My wife dreamed of visiting the rocky rugged coasts of Maine for years, with all the beautiful forests, open ocean views, waves lapping the shores and lighthouses showing the way to many dedicated sailors so many moons ago. As part of an adventure we undertook to the picturesque state, I happily scheduled a boat tour to experience a remote nesting colony of birds.
Off the coast of central Maine 20 miles out to sea is Seal Island NWR, a rock island 1 mile long by a few hundred yards wide away from many of the dangers of coastal living. Between egg-collecting by humans and the island predators, such as gulls, the puffins had abandoned efforts to raise young here and moved further north in the late 1800s. Amazingly for the past three decades, researchers have worked hard and successfully re-established a breeding colony of Atlantic puffins after a century of absence.
Puffins were not the only recipients of protection here. Several species of alcids reside here. Alcids are a family of birds that live on the open ocean coming to land only to nest in burrows. I touched before on the puffins and black guillemots. Another high on my wish-list was razorbill. All black, thick short necked with bright white belly, they look very similar to others of their family. This species has a very tall thin black bill lending to the name razorbill. Localized in one cove, I was able to observe several.
As we circled the 1-mile island, bird life was everywhere. Most evident were the hundreds of terns circling about, mainly arctic tern. Seen anywhere else in the country, birders will flock to reported locations to get a glimpse of the rare bird as they very rarely fly inland. Arctic terns are famous for long-distance migrations. Many breed in the high arctic, then fly over the open oceans to the wintering grounds in Antarctica and back, a distance of 12,000 miles annually.
The group of nature enthusiasts very much enjoyed the opportunity to see these isolated birds on their home territories, but there was one bird that many, including myself, were eagerly awaiting. For some time, a very special avian visitor has been calling this island home. Far from usual haunts off the west coast of Mexico, a red-billed tropicbird magically appeared at the island. In the summer afternoons, it emerges from his burrow and feeds along with all the puffins, razorbills, gulls and terns. The bird has been returning for more than a decade and is a primary target of this trip for many birders.
The “Nigh Duck” and 11 eager passengers had made a lap around the island to observe all the localized residents, then cut the motor and peacefully floated in an obscure bay. All those on board scanned the hundreds of birds flying about. Before long, someone spotted the rare bird in front of the boat, resting on one of the many lobster buoys. All eyes focused ahead as the boat eased up to the bird.
With a size comparable to our familiar ring-billed gull, the bird was a bright snow white, with a back scaled in black. The red bill was quite prominent as was the bold black line through the eye. Most impressive though was the long white tail plumes floating in the air as the bird flew back and forth near the boat. Sounds of camera shutters filled the air as the bird put on a show. Unfortunately as quickly as it appeared, the bird flew out of view, and the captain bid it farewell and pointed many happy passengers home. This journey will definitely be etched in my memory forever.