Taking Wing in Maine
by Melissa Waterman
Try as you might, the word "pelagic" just doesn't come tripping off the tongue. It's an edgy word, from the Greek pelagikos, meaning roughly "the sea." Yet for birdwatching enthusiasts, seeing pelagic birds that spend most of their lives offshore in the cold waters of the North Atlantic justifies any degree of verbal or physical discomfort.
Not that cruising for a week off the coast of Maine aboard a windjammer requires much suffering. The Camden schooner Mary Day takes stalwart bird enthusiasts out to sea on comfortable six-day trips led by Maine Audubon Society guides.
To see pelagic birds, you must be on the water. Fairly far out on the water, as a matter of fact. Birds such as shearwaters, puffins, razorbills, gannets, and petrels fly, sleep, and eat above and on the ocean throughout their lives, venturing onto isolated offshore islands only to nest and to breed. To see these animals in their element, far from any landfall, is a birder's dream.
Birds of a Feather
The passenger roster for the Maine Audubon Society cruise reflects the appeal the word "pelagic" has to birders: passengers on this June trip hail from Oregon, Washington, Florida, and New York, with just a few coming from Maine.
Not all the passengers are dedicated birdwatchers: they range from an 87-year-old woman from Calais, Maine, who simply likes to sail and read Dick Francis mysteries to a retired master bourbon distiller from Kentucky who wants to see the Maine he imagined from his childhood reading. All sail as strangers to one another.
Stumbling on board the Mary Day during a cold summer rainstorm, the passengers find many comforts: a pump parlor organ in the saloon, a large skylight, freshwater showers. Unlike the 13 other vessels in the Maine Windjammer Association, the Mary Day was conceived and built to carry people, rather than granite or Christmas trees.
Built at the Harvey Gamage yard in East Boothbay in 1962, the ship was designed and captained by Camden resident Havilah Hawkins. Hawkins is credited with sparking a renaissance in the construction of wooden sailing vessels; the Mary Day, named after his wife, was the first sailing passenger vessel built in the 20th century.
Portrait of a Lady
Just a few of the week's passengers are interested in the Mary Day's history. Someone asks Captain Barry King about the bronze plaque of a beautiful woman with flowing hair hanging in the galley. The plaque is a portrait of his wife cast by Hawkins years ago.
Fewer still know that each year, when the sailing season ends, Captain King removes the plaque from the galley and brings it up to the living Mary Day in Camden, with whom he sits and recounts the adventures of the summer. The plaque stays with Mary until spring rolls around, when King again walks up to the house to retrieve the portrait and restore it to a place of honor aboard his vessel.
The passengers are lucky: a front passed through on Sunday night, pushing the rain out and bringing a strong northwest wind in the morning. Out of Camden Harbor, the Mary Day catches the wind neatly to make a tidy passage across west Penobscot Bay, through the Fox Islands Thorofare, then across Jericho Bay in the afternoon and around the easterly tip of Isle au Haut before anchoring in Burnt Coat Cove on Swan's Island at supper time.
Early the next morning, sipping coffee up on deck, Bill Friel from Kentucky witnesses a bald eagle strafing a raft of female eiders (ducks). The eiders squawk and chatter in alarm as the eagle dips its claws toward their young. "Hard way to get a breakfast," Bill comments quietly.
Frenchboro Long Island
The wind is still strong from the northwest. The Mary Day's young crew sets the sails and the vessel sweeps over to nearby Frenchboro Long Island for a hike on land. Sitting alone at the mouth of Blue Hill Bay, this small isle has just 50 residents in the winter, most of whom engage in lobstering for employment.
Landing at Lunt's Wharf, the eager birdwatchers set off past the island's lone church, whose steeple is topped with a cod-shaped weather vane. Much of the island is undeveloped and is owned by Maine Coast Heritage Trust, a nonprofit conservation organization.
A quick walk through thickets of spruce and fir underlain with soft carpets of reindeer moss and cinnamon ferns leads to a rocky headland with an unfettered view of the Gulf of Maine. Passengers have the opportunity to take part in ambles such as this on different islands each morning during the week.
After lunch, Captain King heads the Mary Day northeast again, clipping along at 10 knots toward Mt. Desert Rock. The fresh wind makes passengers quickly don windbreakers, fleece pullovers, even a few sets of mittens.
Against the afternoon sun, the waves are gilt metal, making any passing birds hard to see. But Mike Shannon knows those pelagic birds are out here. An ornithology and environmental studies teacher at Unity College in Maine, Shannon was director of the Maine Audubon nature camp on Hog Island during the late 1970s. For this week he and his wife Margi are the boat's Audubon naturalists.
As the vessel bounces through the chop, Shannon helps Beverly Fior of Massachusetts focus her binoculars. Passengers on the heeling deck resemble a selection of well-stuffed laundry bags, bundled snugly in their many layers of clothing.
"There!" shouts Shannon, pointing to the east. "Puffins!" Sure enough, two small dark bodies with sharp stub-by wings are seen skittering through the troughs of the waves. Puzzled by their subdued colors (puffins only have bright orange and yellow feet and bills during the early summer breeding season), Gary Hollen of New York flips through his bird book to confirm the sighting. Binoculars follow the puffins as they disappear in the distance.
"A Sooty Shearwater!"
An hour or so later Shannon points and shouts again. "A sooty shearwater!" the life-long birdwatcher exclaims as he braces against the ship's rail. "I've never seen one of those." The dust-grey bird with slender wings scoots quickly by just inches from the water's surface. Esther Clark is delighted. To add to her life list of approximately 400 birds both puffins and a sooty shearwater in one day is "very satisfying," says the upstate New York resident.
After coming about just shy of Mt. Desert Rock, the Mary Day breezes back to Swan's Island for a quiet night at anchor. By the end of the day passengers also have seen a Northern gannet, black guillemots, and a razorbill.
The Odd Bird
Related to the now-extinct Great Auk, the razorbill is especially noteworthy. An unusual-looking bird, it stands up on land like a penguin and is jet-black but for a white line from its bill to its eye. Razorbills are at the limit of their geographic range in the Gulf of Maine; they are only found during the early summer in small breeding colonies on tiny uninhabited islands far offshore such as Matinicus Rock. The Mary Day crowd is thrilled to have seen one.
Shannon and his wife chat with passengers about the day's sightings while the crew tidies the boat and gets dinner under way. Bit by bit, the easy familiarity of windjammer life settles on the passengers. By the end of the week the bird guides will be tucked away and attention will have turned to the more familiar schooner amenities: a lobster bake on a quiet island, sunsets across a smooth harbor, and the pleasure of learning to properly coil a line.
The long days revolve around the routine of raising sails, watching the wind, and, of course, eating. During the brief voyage, approximately 75 pounds of flour, 25 pounds of butter, 20 pounds of sugar, six gallons of milk, and 12 dozen eggs will be consumed by the ship's complement. Approximately 700 gallons of fresh water will be used for drinking and cooking.
Most remarkably, during the week 32 adults will use the electrical energy equivalent of one 100-watt bulb burning for 57 hours. As Captain King notes, "The lesson of the schooners is that you can do with a lot less in daily life."
For the passengers, though, nothing seems to be lacking. Coming in to Camden harbor at the end of the week, tanned and cheerful, Paul Litwak recounts his delight in seeing at least one bald eagle every day of the trip. Still, remembering the brilliant days of sailing far offshore, he says, "Those were the best days, out there when the wind was up, seeing the puffins and shearwaters."
The Maine Audubon Society trip aboard the Mary Day is called "Exploring the Maine Coast by Schooner." The six-day cruise leaving from Camden, Maine, is scheduled for June 14 to June 20, 2004. Cost is $825 and is limited to 16 participants. For more information, call 207-781-2330, ext. 215 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For information about additional programs and tour operators, see the Geographical Index under "Birdwatching."