Puffins! (near Mt. Desert Island, Maine)

Maine Birding

Where to begin when discussing Puffins?  The Atlantic Puffin is a special bird, they spend nearly their entire lives at sea, only coming to land to breed.  They don’t breed until they are five years old so their first five years are spent at sea (what they do during this time is a mystery because they aren’t easy to study.)  Because they spend so much time in the water, Catholic settlers claimed they were part fish, and ate them on Fridays.  Due to over-hunting, both by humans and gulls who view Puffin eggs as an easy meal, populations declined drastically and in 1900 almost all of these birds were gone from Maine.  Luckily in the 1970’s programs were created to repopulate Maine with Puffin colonies, and today these birds are no longer threatened.  Good news for these goofy little birds, and the bird-watchers who admire them (like us!)

To get a look at a Puffin, you need to take a boat ride a few miles up the coast, where the colonies nest on small islands.  The Bird Nerds made it a top priority to take this trip during our stay on Mt. Desert Island, and chose to take the “Puffins, Seabirds and Lighthouses” tour through Bar Harbor Boat Tours.  The tour left from just outside of Bar Harbor, and because it was low tide we had a good view of the sandbar for which the town is named.


The famous sandbar at Bar Harbor

The famous sandbar at Bar Harbor

This  tour takes you by three lighthouses: Mark Island, Egg Rock and Petit Manan (where Puffins and Terns are nesting by the hundreds.)  On the ride out to Petit Manan, we enjoyed the perfect weather as we sailed out of Frenchman Bay, past the town of Winter Harbor, around Schoodic Point and past coastal islands and Mark Island Lighthouse.  We even saw a couple of Bald Eagles perched high in the trees and on the rocks.

View from the boat to Petite Manan lighthouse

View from the stern of the boat as we left Frenchman Bay

Mark Island Lighthouse

Mark Island Lighthouse

As we ventured northeast along the coast, the captain stopped the boat for what he thought was a harbor porpoise.  He grew increasingly excited when he realized what we were actually looking at – a Mola Mola or Ocean Sunfish.  This prehistoric looking fish is the largest bony fish in the world, they grow to over 2,000 pounds and can be 14 feet long.  They are rather odd looking, almost like just the front part of a dolphin with no tail.  But this Mola Mola was very curious about us as well and lingered for a long time around our boat.  This was a rare spotting which made our tour guide’s day.

Mola Mola (is he smiling at us?)

Mola Mola (weirdly cute)

Then we were back on course to the Puffins, and soon Petit Manan lighthouse came into view.

Petite Manan lighthouse

Petit Manan lighthouse

As we approached and the boat slowed to a halt, we heard the racket of thousands of terns, and then, our first Puffin (LL) sighting!

Atlantic Puffin

Atlantic Puffin

They were all around us, swimming in groups on the choppy water, and climbing on the rocks where they nest. Petit Manan was alight with Common Terns and Artic Terns (LL) as well as a cousin of the Atlantic Puffin called a Razorbill (LL).  The boat’s naturalist pointed out a Common Murre (another Puffin relative), but we were not able to get our binoculars on them before they disappeared from view.

This little guy is "puffin" up during a preen.

This little guy is “puffin” up during a preen.

After the excitement of Petit Manan, the boat headed back toward the mainland and our third lighthouse, while the tour guide and naturalist performed some songs on guitar.  They were pretty good actually.

Egg Rock was our final stop of the tour, and excitement greeted us as we came near.

Egg Rock Lighthouse

Egg Rock Lighthouse

An immature Bald Eagle took flight above the hundreds of gulls who nest on the island, and they were not happy with this at all.  They much preferred this eagle to remain on the ground where they can keep an eye on him and their precious eggs, and they waged a full on attack.

Bald Eagle taking off over Egg Rock.

Bald Eagle taking off over Egg Rock

And he wasn’t in flight for long.  After being rammed and pecked by any gull that could reach him, he retreated back to the ground and the gulls settled down.

Seagulls attacking a Bald Eagle on Egg Rock Island.

Seagulls attacking a Bald Eagle on Egg Rock Island

We sailed around the island an noticed it wasn’t all rock we were looking at.  Blending in perfectly were female Harbor Seals basking in the sun and recouping energy after giving birth earlier in the season and caring for their young.  The young male Harbor Seals showed off for each other in the water, where we also saw a few very large Grey Seals peeking out at us.

Seals resting on Egg Rock

Seals resting on Egg Rock

Eiders surfing near Egg Rock

Eiders surfing near Egg Rock

The Common Eiders here seemed perfectly comfortable in the rough water, as they floated over the surf around the island.

View of Frenchman Bay from Cadillac Mountain

View of Frenchman Bay from Cadillac Mountain

As we pulled back into harbor, the naturalist pointed out a few Great Cormorants (LL) sitting on a wooden pile, but we had already packed the camera, so we were not able to get a shot. After the boat tour we took a drive to the top of Cadillac Mountain, where we took in a beautiful view of Bar Harbor and Frenchman Bay at sunset.  Then we ate more lobster, another perfect day in Maine.

The List:

Double-crested Cormorant
Herring Gull
Laughing Gull
Bald Eagle
Common Tern
Black Guillemot
Great Black-backed Gull
Common Loon
Arctic Tern (LL)
Atlantic Puffin (LL)
Razorbill (LL)
Great Cormorant (LL)

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