Denise Goldberg's blog

Red-clad feet on a purple bike
Wandering on two (bicycle) wheels in Downeast Maine

Wednesday, June 29, 2005

Communing with our fine-feathered friends

Puffins, terns, razorbills, and...

I woke to find another gray and foggy morning. I figured there was a good chance that I'd have the entire day to wander on my bike, but I quickly dressed for a chilly boat ride, loaded up the car, and headed down to breakfast. I wanted to be ready just in case.

And just in case turned into a yes, the boat is heading to Machias Seal Island this morning. And even better, it turns out that the number of people who can visit the island from each boat is 13. I was number 14, and with one over, they just look the other way - so I was able to take the tour that I was hoping for. Time to commune with the birds...

It turns out that Machias Seal Island - the summer home of some amazing birds - is disputed territory, claimed by both the United States and Canada. The Canadian Wildlife Service and park rangers maintain a presence on the island, but apparently a few years back there was a real to do over the ownership of the island. At one point, Barna Norton (the father of the captain of our boat today) was told he could no longer land there. He got the government involved, and now both countries are claiming the island. At least the confrontation is at a government level and not a people level. Everyone was friendly, so it appears that the conflict is not (currently) at a human level. We had a chance to talk with some of the people staffing this island. It turns out that they work on the island for 28 days and then have 28 days off. Of course the crew we spoke with this morning had been there for 32 days. Their transportation to and from the island is a helicopter that requires visual contact with the land. It's been a foggy week, and it looks like the fog will be continuing.

Back to my day... The boat left promptly at 7am, heading through the protected Jonesport harbor area and then moving out into open ocean waters. It was cool, gray, and very foggy. The waves were a bit rough on the way out, and even rougher on the way back. It turns out that the cancellation of yesterday's tour was only partially due to the fog. It sounds like today's rough water was calm in comparison with yesterday's. The fog prevented us from seeing much on the way out, but as we got close to the island (which was 21 nautical miles from Jonesport) we started seeing swarms of birds.

When we landed on the island, we were given "tern sticks". They were slats of wood that were probably between 3 and 4 feet long. We were told to hold the sticks over our heads, holding them still and not waving them around. Why? Rather than building a nest in a safe spot, the terns drop their eggs wherever they happen to be - so there were tern eggs sitting all over. The ones we could see were on the (cut) grass, but there may have been some hidden in the taller grass too. The wildlife folks had marked most of the locations with bright colored (but small) flags. Anytime those of the human species started walking, the terns took to the air, dive bombing to protect their yet-to-hatch babies. And along the way they also left their precious bird poop on some of the visitors. I believe the purpose of the sticks was to keep the angry birds away from our heads.

The terns were definitely aware of our arrival, although these had calmed down and landed.

I really regret that I didn't have my camera in hand when we set foot on the island. We were told to pick up a stick (looked like a long paint stirrer) from the bucket at the dock and to hold it up in the air. The idea was that the terns would dive bomb the sticks and not our heads - and it did seem to work (although some of the group did get hit with some tern (bird) shit).

Next we headed down to the blinds, small wood shacks with small square windows that basically were holes in the walls with a piece of wood that slides over the opening. Up to 4 people can fit in a blind. I shared mine with a couple from Kingston, NY. We were warned not to open windows on two sides of the blind at the same time. With opposite windows open, sometimes the birds decide they can and should fly through the blinds.When we first arrived, some of the birds made a quick exit, but once all human presence was hidden, they returned. There were two kinds of birds that were outside of our blind - puffins, and razorbills. The razorbills reminded me of penguins. And the puffins? They are truly amazing looking. Not only were they sitting, and walking, and flying, and wandering outside of our blind, they were also scrambling around on the roof of the blind. Their feet were bright orange, and their beaks were multi-colored. Beautiful. I'm hoping that some of the pictures I took with my baby camera (a Canon S40) are reasonable images. This would have been the right trip to be carrying a camera with a significant telesphoto lens.

A glimpse of the puffins from the blind. The birds moved away from the blinds (really little shacks) when we arrived, but as you'll see from the later pictures they came back. They even came back to prance across the tin roof of the blind while we were in it.

The sounds the birds made were amazing too, although I'm not sure which birds made which noises. If you want to hear what I heard, go to the (Norton of Jonesport, Maine) Puffin Tours of Machias Seal Island page. There is an audio clip that you can click on, and I can tell you that the sounds you'll hear there definitely match the sounds we heard on the island.

The sun finally made an appearance on the trip back. Most of us were inside the boat by that time after being warned that it was likely to get pretty wet in the back of the boat as we sped through the waves. There were two more visual treats as we got closer to Jonesport - a bald eagle, and a seal. What a nice addition to our bird viewing day.

It was low tide when we returned, and what was a shallow ramp from the top of the dock down to the boat was now at a very steep angle. Our captain told us that in the Jonesport harbor area (of the Bay of Fundy) that there is a 14-foot difference in water level between low and high tide. Amazing.

It was warmer under a blue sky when we got back. I had considered driving back to the eastern edge of the state to do a loop ride out of Pembroke that I found in the Maine cycle tours puublication. I didn't really want to spend that much time in the car though, and it was already one in the afternoon, so I just randomly chose a road on the map for an out and back ride. I drove a short way to the east, and left my car in Machias. I then headed down the road leading to Jasper Beach. Funny thing about flat paper maps - they unfortunately give ne no clues as to the riding conditions. The road I chose was hilly but beautiful. I passed some folks working in a yard, and they told me (in what I think of as an old Maine accent) that the road up ahead was very beautiful but very hilly. They went on to say that if I didn't come back out in two hours that they would come and get me! They were just kidding, but I really believe that they would have been happy to drive down the road in thieir pickup to give me a ride back.And they were right about the hills. They had an interesting difference of opinion of the road up ahead. The woman in the group told me that I should ride as far as Fort Henry, that it was hilly after that. One of her companions said "what are you, crazy? There's a steep hill leading down to Fort Henry, and she'll have to ride back up the hill.". I chose to ignore their well-meaning description of the road up ahead, and I kept on riding. And I'm glad I did...

It was a very pleaant road for riding. Unfortunately soon after I turned back I noticed a dark, dark section of sky, and I started hearing thunder. I was hoping that I'd make it back without getting wet, but it just wasn't to be. I rode through sprinkles, and then as I pulled into the center of Machias the skies just opened up. Luckily, I was right next to a gas station, so I pulled in and stood under the canopy over the pumps until the deluge let up. There was still water streaming down the sides of the road and there was still light rain falling when I got back on my bike to finish the remaining mile back to my car. All things considered I was very, very lucky. I could have easily been a lot wetter than I was.

Tomorrow it's time to head home. Before I head home I'm planning to ride in the morning, but that will depend on whether the rain has moved on by then. Where? I honestly don't know. I'm in Ellsworth tonight, and right now I'm considering heading back to Acadia and doing the Park Loop Road once more. Or I might decide to ride a bit further to the south and west, maybe in the Camden / Rockport / Rockland area. I know it probably makes more sense to ride somewhere new tomorrow, but my riding decision for the day doesn't need to make sense - it only needs to make me happy!

Look closer - the rocks in the background are totally covered with birds!