Laughing gull flying near Eastern Egg Rock Island, Maine
The day before yesterday I was deep under the influence of Poseidon and Hermes. My wife and I were on a trip which was characterized by incredibly lucky timing, and our travels had led us to a remote island off the coast of Maine, inhabited by unusual sea birds including, as our tour captain put it, four kinds of terns:
roseate tern, and
I don’t write the jokes, I just share the pain.
In the days leading up to our puffin cruise, we always seemed to beat the rush and make really good decisions based on intuition alone. We’d pick a place to eat, get seated, and watch the room fill up around us after our orders were taken. The traffic would be backed up for miles — going the other way on the highway.
Without a particular plan in mind, we had perused seasonal tourist attractions and hit upon visiting Boothbay Harbor, because that’s where you go to see puffins in the USA. I knew from my research that we were in the area during nesting season. We didn’t know until we’d arrived in town and found a place to stay that the cruises only go out three times a week, but sure enough, the following morning was one of those days. We got our tickets that night, did the restaurant thing again, and managed to get on board the next morning before the boat got packed with other tourists.
The captain and Audobon volunteers spent much of the trip out to this nesting island preparing us to be disappointed. While breeding pairs of puffins on Eastern Egg Rock have risen from one in the late nineteenth century to over a hundred now (after thirty years of hard work by the Audobon society), these are small birds, and can be hard to spot despite their toucan-colorful beaks. They weigh about ten ounces, have dark backs and wings, and can blend in with the waters and rocks. The captain urged us all to scan the horizon and shout if we saw one of the penguin-shaped birds.
No one shouted.
As we neared the island, two puffins flew by, perhaps in greeting. With the engines quietly idling, we approached the craggy rocks, and a sight that stunned the seasoned puffin professionals. “This is probably the entire population of the island you’re seeing in the water in front of us,” the captain said over the PA. “I’ve taken three tours a week here for ten years now, and I have never seen this many puffins at one time.”
They swam. They flew by the boat. They gathered on the rocky shore, where they care for the eggs laid in deep burrows. Other birds, laughing gulls and terns of all four kinds (the half-dozen interns on the island all waved to us), guillemots and species of Eastern Egg Rock swam and flew by, unconcerned.
At one exciting moment, a tern hovered off the stern like a giant hummingbird as it took a bead on a fish beneath the waves. After nearly a minute of floating two feet above the surface, it dove down, speared the hapless ocean-dweller, and flew away with its catch.
We got glimpses of harbor seals and harbor porpoises, and a pair of Wilson’s storm petrels flew by the boat a few times. This bird breeds off the coast of Antarctica and spends its life traveling the world’s oceans. They are not rare, but the chances of seeing them from land are remote, since they are pelagic (a nice word with Greek origins).
While we left the coast behind, and with it this onslaught of Poseidon-inspired signs, our trip continued to be smiled upon by the god of luck and travelers. The nudiustertian morning (there’s that word again), I decided we ought to see fireworks that night, and gave it no further thought. As we drove, I aimlessly checked in on Foursquare, and scored myself a mayorship. That was enough to attract the attention of my sister, a very rare user of that service, who let me know we were five minutes from her home. She and her husband made us a lovely dinner, offered to put us up for the night . . . and brought us to the local fireworks show, which is traditionally held on July the third, so as not to compete with the big affair in Boston.