by Dr. Leonard Lee Rue III
In Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem The Children’s Hour, he described the patter of little feet heard overhead. The poem sprang to mind when I heard the patter of the little feet of dozens of little puffins on the roof of the blind that I was in on Machias Seal Island.
Although the island is called Machias Seal Island and there are numerous harbor seals along the shore, the birds are the island’s main attraction; though you may get a chance to photograph the seals from the boat on your return trip.
Machias Seal Island lies ten miles due south, out in the Atlantic Ocean, from the town of Cutler, Maine. It’s a small island, shaped like a pork chop and has the last manned lighthouse on the coast. The Canadian lighthouse serves as a warning beacon for ships approaching the shipping channels to the Bay of Fundy area. The Bay of Fundy has the highest tides in the world, averaging a forty to fifty foot rise and fall every six hours, according to the time of the year and the phase of the moon. The tremendous surge of water causes vicious rip tides, a veritable river in flood coursing across the shoals, so the lighthouse still stands as a warning to sailors.
The shallow water, combined with the vicious current, causes an upwelling that brings to the surface nutrients washed up from the depths. The nutrients are utilized by microscopic plants, which are fed upon by untold “jillions” of fish that are fed upon by the thousands and thousands of sea birds, that nest on Machias Seal Island. The island is a protected bird sanctuary, administered by the Canadian Fish and Wildlife Service. It is home to about 3,000 Atlantic puffins, 1,800 razorbill auks, 7,000 Arctic terns, some herring and black-backed gulls and 400 common eider ducks. I saw some small passeine birds flitting about in the low bushes, but did not get a chance to identify any of them. I did see several greater yellowlegs feeding in the fresh water rain pools.
Access to the island is strictly controlled and your activities on the island are severely curtailed. There are four permanent blinds on the island, situated right in the middle of the jumbled rock in which most of the birds nest. Only sixteen people are allowed ashore at one time and, although you spend about three hours on the island, your time in the blind is limited to about two hours. I had heard conflicting reports about the times allowed and the access, but this column will spell out the facts.
Two boat charter companies provide transportation to the island. They are The Bold Coast Charter Company, based in Cutler, Maine and operated by Captain Andrew Patterson É 207-259-4484, website www.boldcoast.com. The other is Puffin Tours of Machias Seal Island, based in Jonesport, Maine and operated by Captain Barna B. Norton 207-497-5933, website http://www.seawatchtours.com/puffins-and-machias-seal-island.html.
The per-person fee to the island and back is approx. $60.00 dollars. We chose Capt. Patterson because the boat trip covers less distance. If the water is choppy or really rough, you might wish it were even shorter. If the weather is good, you might enjoy the longer ride because there is always the possibility of seeing porpoises and, occasionally, a whale on either trip. But if the seas are really rough you might not even be able to land. The boats have to anchor out in deep water and you are taken ashore in a small motorboat. There is no dock and you have to scramble ashore over the seaweed-covered rocks. The going can be very slippery, but the Canadian biologists who live on the island will help you.
Your every move on the island is strictly regimented, but this is for the safety of the birds and is a small price to pay for the privilege of visiting the rookery.
After scrambling over the seaweed and “walking the plank” over the chasm, you will climb over the remnants of an old, crumbling, concrete pier. You wait here until all are assembled and then you either are given a stick to carry up over your head or you hold your tripod up high. You soon see the reason for this, as you will be passing right though an Arctic tern breeding colony. Arctic terns are very pugnacious birds and quick to defend their area. They wheel and dive like a strafing Messerschmidts. If you recall, the Germans put whistles on their warplanes in World War II so that they made a whistling-shrieking sound when they attacked. This was to increase fear. That’s just what the terns do and it does instill fear in many. The sticks and your tripods held high keep the birds from actually hitting your head.
You are then led to an assembly area where you are given further instructions about the birds’ behavior and what your behavior will be. You will have one last opportunity to use a PortaPotty before going off to the blinds. By all means go, because once you get in the blind, you are able to leave the blind, but you will not be allowed to return.
Each of the four permanent blinds will hold four people. There are portholes cut on all sides, at different heights and in different sizes. The blinds are situated in pairs and each pair is about two hundred feet from the others. They all face north so you have favorable light at all times of the day. All of the blinds offer equal photographic opportunities, but the huge rock in front of blind #1 is the most picturesque and is the one you see on most of the postcards. Walking to the blinds, you must keep your eyes on the ground and not on the birds wheeling above your head. The paths to the blinds have been mowed and many of the terns have chosen to lay their eggs in the trail rather than in the high grasses on either side. Each egg is marked with a little flag, but you still have to watch just where you put your feet. Once you are ensconced in the blind, the biologist leaves and the action begins.
The wait is short.
What size lens do you need? You tell me how much of the frame you want to fill. The puffins are chunky little birds that measure about thirteen inches in length. The birds will sit on the rocks anywhere from three to thirty feet from the blind and, as they have no fear of all the lenses pointing at them, they will be at the four foot distance just as often as they will sit further out. Here, the Nikon 200-400 mm reigns supreme.
You will not see the young puffins because they are hidden down in among the rocks and in earthen burrows that the parents have dug. When the young puffins do come out of their burrows, they immediately scramble down to the ocean.
As mentioned, the first sign that the puffins had returned, after the biologist left, was the patter of their little feet on the roof of the blind. Nothing gets a photographer’s heart racing like knowing your subject has returned and is sitting just two inches above you and can be seen through your viewfinder in just a few minutes.
Although many folks visit Machias in June, I feel it is not the best time because most of the birds are still incubating and are not feeding the young. The photos that everyone wants are of puffins with a beak full of fish, and July is the prime feeding month.
My wife and I were on the island on July 16th and 18th and the weather was superb. The first day we were there, we had puffins by the dozen, but did not even see a single fish being brought in. We were in blinds #1 and #2. The folks in blinds #3 and #4 did get a few photos of puffins with fish.
On our second day we used blinds #3 and 4. None of the blinds had nearly the number of puffins we had seen two days earlier, but everyone got photos of the birds bringing in fish. What made the difference? No one knows, but it shows that it is a good idea to book at least two days for the island.
Being true seabirds, the puffins spend at least nine months of the year living out on the open ocean. In the summer, they nest from Maine, up along the Canadian coast. In the winter they can be found offshore as far south as New Jersey. When diving for food, puffins actually use their stubby wings for propulsion, “flying” underwater. Beneath the sea, those stubby wings are an advantage, but they are a disadvantage when the birds want to fly. To get up enough speed to become airborne, the puffins splatter along the surface, beating both the air and water with their wings and feet, before launching into flight. When on land, they climb to the top of a big rock or cliff face before jumping out into space. Their wingbeats are very fast and shallow.
It has long been a puzzlement as to how a puffin can hold five fish in its bill and still be able to open its bill to catch three more. The answer is simplicity itself. The bird holds the fish it has already caught up against the roof of its mouth with its tongue, allowing the lower bill to be opened to catch the next fish.
The razor-billed auks can also be photographed from the blind and, although they do not fear the camera lenses either, they do sit a little farther out from the blinds than do the puffins. They sit at a distance of between fifteen to fifty feet. They are also slightly larger birds, averaging over sixteen inches in length, and that helps to compensate for the greater distance. The terns can best be photographed from the assembly area.
The state of Maine, by using decoys, has gotten the puffins to recolonize a number of their other offshore islands. However, Machias is still the best place to go. Because both the time and the blinds are limited, you had better get your reservations in early with the charter boat people.