Friday, April 11, 2008

Atlantic Puffins, a Down East Adventure

I was sitting in my office earlier this week trying to think of something different to post on my blog that would give both the reader and viewer a better feel for Maine, and decided that sharing my experiences traveling to Machias Seal Island and photographing the Atlantic Puffins would be as Down East as it could get. So here we go, hang on to your L.L. Bean boots. Oh! In case you were wondering why I was sitting in my office daydreaming about my blog post, the reason is that part of my daily routine requires I read the boiler plate language in commercial contracts to make sure everything is in order. The only people I know of who find this interesting are the same ones who think watching paint dry is exciting. If you know someone, pass on their name; I may have a new career for them.

My trip to Machias Seal Island started the day before I was to set sail with a scenic ride along the beautiful Maine Coast to the fishing village of Jonesport, where I met up with the charter captain to discuss our departure time, then settled into my room at a local inn for the evening. Lying in the shadows of Acadia National Park, Jonesport is located about ninety minutes north of Ellsworth, Maine on U.S. Route 1. People from away don’t generally wander that far Down East unless they’ve missed their turn for Bar Harbor. If for no other reason, its geographic location has allowed Machias Seal Island to remain relatively unknown, located about ten miles off the Maine coast. It’s not the end of the world but you can see it from there, and if the boat captain misses the turn you could find yourself sipping Bordeaux with a Parisian named Pierre somewhere along the coast of France (you may want to dust off your beret just to be on the safe side). The island is approximately fifteen to twenty acres in size, its rocky granite shoreline provides a striking contrast to the higher parts which are covered by a lush green meadow and lighthouse. To preserve the vulnerable seabird nesting colonies, it was established as a federal Migratory Bird Sanctuary by Canada back in 1944, and during the summer a member of the Canadian Wildlife Service is on duty, monitoring island activities and helping preserve that delicate balance between man and nature. Today the island supports a breeding colony of around 3000 birds. It’s one of the few islands where visitors can actually land to observe and photograph Atlantic Puffins. For serious birders this is a must see place. On one of my trips, the group included visitors from as far away as Europe and Australia. If someone is interested in making the trip, you need to consider booking well in advance, and hope for the best. The Canadian government only allows a limited number of people per day on the island, and with charters running from both the U.S. and Canada, space is limited.

It was the morning of July 4th, and the charter captain wanted to make it back to the mainland in time for the “lobstaah” boat races (ayeah, took a while to convince spell check I had that one right), so we set sail at around 5 am. A combination of the early morning wake-up call, and the threat of rain kind of thinned out the crowd that day to only the true diehards and me. I was there because two weeks earlier the processing lab totally destroyed the film from my June trip. So I was waiting on stand-by for a cancellation when the call arrived at my home to either be there for the 4th or wait until next season. So I packed my bags, kissed the wife goodbye, patted the dog, and out the door I went (I believe that was the order of events, regardless, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it). To reach my final destination I had to leave the car behind (unless you’re one of the few remaining proud owners of a 1963 Amphicar), and board a specially modified 40' open air lobster boat (spell check liked that one ok), for my voyage to the island. Depending on your departure point, you’ll be on the water one or two hours each way. Keep in mind that tides in that neck of the woods run around 40 feet. So what you say, it’s not like the boat is going to drag bottom on the way out, and you’d be right. But if the dock you departed from was fixed, like it was on my first trip, you could find yourself climbing a three-story ladder with your camera gear in tow on your return, or if you’re not in a big hurry, wait for high tide and the boat to rise.

As we were heading out to the island, I thought back to my first trip, which was with a group from the Audubon Society and University of Maine. The sea conditions were perfect, blue skies and flat water. During my follow-up trips into the Bay of Fundy, including the one I was on that day, I learned that good weather and flat seas were the exception, and also that I was not immune to being seasick (not pretty). The weather I experienced during my first trip has never repeated for me since that time. The weather is critical because the sea needs to be flat enough to anchor the boat off-shore and allow for your dingy to off-load you onto an access ramp, which is carved out of the granite shoreline. You make landfall by riding a wave into shore with the dingy (body surfing is not encouraged; the salt water is not the best for a camera). If the weather is too rough you’re stuck observing the birds from the boat, which is not all that interesting if you had planned on taking photos.

Because these birds are sea birds, the season to observe them on the island is rather short, June & July, and once beyond the mating season, they loose their colorful bill. They make a rather unique sound when they're in their burrows. For those of you who ever heard someone running a chain saw in the distant woods, you've got it. I know that first hand because on that first trip I was lamenting to the Audubon guide about some idiot running a chain saw while we were trying to photograph the birds from our blind. He got a big chuckle out of that comment (duh), and I added one more bird sound to my knowledge base (add that to the Blue Jay and I’m up to two).

From the moment you set foot on the island you can't help but notice that there are birds everywhere, in the air, on the water, all around you. The most numerous, and distant traveler to these nesting grounds are the Arctic Tern, which logs an amazing 25,000 miles annually from its home in the Antarctic Circle. If it were not for the Terns on this island, which are very territorial, the Puffins would have a hard time of it with the Gulls. These little guys don’t care who they go after. One of the first warnings you receive when you’re getting out of the dingy is to stay on the path and wave your hands over your head as you make your way to the lighthouse for a briefing. Ignore that caution and you’ll need to be doing laundry when you get back to the mainland, or in some cases I’ve seen them peck an individual on the forehead and draw blood. Common Terns, Common Murres, Razorbill Auks, and the Leach's Storm-Petrel are among other inhabitants. However, the most popular species on the island is the Atlantic Puffin, and this colony is one of the most southerly in its Atlantic breeding range. What makes the island such a great place to photograph them from are the boulders they use as nesting sites. In the daytime when not out gathering food, the boulders are used as roosts, and their close proximity to the blinds affords great photographing for everyone.

Photographing these birds can be somewhat challenging, and there are several things to consider in preparation. Bring your own food and water; you’re not sailing on the QE 2, and there are no Quick Stops on the way. Because of the potential for a difficult landing, the photo equipment you carry onto the island should be kept to a minimum, with thoughts of keeping your hands as free as possible. A photo backpack is probably the best choice . There are four observation blinds located on the island, and depending on the size of the group, trying to shoot from a tripod can become nearly impossible (lesson learned from my first trip over). A monopod is ideal for these conditions, it also allows you to quickly adjust for the different blind openings. Lenses in the 200mm to 300mm length will be sufficient for groups and singles shots. When photographing wildlife, selective focusing along with a shallow depth of field work well in making your subjects standout among the sometimes busy backgrounds. For those accustomed to shooting landscapes, this represents a departure from the norm, where it is usually preferred to have everything in sharp focus. Focusing on your subject’s eye will generally give you the result you desire.

Sometimes referred to as a "sea parrot", this portly seabird boasts a distinctive yellow and red striped bill. Achieving flight underwater similar to that of a Penguin, Puffins gather their food, mainly small fish like Capelin, and carry as many as a dozen at a time without losing those caught previously in their bills. The birds usually arrive in late April, but remain in the water around the island for some time until choosing a foggy or rainy day; they suddenly fly as one flock to their nesting sites. A simple nest is established among the large granite boulders which provide shelter and concealment. The female lays a single egg which is incubated by both parents.

Careful planning and preparation will leave visitors with a great sense of accomplishment, and images that can be cherished for years. My trips to this small Migratory Bird Sanctuary have left me with an enlightened understanding of the complexities of nature, along with an appreciation for the efforts being made by those dedicated individuals who preserve it. After a hard day at the grid, spending the summer on a small Maine island watching and listening to these sea birds sounds better all the time.

Enough said I’ve run out of paper.


Scotty Graham said...


Fantastic photos of the Puffins. I gotta get there some day. One can certainly tell that you have been taking photos for over thirty years!! Excellent work...


Singer42 said...


I know this is an older post but just found this today. I went to MSI three years ago. Truely a trip I want to repeat and will always remember. It was so neat being so close to these birds. We had some folks from overseas also but they were not dressed for accessing the island; high heels and one walked with a cane. But they did make it onto the island. It was a foggy day and the light house through the fog made for an errie picture. I love your pictures, you have a great eye.