Cruising for puffins and more

Nature bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen

Getting to be a “chaperone” on cool field trips is recognized as one of the four major bonuses of having a kid. So it was a “no-brainer” for me when Mrs. Elwell’s 3rd grade class (Leif’s class) sent the word that they were looking for adults to join them for a “puffin cruise” field trip. I jumped quickly to reserve my spot (I am at my best in no-brainer situations). To make things even better, Ms. Thompson’s 1st graders and Mrs. MacCaffray’s 4th graders were also going to be on the trip, so it was truly a case of “the more, the merrier”!

In preparation for the trip the 1st graders have been studying birds and the 4th graders have been researching animal adaptations (super cool topic). For their part, Mrs. Elwell’s class has been specifically studying the Atlantic Puffin. The class even designed, created and sold t-shirts that explain the puffin life cycle and lifestyle through the students’ artwork. Proceeds from the shirts went to support Project Puffin and the National Audubon Society for their efforts to help understand and protect puffins and other seabirds. The kids proudly wore the shirts as we loaded onto Monhegan Boat Line’s “Elizabeth Ann,” and headed out with visions of dancing puffins and food (it was lunch time).

Puffins may have been the focus for the day and Eastern Egg Rock the destination for the boat ride, but it was clear early on that this trip was about more than just puffins. The day was gorgeous—the reason “rain dates” were created—and everyone seemed grateful for that. After we passed Marshall Point Light, some of the kids got to practice with their binoculars by focusing on a small feeding frenzy of Common Terns, Black Guillemots and Double-crested Cormorants. Before we knew it the boat was pulling up alongside a handful of rocky ledges and small islands where Harbor Seals had hauled out and everyone got great views of the wildlife. It’s pupping season for Harbor Seals and there were many mother-seal-and-pup combinations in and out of the water. The pups only stay with the moms for about a month, and so the timing couldn’t have been better. Needless to say the kids were psyched!

Eastern Egg Rock is a classic seabird nesting island—devoid of trees, it’s more of a seven-acre rock pile, sprinkled with grasses and bird blinds that the puffin project researchers observe from. The list of seabirds that nest on Eastern Egg Rock is impressive—Common, Arctic and federally endangered Roseate Terns as well as Common Eiders, Leach’s Storm-petrels, Black Guillemots and, of course, the roughly 170 pairs of Atlantic Puffin. In early June the puffins and seabirds were incubating eggs, so the comings and goings are somewhat muted as compared to when young are being fed (late June-July). We were entertained, though, by a mob of terns “escorting” a Great Black-backed Gull away from the nesting colony. Terns never sound happy, and the combination of their cries and quick dives towards the gull made for a fun show.

We started to see puffins after motoring about half way around the island, cute little “sea parrots” bobbing on the water. The captain and crew did a great job snuggling the boat up close to the birds, and the birds were impressively tolerant of not only the boat but of all the excited screams and energy coming from the boat’s passengers! It’s always great to see puffins (unless you are a fish) but seeing them with a boatload of kids is definitely the way to do it. Everyone saw them, and everyone was pumped—including the puffins (I think)!

The return trip was highlighted by a session with an incredibly user-friendly Harbor Porpoise. It took relatively quick dives (less than a minute), popped up somewhat close to the boat several times and then stayed at the surface for many breathes between dives. Needless to say, the cheers from the kids with each porpoise sighting had the boat rocking—in a good way.

“That was the best field trip I’ve ever been on”, was the quote from Leif when we got back to Port Clyde and I wholeheartedly agreed. The kids were great (parents too!), the day was beautiful and the wildlife was abundant. Just another reason I am glad I am a parent!

Let’s get this show on the road—Nature Bummin’ is going live with stories and slides at the next St. George Historical Society meeting on Thursday June 28th, 7pm at the St. George Grange at Wiley’s Corner. Potluck precedes the talk at 6pm–should be a fun show!

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