Tuesday, August 5, 2008

East Coast Trip, June 2008: Grand Manan to Machias Seal Island

We drove to New Brunswick and waited to board our car on the ferry that would take us south to Grand Manan Island. When the boat began to cross the the open waters of the Bay of Fundy, we encountered the thickest veil of fog yet. This was really going to put a damper on my pelagic birding for Greater Shearwater, a bird I was hoping to get on the way out to the island.

Almost an hour and a half later the fog cleared and we could see Grand Manan. Razorbills and Atlantic Puffins were on the water, while Laughing, Herring and Great-black Backs followed fishing boats into harbour. A Gray Seal bopped up and down while it fed on a fish.

Grand Manan Island is a quaint peaceful island. We stayed on the island for 3 nights altogether and explored the island and its trails during the day. At night we played cards.

The morning of our boat trip to Machias Seal Island I was nervous and excited. We drove down to the dock and got on the "Days Catch" that was operated by Captain Wilcox, owner of Sea Watch Tours. http://www.seawatchtours.com/

There were about 12 of us altogether, and once again it seemed like I was the only die hard birder on board. What was even more surprising was that most of the people were from Ontario!

First Mate Durlan was a really cool guy. He was knowledgeable about the birds of the Bay of Fundy, and the biology of the east coast in general. We chit chatted about how the tern colony on the island has failed in the past few years. The adults would return to the island, mate, lay an egg and either the egg would get eaten by gulls, or the parents would abandon it. Gull predation, or not enough food to support both adult and young it seemed. It would be nice if a study was made as to determine the cause of the disappearance of both Common, Arctic, and rarely, Roseate Terns, that called Machias Seal Island their home.

It was Durlan who pointed out to us a Wilson's Storm-Petrel. I stood up immediately, and walked, swaying back and forth with the movement of the boat and, after a lot of looking, finally picked up the little seabird in my field of view. I turned to Aaron and said, "Isn't that awesome!?"

Aaron nodded and said, "I don't feel so good"

Oh no.

Aaron went to the washroom and puked, came back out, sat down, and then got up and puked again, this time overboard. I watched Northern Gannets, and later Common Eiders fly by, but I felt terrible. I am the birder, not Aaron, and he came out here with me for what? To get violently sea sick.

When we approached Machias Seal Island after a half hour on the rolling sea, it was time to hop in the dory and make our way towards the island. Aaron and I got to go on the dory first. We docked at the island and as the little boat went back to get more people, I turned and looked at the island and its surrounding waters. It was covered with alcids.

Machais Seal Island is located in the lower Bay of Fundy, about ten miles west of Grand Manan Island. The island is roughly a mile long, and a few hundred feet wide. A lighthouse is located there and has been maintained by the Canadian Coast Guard for over 100 years.

Only 15 people per day are allowed to the protected colony on the island with Sea Watch Tours. There is also a tour operating from Maine (which we could see off in the distance) that was only allowed 15 people per day as well. The island has been protected under its designation as the Machias Seal Island National Wildlife Area by the Canadian Wildlife Service, though ownership of the island is still disputed between Canada and the United States.

After being briefed by an officer of the Canadian Wildlife Service it was off to the blinds. Aaron and I went inside a blind and we were surrounded by Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills and a few Common Murres. There were even Alcids landing on our blind as we could here there little claws scratching on the roof!

Aaron felt still a little sick and left the blind. I was all by myself now and took numerous photos. There was only one word to describe this experience.....breathtaking!!!
Atlantic Puffin adult. Photo taken by Marianne Balkwill

"Bridled" Common Murre. Only a few Common Murres make Machias Seal Island their home, and I only found one Common Murre with these white spectacles. Photo by Marianne Balkwill

Razorbill adults. Seeing these birds remind me of once upon a time an even bigger alcid was found in the Atlantic, the now extinct, flightless Great Auk. Photo by Marianne Balkwill

After I spent an hour in the blind it was time to go look for Aaron and see how he was coping. Artic Terns called overhead and I found Aaron hanging out at the lighthouse visiting with the lighthouse keepers.

Back on the dory, and back to the Days Catch we went. Our next stop was a little island that had both Gray and Harbour Seals. I watched, while Aaron raised his head to take a quick look and then it was back to hanging over the railing. An hour and a half later we were back on Grand Manan. I thanked the Captain and Mate Durlan for an excellent time and Aaron was thankful to be back on dry land again.

That night in our motel room the two of us chit chatted. Our trip was about over. Tomorrow we would take the ferry back to mainland New Brunswick, and then back to Ontario.

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