For intimate views of puffins, shearwaters, and other birds of the sea, nothing beats a cruise on a historic schooner
By Chuck Hagner | Published: 6/30/2014
No engine propels the coasting schooner Lewis R. French. Her four lower sails and two topsails are raised and trimmed each day the old-fashioned way, by hand, and the anchor is hoisted manually too, using a windlass.
She is the oldest surviving Maine-built schooner, a National Historic Landmark, and a beauty: 64 feet long, 19 feet at the beam, and all wood, with two masts, a fixed keel, a clipper bow, and a handsome gray hull.
According to co-owners and co-captains Garth Wells and Jenny Tobin, she looks and sails today the way she did when she was launched almost a century and half ago, in April 1871, and they wouldn’t have it any other way.
The schooner started out hauling lumber, granite, fish, Christmas trees, and other freight along the Maine coast but since the early 1970s has been carrying passengers only. Every year between May and October, Wells and Tobin offer an assortment of four- to six-night cruises out of Camden targeting the hundreds of scenic islands between Boothbay Harbor and Bar Harbor. They welcomed me aboard last July for their once-a-year birding cruise, led by the accomplished husband-and-wife birding team of Derek and Jeannette Lovitch, owners of the Freeport Wild Bird Supply in Freeport.
A number of well-known island hotspots, including nearby Monhegan Island, Eastern Egg Rock, and Matinicus, were on the list of possible destinations, and Derek and Jeannette advised keeping watch for such Gulf of Maine specialties as Manx, Sooty, and Great Shearwaters, Leach’s and Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, Common, Arctic, and Roseate Terns, Great Cormorant, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, and Atlantic Puffin, yet Derek, author of the 2012 book How to Be a Better Birder, warned against calling the cruise a pelagic.
The wind and the tides
On a typical pelagic trip, he explained, where you go and how fast you go is limited only by the size of your boat’s engines and your tolerance for seasickness. On this trip, the itinerary and speed would be determined largely by the wind and the tides.
The arrangement probably would not suit a birder in a hurry to top off a big year or in need of a particular species for the life list, but it’s ideal for a birder like me who loves the ocean and its birds and whose bucket list has long included going to sea on a historic sailing vessel. It’s also a nice way to spend time with a non-birding partner, and it has other advantages, as we learned at our first destination, Seal Island, which lies east of larger Matinicus Island about 25 miles southeast of Camden.
Narrow, only a mile long, largely barren, and lined on one side with steep cliffs, Seal looks every bit like a place you would expect to find a thriving seabird colony, but for many years there was none. Egg collectors and hunters persecuted the puffins, razorbills, and terns that had nested historically, and then chick-stealing Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls moved in, displacing the seabirds. The last puffins nested on the rock in the late 1880s, the last terns in 1936. From the 1940s until 1966, the island served as a bombing range for the U.S. Navy.
A restoration project was begun in 1984, and signs of its success were all around us as we dropped anchor. Black Guillemots paddled through the waves, black-capped terns wheeled high overhead, and star-eyed puffins sped past on whirring wings, many with fish in their big blue, yellow, and orange bills. According to the Gulf of Maine Seabird Working Group, more than 2,500 pairs of Arctic and Common Terns nest on the island today, along with more than 500 pairs of puffins, more than on any other Maine island. (The largest colony in the Gulf of Maine is on Machias Seal Island, New Brunswick. It hosts more than 6,500 breeding pairs.)
Ominous events recently made Maine’s Razorbill and Atlantic Puffin the subjects of renewed conservation concern.
The first occurred in the summer of 2012, when only about a third of the puffin pairs on Seal Island fledged a chick. Usually, 77 percent do.
Then, at the beginning of 2013, thousands of Razorbills showed up south of their winter range, some as far away as the Florida Keys. On their return trip to Maine, in February and March, hundreds washed up dead on Cape Cod.
At Seal and nearby Matinicus Rock, researchers with Project Puffin counted a third fewer nests in 2013 than in 2012, while at Machias Seal Island, the largest puffin colony in the Gulf of Maine, only 15 percent of pairs produced a fledgling. The researchers speculate that many birds simply took the year off.
Rising ocean temperatures are to blame, says Project Puffin. Warmer water causes white hake, Atlantic herring, and other fish to move either northward or to deeper, colder water, thus making the puffin’s most important forage fish less available.
The only good news in 2013 came from puffins on Eastern Egg Rock, the southernmost colony in Maine. The number of pairs there increased from 104 to 111, and most fledged chicks. Unlike puffins at other colonies, scientists say, the Egg Rock birds not only found ample hake and herring but supplemented their diet with redfish, a species that isn’t shifting its range northward or into deeper water.
Every year, Seal’s seabirds attract a small team of biologists and other seasonal researchers, who make do with tent living while conducting surveys, monitoring nests, tracking food quality and quantity, checking growth rates of chicks, and watching for banded birds. All that monitoring has enabled scientists to assemble telling evidence of how climate change is affecting fish stocks that Atlantic Puffins and other birds depend on (see sidebar above), and it has given the researchers a front-row seat for one of the best shows in town: the daily sorties of a way out-of-range Red-billed Tropicbird.
Tropi the tropicbird
The bird — a beautiful male with white feathers, a mottled back, a bright red bill, and long, thin tail feathers — would no doubt feel more at home in the Lesser Antilles, but every summer since July 2005, he’s been vacationing on Seal, taking apparent delight in strafing terns. His appearances have become so reliable that the locals have given him a name: They call him Tropi.
Just weeks before we arrived, Neil Hayward, the British birder who broke the Big Year record last year, motored out to the island to make the tropicbird the 650th entry on his history-making list. He saw Tropi not from a schooner but from the deck of a lobster boat piloted by John Drury, a guide who lives on the island of Vinalhaven.
The summer before, Drury happened to show the bird to Keith Mueller, the acclaimed carver and painter from Connecticut. Mueller was so grateful that he carved a tropicbird decoy out of eastern white pine, gave it a traditional inletted head and an arching tail of durable dogwood, painted it realistically, and shipped it to the guide as a thank-you gift. When Drury later deployed it in the waters off of Seal, just days before we arrived, it proved so lifelike that Tropi not only landed nearby but swam toward it, displayed for it, nuzzled it, and then, as Drury looked on in wonder, tried to mount it.
Sail on the Lewis R. French
The Lewis R. French sails out of Camden Harbor, Maine, every week between May and October. It accommodates 21 passengers. You can find rates and a complete sailing schedule, as well as detailed information about the schooner and its colorful history, at https://schoonerfrench.com.
Lacking a decoy of our own, we failed to locate the tropicbird even after a few hours of searching, but we weren’t disappointed. Because the Lewis R. French has a shallow draft, we were able to spend the night in a protected cove close to shore, where we got to witness something just as unusual — we listened to the Leach’s Storm-Petrel.
Small and secretive, Leach’s lays only one egg per year, usually in a well-concealed crevice or burrow located near water. The bird is not only nocturnal but wary, so much so that pelagic birders and seawatchers alike say it is extremely difficult to see. (We were lucky to spot one while we sailed to the island.) It is not attracted to ships, it rarely lingers on the aromatic slick of fish guts and blood that tour operators traditionally ladle overboard to attract birds, and like all storm-petrels, it usually remains silent away from the colony.
It is generally quiet at its nest during the day, too, but it will vocalize as it flies to and from its burrow in the dark. So the day we searched for the tropicbird, I joined Derek and a few other birders who lingered on deck under a nearly full moon in hopes of hearing the storm-petrel’s call.
Laughter from the great beyond
By the time I finally retired for the night, I still hadn’t ticked what would be a much-appreciated life sound. When I rejoined the early risers on deck before dawn the next morning, the moon was nowhere to be seen, the schooner was surrounded by fog, and the storm-petrels were calling. Their soft utterances — bursts of staccato chattering interspersed with single longer notes — came to us like laughter from the great beyond.
When we later toasted our good luck with hot coffee and warm muffins from the schooner’s wood-fired oven, I wondered, Where else but aboard a boat at anchor would I have found the quiet, and been allowed the time, to hear that?
The experience brought to mind something I once heard BirdWatching Contributing Editor David Sibley say. In a mature forest in the heart of Swainson’s Warbler’s range, he was asked whether the bird deserved a reputation for being difficult to find. Sibley didn’t think so.
If you’re in the right habitat at the right time, he said, and if you’re patient, Swainson’s isn’t all that hard to see. The problem, he explained, is that most birders don’t wait. They arrive at a promising spot, they make a quick scan with their binoculars, and then, after a moment or two, they move on.
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This article was published in our August 2014 issue.
What they should do, he might have said, is drop anchor. It was a strategy that produced not one, but a series of minor aural miracles during our six-day birding cruise.
One was listening to an unseen Great Horned Owl whose hooting reached us as we overnighted in the Fox Island Thorofare, the mile-wide strait separating Vinalhaven and the island of North Haven.
Another came during a morning birdwalk along a mossy, fern-lined trail on Vinalhaven, when we were treated to the song of a Winter Wren, a bird I normally record only during migration.
A third took place the evening we rowed ashore to McGlathery Island, between Stonington and Isle Au Haut, to eat lobsters boiled over a fire built right on the beach. The meal is a highlight of every cruise on the Lewis R. French, but this one came with special musical accompaniment, courtesy of a Swainson’s Thrush in a spruce tree on the opposite shore.
Ironically enough, though, our best results came the day Captain Garth and Derek and Jeannette decided not to stay put, but to try our hand at some honest-to-goodness pelagic birding.
With full sails and a bucket of chopped herring to use as chum, we set a course for Mount Desert Rock, a remote bit of stone located about 25 miles east of Isle Au Haut. A lonely-looking light tower and light keeper’s house that have stood on the rock since the early 19th century do double-duty today as a classroom for oceanography students and a field station for researchers from Maine’s College of the Atlantic.
At work on a five-year study of marine-mammal populations in the Gulf of Maine, they cherish the site because it sits in an area where cold, nutrient-rich ocean waters well up from below the surface, attracting harbor porpoise, common and white-sided dolphins, harbor and gray seals, and humpback, fin, and northern right whales. We saw only one mammal, a fin whale, but quickly became fans of the location, too, when we came upon a massive raft of seabirds.
They were Great Shearwaters — large, sleek, dark gray-brown birds marked with a blackish cap, a black bill, and a narrow pale collar.
Champion aviators, they breed some 6,500 miles to the south, on a tiny archipelago in the South Atlantic about midway between South Africa and South America, and are seen in the North Atlantic only during our summer, their nonbreeding season. Counting furiously as we inched past, Derek and Jeannette estimated that more than 700 were sitting on the water.
Few of the birds appeared disturbed by our approach or even to notice us. Most simply paddled out of the way. So we came about and sailed slowly past them again, this time as Derek flung tasty herring treats from the stern.
Ever opportunistic, the shearwaters raced to claim the prizes before they sank, dashing across the surface with wings raised and then lunging into the water. Many were so close to the hull that we could see their outstretched necks underwater. What’s more, under sail, our boat was so quiet that we could hear not only the birds’ hungry cries but also the slap of their feet as they ran through the water. It was a spectacle that would have delighted any pelagic birder, diesel- or wind-powered, and it got better.
Perhaps attracted by the commotion caused by the shearwaters, dozens of Northern Gannets soon glided over the schooner, as did a handful of dark-bellied Sooty Shearwaters. Razorbills, Common Murres, and Atlantic Puffins also flew past. Even a Manx Shearwater put in an appearance. Then we discovered hundreds and hundreds of Red-necked Phalaropes, migrant shorebirds making their way north to breeding grounds on the tundra. They weren’t flying; they were spinning mad circles on a mat of floating weeds.
They and all the other birds made me happy to be holding binoculars — even if many were so close that binoculars weren’t really necessary. Watching them and hearing them was exhilarating. I couldn’t imagine how we’d be able to top the experience, and when the weather worsened toward the end of our cruise, I doubted that we would get a chance.
We were flying
But then, on the last day, after hours of torrential rain, the clouds parted, the sun came out, a favorable wind blew, and gulls wheeled over Penobscot Bay. We trimmed the sails, Captain Garth set a course for Camden Harbor, and as the Lewis R. French heeled, we leaned, held onto our caps, and marveled at our wake.
Since I married into a sailing family, I know sailors use a birdwatcher’s expression when the air is good, their sail set is just right, and the boat is really moving. They say they’re flying.
I’ve always loved the phrase, since it evokes the frictionless ease, the silent freedom of movement, that wind-powered boats share with birds. And it makes sense, considering how much the curvature of a wind-taut sail resembles the arc of a bird’s extended wing.
A physicist would explain that the pressures created by air rushing over sailcloth are the same as those produced by wind flowing over feathers. One produces the force required to drive a boat through waves. The other causes the lift required for a bird hatched in the South Atlantic to eat herring in the Gulf of Maine. Both produce joy.
Chuck Hagner is the editor of BirdWatching magazine.