Sea watchin’ (part one)

Nature Bummin’ with Kirk Gentalen—

Long-tailed Duck

A co-worker of mine recently asked me what I was “on the lookout for” in late fall. I told her “seabirds and hunters.” Her reply focused entirely on the hunter portion of my message and was laden with “you better wear orange” kind of stuff (like I was born in Jersey or something!). I figure that she may not be familiar with “seabirds” or that she just doesn’t really care/think much about them. (The truth most likely being a fine mix of the two options). Seabirds may not be for everybody, I guess. But they are stacking up in a harbor near you just waiting to be observed!

Young Northern Gannet

“Seabird” is a loose, generic term referring to any species of bird that spends much, if not all their time at sea. Birds like tubenoses (shearwaters, albatrosses, storm-petrels), alcids (puffins, murres, guillemots), gannets and certain species of gulls and terns may spend their entire lives in and around the ocean, visiting land only to nest. These birds truly are pelagic.  Other birds such as loons, grebes and sea ducks nest on inland and northern freshwater ponds and lakes in the late spring and summer and then may spend the rest of the year in salt water.

Seabirds put a twist in the generalized understanding that “birds head south for the winter.” For these avian buddies, the coast of Maine may be their “southern” destination—potentially having travelled thousands of miles for the honor of keeping their featherless feet in the Gulf of Maine’s chilly waters all winter. These are hardcore visitors.

The “primo” way to observe sea birds is, of course, by getting on the water. However, many people don’t keep a boat in the water this time of the year, and some may even have had their sea kayak crushed in the “Storm of 2017” (that was me!). For those folks, doing a “sea watch” from land offers a great, and sometimes an even better, alternative for watching seabirds rather than heading out for a rocky ride on the sea.

Harlequin Duck

Finding a “comfortable” spot out of the wind and with a view of the ocean are key for a good sea watch. Places like Marshall Point and local harbors and coves can offer protected and sheltered waters for overwintering/visiting birds, often resulting in close views.  Binoculars are a must for sea watching—and a spotting scope can really expand your range of observation. Bringing coffee, tea or warming beverage of your choice is also highly recommended.

November was a wonderful month for observing from Marshall Point. “Standard” seabirds, species I saw on every visit, were Common Loon, Northern Gannet, Surf Scoter, Common Eider, Red-necked and Horned Grebe, Red-breasted Merganser and Long-tailed Ducks. This is an excellent group to be able to watch on a regular basis. Bufflehead, Common Goldeneye and Black Duck have become standards for coves and harbors as well.

And as with anything in nature, you never can tell what might show up on a sea watch. “Non-standards” or infrequently seen seabirds that I have observed from Marshall Point recently have been Red-throated Loon, Harlequin Duck, White-winged Scoter, Black Scoter, as well as Purple Sandpiper, Northern Harrier and Bald Eagle on the islands and ledges just off the point. The sea watching has been great to say the least.

And with fall wrapping up and things freezing up north, sea watches should be getting even more productive as more and more birds show up for the winter, warming an observer to the soul even on the coldest days. It’s always the right time to be outside, so warm up some grinds, grab your binos and we’ll see you out there.

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