Words On Birds by Steve Grinley
Rare Birds Are Objects of Pursuit
July 16, 2011
By Steve Grinley
Last week, I told you about the rare Little Egret that we saw at the Scarborough Marsh in Maine. We missed it the first day it was seen, but we found it the next day by taking some time off work and getting there earlier in the day. As it turned out, we made the right decision as the bird was not seen again in Scarborough after that day. We were lucky to see that bird.
Lucky, too, were Peter and Fay Vale of Wilmington last Sunday. They were birding on Plum Island early in the morning, primarily to beat the heat and the beach crowd. They were scanning along the salt pannes south of Lot 3, looking at the many egrets that had arrived from their night roost to feed. As they were scouring the fifty, or so, snowy egrets and the few great egrets, they discovered a bird that looked similar to the snowy egrets with black bill and yellow feet, but this bird was larger and the bill was longer. They noticed that it had a long plume from the back of the head, so long that it almost touched its back. It had dark lores, not yellow like the snowy egrets. They found (or refound?) the Little Egret on Plum Island!
They called my cell phone at about 6:15 am, but I didn’t receive their call. I was again in Maine, this time on a different quest that had taken me to an island without much cell reception. We went in search of the red-billed tropicbird that has been summering near Seal Island off the coast of Rockland for the past seven years.
The logistics of this trip was a little more involved than the pursuit of the Little Egret at Scarborough Marsh. The trip to Scarborough was about an hour and a half drive each way. Our trek to see the tropicbird required a three and a half hour drive each way, plus an hour and a quarter ferry ride to the island of Vinalhaven, where we stayed Friday and Saturday night. We then joined a guide, John Drury, in a lobster boat for another hour and a half ride out to Seal Island. Margo and I were joined by Patty O’Neil of Milton and Charlie Nims from New Hampshire.
We were all excited about this trip as the tropicbird is an exquisite bird to see. It would be a life bird for all of us. Adding to the excitement was the report from two days earlier that the bird had “put on a show” for birders that gone there with John. Needless to say, we were psyched!
On the way out, we passed an island where nesting great cormorants were being stalked by bald eagles. I say stalked because these eagles were “hiding” in the grass and shrubs, readying to pounce on the young fledglings. John had studied great cormorants and he was the only person I have met that hasn’t triumphed at the return of the bald eagle. This majestic bird was also an opportunist that, instead of fishing, it became predator to great cormorant colonies that he studied.
As we neared Seal Island we started to see more guillemots, a few terns, and then a few puffins, which was a life bird for Charlie. Soon terns and puffins were flying all around the boat. We moored about fifty yards of the island, unable to go onto the island as it was a National Wildlife Refuge and only those doing research were allowed to be on there. But John Drury knew where the tropicbird’s burrow was – where it spent the night. The cove where we sat was near the burrow and where the bird “always appears”. So we sat and wait.
As we searched the sky for the tropicbird, we watched thousands of arctic and common terns diving for fish around us and return to feed the young on the island. Hundreds of puffins were doing the same, stuffing their colorful bill with fish and bringing them to their young hidden in burrows. We also came across a number of common murres and razorbills, all in their breeding plumage, unlike the duller basic plumage that we see here in the winter.
As we continued our wait, and search, from the boat, we did discover a whimbrel on the island, a pair of spotted sandpipers, and a flock of least sandpipers. A merlin zipped by, not stopping for a meal on the island. After about three hours, we feared that the tropicbird was going to be no-show. Captain John said that we would give it twenty more minutes, even though we were scheduled to leave an hour or two ago. But it was an empty twenty minutes, with no sighting of the tropicbird.
I could feel the start of the engine in my stomach, as it was announcing defeat, and I knew that we had come all this way without seeing the bird. Still, as we put Seal Island to our stern, we all kept searching until the island was but a sliver on the horizon. The ride back to Vinalhaven was a quiet one.
Still, the show that we saw of puffins, murres, razorbills and terns was spectacular unto itself and it gave us some solace.
It wasn’t until we left Vinalhaven the next morning and nearing the mainland on the ferry, that I had cell coverage once again. It was after 9:30 am that I heard Fay’s voice mail. And we had four more hours before we were back in Newburyport. Margo and I did search Plum Island and the surrounding area all afternoon and evening, only to strike out on the Little Egret that weekend as well.
Still, the pursuit is one of the excitements of birding. Seeing the birds is always great, but the quest provides challenge and purpose. It takes us to places we might not go to and experience otherwise. Tomorrow is another day and the quest will begin anew.
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