Archive for WINGS Tour: A Week on Grand Manan
I’ve never really believed that getting there is anything like half the fun, but the 90-minute ferry ride from Blacks Harbour, New Brunswick, to Grand Manan may yet convince me. After a dank and foggy drive from Saint John, the clouds lifted as we boarded the boat, and soon enough there were birds aplenty: Great Shearwaters skimming alongside, Atlantic Puffins flopping into panicked dives, Northern Gannets soaring glistening white against the sky and the water. Black-legged Kittiwakes, the first we would see of those natty little Arctic gulls, welcomed us as we turned the long corner around Swallowtail Light to land in North Head.
The next morning started what would quickly become our birding routine.
A pre-breakfast hour and a half at The Whistle, Pettes Cove, or Swallowtail would give us a first taste of the migrants that had made landfall the night before, while seabirds worked the rips just offshore. On most mornings, Great and Sooty Shearwaters were the most conspicuous species flying north up the Maine Channel, but we also watched large feeding boils of Northern Gannets, Black-legged Kittiwakes, and Herring Gulls, often enough with a jaeger or two among them. One of the most impressive sights of the week was a Pomarine Jaeger running down a Great Blue Heron a good mile or more offshore; for an agonizing few minutes, it looked as if the heron would be forced down into the sea, but eventually the pirate lost interest and the heron flapped slowly towards land.
Early on in the week, we ran across numbers of recently arrived migrant passerines on these early morning outings. The low scrub around The Whistle was often alive with Cedar Waxwings and Black-throated Green Warblers, and even on mornings without notable landfalls, we still encountered impressive flocks of Red-breasted Nuthatches tooting from the cone-laden tips of the conifer branches.
Our first morning at Swallowtail produced two buzzing Dickcissels, which paused for a few minutes before taking off again over the Bay of Fundy. Even, or perhaps especially, roadsides and quiet driveways could be filled with birds; one morning found us simply standing still on a lane near the ferry slip, watching hordes of warblers, sparrows, and a Philadelphia Vireo hunt their way through a small, undistinguished ash, henceforward to be known as “the magic tree.”
With all those tasty, tired migrants around, we weren’t surprised to see good numbers of raptors, especially Merlins.
The “jumping-off point” of South Head hosted at least five individuals late one afternoon, where they flashed through the sky, spectacularly harassing American Kestrels and each other. One morning at The Whistle, an especially intent little Merlin chased a Cedar Waxwing right up to the low wooden deck we were standing on—and then, without a moment’s hesitation, shot right under the deck to come out the other side, taking our breath away but giving the waxwing just enough time to escape.
These and our other early morning adventures were followed by breakfast back at our hotel—and then it was out for another four or four and a half hours of birding. When it seemed that passerine numbers were high, we often returned to Whistle Road and the Alexandra Park area for more warblers; the parking lot for the Ashburton Head trail was also very good as the sun warmed the trees. On other days we birded Castalia Marsh, the one Grand Manan site everyone has heard of. All in all, the marsh was less productive than its reputation might have suggested, though we did find an American Golden-Plover and our only Bobolink here; a Western Kingbird was on the early side for that regular fall vagrant, and the first of the species ever recorded on our WINGS tour.
Another first, a fine adult Laughing Gull, was at The Anchorage Provincial Park, a site that improved with each successive visit.
The little sewage pond—an obligatory stop, as all birders know—sheltered American Wigeon and Blue-winged Teal, and our only Swamp Sparrow chipped, loud and sweet, from the cattails.
Long Pond and Great Pond were favored spots for loafing and bathing Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls, joined by small numbers of wigeon and Ring-necked Ducks. The short, level trails here led into some beautiful boreal forest, damp and dark, and from the upper picnic area we could watch Common Eider, gulls, and Red-necked Grebes just offshore.
After lunch at our hotel, we usually ventured farther south on the island. The Thoroughfare, where Audubon crossed from Ross Island to Grand Manan on his 1831 visit to the Bay of Fundy, gave us some of our closest looks at shorebirds, including excellent comparisons of the shapes and feeding behaviors of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs; here, too, at low tide, we encountered the only mosquitoes of the week. Red Point was, aptly enough, the gathering point for Red-necked Grebes, several of which were still showing the bright rusty necks of breeding plumage.
We spent two bright, calm afternoons out on the bay aboard The Day’s Catch. For those of us used to long, dull hours of steaming out to where the birds might be, these five-hour pelagic trips were a revelation: hardly had we left the dock when we started to see Common Eider, Bald Eagles, Black Guillemots (most of them “white guillemots”), and Northern Gannets—and soon enough the real seabirds appeared.
Masses of Great and Sooty Shearwaters followed the boat, and small, shy Manx Shearwaters shot across the water. Once we were far enough out, flocks of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels pattered along the horizon, and on both trips we got close looks at the uncommon Leach’s Storm-Petrels with their nighthawk-like flight.
The real avian prizes on these trips, though, were the skuas. Both days gave us great views of mean and massive South Polar Skuas, almost buteo-like in their size and power. This species is a rare and infrequently recorded visitor to the Bay of Fundy, and we were very fortunate to see it, and to see it so well.
Not even the most single-minded birder can ignore sea mammals. Our first pelagic trip produced good sightings of Fin and Humpback Whales, but the second trip was the occasion for some of the best whale watching we’d ever experienced. In addition to no fewer than 15 Fin Whales surrounding the boat, a Humpback Whale waved and splashed at us for a quarter of an hour before finally showing its impressive flukes and diving.
Even that show was outdone by a mother and calf North Atlantic Right Whale, diving, surfacing, and spouting near the boat; with a population of not even 500 individuals, these knobby-headed cetaceans are among the rarest vertebrates in the world.
Our short ferry trip to White Head Island was less exciting, but even on that quick 25-minute ride we saw many of the marine species we were quickly becoming familiar with; a juvenile Razorbill was one of just three of that species we found all week. Our target, however, was not a seabird at all. Once common on Grand Manan itself, Boreal Chickadees are now very hard to find on that island, and persist in numbers only in the stunted boreal forests of the smaller members of the Fundy Archipelago.
It took some searching on a fine, bright morning, but with some help from the locals, we finally ran across a flock of Black-capped Chickadees and warblers that also contained about five Boreals, wheezing their way through the wet spruce tangles.
Birding time is different from other time—it’s faster. Almost before we knew it, we were sitting in the line for the ferry back to Blacks Harbour. It was another beautiful morning, bright and calm, and Black-legged Kittiwakes dotted the water as we swung around Swallowtail Light. Getting there just may be half the fun—but going back will be the other half.