“If you see a bird with a black belly and a white face, start screaming,” Brad told me as we neared Machias Seal Island on Russell’s lobster boat. I replied that I was unlikely to be able to distinguish between the distant black and white dots that periodically appeared in the sky, even with my binoculars. The birders on board had heard rumors that a Tufted puffin was in the area. Ben, who has been eagerly anticipating this trip all year, excitedly told me that the Tufted Puffin has a black belly, unlike the Atlantic puffins that we sometimes see from Kent Island, which have white bellies. The Tufted puffin is native to the Pacific, and rarely appears in the Bay of Fundy; in fact, one hasn’t been seen on the Atlantic since the 1830s. Brad, a Nova Scotian graduate student completing his masters on Savannah Sparrows, taught me how to identify different Alcids. This family of sea birds includes Puffins, Razorbills, Common murres, and Black Guillemots, all of which spend their lives at sea but breed on rocky ledges in the summer and dive for fish. Machias Seal Island has the largest breeding colony of Alcids in the Gulf of Maine, and is a coveted birder haven, in part because access to the bird sanctuary is so limited.
The day that we had reserved our permits to go onto the island for the allotted three hours was also the day that Hurricane Arthur struck. Our misfortune turned out to be a blessing in disguise, because we got a much closer look at the birds circling the island from the water than would have been possible on land. It was an unusually sunny, perfectly calm, flat day, and with Russell and Mark’s expert boatsmanship, we avoided crashing into the nearby rocks in our two skiffs. I was immediately struck by the sheer number of birds everywhere: thousands of puffins and razorbills and hundreds of common murres zoomed above us, floated and dove in the water, and stood in dense clusters on the rocks.The Alcids were only feet away from the boat in every direction, which afforded me a look at their elegant and versatile physiology. Alcids have stubby wings that they beat very quickly to fly, and which they use as paddles to dive and swim. They were like synchronized swimmers, floating in rafts on the water and diving down, one after another, until they suddenly re-emerged somewhere else.
I had only ever seen puffins in a zoo, and up close, they were smaller than I had expected, and their masked faces were more gray than pure white. The way they splayed their orange feet in flight was not only adorable but also aerodynamic, because the birds can reach speeds of up to 50 mph. Puffins are also remarkable for their life histories. Atlantic puffins, though less long-lived than Petrels, can reach thirty years of age, and only begin breeding when they are six. The birds spend their winter on the cold northern seas, and come to breeding colonies on islands to lay a single egg in their rocky burrows. For six weeks after the chick hatches, adults will forage on the water and return to the burrow with bill loads of up to 30 small fish. Puffin chicks eat their entire weight in fish daily, and must fast for a week to be able to squeeze out of the burrow when they leave their parents. Atlantic puffins were heavily exploited for eggs and meat in the 19th and early 20th centuries, but the population is no longer endangered, as evidenced by the thriving colony on Machias Seal.
Common Murres and Razorbills, birds that I hadn’t heard of before this summer, were mixed in with the puffins in the water and sky and on land. While they lack the puffin’s distinctive white face-mask and orange and black beak, these Alcids are streamlined and elegant in black and white. Ben pointed out a brindled Common Murre, which was dark brown instead of black and had a white tear stain and circle around its eye, a color morph that up to a quarter of Murres show. Looking to the rocky shore of Machias Seal, we could see Ben’s study species, the Black Guillemot, distinguished from other Alcids by its white wing-patches, as well as Common Eiders that were almost invisible in the rockweed. There was a conspicuous lack of Herring Gulls, which dominate Kent Island, because the scientists on Machias Seal puncture their eggs to prevent gulls from overpopulating and preying upon the other birds.
We headed down to the Southern side of the small island, to a ledge in front of a bird blind where it was rumored that the Tufted Puffin liked to be. Russell spotted it in about thirty seconds, and instantly the birders had out their binoculars and high-speed cameras. The Tufted Puffin was larger than the Atlantic puffins around it, and stood slightly apart on the rock. The bird was resplendent in its black body feathers and the breeding plumage that gives the Tufted Puffin its name: long, straw-colored feathers on either side of its head. When it flew directly over our boat and I saw the rare bird up close, I could only thank the weather-gods for providing the storm that prevented us from going onshore.
As we headed back to the Island Bound, satisfied with our time among the Alcids, we spotted some Arctic Terns, whose long wings and acrobatic flight reminded me of the Tree Swallows. Russell and Damon remarked that Terns, which feed on herring, hadn’t been seen in this area for the past few years. Since the herring population of the Bay of Fundy has shriveled, it has been replaced by less oily, calorically-rich southern species such as butterfish. Climate change has also made the herring seek cooler, deeper water that makes them inaccessible to surface-diving birds Terns, though Alcids can dive deep enough to catch them. This change in the fishery has also impacted the economic importance of the waters around Machias Seal Island, which is one of the two remaining landed territories disputed between the U.S. and Canada. These waters are known as the “grey zone” because both countries lay claim to the rich lobstering grounds that have replaced groundfish as their major fisheries. Lobstermen from Maine and Canada both fish in the grey zone in the summer, and quarrel over fishing rights and territories. While the lobstering season is usually closed in the summer in Canada, the Canadian government realized that it was missing out on profits that Americans were gaining, and extended the season exclusively in this 227 square mile area.
The British established a lighthouse on Machias Seal Island in 1832, and the Canadian Coast Guard continues to staff it, flying out two people by helicopter for 28 day shifts to operate the automated light, as a way of staking a claim to the land. Machias Seal is equidistant from Maine and New Brunswick, and we saw a tour boat from Culter, Maine deposit middle-aged birders in matching floppy hats as we motored away, exhausted from seeing so much.
Listen to the Atlantic puffin’s call, which sounds like a chainsaw:http://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/atlantic_puffin/sounds
Terres, John K. The Audobon Society Encyclopedia of North American Birds. New York: Knopf: 1980.
Lowther, P. E., A. W. Diamond, S. W. Kress, G. J. Robertson, and K. Russell. 2002. Atlantic Puffin (Fratercula arctica). In The Birds of North America, No. 709 (A. Poole and F. Gill, eds.). The Birds of North America, Inc., Philadelphia, PA.