Autumn is an unusual, transitional time for many living things. The impact of this change isn’t limited to trees losing leaves and people starting classes. As winter approaches, animals take advantage of the remaining resources of summer productivity. This is often a critical preparatory step for surviving harsh conditions, extended periods of dormancy, or grueling migrations. Some marine creatures hurdle entire hemispheres on such journeys, taking top honors for long-distance travel. As a result, coastal locations often see an interesting mix of visitors at this time of year. Lingering breeders and summer visitors, wanderers passing through, and early arrivals for the non-breeding season are all potentially encountered during fall. This tantalizing possibility is the reason that offshore boat trips during the fall are so promising for nature lovers. Such excursions are referred to as pelagic trips, borrowing their name from a term for creatures that spend at least part of their lives on the open ocean.
The Maine Audubon Society organizes a fall pelagic out of Bar Harbor every September. In contrast to short-range whale watches or seabird island tours that run during the summer, this eight-hour tour covers nearly 150 miles of water. The primary destinations are regions like “the bumps” and the Grand Manan Banks. The contours of the seafloor in these areas result in great biological productivity, even by the Gulf of Maine’s notably high standards. Concentrations of nutrients feed plankton, which in turn feed fish that find themselves prey for larger fish, birds, and marine mammals. These were our targets as we set out aboard the impressive Friendship V, a 112-foot long vessel with a cruising speed approaching 40 miles per hour. After meeting on the docks bright and early for a 6 am departure, we loaded up, weighed anchor, and began our day at sea.
The sun began to peek over the horizon as we made our way out of Frenchman Bay. People were calling out birds like Bald Eagle and Common Loon as soon as it was bright enough to see them. It was a clear but blustery day, with high winds that continued to strengthen as the day went on. We came up to speed after passing the Egg Rock Lighthouse, and it wasn’t long before we started to encounter proper pelagic species. Gannets and gulls were our constant companions, following the ship in search of an easy meal. We’d brought along a heaping helping of chum, hoping that the irresistible stew of fish parts and oil would draw birds in for close views. We sighted a squadron of Great Shearwaters cruising on the wind once we were well offshore, and we brought the boat around to scan the flock more thoroughly.
The birds began to circle the boat, attracted to our chum slick, and it wasn’t long before we noticed dark, angular silhouettes quickly moving in on the feeding frenzy: Pomarine Jaegers. I had never seen this species prior to the trip, but we had incredible views of several individuals as they cruised alongside us at eye level. Jaegers and their cousins the skuas are best known for their piratical habits. Although they will hunt for fish, lemmings, eggs, and small birds, they also eat a great deal of carrion and stolen goods. Using a combination of speed, agility, and power, they chase down other seabirds and forcibly persuade them to give up their meals. They nest in polar regions and spend the non-breeding season traveling long distances on the high seas. Some people have mixed opinions of these scallywags, who often prey on cuddly fare like puffins and penguin chicks, but they cut a striking figure and are always impressive to watch in action.
We continued on our way as the birds began to disperse, experiencing a brief lull in activity. I decided to make the most of this break and began to chat with some of my neighbors. Everyone I spoke to on the tour was very friendly and eager for adventure, and we all helped one another in the time-sensitive task of pointing out wildlife. I unzipped my backpack for a quick snack, when suddenly the peace was broken by excited cries of “SKUA!!” I jumped to my feet and spotted a bulky, imposing shadow, hot on the heels of a frantic gull. I fired off a quick series of photos as the bird crossed our bow and flew off to our starboard side, further out to sea. “Here we go, folks!” came the narration on the loudspeaker, and the ship lurched to the right as the skipper changed course and rapidly accelerated. We pursued the skua in the hopes of confirming a species ID, traveling at almost 35 miles per hour for several minutes and only barely keeping it in our sights. We finally caught up as the bird slowed down to land, positively identifying it as a Great Skua. This species breeds in northern Europe and is a rare visitor to our waters in winter. We got a good look at the bird in the early morning light before continuing on our way, glad that our high-speed chase had paid off.
We gradually added more and more creatures to our list, including Northern Fulmar, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Wilson’s and Leach’s Storm Petrels. We also happened upon a handful of Atlantic Puffins, bobbing on the waves far out in the Gulf. Having spent all summer in the world of the puffin, up close and personal with the birds, it was a strange new experience to see them in this way. Far from their rocky nesting islands, the birds had traded multicolored ornaments and bright white faces for a subdued gray ensemble as their old feathers and bill plates fell away. I also noticed a few pufflings: young birds who recently left the nest and will not return to land for several years. It doesn’t seem too long ago that these birds were eggs and I was on the field crew. Puffin season has come full circle, just as my own time here in Maine is drawing to a close. I was glad to see them in this chapter of their life, and can now say I have witnessed each step of the breeding cycle.
Birds weren’t the only critters out and about this Saturday morning. Twice during our journey, we were met by pods of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. These dashing denizens of the deep are just as playful and acrobatic as their Bottlenose relatives, and they came quite close to inspect our boat. Many of them were surfing on the swells, cruising just below the water’s surface. We could see their sleek, distinctive markings shimmering in the sunlight, and when they turned around to go against the current they leaped over the troughs between waves. Some individuals completely cleared the water with these dramatic jumps, and would make repeated passes down the length of the vessel. These encounters were incredibly entertaining and made up for the otherwise sparse numbers of non-avians. Apart from a brief Minke Whale sighting and several Harbor Porpoise pods, marine mammals were largely absent. This trip has historically turned up Humpback, Fin, Pilot, and Sperm Whales, and both Blue Whale and Orca had been seen in the area earlier this month. Any of these would’ve been an incredibly welcome sighting, but I can hardly complain about what we missed considering how much we did see.
A young tern and some Razorbills rounded out the local breeding representatives, and Sooty and Manx Shearwaters were spotted by some observers (I saw Sooty but missed Manx this time). We had yet another brush with piracy as our chum slick drew in more jaegers and a South Polar Skua who terrorized our attendant gulls and shearwaters. If jaegers are the sloops and clipper ships of the bird world, skuas are the heavily-fortified galleons with plenty of weight to throw around. South Polars breed in the Antarctic, and unlike the Great they visit our seas during the summer, which is winter from their austral perspective. Seeing both species on the same trip is a rare treat, and one of the perks of taking a pelagic tour at this time of year. Finding even one of them would be a highlight for any trip, and the intense, extended sightings we had were just the icing on the cake. This bird was very cooperative, making for exceptional views and pictures as it repeatedly swooped around our ship and snatched chum off our stern.
The increasingly rough sea conditions discouraged our captain from traveling out to the Grand Manan Banks, so we instead turned towards Machias Seal Island on the Canadian border. While en route, my neighbors pointed out a small wader flying low over the water. A phalarope! I had expected to see more of these swimming shorebirds on this trip, but they were strangely absent save for this lone individual. Although the sighting was brief and the call went up too late for most of the passengers to find the bird, I was later able to identify it as a Red Phalarope due to its pale-based bill, light gray upperparts, and overall proportions. Another new bird for my life list! Combined with the jaeger, the skuas, and the dolphin, I came away from the tour with a nice handful of firsts.
The following stretch of sea was the longest lull we experienced on the trip, with very little activity to speak of. When we arrived at Machias Seal, fortunately, there was a large throng of gulls, shearwaters, gannets, and porpoises feeding on schools of fish. This provided a few more nice looks at Pomarine Jaeger, Lesser Black-backed Gull, and Sooty Shearwater, as well as additional sightings of Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin within view of one of their breeding islands. The chaos of such feeding flocks is always a spectacle to behold, with lots of squawking and scrambling as the gulls scuffle about and the gannets plunge into the fray. As the birds and porpoises finally began to disperse, we decided it was time to begin the long journey back to port.
As I mentioned earlier, the wind had been picking up as the day went on, and had now reached impressive speeds. For most of the journey, we’d been traveling with the wind, effectively surfing on the waves and going with the flow. Now we had to turn around and head the other way, and the going was rather rough. Announcements came over the loudspeaker one after the other: find a seat, hang on tight, we have barf bags if you need them. I rarely get noticeably seasick, being one of the few people in my family with a strong tolerance for the motion of the ocean. Even under the worst conditions I faced this summer on the water, I only felt vaguely uncomfortable once or twice. However, this time the fierce winds, repeated jostling, and long hours proved just a bit too much for me. I managed to keep my stomach contents contained, but I found myself past the point of no return on queasiness and had to lie down. We saw a few birds on the way back, but for the most part the boat kept close to shore and I kept my head down.
We pulled back into port at Bar Harbor just in time for a much-needed early dinner. With a mac-and-cheese burger and a locally brewed beer in my belly, I turned my car southwest and headed home to Bremen. The 2014 Audubon Pelagic was a roaring success, featuring excellent encounters with excellent creatures. The birds we saw had traveled from nesting grounds in the Arctic, Antarctic, Europe, Canada, the South Atlantic, and on islands within sight of the boat. We braved rough seas and came home with some pretty incredible prizes, including species I’d never seen before. The people were friendly, the vessel was sound, and the adventure was choice. Special thanks to the folks in charge and the whale-watch company that made this excursion possible!