Wednesday, June 29, 2016

Machias Seal Island & A Morning With Puffins

Machias Seal Island is located about 10 miles off the Maine coast in one direction, and 10 miles off the coast of Grand Manan Island in the other.  Grand Manan is part of New Brunswick, Canada, and is about twelve miles long and maybe 5 miles wide.

There are two tour companies who are permitted to bring tourists to Machias Seal Island.  One is out of Cutler, ME, and the other is Sea Watch Tours, which operates out of Grand Manan and which we took a puffin cruise with last Saturday.  Each company can bring 15 tourists, six days a week, during puffin nesting season.  The Maine cruise is booked until next spring, which is why we were brave and adventurous, and went with the Grand Manan cruise.  It too is mostly filled; however, because of the extra effort needed to get to Grand Manan, and for Americans to get across the border, it does have a few openings.  We happened to snag two of them.

Machias Seal Island is actually a disputed territory, and has been for over a hundred years.  Both Canada and the U.S. want it - not so much for the actual island, but for the valuable fishing beds around it.  Apparently both countries have adopted a "live and let live" attitude toward the place, but the sea captain indicated that it could possibly re-erupt at some point.

During the nesting season, several biology researchers live on the island.  Lighthouse keepers also live there, year-round.  Two keepers alternate in four-week blocks.

Lighthouse on Machias Seal Island
Thousands of seabirds nest on Machias Seal Island every year.  While the puffins are best known, just as many razorbills and common murres build nests there.  All of those birds are members of the auk family.  The nests are deep in the rocks, unseen.  The pairs take turns sitting on the nests while the second member of each pair stays above ground and also goes to sea to catch food.  However, arctic terns build nests right on the ground.  In fact, there were several nests very near the area where we were oriented to the island.  And those terns make sure that their babies are protected.  Anyone who goes to close runs the risk of being dive-bombed by an angry tern!  That makes it difficult to go to and from the boat, as several nests are located close to the boardwalk.


If you have read this far, and are not bored yet, the following is my journal record, as written on the plane ride back, of this memorable day for Mike and me:

Saturday, 6/25/16 - Up at 5:00 to prepare for the main event of this trip - the puffin cruise.  The captain's wife had said on the phone that we should dress warmly.  I added Mike's long johns and hoodie to my other clothes.  We collected binoculars, cameras, and guidebook, and headed out.  

Rose and Pop's convenience store was the first stop, for breakfast biscuits.  There are very few places to get an early breakfast on this island.  The biscuits were OK.  They were in a cooler and had to be warmed in the microwave.  They were similar to Egg McMuffins.  Then on to Seal Harbor and Sea Watch Tours!

We parked at the harbor and made our way down the steep metal ramp. Several people were already on the boat.  It was an unusual combination of people - One lady we called the "African Explorer" because she was so decked out in expedition clothing and boots.  She was one of several people who brought massive camera outfits, that they had to work on getting set up, throughout the 1 1/2 hour trip to Machias Seal Island.

As we approached the island, birds were everywhere - puffins as well as other sea birds we didn't yet recognize.  They all looked so small, floating on the open ocean.  

Getting on the island was not easy.  We each had to transfer from the boat to a 15-foot skiff, which had to be used for three trips to relay everyone to shore.  Once there, each person had to transfer to the walkway, which was covered in wet seaweed.  I had to go first, and was relieved that it went just fine.  But everyone had to be extra careful not to slide down that seaweed.  And as we walked up the boardwalk, we were dive-bombed by Arctic terns whose nests were in the grassy areas on either side. They were serious about protecting those nests.

We were taken to an orientation, held in a small picnic table area, and reminded that to be on Machias Seal Island to see the puffins close up was a privilege, not a right.  The first mate on the boat, who served as the host, reminded us that he was authorized to remove anyone who did not follow the guidelines.  The longer we remained on the island, the more we realized what a privilege it truly was.
Waiting and orientation area.  Boat out at left.

Then he split us up into groups of 3-4 to go into the blinds.  He had been talking to us on the boat, and must have liked us, because aside he said he would see to it that we didn't get in a blind with someone who had one of those huge camera outfits (which because of their size can completely ruin the experience for other watchers).  And he kept his word.

So we were divided into our blinds groups, and were taken along wooden walkways to the blinds, which were tiny wooden sheds with wooden windows that could be raised on all four sides.  Four people could fit inside.  Barely.  There were no places, or room, to sit.  We were paired with Fran├žois and Isabelle, a very nice French-Canadian couple.

One of the blinds at left.

As soon as we were in the blinds, the door hooked shut, and some of the windows pushed up, the show began.

Mike and I agree that this was by far the best experience we have had in thirty years of birding together.  Puffins were everywhere, as were razorbills and common murres.  They were at a distance; and they were also as close as 3-4 feet away.  They would run across the metal roof to the blind, and then would jump down to the rocks directly in front of us.  They would do a running take-off every time they flew.  They came so close that we could see individual feathers and could have reached out and grabbed some of them.

This show continued for an hour and a half - a ninety minute period that felt like ten.  It was an incredible experience, and I do not use that word lightly.  No painting of puffins, no cute little drawings, or stuffed animals, or any memento of puffins, came anywhere close to the opportunity to see them in the wild, in the close proximity that we were to them.

A Razorbill.  No, not a puffin, but impressive in its own right.

Great Black-Backed Gull also on the island.  Gulls are not appreciated too much as they like to turn baby puffins into lunch.  Most gulls are the common herring gull type; this one is more unusual and was the only one I saw out there.
After the ninety minutes were up, we were escorted back to the picnic area to wait for all the group to come out.  By this time the boat from the American side had arrived and needed to get in our blinds.  We also had to wait awhile for the tide to come up, to make the transfer to skiff and then the boat easier.

The lighthouse keeper came out to talk with us.  We also met one of the summer researchers.

There was so much to see even when not in the blinds.  The thousands of birds around and on the island could still be easily seen.  The arctic terns nested all over the island, some so close to us that we could see their chicks.  There was a porta-potty close by; however, a tern nest was close to it, so someone had to "go" very badly to risk the attack.

Arctic tern, with fish for the babies, right next to the outhouse!!  It is perched on the rib bone of a whale.  

We added the Atlantic puffin, common murre, razorbill, Arctic tern, and northern gannet to our life lists.  We're also adding the black guillemot, because we did get a brief look at a pair of them flying.

After transferring back to the boat, the captain took us around the island, and also to another one called North Rock, which was covered with seals.  They were interesting to see, but after the experience with the birds, that was not very exciting.

Mike spent a good bit of time on the trip back talking with the captain, and then with the first mate about hunting.  So he was well occupied.  I just enjoyed the surf, and the ocean birds, and seeing Maine on one side, Grand Manan on the other, and open ocean off in the distance.

We disembarked, saying goodbye to the new friends who had shared this wonderful experience, and returned to the Inn at Whale Cove.  We were in awe of the experience we had just participated in, and very grateful for the opportunity to experience God's marvelous creation in a new and beautiful way.


Barbara H. said...

Wow! What a wonderful experience!

Sharlene said...

Thank you for sharing your pictures. I have been intrigued with puffins since I read a poem about them as a child.

Susanne said...

Oh my...I would love to go see these lovely birds! What a fun thing to do.