Autumn Grand Manan Aug 27—Sep 02, 2012

Posted by Barry Zimmer


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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Awesome! That one word can sum up the all-day pelagic trip on our recent Autumn Grand Manan tour. From start to finish, it was a frenzy of nonstop bird and mammal action with a really weird fish thrown in for good measure.

Departing from Seal Cove shortly before 9 AM, we immediately began to see a sprinkling of Black Guillemots on the water, along with the occasional Common Loon. Northern Gannets, eventually in every plumage imaginable, appeared as singles flying overhead, and a stream of Great Black-backed and Herring gulls began to form behind us.

Great Shearwaters were a constant from start to finish on our amazing pelagic trip out of Seal Cove.

Great Shearwaters were a constant on our amazing pelagic trip out of Seal Cove.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

A short distance out, we started to chum, and almost immediately had attendant shearwaters in tow—at first just a few Greats checking out the boat, then a few dozen. Quickly there were many birds on the water, many of them literally within feet of the boat. Most were Great Shearwaters, but there were several Sooties mixed in as well. A Wilson's Storm-Petrel or two dashed by, and then an adult Pomarine Jaeger with its long paddle-shaped tail tips joined the crowd. Suddenly the mate of the boat shouted "skua," and we quickly got on the large brown bird with bold white wing patches some distance behind us in the wake. With the jaeger in hot pursuit, the skua quickly lost interest and headed directly away until it was no longer in sight. Any skua sighting in the Bay of Fundy is a prized one, but we were unsure of the identification of this individual given the brevity and distance involved. Two species are possible, South Polar and Great, but both are quite rare in the province. Brennan and I both had a nagging suspicion that it might have been Great Skua, but we could not be certain. Durlan, the mate, got photos, but there was no time for analysis as we were knee-deep in other birds. More shearwaters continued to build until there were too many to count (we would estimate a total of 3,000 Great Shearwaters for the day). An Atlantic Puffin winged by like a large bee, but gave only quick flight views. Phalaropes began to appear in small numbers—first a sprinkling of Red-necked, and then numbers of Reds, both swirling about the rip currents amongst lines of seaweed. Then two puffins were spotted on the water, and our captain maneuvered the boat for great views of these comical birds from 30 feet away.

Storm-petrel numbers began to swell the further out we ventured toward The Basin & Old Proprietor's Shoal. A whale blow caused immediate commotion and we headed over for a look. Two humpbacks put on a nice show, including the obligatory fluke display for the photographers. For the day we would see 11 humpbacks including some total breaching! More jaegers came and went, including one Parasitic and a variety of ages and plumages of Pomarine. A Black-legged Kittiwake or two were spotted, and then a Manx Shearwater, an uncommon species here, zipped by the starboard side of the boat. Finback whales, the second largest whale in the world, surfaced near us and distracted us from birds for awhile. A few Leach's Storm-Petrels, with their distinctive flight, bounded by the boat amongst the now abundant Wilson's. Incredibly, once again the cry of "skua" arose from the back. This time the hulking brown bird came right at us, while I furiously threw out chum to tempt him in. Incredibly, he landed on the water a short distance from the boat and we enjoyed wonderful views. This one was a South Polar Skua, no doubt.

Humpback whales were much in evidence all day, as we tallied eleven individuals.

Humpback whales were much in evidence all day.— Photo: Barry Zimmer

Heading southward toward the Bulkhead Rip & the Prong, we encountered more whales (a total of 23 for the day), a rare Lesser Black-backed Gull, and then a Manx Shearwater resting on the water. Perhaps most oddly of all, a solitary Red-breasted Nuthatch, many miles from shore, appeared overhead and began to follow the boat. After a moment or two, it landed right on the mast! Next came the bizarre ocean sunfish or mola mola. This creature is the heaviest known bony fish in the world, weighing up to an astounding 2,200 pounds. Floating on its side, seemingly adrift in the ocean, it allowed us to approach to within 10 feet. Just when it seemed things were calming down, a Northern Fulmar joined the party at the back of the boat. This species becomes common later on, but is a good find in late August. From 10 feet away he provided superb studies! Then amazingly, a third skua arrived, and also yielded excellent looks. Another South Polar for sure.

With time winding down on our day, we turned northwesterly to head back toward Seal Cove. En route we passed by Gannet Rock, where we enjoyed large numbers of gray seals. Nearby, another small island hosted a few Great Cormorants. Heading in, we were rejoicing in the memories of the day's great birds, mammals, weather, and sea conditions, when Brennan spotted a lone Razorbill on the water. This North Atlantic specialty was the one bird that had basically eluded us for the day (we had a few quick fly-bys only), and now one was showing off just minutes away from our return to the docks. This was arguably one of the greatest boat trips ever!

Have I mentioned that this was just one eight-hour stretch of our Autumn Grand Manan tour that was packed with great birds and weather throughout? We also enjoyed migrant shorebirds (13 species, including White-rumped Sandpiper); migrant passerines (18 species of warblers, including a rare Prairie and 56 Black-throated Greens); three species of vireos including a few Philadelphia and an impressive 38 Red-eyeds; and great views of two highly-sought, irregular species, the Boreal Chickadee and White-winged Crossbill. Combine all that with loads of lobster and blueberries and you have the recipe for one amazing tour!

Normally this is where the story ends, but this time there was one sweet surprise that came a week after the trip was over. I sent out Durlan's skua photos to five of the top North American experts for their opinion as to the identity of the bird (or if it could be identified at all from the photos). Unanimously, the answers came back from all who replied. With a combination of plumage characters visible in the photos and the bird's current stage of molt, it was determined to be a Great Skua! Both skua species on the same tour! Awesome!