Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Did someone say "puffins"?

Waking up to the chilly breeze blowing off the bay through my window, I welcomed the singing Hermit Thrush, who was sitting just feet from the cabin, low on a spruce branch between me and the water. The sky was gray. The sun was not shining through as it had the day before.

As I walked to the meeting place for the early morning bird walks, a slight drizzle started, so I ducked under the porch of The Bridge. Eventually, the drizzle became a steady downpour, resulting in a cancellation of the walk, so instead of traversing the island through the mud and rain, I stayed on the porch. I watched as eiders and guillemots flew past, wings beating fast as they shot over the open water in search of a protected cove. A few Common Terns bounced past as well, occasionally folding their snowy wings and plunging into the turbid bay.

The rumble of lobster boats came from somewhere in the fog. Occasionally one of these boats would come into view, a tail of gulls growing larger with each trap pulled from the murky depths.

When the rain stopped, I headed towards the parula nest, where a small group of birders were standing around, watching as the babies explored outside the nest for the first time. These tiny almost-fledglings sat begging for food as the slaving parents rushed back and forth stuffing fresh caterpillars down the tiny yellow mouths.

watching the Northern Parula nest

a very hungry baby parula
After breakfast, our group split. Half of the group traveled to Eastern Egg Rock, while my group headed out to the trails on Hog Island. The spruce woods were filled with birds. Just as we got everyone on a singing Winter Wren to our right, a Blackburnian Warbler would sing to the left. Birds were not the only subjects on walk--we stopped to look at everything that caught our attention: ferns, tide pools, and even a brilliant pink slime mold. The highlight for many on this walk was the Merlin we found while we were slipping on the damp rocks past the tide line. The tiny falcon perched on a gnarly little snag on the other end of the cove. Kee-kee-kee-kee rang out from across the shoreline as the Merlin took off, flew out along the beach, then headed for the cover of the forest.

When we emerged, feet damp and muddy, from the depths of Hog Island, we gobbled up another fantastic meal before continuing with the afternoon activities. My group was off to Eastern Egg Rock, the breeding site for Atlantic Puffins and several tern species. This boat ride was much anticipated by almost everyone in the group, even those who had already seen puffins several times before! With the grace of decent weather, we headed out into Muscongus Bay.

view of Hog Island as we headed out

Along the way, Steve Kress talked about the seabirds at Eastern Egg Rock and discussed the natural history of the various alcids that live along the coast of Maine. Several of the instructors walked around with field guides to teach the group about the identification of the alcids and terns that we might encounter eight miles out.

Scott Weidensaul teaching the campers about the Black Guillemot

 Along the way out, we had some neat sightings, like this pile of seals...

...many Common Eiders...

...a Great Cormorant trying to blend in with his more common relatives...

 ...and my lifer Wilson's Storm-Petrels!

These graceful little seabirds flapped right over the waves, darting back and forth over the water. Tom Johnson spotted the first one, a distant speck just below the horizon. Looking almost like a Tree Swallow from afar, the tiny bird eluded most people on the boat. Soon, however, another appeared. A few minutes later, several were around the boat. Many came quite close, and after a bit of rearranging of people on the boat, everyone got a satisfactory view of this tiny bird of the open oceans.

As we continued on farther into the bay, I spotted a seabird flapping and gliding way off on the starboard side. Having minimal experience with pelagic species, I called Tom Johnson, who eventually found the same bird dipping above and below the horizon well beyond where some binoculars could even see. As soon as he saw it, he shouted "Manx Shearwater!" in his deep, loud voice. Suddenly the boat turned into a frenzy as it had for the storm-petrels. Everyone began scanning the horizon for the bird. Unfortunately, the bird against a dark background of clouds and open sea eluded almost everyone. This was to be the only one we saw on the boat trip.

As we approached Eastern Egg Rock, I noted the tremendous number of terns flying along the boat, many with small fish caught in their beaks. These birds were heading back to their nests after a successful hunt out in the bay.

Common Tern headed away from the island, probably in search of fish

As we got even closer to the Rock, we began to see the Black Guillemots following the same path, but closer to the water's surface. Many of these guillemots flew past with red rock eels, or rock gunnels, hanging out of their thin beaks. This reddish fish is a favorite meal for these birds.

Black Guillemot -- check out those red feet!

When we arrived at Eastern Egg Rock, a snowy cloud of terns arose from the island. The instructors and others pointed left and right as various tern species flew by: "Common Tern coming towards the back of the boat! Arctic Tern sitting on the closest rock! Two Roseate Terns in flight directly in front of the boat!"

Roseate Tern

Arctic Tern

another Roseate Tern

Puffins were flying all around. Many were simply fluttering from rock to rock, sometimes chasing off another puffin. At times, a dozen of these goofy birds would be hopping around on a boulder chasing each other.

Atlantic Puffin flying in front of the outhouse on Eastern Egg Rock

While some of these birds were loafing on the rocks, a few puffins were busy finding food for youngsters. Several of these fast-flying football-shaped birds came past the boat with mouthfuls of silver fish. When the puffins reached the island, they would land briefly before disappearing into the burrow nests.

The terns and puffins were lifers for many, making everyone on the boat quite happy. However, there was one bird that really stood out to some as being the best bird of the trip. Sitting on one of the outlying rocks along the island was a single Razorbill, a larger relative of the puffin. This bird, decked out in a penguin-like tuxedo, is uncommon in this part of Maine during the summer. This species had eluded me in the past, despite my diligent searches whenever I was along the Atlantic seaboard in the late fall and winter when Razorbills move south along the coast.

Razorbill (bottom) with a Double-crested Cormorant

resting Razorbill with a cormorant and two eiders

Due to the schedule we were attempting to keep and the long return trip, we had to turn back sooner than anyone wanted. However, we had all gotten excellent views of many great species in the short time we were at Eastern Egg Rock.

The ride back was less eventful: fewer storm-petrels and no more shearwaters. We did spot this Bald Eagle flying in front of the approaching storm cloud:

Speaking of that storm cloud, about halfway back to Hog Island, the storm hit us. We watched as the rain moved closer and closer and eventually reached our boat as everyone was putting on rain gear and covering expensive cameras. With a very close bolt of lightning and thunder-crack, everyone huddled underneath the little cover the Snow Goose III provided. As the storm continued, the captain motored towards Harbor Island, where we would be in calmer waters and in a place where we were not the tallest objects in the immediate area. As soon as the storm passed, we continued on our way back to Hog Island.

Upon returning, we found a group of landlubbers gathered around the parula nest. Another baby had made its way to the edge of nest. The adults continued to fly back and forth from the nest to the nearby trees and shrubs, where they picked small, green caterpillars off the leaves. When the bird flew into the nest, it was greeted by a chorus of loud chirps. As we watched, the young warblers did not stop eating, so we were able to witness this spectacularly exciting event until dinner.

The fact that the nest was so close to the trail provided an amazing opportunity for viewing and photographing this behavior. Many people had cameras aimed at the nest waiting for the perfect moment occured when one of the parents, either the brilliant male or the beautifully subtle female, returned with a meal. I took a lot of photos of these birds, so here are several of my favorite shots:

As we were watching, one of the nestlings fledged. The tiny bird fluttered off the nest and onto a tiny branch at the base of the spruce. The babies were growing up! As this first fledgling grasped onto the perch, the parents had to flutter in or cling onto the trunk to feed it.

After witnessing and documenting this big step in the parula's life, we reluctantly headed to the dining hall, craning our necks as we walked away in order to keep an eye on these fascinating warblers.

After the sunset, when our attention could not be focused on the baby birds, we shuffled into the Fish House for an evening program by Julie Zickefoose. Her program, The Bluebird Effect, titled after her new book, was phenomenal. Julie shared many of her experiences as a naturalist, artist, wildlife rehabilitator, musician, and mother. The way she intertwined all of the aspects of her life into an amusing and creative story captured the audience in a way I have seen few presenters do. Many of her experiences made us laugh, her artwork blew us away, and her incredible video of nestling cuckoos immediately became a camp favorite.

She then sang a couple of beautiful songs that concluded her presentation and bid us goodnight after a day of life birds, new experiences, and (relatively) good weather.


dAwN said...

Wow! What a day..I felt as though I was there..sans wet. Wonderful photos. Seems like Puffins have fish permanently coming out of their bills..I always see photos like that. Awesome.

Julie Zickefoose said...

Corey, your photos of the parula family AND the flying puffins con pesca completely blow me away. I know how hard it was to get a good photo of the parent parula tending the young, having been there trying for one! Here's to your great patience and the intuition of a good naturalist. Sharing your link.

Anonymous said...

Fabulous post. You have me dreaming of Maine....and cameras....Thank you Julie for sharing the link!

Puffins, Parulas, and Eiders, Oh my!

Kathy in Delray Beach

Anne said...

Corey, I was there that week with all of you, and I have to say you have done an amazing job of photographing and describing some of the wonderful things we saw and did on Hog Island. Keep at are a talented young man!

Anne Main

Jane Shamsher Simmons said...


I too was there that week and must concur with Anne and Julie. Your ability to capture the experience in words and images is truly astounding. I wanna be like Corey when I grow up!!!

Kimberly Burris said...

Thank you for this delightful blog. I just finished reading it, in its' entirety and concur that it captures so much of what we saw and experienced on Hog Island. Kimberly Burris