Puffins and Other Sea Birds

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Puffin EatingYankee Classic from April 1999 by Susan Shetterly

The Gulf of Maine narrows at the south of the Bay of Fundy, separating Maine from Nova Scotia and stretching, like the head of a herring gull with its bill slightly open, up into New Brunswick. For six of every 12 hours, tides expose miles of rock ledge and mudflat or pour back into bays and between islands with quick, turbulent force. The water rises and falls as much as 24 feet.

Water like this, cold and oxygenated and fast, carrying nutrients from the floor to the surface, creates such patches of abundant planktonic food that it is known as “boreal soup.” To this broth whales migrate each year. Herring and menhaden feed on it. Bluefish and sea bass and mackerel follow the herring; porpoises and seals chase the fish. And it is here that birds of the open ocean — pelagic birds — come.

The greater shearwater, a bird of the South Atlantic, quits the austral winter and flies north, as do Wilson’s storm petrels. These birds never touch land here. From spring to early fall they fly continually over the water, feeding, or fold their wings briefly to rest on its surface.

“When I see a greater shearwater, I am moved,” says Charles Duncan, the conservation ornithologist for the Wings of the Americas program of the Nature Conservancy and one of Maine’s foremost birders. “I remind myself that the entire world population nests on two islands off the coast of Argentina, thousands and thousands of miles away.”

On Machias Seal Island, famous for its seabirds — and for its disputed ownership — terns shriek, puffins rev up like chain saws, and razorbills snore like sots sleeping off a binge. Several American boat captains, and one Canadian, bring passengers here to see the birds.

Come nightfall, over an island not far from here, the strangest sounds of all will begin. Leach’s storm petrels will flap through the dark and crawl into their loamy burrows. As they hover in the air over the trees, they cackle and whoop like tiny old men, perhaps like the enchanted ninepin players that Rip Van Winkle heard before he sank into his deep sleep.


Bold Coast Charters
Capt. Andy Patterson
Box 364
Cutler, ME 04626
Bold Coast Charter Company

Capts. John & Barna Norton
RR 1-990
Jonesport, ME 04649
207-497-5933 (call before 8:30 p.m.).

Machias Seal Island Tour

Peter Wilcox
Sea Watch Tours
Seal Cove
Grand Manan
New Brunswick, Canada E0G 3B0
Sea Watch Tours


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