It’s time to switch gears. Maine is one of the best places on Earth to bird during the first half of summer. There are so many songbirds in full voice. But then this happens. The eggs are hatched, the chicks are fed, the parents are exhausted and the singing stops, mostly.
Suddenly, long before we’re ready to admit it, the first half of summer is over and southbound migration is happening.
For that matter, so is a different kind of northbound migration. Several species of birds from the South Atlantic are fleeing their inhospitable winter and coming up here. The Gulf of Maine is for them what Aruba is for us, only with better seafood.
Great shearwaters are coming up from their nesting colonies on a remote group of islands in the South Atlantic, midway between Argentina and South Africa. The largest island is Tristan da Cunha, described as the most remote inhabited place on Earth.
Sooty shearwaters are coming up from the coast of Argentina, leaving behind their nesting colonies in the Falkland Islands and Tierra del Fuego.
Shearwaters are similar in size and shape to gulls, but their stiff wings and frequent glides distinguish them from gulls as they search just over the surface for small fish and squid. Shearwaters are tubenoses. They have a tubular nostril on top of the bill that allows them to secrete excess salt. As the season drags on, a few Manx shearwaters join their southern cousins on this side of the Atlantic, wandering away from their breeding islands in Northern Europe.
Incidentally, the Latin name for Manx shearwater is Puffinus Puffinus. The word puffin comes from 14th century English. It originally referred to the cured carcasses of shearwater nestlings, which must have been wicked tasty. It wasn’t until the 18th century that Atlantic puffins stole the puffin name, possibly because of their similar nesting habits.
Wilson’s storm-petrels are coming up. These tiny ocean-going birds are among the most abundant birds on Earth and breed on coastal islands near Antarctica, particularly the South Shetland Islands. Big numbers come up to the Gulf of Maine in summer. I mean really big numbers.
Also swirling around in the offshore mix: red and red-necked phalaropes, tiny shorebirds that nest in prairie potholes up north, then cavort around the ocean for the rest of the year. They are the smallest birds offshore. The largest are the northern gannets, with a 6-foot wingspan. Adults are heading south after breeding on their nesting islands in Quebec and Newfoundland. Immature gannets are just hanging out in the Gulf of Maine, enjoying the buffet.
Several marauders visit. Parasitic and pomarine jaegers are bullies from the north that harass gulls and terns until they drop the food they are carrying. Great and south polar skuas are bigger bullies. The former nests in Iceland and Great Britain, the latter nests in the Antarctic. Both are capable of bullying any bird they encounter.
All this is waiting for you out there. I often use Bar Harbor Whale Watch to get offshore. They have the two largest, fastest whale-watch boats in North America. But I’ve also had a whale of a good time on smaller boats, such as Robertson’s Sea Tours in Milbridge. And I hope to give Acadia Puffin Cruise of Winter Harbor a whale-watching try this summer.
For those prone to seasickness, I would suggest a ride up through Head Harbor Passage alongside Campobello. The shearwaters can be pretty numerous, and you will likely see a lot of puffin relatives as a bonus. The Tarquin is a 26-passenger boat in Lubec that leaves the dock at Inn on the Wharf. My favorite Eastport boat is the Pier Pressure, which can take 49 passengers out to see the whales that often congregate near the north end of Campobello. Butch Harris has been doing this a long time, haven’t you Butch?
All these boats primarily chase whales, not birds. But the birds are where the whales are, so it all works out. The granddaddy of boat trips — the ultimate once-a-year thrill cruise — is Maine Audubon’s pelagic trip with Bar Harbor Whale Watch, scheduled for Sept. 14. This extended ocean search is dedicated to the birds, though it usually gets a lot of whales, too. The boat is loaded with onboard experts to help everybody get on the rarities. If it’s a beautiful day, you’ll see a lot of birds. If it’s a rough, foggy day, you’ll see a lot of sick people. Be prepared.
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.
Watch: Puffins of Petit Manan