Part 1: Casco Bay Boat Tours in search of birds (July 28, 30 and August 1, 2)
As a change of pace, and only temporarily, we leave PI for the ‘other’ Casco Bay islands in search of birds. Transport is on a 12 foot-aluminum boat named “Sea Parrot II”, captained by Sam. We note the arrival of early migrants and new tidbits of avian behavior. We see better views of many species still nurturing their young. We guide you with a map for each day.
July 28 (Boat Ride and Map 1):
The maiden voyage started in (a) Diamond Passage. Venturing into the Atlantic Ocean, we pass Pumpkin Knob, to the jagged rocks off (b) Long Island’s Jerry Point and Overset Island. There we find Double-crested Cormorants drying their wings alongside a shaggy-looking juvenile Great Blue Heron. The female Common Eiders sharing the rocks with the others, leave immediately. The eiders are terrified of anything afloat carrying humanoid shapes. Since they are hunted, who can blame them?
(b) Juvenile Great Blue Heron and Double-crested Cormorants
A great surprise awaits us at (c) Diamond Cove where we find Barn Swallows still caring for their young under the dock. Our Tree Swallows in Battery Steele marsh had already completed their nursery duties in July – so it is a great treat to see these swallows flitting about.
(c) Barn Swallows
On our way out of the cove we see our first (d) Ring-billed Gull, perhaps returning from Canada – remember this species on their Ottawa River breeding islands, overlooking Canada’s Parliament? (July blog)
(d) Ring-billed Gull
Gathering nerve to venture, yet again, into the ocean, we sheepishly head toward (e) Ram Island (RI) and Ram Island Ledge, under the initial protection of House (HI) and Cushing Islands (CI). Once out there many cormorants and gulls greet us – along with their aroma.
The seas are a bit roly-poly, so we head into the safety of the bay and to the spit of land exposed at low tide between (f) Great (GDI) and Little Diamond Islands (LDI). Migrating shorebirds! On the pebbly shore, serving as a great camouflage, we find them. The Semipalmated Plover is easy to identify with its striking orange and black beak, orange legs, and complete black-breast band. The ‘little peeps’ (Semipalmated, Western, or Least Sandpipers) were not so easy – even close-up. The second photo shows (well, sort of) yellow legs of the Least Sandpiper. The third photo shows a group of ‘peeps’ with their more longish bills, slightly drooped, suggests a Western Sandpiper, however, they also have a dingy breast that looks more like the Semipalmated Sandpiper. What is your interpretation? Are they, improbably, one of the larger two peep species – White-rumped seen (on Pine Point, Portland ) or Baird’s Sandpipers? Exhausted from trying to identify the ‘peeps’ we head back to PI.
(f)-1 Semi-palmated Plover
(f)-2 Least Sandpiper
(f)-3 Unidenitified Peeps
July 30 (Boat Ride and Map 2):
Heading northward along (a) Long Island’s (LI) bay side we acknowledge a Common Tern (summer resident) on the bow of its own boat:
(a) Common Tern
(b) Dancing Peeps
Our first bird encounter on (b) Crow Island (CI), off LI is more of those ‘hard to identify’ peeps, and they are ‘dancing’ – on a platform of floating seaweed. Dancing Peeps. Semipalmated Plovers (foreground) seem to prefer the security of the rocks in search for small unsuspecting invertebrates. The eiders are on the sandy beach, basking in the sun - and a gathering of cormorants are drying their wings, or surveying the Great Chebeague Island (GCI) residents at the ferry – or simply enjoying the day:
(b) Double-crested Cormorants
As we move toward (c) Deer Point on GCI we see another seaweed feeder – a Bonaparte’s Gull. Note the black ear spot (non-breeding plumage) and black bill, and its delicate demeanor as compared to our heftier Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. It too (as the shorebirds) has been traveling across the continent - from as far away as Alaska or as close as Ontario, to the Atlantic Coast, and possibly becoming one of our winter residents.
(c) Bonaparte's Gull - Non-breeding plumage
Passing between GCI and Hope Islands we approach another small island (d) – Sand Island - a nice place for a picnic, accompanied by a Common Tern preening its amazing feathers. Note the long folded wing feathers – they are longer than its tail – a distinguishing feature for this species. Other characteristics for identification are its striking reddish orange legs and bill (with a black tip). We have noticed far more terns this summer around Casco Bay than the last couple of years. Kudos to the Audubon volunteers on Outer Green Island who have aided in the breeding success – through predator management they protect nesting birds – of the Artic, Roseate, Common Terns; Black Guillemots, and Common Eiders (1). The Common Tern will leave here and fly to Central and South America for the winter. A long flight.
(d) Common Tern
We set out to sea (e), away from the protection of the islands. We drag a plankton net through seaweed racks – looking for what invertebrates the Bonaparte’s Gull and peeps might find tasty. We find tiny amphipods, copepods, barnacle larvae, snail larvae, and small insects. We then follow the eastern shore line of LI to (f) Harbor Grace where we find more female eiders and their pint-size juveniles, – smaller than our PI ones. Nearby we find numerous eiders on (g) Obed Rock and Vaille Island resting on the rocky shores, with the cormorants. Passing (h) Pumpkin Knob on our return to PI, a juvenile cormorant was spotted flanked by adults in their velvety black plumage as compared to the younger one’s whitish breast.
(h) Juvenile and Adult Double-crestsed Cormorants
August 1 (Boat ride and Map 3):
Ram Island is an avian haven laden with – Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls and the cormorants – a mixed rookery, a curiosity. Because our initial visit to Ram Island was short, we set out again to get a better look. As we pass (a) Cushing Island (CI), little black birds with flashes of white, flew to and from Whitehead cliff – they are Black Guillemots – perhaps they still have young in their nests there? Other observers reported seeing guillemots nesting on these cliffs this summer – hidden in crevices and protected from the gulls on Ram Island. We also see the guillemots on (b) Ram Island (RI) – just a rest spot as nesting there with the big guys would be risky. Gulls do not hesitate for a minute to indulge in a scrambled egg breakfast - raw.
(a) Black Guillemots on Whitehead Cliffs, Cusing Island
(b) Black Guillemots and gulls on Ram Island
The gulls still have young to nurture.They too have a sort of flight training but not as elegant as the ravens (July blog) – the young gulls stand in one place and wing flap until they get a lift, then plummet back to the ground, sometimes atop its sibling.
Young Herring Gulls in Flight Training
The Herring Gull young sport an overall grey plumage and the Great Black-backed Gull show a more black and white patterned one.
Young Great Black-backed Gull (foreground) and Herring Gulls (background)
Cormorants are resting or preening on rocks. Many prefer the height of the (c) Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse platform. Is this preference for safety from the gulls? Perhaps they get better airflow at these higher elevations for better drying power of their water soaked wings. Are they watching for fish? However, they do not plunge dive from great heights above the water as their relatives the gannets do, they instead float on the surface, ‘spot’ a fish and dive from the water surface.
(c) Double-crested Cormorants
Rounding the lighthouse and returning to (d) Ram Island from the ocean side reveals more gulls and cormorants on the pebbly beach, and lots of eiders – juveniles and females. They stealthily paddle far away from us – to become invisible in the trough of swells. Ram Island is one of the sites in Maine where Dr. Brad Allen (Maine Department of Inland Fisheries) visits to band the eiders – to study their movements and longevity. I found a band on a dead female eider on Chappaquiddick Island, MA last year, sent it to the US Fish and Wildlife Service in Maryland (2) for identification, and learned that she was banded in northern Maine by Dr. Allen, 14 years ago - an eider matriarch. Banding research relies on citizens to report any findings. Did you know that the lighthouse on Ram Island Ledge was purchased by a physician at the Maine Medical Center (3) – for the purpose of preserving it for all of us to enjoy its beauty?
After being ‘at sea’ and feeling vulnerable we head back into the calm waters of (e) Casco Bay where we see two Common Loons in what appeared to be breeding plumage. Early migrators? On the north side of (f) MackWorth Island we see more young eiders and two Spotted Sandpipers, either in winter plumage or juvenile birds? No spots. These sandpipers breed here, so either these two birds are our summer residents or they are passing through, on their way to Florida – snowbirds of the avian kind.
In the distance we see a very small island with one central tree – it is close to Clapboard Island. Intrigued we set out for it, passing Brothers Islands, seeing even more eiders. As we approach we see two trees. The island does not have a name on the NOAA chart, so we name it – (g) Two Tree Island:
Here we met with an adult and young Great Black-backed Gull, and an eggshell. Did this behemoth of a bird originate in this little oval shell?
(g) Adult and young Great Black-backed Gulls
Circumnavigating (h) Clapboard Island (CI) we find an oyster farm, Ospreys in their own flight school lessons, and eiders tending their young. We cross over to (i) Cow Island (CI) because we saw a family of Ospreys there last year - we hope for another glimpse of a family. Yes, a new family is atop an old brick chimney; there are four very curious young Ospreys, perched on their nest. A nice way to end the day tour.
(i) Young Osprey on Cow Island Nest
August 2 (Boat Ride and Map 4):
Off to Little Chebeague Island (LCI) – as we approach the island we find another (a) Bonaparte’s Gull feeding in the seaweed rafts – but this one still has its mostly black head – slightly mottled with white. Above we described the Bonaparte’s Gull with no black head, but only the spot of black behind its ear (full winter plumage). The long-slender black bill of the Bonaparte’s Gull distinguishes it from two other black-headed gulls - Black-headed and the Laughing Gulls. The Franklin’s Gull has a black bill in the non-breeding and juvenile birds, but its bill is smaller, their primary wing feathers are white tipped, and their backs are darker than the Bonaparte’s Gull. The Bonaparte's Gull is described as more 'tern-like' than other gulls.
(a) Bonaparte's Gull
On land we find a plaque showing the location of the (b) Steamboat Wharf – where, no kidding, thousands of folks arrived on this little island in the 1870s for clambakes. Where did they find enough clams? Guess who is resting and preening on the remaining wharf pilings? Yep, the cormorants – high above the water.
(b) Steamboat Wharf, Little Chebeague Island
Leaving sunbathers, some clothed, some not, we cross over to (c) LI at the ferry landing – to see what the cormorants are doing there – they too are resting and preening on the old pilings – especially noteworthy is this striking juvenile with its lovely black feet.
(c) Juvenile Double-crested Cormorant
We make one last attempt to see the handsome Black Guillemots on Cushing Island – they were not there. But to our surprise, straight off our bow (d) , we see the nicely trimmed sails of the “Whisperer” with Captain Butch and First Mate Michelle aboard – heading out into the Gulf of Maine - into uncharted seas.
1. Outer Green Island Seabird Restoration Project
2. US Fish and Wildlife Service Banding Program
3. Purchase of the Ram Island Ledge Lighthouse
4. General bird reference: Sibley, D.A. (2000). National Audubon Society: The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, Inc. NY.
Thank you for your interest in our Peaks Island birds. Please contact with any comments: firstname.lastname@example.org
Reviewers: Marty, Michelle Brown, and Sam Wainright
By Patty Wainright
Photos © Patty Wainright
Maps rendered from NOAA Chart 13290