Acadia, Day 3: Gulls aren’t the only ones who throw-up around skuas

The excitement I felt when I went to sleep the night before could only be described as a sort of nerdy day-before-Christmas anticipation.  Pelagic trips are the ultimate expression of birder dorkiness.  Aly and I would board a boat with 60-70 other binocular wielding, mostly older folks and travel into the Bay of Fundy, looking for seabirds while throwing discarded fish guts (chum) overboard.  How could I sleep with the promise of that ahead of me?

Pelagic birder in full display

A pelagic birder in its natural habitat

We were down at the dock (B) by 5:30 a.m. and the buzz among our fellow seabirders was noticable.  Once aboard, people staked-out their areas; the Friendship V is a large boat with many good viewing locations.  The hardcores headed to the bow of the boat, the casuals to the stern.  Leaving Bar Harbor we were treated to an incredible sunrise as we weaved around smaller islands.  The water was calm but, there was some concern about waves building later in the day.  For now, we were traveling with the current and all was peaceful.

Sunrise over Bar Harbor

“This grand show is eternal. It is always sunrise somewhere; the dew is never all dried at once; a shower is forever falling; vapor is ever rising. Eternal sunrise, eternal sunset, eternal dawn and gloaming, on sea and continents and islands, each in its turn, as the round earth rolls.” – John Muir

Once we had made it about an hour to the northeast, the action began.  The chummer at the stern of the boat started chopping up fish guts and pouring some sort of fragrant cooking oil into the sea.  Almost immediately, swarms of gulls began to arrive.  Most of the gulls were Greater Black-backed but intermingled were the sharp-looking Northern Gannets.  The gulls would carefully pick at scraps at the surface of the water when occasionally, a gannet would dive and plunge towards the bait.  More difficult to keep in view were the shearwaters and storm-petrels that went streaming by.  To those unfamiliar with them, this may seem kind of absurd to say this about a bird but, shearwaters are really good at flying.  After the obligatory flurry of photos, Aly and I simply enjoyed watching them dart around waves, disappearing behind a swell, only to cut across on the other side as though they’re in an maritime slalom competition.

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Great Shearwater, a type of petrel. The word “Petrel” is derived from Saint Peter who walked on water.

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A young Northern Gannet

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Great Shearwater

Despite all the goings on, there was still much anticipation.  The real prize on these trips are jaegers and skuas.  As far as birds go, gulls are pretty bad-ass.  Every so often someone posts an image of an adult gull missing a foot.  How has the gull survived that long without a foot? Because, foot or not, it simply does not give a crap.  When compared to jaegers and skuas, however, gulls look like wusses.  The typical skua (of which jaegers are a type), will feed by harassing other birds into either dropping their catch or, if the gull has already eaten, regurgitating it.  So when the boats chummer is frantically throwing fish parts overboard, the goal is not just to attract gulls but that the gulls will attract the attention of the skuas.  It worked.  Over the loud-speaker, the exclamation “JAEGER” immediately got everyone to run to the nearest opening along the boat’s railing.  Over the course of the next hour, Pomarine Jaegers, South Polar Skua, and Great Skua were all observed.  One skua came so close to the bow that it could have grabbed the hat right off Aly’s head!

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Pomarine Jaeger

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One badass South Polar Skua

We kept moving out towards Machais Seal Island (the subject of one of the few border disputes between the US and Canada).  Along the way Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, and a variety of other seabirds were spotted.  We had been on the water for 4 hours, we had 4 hours to get back.  Until this point, we had been travelling with the waves, now it was time to turn against them.  Even worse, there was a substantial cross current.  Upon turning around, the merry passengers of the Friendship V abandoned birding and prayed for the fortitude of their inner ear.  As the rolling boat was launched 10-12 feet out of the air only to slam down and immediately repeat, the barf bags started to get dished out.  With the violent waters making it near impossible to stand except while firmly holding on to something with both hands, “throw-up” would be less accurate than “throw-everywhere”.  In the next 3.5 hours I witnessed the kind of love that can exist between a couple.  I would watch a spouse struggle to move about the boat, fetching extra seasickness bags, only to have their partner lose their lunch a second too early, covering both of them and all their belongings.  As the average age on the boat was probably in the upper 50’s I can assert: there is nothing worse than watching an old person vomit.  Never one to get seasick, I did **okay**.  I made it back but, the success of the mission was in doubt to the last moments.  Aly, on the other-hand, for a person who can’t handle being on a sailboat in the calm waters of Lake Michigan took a nap the entire return trip and never flinched.  Go figure.

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Gull (Great Black-backed) and gannet craziness

With the crew doing their best to attend to the 20-30 sick birders, there was an obvious sense of relief when we turned past Schoodic Island and entered sheltered waters.  If there was any further evidence needed that birders are among the most resilient people in the world, when intercom announced the only Common Loon of the day, hardly a rare bird, the entirety of the boat’s passengers lined up along the starboard side to take a look.  Once people began to recover, the mood turned celebratory.  We had gotten incredibly good looks of birds rarely seen and, that is all a birder needs to keep going.  That and four or five beers at the Thirsty Whale. (C)

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The Victory Loon

eBird Checklists:

Pelagic Segment 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9

Bar Island Bar

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