Northern Gannet Diving off Peaks Island
This first Backshore Bird Blog will focus on the Northern Gannets (See Northern Gannet Species Account) and the three species of scoters (Black Scoter, Surf Scoter, and White-winged Scoter), a type of sea duck (Scoter Species Accounts). The gannets were blown close to shore by two different storms in October. The scoters migrate here in the autumn far from their summer breeding grounds:
Scoter Summer Breeding Ranges
Map © Google with modifications
Other bird species observed on the Backshore in October will also be listed below.
On October 17, two adult Northern Gannets and one immature gannet were seen offshore between Peaks Island and Green Island. Diving was not observed. The gannets were flying high above the ocean surface. Hurricane Gonzales passing offshore and a weather front approaching from the South brought these birds inshore, into unfamiliar feeding grounds.
Early morning observations of October 23 during a Nor’easter (~40-45 mph winds) brought even more gannets near the Backshore - nearly 50. Immature gannets were also observed.
Northern Gannet off Backshore Photo © Patty Wainright
The gannets soared with the high winds or flew against the wind, typically at great heights above the sea. Somehow, even flying against the wind the gannets found ways to use its force to their advantage – soaring and banking while they plunged for fish from great heights. One gannet repeatedly plunge dived just outside the breaking surf, surfaced and momentarily stayed stationary before taking flight. Gannets need to face the wind and flap their wings strongly to take flight from the water (1). Some of the gannets flew close to shore in front of the breakers, appearing as arrows flying against the winds, perhaps using the updraft of wind from breaking swells - a strategy used by albatrosses (1) . The gannets’ flights were seamless as though each feather of its plumage was designed for these spectacular maneuvers in high winds:
Northern Gannets at Crest of Wave Photo © Patty Wainright
On October 23, for the first time of the season, on the second day of the nor’easter scoters were observed from the Backshore. In the early morning a large flock of ~50 scoters flew high over Cushing Island. Two larger flocks of 200-300 birds flew over Green Island, passing over Ram Island to Cape Elizabeth. Scoters were also seen in the late afternoon in larger flocks. They flew offshore toward Ram Island and southerly toward Portland Head Light:
Scoter Flock off Ram Island Photo © Patty Wainright
Within 15 minutes approximately eight large flocks of greater than 100 birds each were seen on the horizon. Their manner of flight was similar as those seen in the morning – swaying and flowing as if in a dance. A very large flock (too numerous to count) flew over Chebeague and Long Island into Casco Bay:
Scoter Flock over Long and Chebeague Islands Photo © Patty Wainright
Mid-day observations were not made and one can only imagine how many flocks of scoters flew into Casco Bay and further south during that time.
Sea ducks such as scoters cannot soar; they rely instead on rapid beats of their smallish wings. During migration some species fly high in large flocks, taking advantage of stronger winds found there (2). The scoter flocks seen from the Backshore were apparently taking advantage of strong winds (40-45 mph) coming from the Northeast. Even so the storm probably created difficult challenges for the birds at the end of their long and arduous journey. Observing these birds as they migrate through storms demonstrates the impressive ability of these small creatures to adapt to their environment in a fight for survival.
Only White-winged Scoters were observed feeding close to shore during the nor’easter.
Common Eiders were more scarce (~100) in October, down from approximately 400 in late summer. Although the Double-crested Cormorants breed here on isolated islands (e.g. Green and Ram Islands), most individuals go further south in the winter – only a few were seen in October. The elegant and most impressive Common Loons have arrived from their freshwater-lake breeding grounds (I first heard their melodious calls in Whitehead Passage on September 27.). Black Guillemots have gone into their winter plumages – various shades of greys and white as compared to their splendid and striking, black and white summer attire. The guillemots breed on Green Island where they are protected and monitored in the summer by Maine Audubon Society. Our resident Herring Gulls and Great Black-backed Gulls are also in fewer numbers as compared to their abundance while breeding, also on uninhabited offshore islands.
Red-breasted Merganser at Wharf Cove Photo © Patty Wainright
On October 19 five Red-breasted Mergansers were seen in their non-breeding plumage off the Backshore at house #610. One was seen on October 20 at Wharf Cove. Nonbreeding plumages (July-October) of the Red-breasted Merganser and the Common Merganser vary slightly. The Red-breasted Merganser has an uplifted orange bill and tufted nape feathers. The Common Merganser does not sport the tufts or uplifted bill.
Our resident American Crows and Black Ducks were found in search of food tidbits, frequently seen together without any apparent animosities toward each other:
American Crow and Black Duck Photo © Patty Wainright
1. Northern Gannet Wikipedia
2. Sibley, D.A. (2000). National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. NY (pages: 54; 98-99).
Thank you for your interest in our Peaks Island birds, and if you have any additional bird sightings you would like to share or questions regarding Peak's bird life, you can send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Written by: Patty Wainright
Reviewers: Michelle Brown, Linda Sauerteig, Sam Wainright