Songo Blue Skies

Monday, February 23, 2009

Machias Seal Island

Several summers ago I had 10 days to myself. I took a leisurely drive through NH doing some genealogy research and then to Calis Maine. After that I followed the coast south driving out all the inlets and small towns. One of the highlights of this trip for me was my trip out to Machias Seal Island.

A long time ago I saw a special on TV about reintroducing puffins to the islands off the coast of Maine to see if they could reestablish breeding colonies. There are several islands along the coast where they have done this. Machias Seal Island is not one of those islands because there have always been puffins on it. However, ever since that time I have wanted to see these birds up close. So I did some research and found one place that even allowed you to go onto the island and view the breeding colony.

Machias Seal Island is about 15 acres and 9 or so miles in the Gulf of Maine near the Canadian border. It has about 3000 breeding puffins. Both Canada and the US claim the island with Canadian Coast Guard active on the island. There are several tour operators offering sight seeing but few actually have the landing permits. Norton of Jonesport, Maine is one of those operators.
You have to arrive at 7:00 AM in the morning to Cpt. Norton's boat in Jonesport, Maine. After an hour and a half trip out into the ocean you finally reach Machias Seal Island. You can see hundreds of sea birds of many types (Auks, Artic Terns and others) flying around the island. On the day we arrived it was overcast and the lighthouse appeared through the mist and fog. We had to wait for about 20 minutes until the tide went down enough to get onto the island. The big boat can't get close. So we climbed into a smaller motor boat that took us to the island.

Getting on the island is interesting. There is no dock so it's just clamoring onto and over the rocks to get onto the island with someone offering you a hand. I felt bad for the women who had worn her high heels that day. Wonder where she thought we were going?

Once on the island the wildlife personnel talk to you about the puffins and also the rules. You must stay on the paths and not wander off. They lead you in groups of 3 to the bird blinds, basically boxes out in the rocks. There you're told you can open the sliders on the front as long as you only open the windows on one side. Apparently as long as the birds can't see through to the other side of the boxes they remain oblivious to your presence. These boxes are right down in the rocks where the puffins and other birds are nesting. Because I went in August most of the babies had fledged and therefore the adults were not feeding babies under the rocks. As you can see from the pictures you are within a few feet of the puffins.

We were allowed to stay in the blinds for about 45 minutes, then someone comes to get you and you return to the central area. On this day 1 baby had actually fledged the night before. For some unknown reason when the babies leave the nest on this island they head for the light house and gather there at night. This makes it easy for them to be tagged. We were able to see the fledgling. Puffins are black and white and their bill is darker for most the year. During mating season they acquire the brightly orange beak. So the birds in the pictures here in their familiar regalia are their mating features. After the mating season is over they return to the sea and shed the colors on their beak.

When that baby leaves the island it will remain over the water for about 5 years. At that point he will return to Machias Seal Island and find a mate to breed with. Puffins often mate for life. They only come ashore during breeding season. The rest of the time they are at sea. It is kind of mind boggling to think that they remain over or in the water for the first 5 years of their life and then for 9 months out of the year there after.
This is a wonderful trip and so worth it. Cpt. Norton's boat was great with heat and none of us felt seasick. The Captain is very knowledgeable about the puffins and other birds. As I remember correctly we saw a school of porpoises and a few whale backs. All in all the entire trip takes about half a day.

I'm planning to take the trip again, it was that worth it.


Beth said...

This looks really fun. I am definitely going to find time to take this trip. Thanks for sharing it.

Denise said...

What a great post Cindy, thank you so much. I would love to do this trip one day and have made notes of the captain for my ever growing list. Maine is a place I am eager to visit. We lived in RI when we first got married and made a day trip up to Maine so I am long over due for a return visit. Love your blog :)

Goosey said...

Lovely pictures of the birds....the Puffins especially. We get Puffins here but I have never seen one! Maybe this year!

Steve B said...

Wow, what a great trip. Thanks for taking us along.

Kathiesbirds said...

Wow! I would love to go here!