Off the Maine Land
Two weekends on the water in search of awesome birds
A stork of a man appears and is $10 short of the fare for the boat. They let him on board anyway. He has been birding around the country and he looks haggard. He has been to 26 states this year, and he has counted 100 or more birds in each of them. He suggests I make this a lifetime U.S. goal — 100 or more birds in each of the fifty states. I thank him for putting that marriage-counseling type of idea into my impressionable head.
My new friend likes to find birds in grasslands and bogs at high elevations but has come down from Bangor to get on a boat for puffins, guillemots and whatever else might be sitting on or flying around Eastern Egg Rock in the Gulf of Maine.
I am here for the same purpose.
I tell him that I mostly prefer lowlands and wading birds to the mountains, mainly because I’m not a hiker, although I have been known to walk a mile or two for a bird I am interested in. We talk about places we have in common. Panama. Washington. The hills of New Jersey and New York where migrating warblers wander through. Texas. Louisiana. The list goes on.
I am staying in a tiny, well-kept cottage on Pemaquid Point that felt like twenty years back in time, a good retreat from the shootings, terror attacks and attempted coups that have lately been pounding on the better angels of our nature. The cottage is a good place to be. A place to think about how it all fits together — man, nature, beauty, violence, order and chaos.
An osprey scans the point for fish, while flycatchers hunt insects down below.
The puffins on Eastern Egg Rock were brought back from near extinction in the last century. They had been hunted for years by marauding fishermen who cast nets around their burrows at night to trap them at the light of dawn. Good sources of food and feathers. They swim and fly unaware of their troubled past and uncertain future in a warming gulf. My heart warms when I see them. Small, but fast flyers. Eyes looking sad behind their big clownish bills.
There are forty of us on the boat, which was chartered by Maine Audubon for a Friday-night member excursion. Young naturalists, photographers, bird geeks and weekenders on a July evening on the Gulf of Maine. During the breeding season between April and August, these boats operate all the time from New Harbor, Boothbay and Bar Harbor, some more touristy and some more expensive than others. It’s funny — spend a little or spend a lot and you’re still going to have a decent experience.
We had what can only be called a great experience. That’s because our boat was the one where some of the best young birders in Maine put their glasses on a Manx Shearwater on the horizon and even in dimming light could differentiate three species of tern.
The rock itself is astonishing, littered with birds, 500 or more Laughing Gulls deafening the air while around them mingled dozens of Black Guillemots, Roseate, Arctic and Common Terns (a whack on the shoulder from one of the Auduboners got me on the Roseate Tern). Hundreds of Common Eiders and a few stray cormorants filled out the scene.
I could have spent hours here but we have only so much light and the boat is on a schedule. The photos and memories will have to do. There is good beer and Pemaquid oysters and lobster back at the dock.
The next day an early walk brings familiar sounds — Common Yellowthroat, Veery, Wood Thrush. A Great Blue Heron flying over the point. Though it is already getting hot, the sight and sound of White-Throated Sparrows make me think of winter. Strangely, there are no loons, but breakfast was good with fresh local eggs and strong coffee.
The day dulls itself into summer torpor and six miles of hiking do me in. That’s why I prefer the low country. I get out of the heat and chat up a fisherman who makes good money on oysters and lobsters, both commercially and to locals … on the honor system. I tell him I want to take some lobster home with me tomorrow.
“Just leave the money if I’m not here,” he says. “The price is on the wall.”
It’s Sunday and before I go home I want to chase a European bird that has been summering near Portland. I head down the highway feeling like “Runnin’ Down a Dream”, but marvel instead at the downward spiral of commercial radio from a rental car without an iPhone jack. The tides aren’t with me and I miss the bird, and I am starting to miss Maine before I even leave.
The return engagement starts on a crisp September day. Marina and I rent a nice tidy room in Bar Harbor and head out for lobster bisque and mussels at the first good place we can find. Jackpot. It’s going to be a good weekend.
Saturday dawns at a mild 60 degrees. Marina drops me off at the dock and heads out to do some scenic photography while I board the Friendship V in search of seabirds.
It’s another Maine Audubon trip. This time we are headed up the Bay of Fundy for an eight-hour cruise of north Atlantic waters in search of skuas, jaegers, shearwaters, storm-petrels and other birds that prefer the sea to land. In the parlance of birders, this is known as a pelagic trip.
Pelagics have a certain kind of lore, the birders’ version of tall tales at sea. In the typical story, our birder hero braves strong winds, surging waves and a bad case of multicolor yawns to spot and photograph every species of albatross while suspended upside down from the bow in order to get a good look at the coverts and legs.
My adventure was not so — adventuresome. Young and old, rich and not so much, Red Sox fans, Mets fans, Tilley hat fans and a hundred others were on this noble adventure. I only saw one person who was having a tough time, but even he miraculously recovered each time a new bird was called out.
We had some great birds during the course of the day: hundreds of Great Shearwaters, Leach’s and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Northern Gannets, Skua, Pomarine Jaeger. The list won’t do much for you unless you’re a birder, in which case you can easily find the report on eBird. For me, it was all I wanted and more.
But the action on a pelagic isn’t exactly non-stop. Like fishing offshore, you get long periods of nothing, until someone shouts — “Skua at 12 o’clock” (actually they wouldn’t do that on a fishing trip) and everybody runs toward the bow while the captain guns it and tries to catch up to the speedy, stocky Arctic seabird.
The first Great Skua one was a mottled, juvenile cinnamon-and-white bird gleaming in the sun. Sometime later it was joined by another with the more telltale brownish colors and the white streaks on the wings. Photographing them was a challenge, boat and bird each moving at 30 knots an hour, with the bird easily outmaneuvering our craft. Some of us got off good shots, but as we were inspecting them we spied a humpback whale and her calf, who gave us all the oohs and aahs you might expect as they repeatedly broke the surface then dove in long, graceful lumbering strides across the bay.
As if that weren’t enough we soon had a school of dolphin, and we were getting our cameras ready again when all of a sudden we heard the call “Fulmar at 2 o’clock” and 100 people promptly remembered this was a birding tour and forgot all about the dolphins dancing on the waters.
You don’t see a Northern Fulmar except on a trip like this, and our bird was attempting to prove it was faster that the powerful Skua that outran our boat not long ago. We raced along with the bird into Canadian waters where we started our Nova Scotia checklists and ticked off phalaropes and storm-petrels and wondered how these birds put up with the rigors of a life led largely miles from land, a life you nor I could never begin to fathom.
As the birding wound down my thoughts went, as they often do, to a cold beer and dinner, the seafood this time accented with Latin-inspired flavors that made you think you were in Key West — until you went outside and were greeted with that bracing Down East wind.
Before I knew it, it was time to leave again. I picked up a book on birding in Maine from the airport bookstore, the first time I have ever seen a birding book in an airport bookstore. I cracked the spine and knew I would be back for more. There just aren’t many places this beautiful on earth, with great people, great food and a great birding reputation.
On the plane I played some old rock classics. Boom Boom. Kansas City. Poison Ivy. Green Onions. Creedence. Bruce on the way back to New Jersey. The Promised Land. That’s where I was for two weekends this summer.
The writer encourages people to look up local Audubon trips at chapters across the country. You’ll find great birds and even better people. I join them whenever I can wherever I go.