New England Coastal BIrds

New England Coastal BIrds

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Red-billed Tropicbird and an Isolated Island off the Maine Coast

     Part 1-

         The Red-billed Tropicbird and an Isolated Island off the Maine Coast

     When you hear that a Red-billed Tropicbird has been seen every summer for the last few years off the coast of Maine, it is a bit hard to conceive! To think that the cold ocean of mid-coastal Maine is attracting a normally warm water Gulf Stream Caribbean seabird is intriguing to say the least. For us New England seabirders, we envision a summer pelagic trip to Hatteras to have a reasonable chance to see this magnificent seabird or its cousin the White-tailed Tropicbird. But as many birders have discovered, a single Red-billed Tropicbird has been spending the summer on an isolated island twenty-one miles off the coast of Maine.

     The Tropicbird was first discovered in 2004 at Matinicus Rock, and then seen briefly at Seal Island by John Drury; a local seabird expert and guide ( ).  Since then the Tropicbird has found a summer home on Seal Island NWR which is one of Maine’s important Puffin nesting islands. There is only one way to travel to the island to experience this amazing seabird colony; by private boat.  Because of its isolation traveling to the island is extremely limited and difficult (I will explain later) but is it worth it?- “You-bech’a”! To make the trek, you have to travel first to the island of Vinalhaven which is twelve miles off the coast of Rockland.  The ferry from Rockland to Vinalhaven takes about an hour and a half, and adds to your birding experience. On the crossing you will have many possibilities from Shearwaters, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Gannets, Razorbills, Black Guillemots, Sea Ducks and of course Whales and Porpoises. As you approach the outer Fox Island Thoroughfare the possibilities increase with Gulls, Terns and Eagles.

     The trip ends at the town docks in Carvers Harbor; a picturesque fishing harbor filled with Lobster boats. As you disembark the ferry, you walk into a small charming and timeless Maine fishing town, its peace overwhelms you like a breath of fresh spring air. You have a short walk to the Tidewater Motel, the islands only Motel accommodation.  The next and most important leg of the trip is to meet John in the afternoon at the town dock, where he will greet you in his Lobster Boat. From there it is another nine miles out to Seal Island, and the amazing sea bird experience!

     I had wanted to see and experience this bird for two years, but Jen and my summer work schedules never worked out; until this year! We made our plans earlier this year and everything fell into place. I contacted John in early April and made plans with him. He would contact me if (hopefully when) he spotted the Tropicbird on Seal. On May 13, I received a wonderful email from John; the Tropicbird was back! John spotted it the day before when the bird flew by him and landed in its burrow. I privately chartered John for two days, and we decided that staying on Vinalhaven for four days would be  best just in case the weather was acting up. Having four days set aside (as insurance) to go out twice made perfect sense to me. John mentioned that the Tropicbird was seen in the afternoons, so we decided to meet on Sunday afternoon the same day we would be arriving on Vinalhaven.  In our email conversations, I mentioned to John that I would like to float a few of my alcid decoys to see if we could attract the birds to them. I would be bringing Puffin, Razorbill and Murre decoys with me, and I had plans to carve a Black Guillemot and a Red-billed Tropicbird as well. John said, “Sounds like fun”- “bring them along”! Now I was really anxious,  all Jen and I had to do was wait until late July!

  The Black Guillemot decoy-

 The Black Guillemot is a favorite alcid of mine. Along with the Razorbill, I have seen them in every coastal state of New England. I am especially fascinated with their seasonal dimorphic plumage; black in the summer, white in the winter.  The decoy carved, sealed and ready for paint-

To keep the decoy authentically “Maine” I carved it from Maine White Cedar-

……and the bottom plate wood is Black Walnut and the carved keel is White Oak which I also purchased from a Maine saw mill years ago-


The painting begins by painting the feathers in the tail, dorsum, lower tail coverts and primaries-

The tertials and secondaries are now painted-

The white greater, lesser and medial wing coverts are painted-

Next are the scapulars and side pockets-

And finishing the chest and head-

The finished Black Guillemot decoy ready to float in Maine-

   Saturday, July 21, 2012- Excited that the day had finally arrived, Jen and I left early Friday morning (3:30 am) and headed north. We spent the day making business appointments in Maine, and when the day was finished we arrived in Rockport and checked in to our Hotel. Since we would be heading over to Vinalhaven early Sunday morning, it gave us a few hours late Friday afternoon and a day in the area to start our vacation. After checking in to the Island View Inn
( ) we made a quick run to one of our favorite New England towns Port Clyde before sundown.

     Marshall Point Lighthouse-

     The charming town is where you can take the ferry to Monhegan Island
 (, or one of the Nature Cruises through the islands including the Puffin cruise.  Jen and I decided to take the morning Puffin Cruise, so we made reservations.

     We arrived to the ferry dock  at Port Clyde, and soon we were boarding the Laura B for the 11:30 am departure. While we were sitting on the bow seats, Jen looked over and spotted this hen Eider sleeping on a floating platform. With the hen were two ducklings which were about ten days old. When the Laura B cast off its lines, the three birds slipped into the water and swam off.

     As we steamed out of the harbor, the first Black Guillemot flew by the bow-

      The crew of the Laura B maintains working Lobster traps as part of its cruise agenda. They stop for a few minutes and tend their traps; hauling, culling thorough the Lobsters, tossing back any bi-catch, refreshing the bait bags, and tossing the traps back overboard.  Although we were both familiar with this (Jen used to work on her Dad’s Lobster Boat), we still find it fascinating to watch.

       As they were attending their pots, Jen looked up and spotted a distant Bald Eagle flying in from the outer islands.

     Passing by the Marshall Point Lighthouse…..

     …..gulls surrounded the Lobster boats waiting for a free handout of tossed over bi-catch or old bait-

     Crossing the outer bay towards the islands, a small pod of (unknown) Porpoises or Dolphins broke the surface-

     As we passed through the outer islands, Phil the naturalist told us wonderful tales and history surrounding the islands and their inhabitants. Black Guillemots were just about everywhere you looked…..

     ….. as were Common Eiders with their ducklings!

     A single Barn Swallow crossed by the bow-

     Off in the distance was Eastern Egg Rock, known as the “World’s first restored Puffin Colony”- ( ) -

     The last mile and a half stretch to Eastern Egg Rock was highlighted by many Black Guillemots, and the first of the Wilson’s Storm-Petrels appeared-

     The first Puffin appeared from the southwest crossing the by the bow of the Laura B at a distance…..

     ….. and a second one flew over the northeast corner of the island as we approached.

     As I was photographing the Puffin, a Black Guillemot flew by heading for its nest burrow……

     …..and disappeared inside.

     Looking at the top of the island, there were many Puffins standing with the “decoys” on the boulders with a few Common Terns and Laughing Gulls-

     A pair of Puffins swam close by the bow of the vessel offering good views-

     More Puffins on the top boulders-

     This Guillemot is returning with a food item; a Rock Gunnel (thanks to John who later identified it for me)-

     More Black Guillemots-

     The eastern side of the island had larger concentrations of Puffins. They flew by…..

     …..and swam by in pairs,  singles…..

     …..and small groups-

     This adult is returning with a large Herring-

     Common Tern-

     Laughing Gull-

     Common Tern also with a large Herring-

     This Black Guillemot “popped-up” in front of Jen and me only a few yards off the bow. It had caught a brilliant red Rock Gunnel (Pholis gunnellus) which beautifully complimented its bright red gape and tarsii. I had always called this fish a “Rock Eel”.  I was curious to the actual identification of this fish, so later when John looked at these images in my camera he identified it for me.

     Another Black Guillemot with another unidentified fish prey item…..

     …..interesting shot; it takes a fish and leaves a little something behind!

     Close fly-by Black Guillemot-

     The vessel made one slow circle around Eastern Egg Rock , and then headed back towards Port Clyde. I would have enjoyed a little more time at Eastern Egg, but since we would have two days at Seal Island, this was just  enough to wet our appetites.

     Wilson’s Storm-Petrels began showing in small numbers……

     ……on the crossing to Seal Ledges, appropriately named for the many Harbor Seals that loaf and congregate there-

       Double-crested Cormorants……

     …..and Common Eiders visit with the Seals-

    The Laura B then passed through the Reach between Davis and Thompson Islands to see the two Osprey nests on Davis-

     This pair of Ravens also found Davis Island accommodating-

     The ledges of Hart Island were a good resting spot for these Common Eiders-

     “Look”- “No Gulls”!-

      Well, we all know that wouldn’t last long!

      As the Laura B pulled into the dock, this juvenile Bald Eagle flew overhead-

     The three hour tour (although not nearly long enough) was a good time. We learned quite a bit about the history of the Islands, and did see quite a few birds.

     Here are the highlights for Saturday, July 21 (estimated)- 65 Common Eider, 9 Wilson’s Storm-Petrel, 3 Northern Gannet, 50 Double-crested Cormorant, 1 Great Cormorant, 7 Osprey, 3 Bald Eagle, 45 Laughing Gull, 200 Common Tern, 35 Black Guillemot, 40 Atlantic Puffin, 2 Common Raven, and 1 Barn Swallow (Herring and G B-b Gulls were present in large numbers- I didn’t count them).

     After a late lunch, we drove back to Rockport, but made a few stops in Rockland to visit a few art galleries. In Rockport, the brick sign on this building seemed appropriate-

     Later in the day we just sat back and relaxed on the deck of the Island View Inn which had a great view of Glen Cove. The large property descended towards the cove and was fresh with blooming Wildflower fields. The Wildflower hill was visited by many Goldfinch, Field and Song Sparrows, Robins and a Phoebe or two. We also had a deer show up and stay for twenty minutes as the sun set ending a great day. Tomorrow we would be up early to catch the first ferry to Vinalhaven at 7:30 am.

    Port Clyde (red arrow) and Eastern Egg Rock (orange arrow)

     Black Guillemots seemed to prefer the western shore of the Island (orange arrow) and Puffins seemed to prefer the eastern shore of the Island (red arrow)

     Day 2- July 22, 2012, Heading to Vinalhaven- As I mentioned earlier, the trip to Vinalhaven is a bit challenging IF you are planning on taking your vehicle!

     The Rockland/Vinalhaven ferry slip-

    Difficulties have solutions!- Keeping in mind, if you plan ahead and are a bit “creative” everything will work out, and it will be extraordinarily worth it!!

     (Difficulty #1)- Lodging. -There is only one Motel (the Tidewater Motel-  ) on Vinalhaven, and two B&B’s. Unless you are planning on renting a house or cottage (if available) you will have to make reservations well in advance. 

     (Difficulty #2)- the Ferry.  -Since it is a small ferry, with limited space (seventeen vehicles) and because of that very limited space it is very difficult to obtain reservations if you are taking your own vehicle.  Vehicle reservations are almost impossible to obtain in the summer  and if you are planning on taking your vehicle across, it is required that you make your reservation exactly 30 days prior to crossing. Keep in mind that reservations are  given on a first-call, first-served basis, and Islanders have priority! As I mentioned above, you can walk over on the ferry, and the walk to the Tidewater is only a short distance. A rental car is just about non-existent, so if you plan on staying on the island for a time period to explore, transportation is essential!

     We were extremely fortunate to have acquired round-trip reservations, and due entirely to the ferry courtesy offered by the Tidewater. Phil and Elaine Crossman the owners of the Tidewater have set up a very accommodating ferry reservation system for its guests. They have a “ferry-fairy” who holds places in line at the ferry parking lot to hold vehicle positions in line for the crossing.  After the reservation arrangements have been made by the Tidewater on your behalf. All you have to do is just be there early and trade places with Beth. She pulls her car out of line, and you take her place. The reservation tickets are sent to you from the Tidewater in advance which secures your reservation and place in line. :^)

    (Difficulty #3)- the Weather. – you can never predict the weather; even sunny days can give you a false sense especially if it is breezy, let alone windy. Remember, Seal Island is nine miles out from Vinalhaven. You will be crossing a long wide stretch of ocean with offsetting tidal currents that can raise waves even under light winds. The rule of thumb- “plan for two days to go out once”.  

     If you plan ahead, even these difficulties can be overcome making your sea birding experience the best! Jen and I are putting together and planning a trip next year with John (and hopefully the Tropicbird). He can take seven people on his vessel, so we will have openings for five others. I will discuss this more at the end of this long report.

     The Ferry pulled out of Rockland Harbor. Since we were first in line, first to load, we had a great view from our car on the bow of the ferry up against the chain gate.  There were many Gulls, D-c Cormorants and a few Black Guillemots in the early part of the crossing. When we were nearing the outer reaches of the Fox Islands, Wilson’s Storm-Petrels started appearing-

     When we reached Lawrys Narrows at the entrance to the Fox Islands Thoroughfare, I noticed that something had disturbed all the Gulls that had been roosting on Cedar Island. The Gulls were swarming in a chaotic mass just like bees swirling around their hive. I suspected what caused the chaos…..

     … suspicions were verified as an adult Bald Eagle was being escorted away from the Island.

     On nearby Harbor Island, three Bald Eagles roost possibly awaiting their turns to attack the Gulls-

     In the coves near Dyer Island, flocks of feeding Common Terns could be seen plunging near the islets and ledges-

     Black Guillemots could be seen just about every direction we looked-

     Common Tern-

     Common Eiders dotted the seascape. Many eclipse drakes were seen in the flocks…..

     … this isolated drake sleeping on a tidal rock-

     Osprey flew back and forth across the Thoroughfare-

     A calling Common Loon flew across the bow-

     As Carvers Harbor, Vinalhaven came into view, this small flock of Common Eider rested on this ledge-

     We were greeted by this Laughing Gull-

     Carvers Harbor, Vinalhaven-

     The Tidewater Motel viewed from the Harbor-

     The Rockland/Vinalhaven Ferry (viewed from Lanes Island)-

      The ferry docked, and we disembarked. We turned right and drove towards the hotel
(a few hundred yards). Near the ferry slip were a few dockside shops; cafĂ©’, pizza restaurant, general store, lobster coop, gas pump, and a salon.  Downtown Vinalhaven was everything we expected; it was timeless and extremely charming!

     In town there are a few restaurants, a bakery, grocery store, a few variety stores, spirit shop, ice cream shop, Post Office, and the Tidewater Motel. Everything you needed for a short or long stay was here! It was obvious that Vinalhaven’s main industry was lobstering; judging by the quiet harbor filled with lobster boats. In Fact, Vinalhaven is Maine’s largest offshore island and home to the World’s most productive Lobster fleet!

     We checked into the Tidewater, and the room was really cozy, complete with kitchenette, stunning harbor views, and an amazing cool ocean breeze; we had come to the perfect place! But the best part about the Tidewater besides the spectacular view was below us- from the Tidewater website:

       “The Tidewater Motel is built on a bridge. The ebb and flood of the tides flow directly below your room. The same rush of the open water once powered a blacksmith shop, a granite polishing and grist mills on the site. Carvers Harbor is seaward, and Carvers Pond is the Harbors tidal estuary”.  The sound of the rushing tidal flow is very relaxing running just below your feet under the deck-

     Low tide-

     Incoming tide-

     The Harbor views from the deck-

     Fox Island Thoroughfare/Vinalhaven/Carvers Harbor- Bald Eagles (orange arrows), feeding Common Tern flocks (green arrow), Tidewater Hotel at Carvers Harbor-

          Part 2 Continues……..Meeting John Drury and the Red-billed Tropicbird-
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