight, a very shallow but bird-friendly cove on Florida Bay. Tens of thousands of shorebirds gather on the mudflats at low tide, surrounded by countless wading birds. It’s shallow, and if the tide empties out underneath you, you’ll be stuck in the mud and sun for hours.

As I slowly picked my way into the bay, I discovered I was surrounded by sharks. Many of them. They weren’t huge, maybe averaging about three feet in length, but they were big enough to keep your attention.

The kayak can float in four inches of water, but anything less than four inches makes paddling a muddy slog. I observed that these particular sharks could swim in about five inches of water, with dorsal and tail fins inevitably breaking the surface. It soon became evident that the best way for me to avoid getting stuck in the mud was to go wherever the sharks were. So I spent an entire day deliberately trying to find schools of sharks, and paddling among them. Birders are nuts.

A week later, I thought about this concept some more as I boarded a small boat in Stonington that would take a group of birders out into the frigid North Atlantic. It was the annual harlequin duck cruise on board the Isle au Haut Ferry, sponsored by Island Heritage Trust. The day started sunny, but fog and wind moved in as we departed the dock. Fortunately, we could see well enough to enjoy multiple flocks of harlequins.

In the late 1500s, a wild genre of street theater gained fashion in Italy and spread throughout Europe. Male characters were called harlequins, and their colorful costumes bore a striking resemblance to the waterfowl that now bears the name. In fact, the scientific name for the species is Histrionicus histrionicus, which comes from the Latin word meaning actor. The birds have several nicknames, but they are often called “the lords and ladies of the surf.”

Harlequins are miracles of nature. They breed in Canadian whitewater rivers, and winter along the New England coast, where they seek out the roughest surf they can find. They forage in the turbulence where no other bird dares to go. Without competition for the food found there, they thrive. They also get hurt. They’re just exceptionally fast healers.

The biggest population of wintering harlequins is around the southern end of Isle au Haut, but small pockets can be viewed in several places from the mainland. The best spot is Marginal Way in Ogunquit, a walking path along the ocean edge. They’re regularly spotted in the surf along Schoodic Point, and there’s a recurring cluster of them in Corea.

Thus, there’s no need to garb yourself with every stitch you own and embark on a winter sea cruise to see harlequins. But half the fun is discovering what else is out there. Many birds that breed near the Arctic Circle spend their winters along the Maine coast. This year’s trip was especially good for variety. My personal favorite was a thick-billed murre at close range. The nearest this relative of the puffin nests to Maine is in Witless Bay, Newfoundland. A few of them drift southward into the Gulf of Maine during the cold months. Three years ago, we found one on this trip. This year, I saw five! That doubles the total number I have seen in Maine waters previously.

We also saw some other puffin cousins. The waters around Isle au Haut are crowded with black guillemots, and most had already changed into their summer plumage. Our group also spotted several razorbills. But the biggest surprise was a fly-by of two brant. This diminutive goose isn’t often found in Maine, but big flocks gather as far north as New York City, and a few pop into Maine regularly.

So yeah, birders are nuts. I thought about that last summer, as I strapped a pair of snake-proof chaps around my lower legs. We were in Saskatchewan, visiting Grasslands National Park in August. It’s a short-grass prairie, beloved by prairie rattlers. For anyone wishing to hike off-road in the park, the rangers recommend wearing something that rattlesnakes can’t bite through. They even have free pairs to lend. I thought to myself, “Walking with rattlesnakes is nuts, but at least I’m not dumb enough to paddle with sharks.”

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 duchesne@midmaine.com.


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