My wife has long had a trip to Maine on her bucket list. Scenic rocky coastlines, the sound of the ocean waves crashing in, endless lush green forests and picturesque lighthouses dotting the map is her idea of heaven on earth. The Northeast Coast for me is the last birding frontier so to speak. It is an area of the country with a number of unique coastal birds not found anywhere else in the United States, so I was happy to plan a trip to visit this wilderness.
The highlight of my birding week was planned well in advance. An online search of coastal birding opportunities had one trip catch my eye. There was a boat excursion visiting an island National Wildlife Refuge once a week. I penned a check, addressed an envelope to Stonington, Maine, and braved the frigid February temps to send it on its way.
It was now early July and the car displayed 89 degrees. This was not exactly what we had planned for a cool summer getaway. I navigated my way to the quiet private harbor north of town.
As I scanned the harbor, hundreds of buoys dotted the calm blue waters. We were in lobster country. Among the dots of white, were a few all black waterfowl-type birds, with bold white wings. This was my first lifer — a bird never seen before on a birder's list — but not a very showy one. This was a bird by the name of black guillemot.
This is a member of the alcid family, an oceanic group of species coming to land only to nest. They are weak flyers, but have wings highly adapted for excellent underwater swimming to catch food. Several of these family members were observed on the nesting island we visited.
The Nigh Duck, a simple white 20-foot boat, pushed off with a captain, a naturalist and nine passengers to blue waters ahead. Upon arrival, we picked up the local researcher who gave us a guided tour of the 1 mile of barren rocky island. Hundreds of white terns flew about consisting of arctic and common terns, as well as several species of gulls. However, they weren’t the reason we were here.
It didn’t take long before the bird everyone wants to see was apparent: Atlantic puffins. This comical looking bird is all black on top, with a snow white belly. The face is also bright white with a huge colorful conical beak barred with bright orange, some dark blue and yellow making this bird the poster child for the Northeast Coast.
About 1,887 puffins were wiped out of the area by hunting, egg collecting and then colonization replacement by herring and great black-backed gulls. Beginning in 1984, the gulls were removed and translocation of a thousand young puffins from Newfoundland took place. Using decoys and mirrors, these social birds were slowly brought back to establish a nesting colony here and researchers still live onsite and monitor the island today. This great success story was one I was able to witness as hundreds of birds, including the Atlantic puffin, were swimming and flying about us.