Five enthusiastic participants attended the charter trip from Vinalhaven, Maine in pursuit of the Red-billed Tropicbird on August 13, 2016. This trip required driving to Rockland, Maine, staying overnight, then taking the ferry from Rockland to reach the charter located on the island of Vinalhaven.
All members of the group were well aware the coveted bird had gone MIA on eBird for over a week prior to the trip, although everyone remained hopeful since it had stayed well into the latter part of August in previous years. I will save the suspense…we dipped on the bird, but despite the absence of the tropicbird (a possible lifer for all of us), we had a fantastic voyage.
Scott Ahern and I met DVOC member Maryanne O’Leary and her friend Cynthia Ehlinger aboard the ferry on our way out to Vinalhaven. We observed a number of species from the ferry, including an unexpected Common Murre in the boat harbor surprisingly close to land, standing out among a number of Black Guillemots, gulls and cormorants. I thought perhaps this was an injured or ill bird, as it was uncommon to this location. Upon arrival on Vinalhaven, we dispersed to our lodging, then reconvened at the public boat dock to board the Skua, a 36-foot lobster boat operated by area birdman, John Drury. DVOC member George Wood met us there, and the five of us set sail around 2 pm.
We bounced around for over 4 hours in 2 foot seas with temperatures hovering between 65 and 70 degrees. As luck would have it, the predicted rain held off until later that evening, and we enjoyed a relatively dry trip under cloud cover with a side of sea spray. Captain Drury navigated the region like a pro, savvy to where birds of interest would be found along the way.
Heading southeast from Vinalhaven, we traversed a group of islands, including Little Roberts Island, one of only four islands in the United States supporting a breeding colony of Great Cormorants. We enjoyed great looks at a number of stunning adults in breeding plumage along with juvenile birds standing out among the hundreds of Double-crested Cormorants. The number of Great Cormorants has been reduced in recent years, coinciding with the increase in Bald Eagles, a predator of cormorant chicks. Around 25 Harbor Seals were lounging on the rocks, and a single Gray Seal was bopping about in the water close to the boat. Along with the Great Cormorants, we noted hundreds of Great Black-backed and Herring Gulls, Common Eiders, about a dozen Black Guillemots, and the first of season lines of migrating Double-crested Cormorants.
Traveling past the ledges of the islands, deeper waters revealed a dozen or so Wilson’s Storm Petrels, and two cooperative Red-necked Phalaropes stopped by to pose for photos. As we approached Seal Island NWR, John mentioned the tern colony had dispersed earlier than expected for unknown reasons, and the tropicbird was associated with them, offering a possible explanation for the early disappearance of this bird for our trip. We saw just a single Common Tern, and two Arctic Tern the entire trip! Not to fret, there were birds ‘a plenty, including a few dozen Atlantic Puffins hanging around the boat, and we were treated to Harbor Porpoises along with many curious Gray Seals popping up all around the vessel like whack-a-moles. Scott got a few good whacks in with his camera, they are quite characteristic, beautiful creatures! A Common Raven was hanging out on the rocks, opportunistic to the easy access of chicks on the island. John pointed out the crevice the tropicbird favored for shelter, and we took a few swings around the island with hopes the bird might still be around, but the research biologists on the island confirmed the tropicbird had left the island. A Cory’s Shearwater passed by the boat, and we enjoyed flyovers from Semipalmated Plover, Least Sandpiper, and Short-billed Dowitcher. A number of Ruddy Turnstones and a few Spotted Sandpipers were foraging along the rocks, along with the familiar faces and calls of Laughing Gulls, uncommon breeders this far north.
After rounding Seal Island twice, we headed to open waters with hopes of finding shearwaters. We were not disappointed, we encountered Great Shearwaters and Northern Gannets exactly where John predicted we would find them.
We then started to head back toward Vinalhaven, taking a different route around the islands and ledges on the return trip. As we passed Brimstone ledge, we noted a small number of Great Cormorants, and a banded Ruddy Turnstone (with readable flag, photographed by Scott) on Little Brimstone, and NINE Bald Eagles on Otter Island. With a total of 11 Bald Eagles observed amid this cluster of islands, it is no wonder the Great Cormorant nesting population has declined over recent years.
As we made our way back toward the harbor at Vinalhaven, Common Loons put in an appearance for our trip list. John pointed out a pair of White-tailed Deer along the shore, a surprise to us, but common on the island – apparently they are able swimmers and can make the distance across the Penobscot Bay from the mainland.
We returned to the dock around 6:30 pm, hungry and tired, satisfied with the great birds we observed on our charter. Thanks to the spirited participants for making this a great trip despite missing our target bird, a knowledgeable and friendly captain, and a shout-out to Phil Witmer for the suggestion to list the charter as a DVOC field trip!
Photos of the trip are posted on Cindy & Scott’s Flickr page: https://www.flickr.com/photos/songbirdpa/albums/72157674639718475
Submitted by Cindy Ahern