Written By onci on Tuesday, August 24, 2010 | 6:06 PM
Machias Seal Island Alcids Tour by Tim Kuhn
The day starts in the cozy harbor in Cutler Maine, a very well protected finger of a harbor off of the Grand Mannan Channel in the Bay of Fundy. Early in the morning the passengers assemble at the primitive boat launch waiting for the skipper to finish prepping the tour boat for the day. Once confident all is well he heads over to the ramp in his harbor tender to shuttle us from the ramp to the tour boat. The passengers climb aboard in two batches for the short ride to the lobster boat come tour vessel. We chose this tour because this one has the shortest passage out across the channel to Machias Seal Island.
The day is crystal clear, hardly a cloud in the sky and the seas are dead calm. A rare day in these parts for sure. After the passengers are briefed about the area and the tour we head out. It is low tide as we idle our way out of the harbor and we notice the large tidal ring around the harbor. The tides in this part of the world vary greatly from high to low; the band appears to be about 15 feet thick at this time.
As we make our way through the harbor we pass many of the local working lobster boats and the floats that mark the location of pots setting on the bottom hopefully collecting many of the delicious local lobsters. As we hit the open water the throttles are opened and we hit cruising speed for the 45 minute ride out to the island. For most of the way out the passengers sit and chat as there is little to see, during this part of the tour wildlife is scarce.
We do see some seals and harbor porpoises and the occasional sea bird. As we get within a couple of miles of the island all that changes as we see our first Atlantic Puffin! For most of the passengers that is what they came to see and the excitement starts to pick up more and more as the Puffin sightings become more frequent. Mixed in with the Puffins are bunches of Razorbills and Common Murres, all three of these Alcids are nesting on the island.
Alcids, for those that aren’t familiar with the term, they are the northern hemispheres equivalent to the southern hemispheres Penguins. They are somewhat similar in appearance and the Murres even make similar noises to those of the Penguins. The big difference is Alcids can fly and Penguins are flightless.
As the birds float or fly by the shutters are clicking away as all the photographers are busily snapping pictures. For many of us these birds are first timers for us making the sightings all that much more important and exciting. Before we know it the skipper is setting the boat anchor in preparation for our departure from the boat to the island. He has towed a small skiff along that will serve as our shuttle from the tour vessel to the island. He hops into the skiff, brings it alongside and we make our way gingerly into the small boat. This is no easy feat as both boats are rocking to their own beat and a lot of us are carrying a lot of valuable camera gear!
Once on the island the passengers all assemble and are put into the capable hands of the staff on the island. We are given instructions for how to behave on the island so as to keep the disturbance of the birds to a minimum. There are 16 of us and we divide into groups of 4 as there are 4 blinds that we will be observing and photographing from. As we head out towards the blinds we can see and hear the birds gathered on the rocks and even upon the tops of the blinds! Once inside we break out our gear and slowly open the sliding hatches revealing an amazing scene, there are Puffins all around! And close at that! There are also Razorbills about and some Murres but the dominate birds are the Puffins. They are the cutest birds, almost comical looking with their large colorful beaks.
We see them flying about and landing, courting and fighting, all of the things one would expect in a large breeding colony. Occasionally one will land with a beak full of fish and dart into a burrow to feed the young. The Razorbills are engaging in what appears to be a courting display, rubbing each other’s beaks and throwing their heads back with mouths agape revealing a brilliant yellow inside of the mouth. The sounds emanating from the flocks are incredible. The Puffins are making a chainsaw like snoring sound, the Razorbills a primitive growling sound and the Murres a shrill rolling sound.
The time in the blind passes very quickly, all of us were so busy taking photographs we lost track of time. Leaving the island was the reverse process of landing on the island, gingerly transferring from land to skiff and skiff to lobster boat. We all made back onto the tour boat, dry and with all of our gear! During the boat ride back across the channel we share some of our best shots and recount our experiences. We did see the occasional Shearwater and Gannet in the distance adding just a bit more fun to the experience.
On the ride back into the harbor the captain brings us by Little River Lighthouse, a charming Maine Coast lighthouse in a beautiful setting. Back on dry land we bid each other goodbye and spend the rest of the day trying to wipe the smiles of contentment off of our faces.
As for the gear to bring; I shot with a 500mm at times to bring in a distant bird but for the most part I used it for portraits. I did use it for flying birds both from the boat and on the island while waiting to head into the blinds. I also shot with a 70-200mm on a full frame body for close in birds and some wider shots. I even shot some wide angle (17-40mm) for wider environmental shots.
For the most part I was using a 300mm both for stationary birds and for in flight shots out of the blind. There are plenty of birds in close and the 300mm is easy to use in the tight quarters of the blinds. Be prepared for chilly foggy weather even during the heat of the summer. We were lucky and had fair weather but it was still cool during the passage.
This was an amazing experience, definitely one to put on the list.
Posted by onci at 6:06 PM