Autumn Grand Manan Aug 29—Sep 04, 2016

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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As we were boarding the Day’s Catch for our all-day boat trip into the Bay of Fundy, I noticed a Black Guillemot swimming in the water just ten yards or so behind the boat. I had never seen one in the Seal Cove harbor before, and we enjoyed stunningly close views of this cooperative individual. I figured this had to be a good sign of things to come for our pelagic trip that day. Sure enough, just ten minutes into the trip, and still very close to shore, we encountered a group of five Razorbills on the water. They were the most confiding I had ever seen, allowing prolonged, close studies for our entire group. Some years this species can be tough to find, so it was good to have this one out of the way early on.


Razorbills— Photo: Barry Zimmer


It took about an hour to get out to deeper water, and as soon as we did, we quickly started adding new birds. A Sooty Shearwater passed through the wake first and was followed quickly by several Great Shearwaters. A Northern Gannet flew past the port side, and then moments later a young Pomarine Jaeger came in to investigate our chum. A couple of Humpback Whales were spotted to the east, so we headed over for a better view. Just as we arrived, a Manx Shearwater zipped past the stern and landed on the water a short distance out. This is another low density species that can be devilishly hard to find at times and, in fact, only two had been seen all season prior to this day.

Great Shearwater

Great Shearwater— Photo: Barry Zimmer


After obtaining superb views of the whales and the Manx Shearwater, we got back on our course and quickly started seeing groups of Red Phalaropes and scattered Wilson’s Storm-Petrels. A few Atlantic Puffins buzzed by, and soon we had some of these adorable birds on the water right next to the boat. Another whale sighting led to another detour, and once again, this one led to a great bird. A hulking brown bird was flying directly toward the bow as we approached the whales, and flew right over the boat—South Polar Skua! This species was only recently verified in the province of New Brunswick, but in the last few years has been found with increasing regularity. Once again, we had stellar views of this rarity, and I kept thinking the day couldn’t get any better. Numbers of Wilson’s Storm-Petrels began to increase dramatically as we progressed, and soon the first Leach’s Storm-Petrels were spotted. Their long-winged appearance, deep wing strokes, bounding flight, and notched tails gave away their presence among the many Wilson’s. On a typical day here we search to find a half-dozen or so Leach’s among the more common Wilson’s. On this day, however, we began to see more and more Leach’s, to the point that they were far outnumbering Wilson’s for a good hour or more of the day. I personally counted 310 individuals, but the mate of the boat estimated that we had over a thousand—shattering any previous total we had recorded in 25 years of fall tours here.

South Polar Skua

South Polar Skua— Photo: Barry Zimmer


With storm-petrels everywhere and dozens of shearwaters following us (including many that came to within ten feet of the boat), we were in pelagic heaven. An early Northern Fulmar joined the crowd and stayed just a few feet off the stern for over ten minutes. Then, incredibly, another South Polar Skua was spotted, clearly recognizable as a different individual from the first due to a different wing molt and a paler spot above the right eye. This day was turning out to be one of our best pelagic trips ever off of Grand Manan, and yet, the biggest surprise was still to come! Red-necked Phalaropes were now sprinkled in amongst the Reds; Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were to be seen at every corner of the ocean; a smattering of Pomarine Jaegers filtered through; a pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins appeared in the wake; and more puffins, more shearwaters, more whales—the activity was non-stop.

Just when it seemed as though there may be some midday lull without any new species, I heard my co-leader, Brennan, call out, “Get on this bird at three o’clock.” I turned and quickly saw the large bird with the slow wing beats cruising low alongside of us a couple of hundreds yard out, and I felt my heart skip a beat. Even brownish-gray upperparts, no white in the rump, no white collar, and most important, an obvious yellow bill—a Cory’s Shearwater! This species has been documented only a handful of times in the province and had never before been seen on this tour. On top of all that, it was a lifer even for me! For the day we had these rather staggering totals: Northern Fulmar 1, Great Shearwater 400, Cory’s Shearwater 1, Sooty Shearwater 12, Manx Shearwater 3, Wilson’s Storm-Petrel 6,000, Leach’s Storm-Petrel 310, Northern Gannet 12, Great Cormorant 12 (albeit in the fog), South Polar Skua 2, Pomarine Jaeger 4, Razorbill 9, Black Guillemot 15, Atlantic Puffin 60, Great Black-backed Gull 200, and Lesser Black-backed Gull 3. On the mammal front, we tallied 20 Humpback Whales, 2 very rare North Atlantic Right Whales, a Northern Minke Whale, 4 Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, 3 Harbor Porpoises, 15 Gray Seals, and a few Harbor Seals. It would be hard to imagine a more productive day. The Black Guillemot in the Seal Cove harbor had indeed proven to be a good omen!

Black-and-white Warbler

Black-and-white Warbler— Photo: Barry Zimmer


Of course, our pelagic trip was but one day of our Autumn Grand Manan tour. On other days, we scoured the island’s forest for migrant landbirds and the coastal flats for shorebirds. Mixed flocks of Black-capped Chickadees and Red-breasted Nuthatches (present in record setting numbers with 166 individuals seen) harbored many migrant landbirds including 20 species of warblers (highlighted by such gems as Blackburnian, Bay-breasted, Blackpoll, a mind-blowing 54 Black-throated Greens, a rare Prairie, and a rare Black-throated Blue), 4 species of vireos, flycatchers, catbirds, and more. Castalia Marsh and other mudflats yielded 14 species of shorebirds, as well as prolonged scope studies of a Nelson’s Sparrow. A pair of Boreal Chickadees in the spruce forests of Dark Harbor was the icing on the cake!

The combination of amazing birds, wonderful marine mammals, delicious food (with lobster, scallops, fish, and blueberries highlighting the menu), and the scenic New Brunswick coast, with great weather to boot, made this a magical week!