Sunday, August 1, 2010

August 1: Predators

Today is the pagan holiday of Lughnasa or Lammas, the first harvest holiday of the season. I celebrated this perfect summer day on the Elizabeth Ann, watching seabirds in Muscongus Bay under blue skies and on calm seas for Friends of Maine Seabird Islands' fourth annual seabird adventure. We cruised out to Eastern Egg Rock with about 120 people on board, most of whom hoped to see puffins. And puffins we saw, though not in great numbers. Puffin Project researchers on the island counted record 109 pairs this summer, but only a handful of the colorful little birds were hanging around offshore today. What we did see: black guillemots, laughing gulls galore (1,500 pairs of those on the island!) making a racket along with the clouds of terns (common, Arctic, and endangered roseate all nest on the island), cormorants, eiders, a big cluster of ruddy turnstones, a couple of Wilson's storm-petrels dancing on the waves, a few gannets in the distance, some "peep" sandpipers, several great black-backed and herring gulls, osprey, bald eagle, harbor seals, and harbor porpoises.

And a peregrine falcon, which strafed the island, flushing every bird into the air in a screeching, swirling mass. It stooped, the fastest bird on earth, and when it rose into the air again we could clearly see it held a tern in its talons. The falcon flew off trailing an angry mob of terns dogging it like silvery wasps, but it did not relinquish its prey. Early harvest.

The cruise began to feel like a Discovery Channel nature show when around the next bend we came upon a great black-backed gull attacking a young laughing gull headfirst. While we watched in awe, the gull killed this bird almost half its own size and dragged it off to tear apart for a meal. Another early harvest. As Sue Schubel from Maine Audubon reminded us over the boat's speakers, "It's not being mean, it's just eating dinner." I've never seen anything like it. But apparently the birds nearby had, as they barely even noticed the commotion just a few feet away.

As we circled the island several times we also were able to observe many guillemots catching rock eels the same vivid red-orange as their feet. Terns and puffins flew in to young with beaks full of fish. A riffle on the water chased by a gull revealed where a school of fish was driven to the surface by larger fish. And just before we turned away to head back to Port Clyde, a peregrine scared up the birds once more...

A lot of harvesting going on, the bounty of the sea made visible by this island teeming with healthy bird life. And a joyful day overall, which we celebrated by enjoying our own harvest from the sea at Cod's End in Tenants Harbor on the way home.

Not gull's prey this time,
cormorants look away, calm,
dreaming of herring.

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