Autumn Grand Manan Aug 30—Sep 05, 2010
"Skua!" came the cry from Durlan in the back of the boat. Everyone looked up to see the hulking dark brown bird with the prominent white wing patches sail overhead. The view was good as it passed over, but I expected it to be brief, as skua sightings almost always are. They seem to fly by and check out the boat and then just keep going. This time, however, the bird banked when it got to our wake, and circled down and lit on the water. Our captain maneuvered the boat right next to the skua, as it sat on the water with Greater Shearwaters and Great Black-backed Gulls. We floated to within 30 feet of this rarity (fewer than five documented records for New Brunswick) before it took off. What incredible luck!
The pelagic trip on this year's Autumn Grand Manan tour was arguably our best boat trip ever! It was nothing short of nonstop excitement from start to finish. Within minutes of departing from Seal Cove we had an adult Razorbill with young on the water right next to the boat. Several groups of Black Guillemots dotted the surface as we headed for deeper water near Northeast Banks. Soon Greater Shearwaters began appearing in the wake. First one or two, then several, then dozens, and eventually nearly 300 were in view at once. For the day we estimated a total of 8,000 of these stunning shearwaters, many literally within 10 feet of the boat! Storm-Petrels soon joined the mix. First a few distant Wilson's, and then an uncommonly seen Leach's (a bird we had missed the past two years completely). Numbers of both increased as we went along, topping out at 700 Wilson's and an astounding 129 Leach's. Phalaropes were everywhere, with an estimated 3,000 Reds for the day and hundreds of Red-neckeds. Northern Gannets joined the crowd following our boat with regularity, as did Black-legged Kittiwakes. Though less common than usual this year, we had stunning views of several Atlantic Puffins. Four Manx Shearwaters, 100 Sooties, and 4 Pomarine Jaegers rounded out the avian highlights.
Then, of course, there were the whales. A couple of finbacks and a skulky minke started things off, and they were followed by several humpbacks. One in particular put on an amazing show with a prolonged period of pectoral fin flapping on the surface, culminating with a complete breach as we departed the area! Our chances for the rare northern right whale (rarest whale species in the world) dwindled as the day went along, though it was hard to be disappointed with the fantastic birds and other whales we had seen. A mola mola (ocean sunfish) was spotted floating lazily on the surface, and we had wonderful studies of this strange creature. At 4:30 PM it was time to start heading in, giving up our search for the right whales. At that very moment two were spotted on the starboard side of the boat and we were able to watch them for over 15 minutes at close range! This was the perfect ending to the perfect pelagic trip.
Of course our Autumn Grand Manan tour is about much more than just the full-day pelagic. We also scoured the picturesque island for migrant passerines, tallying 20 species of warblers (including such gems as Black-throated Blue, Blackburnian, Blackpoll, Chestnut-sided, Magnolia, and Palm), Philadelphia Vireo, Purple Finch, Bobolink, Baltimore Oriole, and many others. We had great views of the breeding Nelson's Sparrows at Castalia Marsh, where a very rare Yellow-headed Blackbird was viewed within 10 feet! Shorebirds also put on a great showing with 17 species tallied. White-rumped Sandpiper, Dunlin, Red Knot, Pectoral Sandpiper, a vagrant Western Sandpiper, and American Golden and Black-bellied plovers were among the more noteworthy. A very uncommon Boreal Chickadee our last day on the island proved to be the favorite bird of the tour. Other highlights included Great Cormorant, Common Eider, Red-necked Grebe, and White-winged Scoter.
All of this while enjoying the gorgeous coasts of New Brunswick and Maine, eating lobster and blueberries, and tallying our second highest list ever!