Puffin with prey (Photos: Don Reimer)
Puffin with prey (Photos: Don Reimer)
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For natural beauty and bold spectacle, it’s hard to beat Acadia National Park. And while the birds and animals encountered around Acadia may differ little from those in the midcoast region, odds of seeing particular species may increase a bit in those parts. More specifically, I’m thinking of crossbills, those nomadic finches that routinely shift locations in pursuit of sustaining food sources. One early morning I heard dry “kip-kip” vocalizations overhead as a small, vocal flock of red crossbills flitted past. The birds circled and landed a short distance away to feed in a stately grove of white pines. Using their twisted bill tips to pry open cone scales, the birds scoop seeds out with their tongues. Seldom found away from conifers, several variable races of cross-bills show different bill sizes. Cone types that match each particular bill size are favored. Timing and distribution of crossbill nesting is very irregular, a feature tied closely to abundances of cone crops.

We spent additional time visiting some offshore islands of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. Spanning more than 250 miles of Maine coastline, the Refuge now contains over 70 coastal islands, including the five national wildlife refuges at Petit Manan, Cross, Franklin, Seal and Pond islands. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service manages these properties, focusing on support and restoration of historical seabird nesting populations. Biologists and interns actively monitor nesting progress at several sites. Given their relative remoteness, these rockbound islands may escape the public eye. In truth, they are hidden natural treasures with high ecological value to wildlife.

Our departure from Bar Harbor was initiated with rogue thunder, whipping wind and drenching rain. At 30 knots speed though, we arrived at the Petit Manan destination on schedule 45 minutes later to view the island’s iconic lighthouse amid a developing glow of sunshine. Built to a height of 109 feet, this is Maine’s second tallest lighthouse (only Boon Island’s is taller).

Several species of nesting seabirds sped past the vessel, delivering food to waiting nestlings. Three species of auks utilize the island’s bouldered shorelines. Razorbills, black guillemots and Atlantic puffins share the basic bi-colored black-and-white plumage, but bill shapes and body profiles vary considerably. And, of course, the puffins are always the star attractions. With bills crammed full of fish, winging puffins were in ample supply. Common terns and laughing gulls also brought their dangling catches to the shoreline. The island’s other breeders include eider ducks, herring and great black-backed gulls, Artic terns and endangered roseate terns, and double-crested and great cormorants.

Petit Mahan is a breeding site for Leach’s storm petrels, a swallow-sized seabird that flies low over the ocean with erratic, bounding wingbeats as tiny prey items are skimmed from water surfaces. During our Maine summer, this species ventures from the southern hemisphere to escape the sub-equatorial winters. Leach’s petrels nest in underground burrows on both North American coastlines, especially off eastern Canada. They are mostly silent and solitary at sea, but make chattering, trilling vocalizations during night visits to the nesting islands. During our trip we also spotted several Wilson’s storm petrels, a related species that frequents northern Atlantic regions in summer but does not nest within this hemisphere (see photo).

As our time at the island concluded, Nature provided an unanticipated and fabulous curtain call: a pristine double rainbow hemming both horizons!