During my recent trip to Maine I had the great privilege to visit a breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins on Machias Seal Island. Puffins are pelagic birds, meaning that they live their lives out on the open ocean. They only come to land to breed and raise their young. Can you image living your entire life at sea? They swim and fly all day, catch fish to eat, and sleep bobbing on the waves. Atlantic Puffins are commonly known as the “clowns of the sea”, due to their brightly colored bills in their breeding plumage.
Atlantic Puffins are the only puffins that can be found in the Atlantic Ocean. (Their cousins the Tufted Puffin and the Horned Puffin live on the Pacific Ocean.) Atlantic Puffins are fairly common birds in the northern frigid oceans, but they are most commonly seen in places like Iceland and Scotland. In the United States, there are only a few islands where the birds come to breed. Machias Seal Island is one such place, and it is the only island (to my knowledge) that lets birders land on the island to observe the birds from blinds. For photographers and non-photographers alike, this was an incredible experience!
I used the Bold Coast Charter Company from Cutler, Maine for the boat ride to Machias Seal Island. Captain Andy Patterson owns the company and does dozens of visits to the Island during the puffins’ breeding season, from June to August. His boat, the Barbara Frost, comfortably takes about 20 people. He even has a bathroom aboard. You call him the night before your trip to find out what time he’s leaving in the morning; it’s usually between 7-8am and it varies with the weather and tide. Andy has been leading tours to Machias Seal Island for the past 25 years, and he’s very knowledgeable both about his boat and about the birds. It was a pleasure to listen to him as he pointed out the various pelagic species that we encountered, and he told us a lot about each of them.
The ten-mile trip to the island takes about 45 minutes in good weather. On our first day, we didn’t have good weather. There was a 75% chance of rain that day, with 90% cloudcover. Think fog, lots and lots of fog! As we made our way out of the harbor, the drizzle began. The seas were a little choppy on the way out, but Andy kept the boat from rocking too much. I thoroughly enjoyed watching a fellow passenger, a young man who was ecstatic to be going on a birding tour. He couldn’t wait to see Razorbills! He grabbed his binoculars for every bird that we saw fly by. The rain certainly couldn’t dampen his spirits, and it made me smile to watch. Speaking of passing birds, there aren’t that many as you cruise out to the island. You really don’t start to see them until you’re about a mile away from the island, and then you start to see some occasional fly-bys.
It was so foggy on both my days that I didn’t even see the island until we were practically on top of it! It has the distinction of being one of the few manned lighthouses left on the Atlantic Coast. The Coast Guard automated most of the US lighthouses, but this lighthouse is manned by two Canadians, who stay on the island 12 months of the year. As a Florida gal who rarely sees snow, I was impressed to think of people staying on this island in the winter!
The weather conditions on my first day were so poor that Andy didn’t even bother to bring the skiff that he uses to transfer people to the island. There was no chance of landing with the strong waves and wind. By the time we reached the island, it was raining in earnest, and my jeans were totally soaked. I had remembered my all-weather cover for my camera backpack, and my Lens Coat Raincoat for my Beast, but I didn’t think to take rain gear for the photographer! But when you’ve gone all the way to Maine to photograph puffins, you make the best of the situation. Andy circled the boat around the island. Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and Common Murres were swimming in the water all around the boat. A few of us tried to get flight shots with our long lenses, which was interesting with the rocking of the boat. I got more shots of blurry water than I did of birds! After a while I switched to my intermediate telephoto, and I did better with getting a few flight shots. It was awesome to be there to see the birds, even as we eyed the blinds that were our intended destination.
On my second day, I was encouraged by the sight of the skiff that Andy towed behind the big boat. It meant we at least had a chance of landing! There was a friendly camaraderie amongst those of us who were repeat visitors from the day before. Luckily, the weather conditions on our second day were much better than the first day. It was still very foggy, but that was actually good for photography. You see, the sun rises in Maine at 5am in the summer. So by 9am, when you are approaching Machias Seal Island, the light is already getting harsh. We had just a touch of sun that began to shine through the fog as we arrived at the Island – perfect light, and the first time I’d seen the sun since arriving in Maine! The seas were much calmer on the second day, and the ride to the island passed quickly as we all chatted. I even had a dry enough camera to photograph the lighthouse as we left Cutler Harbor! The area’s Bold Coast is classic Maine coastline, and it was gorgeous, even in the fog.
Again we were practically on top of the island before I saw it in the fog. There was the lighthouse, and the boat was again surrounded by cute little puffins flying around and bobbing in the water. But most of us weren’t trying to take pictures. We were watching Captain Andy, hoping and hoping that we could make a landing on this second day. I did a little dance as he said that the conditions were favorable! He divided our group into three and transferred each group in turn into the skiff. Then he motored the skiff up to the island, where at low tide there’s a little walkway exposed and you step right up. It’s best if you have your hands free for transferring yourself and your gear up to the island.
In addition to the two lighthouse keepers, several naturalists live on the island in the summertime to monitor the breeding birds. They meet you at the boat landing site and take you up the few yards to the center part of the island. There they explain the rules of the island. You are required to stay on the boardwalk at all times. The boardwalk takes you over the rocks to the photography blinds. They ask you to walk single file, because if you accidentally step off the boardwalk, you’ll likely crush a puffin nesting cavity. To minimize disturbing the birds, you are not allowed to walk around between blinds. You must stay in your assigned blind, and if you choose to leave it before your hour-long session is over, you must return to the grassy area in the middle of the island. You’re not allowed to go back to the blind. I wondered why anybody would want to leave early, but then I heard about the claustrophobic photographer who had to leave after ten minutes! Poor guy.
We divided into groups of three and four, then headed to our blinds. It was so incredible to walk with puffins flying all around us. Years ago, Arctic Terns nested on the island, and visitors were required to carry tall poles to keep the birds from pecking their heads and leaving big gashes in their faces. But in recent years the terns have stopped nesting at Machias Seal Island. Researchers aren’t really sure why. Now the primary breeders are the Atlantic Puffic, Razorbill, and Common Murre. Each puffin pair lays a single egg in a cavity under the rocks. They incubate for about 45 days. After the babies hatch, the parents feed them fish, and they grow rapidly. The babies fledge in about six weeks, and then the parents and juveniles leave the island to seek the open ocean. Unfortunately for photographers, the babies tend to stay in the nesting burrows, so we can’t see them to photograph them. But we sure can see the adults! Here’s a video that I made using my iPhone from the window of my blind:
One advantage to the foggy weather was that I could photograph from all sides of my blind without worrying about sun angle. My favorite side was the ocean-side, where we looked out on the rocks and out to the open ocean. In the distance you could hear the foghorn sounding from the lighthouse. The rock immediately outside my window seemed to be the puffin landing pad. Puffins flying in from the ocean would land right in front of our noses. Other puffins would run up to this rock and pose briefly before flying off. The birds were taking off in the direction of the wind; if we’d had the opposite wind, I’d have gotten “incoming” instead of “outgoing” flight shots. Oh well! It was so easy to make incredible portraits of these cute little birds as they stood literally a foot away from our noses. Everyone in our blind had the biggest grin on our faces as we stood amazed at the sight in front of us. Amazing and incredible are such tiny words to describe the experience!
As I stood photographing, I heard little pitter-patter noises. It took me about five minutes to realize that they were the footsteps of the birds that had landed on top of our blind! I thought of Goldilocks, our indoor cat who loves to watch the birds at the window. She’d have loved to listen to the puffin footsteps! Birds continued to come and go from our “puffin port”. Believe it or not, you can only make so many puffin portraits before you want to turn around and see what other views can be seen from the blind. The island side had a pretty green backdrop.
The puffins hopped from rock to rock as they checked on their nests under the rocks. They were not the most graceful walkers (go figure, as they spend most of their lives swimming and flying!) On this side of the blind the wind was in my favor for take-off flight shots, but the background was more cluttered. The birds also weren’t flying as much on this side. They tended to stay close to their burrows.
At a distance, a juvenile puffin hopped out of a burrow and stood on a rock. The juvenile birds’ plumage is similar to the adults’ basic plumage. It was fun to contrast the more drab juvie with the colorful clown faces of the breeding adults. At the end of the summer, the adults will shed their outer beak shell. I can only imagine what this island will look like in late August, scattered with the remnants of the breeding colony. The amazing thing is that the birds will come back to the same island, often to the exact same burrow location in the rocks!
As cute as the puffins are, I found myself photographing lots of Razorbills also. Like the puffins, the Razorbills are pelagic birds that only come to land to nest. They also lay one egg per year, down in a cavity in the rocks. While the puffins were clearly incubating eggs, the Razorbills were still in the courtship phase of their relationship. I saw lots of pairs nuzzling each other. It was sweet to watch them, with those big bills, as they played bill-tussle with each other. The female would cuddle up to the male, who would celebrate his triumph by raising his wings and flapping them. I had a lot of fun trying to capture these interactions. The Razorbills are a challenge to photograph because their feathers are pure black and white. You often can’t make out their black eyes, which blend into their black facial feathers! A flash might have helped with that, but there really wasn’t room in the blind. So I was happy when a tiny bit of sun made a light in the Razorbill’s eye.
Razorbills made the news this past winter in my home state of Florida when they started showing up along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Ornithologists guessed that the birds were driven abnormally far south by the lack of food on their normal wintering grounds. I was too sick this winter to get out and photograph the birds while they visited. The trip to Machias Seal Island more than made up for that disappointment! These birds are so graceful in their own way, and so much fun to watch.
We had an hour in the blind, and it felt like about five minutes. Much too soon, our guides were knocking on our blind calling “time!” We lowered all the windows and closed up the blind, then made our way back to the center of the island, where we had twenty minutes or so for a snack and a bathroom break before returning to the big boat. I made a few panorama images using my iPhone. While the pelagic birds were certainly the highlight of the day, there were plenty of sparrows and small shorebirds to keep us entertained as we waited. One of my friends saw me smiling and said that he figured I’d have that grin on my face for at least a month to come! A month, at least! :)
We returned to the Barbara Frost in small groups in the skiff. As I stood waiting for my turn, I noticed a Common Eider in the water. I thought that was pretty cool, my first Common Eider. (All these great birds that are common in Maine but that we hardly ever see in Florida!) Then I noticed the three ducklings following the eider. How cool! I got a couple of quick shots. How often do you get a lifer bird with babies!?
Once our whole group was back aboard the Barbara Frost, Captain Andy took us on a ride around the island. We photographed the flying birds all around us. I had fun watching the pelagic birds take off. They kinda glide/run across the water, flapping their wings and splashing up a good deal of water, before they gain enough momentum to take off. The challenging part was finding birds that were taking off in the direction parallel to the boat – most were taking off away from the boat, annoyed at the pesky tourists who were disturbing their water!
The water was much more calm than the day before, but even so, it was challenging to photograph from the rocking boat. I put my camera into continuous drive mode and fired away, but didn’t have many keepers. Of course, after my time in the blinds, I had a pretty high standard for which images to keep! One bird that I didn’t photograph much on the island, but I saw very well from the boat, was the Common Murre. We got good looks at several “bridled” morph birds, who have a gorgeous eye line on their faces.
All good things must come to an end, and Captain Andy eventually turned us away from the island. But sometimes he’ll make one stop on the way back. On one of the neighboring islands hosts a colony of seals. He took us there on our first day, and we photographed the seals lying out on the rocks. I was too soaked and the boat was rocking too much to use my Beast, so this image was made using my 70-200 lens. My only other opportunity to see seals before this trip was at Sea World, and it was much better to see them in their natural habitat!
We arrived back in Cutler Harbor with the sun shining, the seas calm, and smiles on our faces. Sadly I said goodbye to my new friends. I have a feeling I’m not the only one already making plans to return to Machias Seal Island. I’d love to get some images of the puffins with their beaks full of fish as they bring food in for their young (the puffins are nesting later this year, and I only saw one such bird during my visit, and of course I missed the shot!) I have a feeling it would take me a long long time to get tired of observing these incredible birds from such a close vantage point. I know several of my blog readers are considering making the trip, and I’d say without hesitating – DO IT! It was one of the best birding adventures I’ve ever had.
If you go…
- Make reservations early. I made mine in early April for my July trip, and I was surprised to find that there were still seats left on the boat. Captain Andy is only allowed to take 15 people a day on select days to land on the island. January isn’t too early to make those plans!
- Reserve several days. I made reservations on two consecutive days, and I was tempted to make a third reservation as well. I wish I had. The weather in Maine is often foggy and rainy, and high seas mean that Captain Andy can’t safely land on the island. He had to cancel trips for the five days prior to my first outing. If you really want to land (and you do!), then try for several days and you might get to land on one or two of those days.
- Bring rain gear! Not just for the camera, but for the photographer too. :) Bring warm layers for cold sea breezes even on a sunny day, and bring a rain jacket and rain pants. If your luck is like mine, if you have them, you won’t need them…and vice versa!
- Which lens? A very important decision for photographers! People laughed at me when I said I was taking my 500mm Beast. They told me it was way too much lens, because the puffins are literally right in front of you. I took two bodies and two lenses: my 1D Mark IV body with my 70-200mm lens + 1.4x teleconverter, and my 5D Mark III body with my 500mm lens. I actually used them about equally. But keep in mind that my shooting style is to go tight. A lot of the time when my shooting buddies are putting on their 70-200 lenses, I’m reaching for a teleconverter for the Beast. I certainly got amazing shots with my intermediate telephoto, and I would have been happy if I had left the Beast at home. But I’m happier that I took it. Those isolation shots are worth it for me. My LensCoat Rain Coat was also a life-saver on my first rainy day.
- Speaking of those lenses, the best way to carry them to the island is in a backpack (preferably one with an all-weather cover). You really want both hands free while you are transferring on and off the boat in the skiff. Don’t bother to bring a tripod, as it won’t fit in the blinds. (The blinds are about four people widths wide, and maybe two people deep. Not much room at all in there!) A monopod could work, but I found that I did best just hand-holding my camera, and resting it on the blind window opening at times.
- Expect your fancy smartphone to be little more than a paperweight in Cutler and the surrounding areas of Maine. I had no signal at all on my Verizon phone. I was very glad that I had downloaded GPS maps to my phone using my Navigon app. Don’t rely on Google Maps to find the place!
- If you are susceptible to motion sickness, remember to take your Dramamine half an hour before you get on the boat. If you wait till you need it, it’s too late to take it. I was very lucky not to need it!
- We stayed at the Eastland Motel in Lubec. Lubec is a picturesque little town with a growing tourism industry, and it was fun to poke around there in the afternoon after the puffin tour. It’s about half an hour north of Cutler Harbor. The Eastland Motel owners are extremely friendly and helpful. They pointed us to a restaurant where Rich had vegetarian options for dinner, and Heather even lent me rain gear for my second puffin outing. Our room was large, clean, and had a refrigerator and microwave. They even give you free long-distance calling from your room phone, as your cell phone would connect to the Canadian towers if you tried to use it. I’d definitely recommend staying at the Eastland Motel.
- Take your passport! Cutler Harbor is only about half an hour away from the Canadian border. We wished we’d taken our passports to visit Campobello Island and the Roosevelt Campobello International Park. (We were told that we could go with just our driver’s licenses, but we didn’t want to push our luck!)