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Nature Notes: Pelagic

Ed Robinson
June 13, 2023

Definitions vary by your choice of dictionary, but for our purposes the word “pelagic” means “species related to or living in the open sea.” This contrasts with species of coastal areas or on the bottom of the sea, known as the benthic zone. By now you may be wondering, so why are you writing about this stuff, Ed? Is this another one of your flights of fancy?

No, it concerns a voyage of discovery and one you should take very soon. Living or vacationing on the coast of Maine we have a plethora of opportunities to leave solid land and to get out on the nearly endless sea around us. I enjoyed such a trip this week and it prompted me to share some of the wonders on offer to travelers. Growing up in western New York, the ocean was far enough away that it was more a concept than a reality. My first view of salt water was at age 17 but the harbor in Manhattan was not all that exciting for a budding naturalist. Since moving to Harpswell in 2007 I have taken every excuse to get out on the water in all seasons.

The voyage in question was a pelagic birding trip arranged by Derek and Jeannette Lovitch of Freeport Wild Bird Supply, a wonderful shop geared to all things birds. Derek and Jeannette are trained biologists who have traveled the world in search of birding adventures, and they are highly experienced in sharing their knowledge with groups of all sorts, including recent outings for HHLT. This outing was co-sponsored by Zeiss Optics, world leaders in binoculars, spotting scopes and many other precision optical products. We sailed out of beautiful Boothbay Harbor on the 92-foot-long Harbor Princess with Cap’n Fish’s Cruises, famous for their whale tours. The Fish family began ocean nature trips in the 1930’s so the company knows how to get you out there safely and back with wonderful memories.

You surely remember visiting amusement parks in your youth, mostly a great opportunity to ride around screaming, begging for souvenirs, and getting cotton candy in your hair. Well, I was the kid who got nauseous on rides like the teacups that spin you in circles or old-fashioned roller coasters that jostled you up and down and sideways. Ever since a chartered fishing trip in Hawaii in my 20’s, where we spent 8 hours bucking 20-foot swells in a mere 50-foot boat, I have suffered from occasional bouts of seasickness. While living in England, several ferry crossings of the English Channel in gale force winds with waves crashing over the bow reduced me to unpleasant hours hanging over the railings. So, I was delighted this week to find that the waters off Boothbay Harbor were benign and the forecasted thunderstorms held off until we were safely back ashore.

birds swarm over small island

Laughing gulls and terns at Eastern Egg Rock (Ed Robinson photo)

I always find it fascinating how wildlife sightings change as you leave the harbor behind and head for open waters. Most of the birds that we see around our yards are homebodies, with limited interest in traveling more than a few hundred feet from their chosen territories, unless they are in migration mode. Inshore islands often host ospreys and bald eagles, both of which we spotted soon after leaving the dock. Most land mammals are not found very far offshore, although animals like white-tailed deer and black bears are very capable swimmers. The reality, of course, is that land-based creatures and offshore creatures have very different needs for food and shelter, let alone the ability to process salt versus fresh water.

So, it was a bit surprising when our first stop six miles out of the harbor at Eastern Egg Rock had us listening to two Savannah sparrows and one song sparrow. But their calls were mostly drowned out by the cacophony of sound created by an estimated 1000 gulls, mostly the raucous laughing gulls, along with nearly 600 terns, including elusive Arctic and endangered roseate terns. The azure sky over this tiny seven-acre nesting island was constantly alive with the piercing calls of soaring white birds, sometimes joined by smaller numbers of Atlantic puffins, black guillemots, common eiders, and a handful of double-crested cormorants. Our guides managed to sort out a few other species that added to the diversity of our experience: four great black-backed gulls, three spotted sandpipers and a beautiful lone razorbill, hard to spot this time of year. It all made for a feast for our binoculars and cameras, and a wonderful start to the 5-hour long tour.

From there, the ship turned south and headed out to a spot named Murray Hole. Within a couple miles the boat slowed to a crawl as we crept up to a coveted bird that is hard to find at this time of year, a common murre. The birds are notoriously boat shy, but the captain did a great job approaching quietly at an oblique angle to get us within easy viewing range. Despite our distance from shore, we were not yet done with birds you might see at home, in this case a loon calling on the water and a ruby-throated hummingbird who was a long distance away from any nectar source!

soot-colored bird flying over water

Wilson’s storm petrel (iStock photo by Dypics)

Moving out more than 20 miles offshore, we journeyed through areas with wonderful names like the Kettle and Mistaken Ground. It just looked like more ocean, with no signposts to help us get our bearings but the captain made good use of his GPS system to keep us on course. At one point we passed over an underwater ledge where cold ocean waters from the 500-foot depths mix with warmer waters from shore, creating an upwelling of nutrients that can attract whales and many other hungry creatures. While sightings of species like humpbacks and minkes have been common lately, we did not see any on this cruise. But we were able to spot harbor porpoises working along the surface, briefly showing their small dorsal fins as they looked for a meal. Also, a few harbor seals were cruising nearby. The birders aboard were treated to graceful northern gannets of four different age classes, showing off their varied plumages.

In the deep water the crew began laying what is called a chum line along the surface of the ocean. The idea is to place strong smelling food items in a line one or two miles long in hopes of drawing in offshore birds like shearwaters, jaegers and fulmars, a category of far-ranging birds called the tube noses who have an excellent sense of smell. The chum was mostly chunks of beef fat (like the suet you use for woodpeckers) along with a couple fragrant gallons of herring oil. On this day, the lack of wind worked against us since the smell of the chum line was not well dispersed. While we did not manage to see any of the larger tube-nosed birds mentioned above, we were treated to over 260 Wilson’s storm petrels, beautiful little black and white seabirds that look like they belong in Mackerel Cove, not out in the open ocean.

basking shark opens mouth underwater

Basking shark (iStock photo by Rebecca Bellini)

By late morning bird activity had dropped considerably but Derek Lovitch cautioned us to stay alert since some of the best sightings occur on the trip home, sometimes including bottle-nosed dolphins or a huge ocean sunfish (also known as a mola mola). Soon enough we were treated to a fascinating sight when a basking shark made an appearance near the ship. These giant fish, up to 26 feet long, are the second largest shark species after the massive whale sharks, but they are no danger to humans, using their huge mouths to sift plankton from the ocean waters. Unfortunately, they have been exploited by man for food and there are now efforts to protect the remaining sharks.

There was one more special sighting, a group of 12 red-necked phalaropes, a first for me. Considered shore birds, this time of year they may be spotted on the open ocean as we did. They are unusual birds in that mating season finds the female with brighter and more contrasting plumage than the males. An interesting note from Cornell’s Merlin app is that when feeding in shallow water near shore, the phalaropes spin frantically to stir up small invertebrates for food.

bird stands on rock with orange plummage around neck

Female red-necked phalarope in breeding plummage (iStock photo by DRFerry)

Another 30 minutes found the ship back among the offshore islands where we were treated to sightings of surf scoters, Canada geese and mallards. As we neared shore the group began to hear or see more familiar land-based birds like rock pigeons, European starlings, house finches, and barn swallows. A yellow warbler made an appearance to give us a bright splash of color. The tour group of 75 birders were hungry and thirsty after five hours in the warm sun but everyone aboard seemed to enjoy the smorgasbord of wildlife that filled our notebooks and cameras.

If you have an interest in birds beyond those in your neighborhood, or if you have yet to experience the classic ocean cruises for whales and other aquatic creatures, find your way to one of Maine’s ports. There is a great variety of trips up and down the coast of Maine to suit your needs, from one hour long to full day trips on the water. It is never a hardship to enjoy the stunning coastal scenery of Maine with hundreds of islands scattered around for your viewing pleasure. Several groups offer pelagic birding trips like the one described here including an October trip by the Lovitch’s to see migrating birds, a September trip organized by Maine Audubon and a birding festival in Downeast Maine organized by the Cobscook Institute.

The odds are good that you will see me out there, hoping for a decent sea but also using my Dramamine tablets, ginger chewing gum and my motion sickness wrist bands. Just keep your distance if the sea is churning!

If you like Ed Robinson’s writing, check out his two Nature Notes books! Click here for more information.