1998 Biology Field Experience: The Northeast  

Part 4


We set out on May 26 on a 2-week, 4,000+ mile odyssey to explore the flora and fauna of the Northeastern United States and Maritime Canada. Five souls and a lot of equipment were packed into an all-wheel drive GMC Safari minivan. We had everything we needed for our trip except for  Jesus hats and a Maine Gazetteer.

Day 8 – we pay up.

After another night at the Blueberry patch we were up early again to get down to the dock. Things looked better this time. The Chief was waiting for us at the dock and we climbed in. The boat was comfortable, and we had ample space to stow all the photo gear and backpacks under cover up front. The head (that’s a toilet) was also located up front where the boat has the liveliest ride. Enough said about that. Although it was a cold day, the cabin of the boat was heated and warm. Barna and John alternated at the helm; when not driving they would mix with the passengers. John was the one to ask about the wildlife; he recognized everything, even without binoculars. Barna would tell you about the local history and landmarks. On the way out we saw bald eagles, and even had a chance to see one eagle steal a fish from another.

Barna and John Norton

Click here for their web page.

After an hour or so, we approached Machias Seal Island. By the time we were anchored we had all seen a puffin; the Nortons guarantee seeing a puffin or your trip is free. So, at this point we were definitely paying passengers (although I harbor a secret dream of making reservations for a group of 30 or so people and then driving up in a bus from a school for the blind, just to see the look on the Nortons’ faces when they realize that not many of their passengers will see a puffin that day!). John took us into shore in a small outboard boat. The quay was slippery, but not a big deal, even with 30 pounds of camera gear on my back and a tripod in one hand. The only near disaster came when I swung my photo backpack up onto my shoulder. The strap came lose and the thing just flew over my back and came crashing down on the edge of the quay – and almost into the water. Fortunately, nothing was damaged.
We were lucky in getting onto the island. Machias Seal Island is administered by the Canadian Government, which runs a lighthouse there. Only 30 people a day are allowed permits to visit the island (this is to protect the birds), and the Nortons have a competitor who also brings people to the island. We had permits – for the previous day. Fortunately the other boat didn’t come out that day and we could all go ashore.
The whole time we were ashore we were carefully shepherded by an employee of Environment Canada. He took us from one place to another, and kept all 21 of us close together. The terns had just begun nesting and there was a danger that we would step on the nests or that the birds would attack us. Apparently the terns are a little more respectful of a group than they are individuals. There are a number of blinds – simple plywood boxes with sliding wood window covers – on the island. We divided up into groups of 4 to go to the blinds; 16 people could get into 4 different blinds at once. This put us in a sticky situation – we had 5 in our group. Candace volunteered to be the lone person out, and, as a result, may have had the best time of all.
The other 4 of us went into our first blind. It was crowded and hot, but when we raised the window covers we were amazed at the sight. Dozens of puffins, razorbills, and 2 kinds of terns (arctic and common) filled the air and covered the rocks. Puffin footsteps pattered on our roof. Puffins were carrying nesting material; terns fish. We saw mating displays, mating, and territorial displays. The birds were often so close I had to put an extender on the 400mm lens to enable me to focus up close. We could look out either to seaward or towards the center of the island, and there were birds everywhere. It was nearly the same at the second blind when we moved there after about 40 minutes. After leaving the second blind, we expected to sit out while the group Candace was with was in the blinds. But, they were nowhere to be found, and the Canadians were moving us down towards the dock.
The tide was out – way out. The time on the island had to be cut short because if the tide dropped just a little more the boat wouldn’t be able to retrieve us. As it was, we had to walk a good distance from the quay across the rockweed (the practice the day before served us well here) to the boat. The trip included walking the plank – a board thrown across the crevice where the boat had dropped us off originally. I was in the last boat; as we pulled out from a sheltered inlet John tried to time the waves so we could escape the shallows between breakers. He would have made it had a piece of kelp (Laminaria agardhii) not caught the prop and slowed the boat at a crucial time. Still, we made it through the breaker with a splash that made me glad I was in the back of the boat.

We got back to the Chief feeling sorry for Candace, who hadn’t made it into the blinds. We shouldn’t have felt sorry. While we were in the blinds Candace had helped the Environment Canada guy mark new tern nests, and had had a tour around the island by boat, where she was able to watch the puffins diving into the water and feeding. She also got to see seals and some of the other bird species such as the murres.


Razorbills (Alca torda) on Machias Seal Island.

A razorbill looks out to sea.

Courting common terns (Sterna hirundo).



Arctic tern (Sterna paradisaea) nesting on Machias Seal Island The flag has been placed to prevent anyone from stepping on the nest.

A photographer working from a blind on the island.

A tern in flight.

These guys need no introduction - they are Atlantic Puffins, Fratercula arctica.  There were hundreds of them on the island.




  Three views of Machias Seal Island.


As we set off for Jonesport we also got a look at a mixed flock of murres and razorbills on one of the island cliffs. The trip back in made me realize how hungry I was and I dug into my snack bag – a mixture of cereal, raisins and peanuts that we had been eating in the van the whole trip. As we approached Jonesport, the boat was slowed several times so we could look at the harbor seals pulled up on the rocks exposed by the low tide.

A mixed flock on Machias Seal Island.  Included in this view are razorbills as well as thin-billed (Uria aalge) and thick-billed (Uria lomvia) murres.

Harbor seals (Phoca vitulina) near Jonesport.

It was now early afternoon – we had to be in Charlottetown on Prince Edward Island that night. Back into the van for the long drive to Canada. We crossed the border at Calais, Maine into New Brunswick, Canada in the afternoon, and drove on just inland of the Bay of Fundy. Stopping for dinner at a Dairy Queen in Moncton, we realized that we would be hitting "the bridge" at night. The bridge is the Confederation Bridge connecting Prince Edward Island with the mainland. In use for almost a year, it wasn’t even on our road maps. The bridge stretches 13 km across the Gulf of St. Lawrence. We had all been dreading being the one who had to drive across it; now I was the lucky one, and it would be at night.

It wasn’t that bad – at night it was a lot like driving an interstate through a large city, what with all the concrete and sodium-vapor streetlights. You couldn’t get a feel for height, and the bridge was a cozy two lanes wide. After reaching PEI, we had another 40 minutes or so of driving until we found our rooms at the University of Prince Edward Island (UPEI) at Charlottetown. We were tired – but we had seen puffins!

Days 9-11: The NABS Meeting

One of the main reasons for our trip was to allow Candace to present the results of her senior capstone work at the North American Benthological Society Meeting. Benthological refers to study of things on the bottom (of a lake or stream in this case), and the Society, which is international, is one of the largest professional associations of freshwater biologists. We had already missed the first day of the meeting to see the puffins; unfortunately it was the day that had the papers I was most interested in hearing (after Candace’s, of course). We slept in a little on Wednesday, and most of us set about taking care of numerous housekeeping details – getting Canadian money, washing clothes, etc. I went to a few papers, as did the others, and used the university’s computer lab to check up on my email. In the afternoon, we got back in the van and drove to the north side of the island to Cavendish, where there is a national park on the beach. Also at Cavendish is Green Gables, a house built in commemoration of the fictional character Anne of Green Gables, whose adventures "occurred" in this vicinity. It was a cold rainy day, and the rain never did lift while we were on the island. After dinner, we went to the meeting mixer where I was able to talk to a few old friends.

 The next day was the big one for Candace. As her talk was in the afternoon, I used some of the early morning hours to prepare a simple web page with our adventures so far; the web page was illustrated with pictures from our digital camera. Tanya had been the chief photographer with the digital camera, and she had some good shots. I suppose I wanted to update the web pages on our computer in Marietta from 2,000 miles away just because it could be done.

In the afternoon, Candace gave her talk. It was on the flight velocity of dragonflies, and Candace had made a dress out of dragonfly print cloth to wear during the talk. Candace was a bit nervous, but, watching a colleague leave the meeting, I was able to tell her to relax since the only person in the room who knew anything about dragonfly flight (aside from us) had just left. Candace gave a wonderful talk, and was approached about a possible summer job afterwards. We were all very proud of her; her talk was as good as most of those given by the "professionals" – not to mention the various grad students. Sarah taped the whole talk, and then all of us (except for Candace) darted out to catch a talk on forensic entomology in a different building. Click Here to See Candace's Talk

As promised, Wednesday’s showers had given way to a plain old rain. We boarded busses in the rain to go to the 2-lobster dinner. Our bus didn’t get very far; as we set off the brake light came on and the brakes went out. We found our way through the rain to other vans. The dinner was held under tents, fortunately. We hooked up with Steve Burian from Southern Connecticut State University.  Because he had done his Ph.D. in Maine, Steve was able to give us some useful information to help plan the rest of the trip, as well as show us some of the finer points of dining on lobster.

The Green Gables House on the north coast of Prince Edward Island.


The beach at Cavendish, Prince Edward Island.

Abandoned lobster trap on the beach, Prince Edward Island.

Friday’s weather was, well, more rain. We all went to a few more talks, although Candace and Sarah got up a little later, having made a walking tour of the town the night before. In the afternoon, we went to a different part of the national park. Both times we went to the park, the tollgates were closed, with signs saying to drive on through. The weather was so bad no one else was in the park, or so it seemed. We did get to do some beachcombing and examine the local geology up close. The island is made up of a red sandstone, which weathers to a red soil. At the beach, water eventually leaches out the iron oxide responsible for the red color, leaving white sand. We could also see erosion taking place wherever the dune grasses were disturbed. Driving through the park we saw several bald eagles, and great blue herons coming in to a rookery. There were also a few exciting sightings in the shorebird department.

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