My free advice is mostly ignored. Maybe if I charged for it, it would appear to have more value.
In this case, my free advice is to go on a whale watch with Eastport Windjammers in Eastport. I go every year, and not for the whales. The bird life filling Head Harbor Passage in late summer is a world-class phenomenon. The birds are attracted by a coincidence of several natural events.
First, the Bay of Fundy has some of the highest tides in the world. In the narrow channel between Eastport and Campobello, that tide gets compressed, like water through a fire hose. It creates the Old Sow — the second largest whirlpool in the world. It churns up an immense amount of food for the seals, porpoises, whales and birds that gather there.
Second, all of this bird abundance intensifies at the end of summer, when most species are done nesting. They’re looking for a place to relax, fatten up and perhaps molt. They come from everywhere — some all the way from South America, some from the Arctic regions of North America, some hatched right around the corner. They all come to Head Harbor Passage. I’d estimate 20,000 birds are in the passage now, but that’s just a wild guess.
Third, the channel is full of isles and ledges, providing convenient places for birds and seals to loaf, as they wait for the flood tide to deliver their next meal. When the tide turns, it’s easy to spot where the fish are. Minke whales and harbor porpoises start the feeding frenzy. Birds spy the commotion, and rush over. It’s a fevered all-you-can-eat buffet.
Razorbills and common murres are in the alcid family, related to puffins. They nest offshore, including on nearby Machias Seal Island. By the end of July, they’re done nesting, and many proceed immediately to Head Harbor Passage. Since the young cannot yet fly, they swim the 35 miles to get there.
East Quoddy Light safeguards navigation at the north end of Campobello. Here, the channel meets the open ocean. Northern gannets are usually present in August, flying south from their nesting colonies in Quebec and Newfoundland. Great shearwaters fly north from their nesting islands in the South Atlantic, joined in some years by sooty shearwaters from the coast of Argentina.
Of course, there are herring gulls, Maine’s familiar year-round “seagull.” Great black-backed gulls are also common. You’ll find plenty of ring-billed gulls hanging around the Bangor Mall and McDonald’s parking lots this time of year. They’re in the channel, too, along with several additional species.
Bonaparte’s gulls outnumber all the rest combined. This dainty, tern-like gull nests in trees along freshwater across northern Canada. In late summer, thousands come down and flood the channel — so many that a feeding flock looks like falling snow. Black-legged kittiwakes are slightly larger. Some of these gulls nest on Whitehorse Island at the far end of the channel — their southernmost breeding colony in the world.
Bonaparte’s gulls have black heads in breeding season. The color fades away in autumn. Two other gulls look very similar, and a few blend into the big flock of Boneys. Black-headed gulls can be found all over Europe, and there’s an established nesting colony in Newfoundland. Little gulls are the smallest gulls in the world. They nest in subarctic regions across Europe. There are a few tiny colonies in northern Canada, notably in Churchill, Manitoba. This is the gull many of us were really hoping to see last Sunday, during a dedicated birding trip led by guides from Cobscook Institute and Maine Audubon.
Fortunately, one of those guides was Chris Bartlett, who is a gull-whisperer, with a knack for finding rare species. He’d be a sure-bet gold medalist if gull-spotting was an Olympic sport, which it should be. We were nearly back to port, searching one last ledge, when Bartlett picked a little gull out of the crowd. Frankly, I would have missed it. For most people on the boat, it was the first — and probably last — little gull they’ll ever see.
Several whale-watch boats depart from Eastport and Lubec. Although most of the action is in Canadian waters, nobody can get off the boat, and there is no Canadian requirement to shove a test swab up your nose. The tours focus primarily on the whales, so don’t expect to slow down for rare birds. But do expect to see tons of unusual ones. That’s my free advice, take it or leave it.