Autumn Grand Manan Aug 27—Sep 02, 2007

Posted by Barry Zimmer

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Barry Zimmer

Barry Zimmer has been birding since the age of eight. His main areas of expertise lie in North and Central America, but his travels have taken him throughout much of the wo...

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Pelagic trips out of Grand Manan are consistently the best I do anywhere in the world, and this year was no exception. On our full-day boat trip on the recent Autumn Grand Manan tour we enjoyed beautiful blue skies and nearly dead calm seas. Those factors alone make for a great pelagic trip, but when you throw in incredible bird and whale spectacles, it is impossible to beat.

The nutrient-rich waters of the Bay of Fundy attract an amazing diversity of seabirds and marine mammals. From the moment we pulled out of the harbor we had small rafts of Razorbills right next to the boat, with a sprinkling of Common Murres thrown in. Black Guillemots were numerous in the nearshore waters and several small flocks of Common Eiders cruised by. In less than an hour we had reached deeper water near Gannet Rock and the real fun began. Greater Shearwaters appeared first, followed quickly by Sooty Shearwaters. Initially there were just a few of each, then dozens, and eventually hundreds. For the day I estimated 4,000+ Greater Shearwaters and 1,000+ Sooties.

With the arrival of the shearwaters came our first whale sightings. A minke cruised by in typical stealthy style and then we had nice views of a huge finback. Atlantic Puffins were spotted, at first zipping past like bumblebees, and then providing excellent views of many on the water right next to us (over 200 were estimated for the day). Flock after flock of phalarope swirled about the boat; most groups were mixed, with Red and Red-necked offering superb comparative views. Cumulative phalarope numbers for the day were around 1,500. Northern Gannets periodically cruised in to check out our chum slick, as did the occasional jaeger (both Pomarine and Parasitic were tallied) and Arctic Tern. Wilson's Storm-Petrels arrived in large numbers, buzzing around the ocean like so many swallows. We searched diligently through the hundreds of Wilson's in hopes of spotting the uncommon Leach's. Eventually our efforts were rewarded as one paralleled the port side for a minute or so, allowing us to study its unique flight pattern.

As we headed toward the Basin, an area renowned for its population of northern right whales, we spotted a Manx Shearwater on the water within 30 yards. We would end up with 17 Manx for the day, a great total for this generally uncommon species. Almost as soon as we started up again, a cluster of four right whales (the rarest species of whale in the world) were sighted just ahead, some eight miles short of the area in which we normally find them. These four magnificent animals were engaged in a courtship display on the surface of the water with constant splashing, rolling, spy-hopping, and bumping as the males competed for the attention of the female. We marveled at these wonderful giants for over a half-hour before moving on.

Our final destination, The Prong, yielded a tour first—Northern Fulmar—and a group of humpback whales in a large seaweed patch. As with the right whales, the humpbacks put on an amazing display with pectoral fin-flapping and constant spy-hopping, as if they were as interested in us as we were in them. On our way back in we had good views of Great Cormorants near the Gannet Rock Lighthouse and many gray and harbor seals. More Razorbills (an estimated 400 for the day, shattering our previous best) signaled our arrival back into shallower waters. In all we tallied 14 species of pelagics (with many thousands of individuals) and seven species of marine mammals.

Of course, this boat trip was but one day of an all-around fantastic tour. Grand Manan is an ideal place for seeing the fall migration of both landbirds and shorebirds as well. While scouring the forests of the island we saw 16 species of warblers (including the likes of Canada, Prairie, Chestnut-sided, and Blackpoll), a very impressive 11 Philadelphia Vireos, and a variety of flycatchers, thrushes, etc. Other highlights included a rare Lark Sparrow, stunning views of Nelson's Sharp-tailed Sparrow, and 14 species of shorebirds including White-rumped Sandpiper. We had wonderful weather, enjoyed lobster and blueberries, and reveled in the spectacle of fall migration.