While prowling around Rockland, we came across the Project Puffin Center, a small storefront type museum and information center right on the main street running through town. We watched an interesting film that told us about how puffins used to nest in the area, but had disappeared years ago. In the 1970s, a group of scientists, working with the Audubon Society, realizing that the environment hadn’t changed and was still suitable, began a program to bring them back. They went to Newfoundland to get puffin chicks, at a very young age, and brought them to Egg Rock, off New Harbor, Maine.
There are a lot of places along the coast with the name “Egg Rock” or Egg Island” or West Egg Rock” or something similar. I had always assumed that whoever had named the place thought its shape resembled an egg. Actually, that’s not the case. Sea bird eggs were, in the past, a very desirable commodity, and it was common practice for people to go out to certain islands when the birds were breeding to collect them for market. No one really gave these places the name, in normal conversation they may have said something like “I think tomorrow I’ll go out to the egg rock and get a couple of bushels of eggs. Wanna come along?” Eventually, even after the eggs and the birds themselves were long gone, the names stuck.
The chicks that were brought to Egg Rock were fed, and eventually left. Puffins spend their lives at sea, returning to the place where they had been born only to breed, at about four or five years old. Several years went by. Each year more chicks would be brought to the island and reared. They would be banded, and eventually would leave. Occasionally, puffins would be seen in the area, but there was no evidence that they were nesting.
After about seven or eight years, someone observed a puffin with his (her?) beak full of fish. A puffin will dive to catch tiny fish, usually a type of eel about two or three inches long. They generally eat these eels as they catch them, but if they have young to feed, they will collect a mouthful, sometimes a dozen or more, to bring to the nest. They have barbs inside their beaks which keep any eels already caught from slipping out while they catch more. This particular puffin, observed by a fisherman and reported to the Audubon Society, had his mouth full of eels. This meant only one thing. The program was working! This bird had young to feed! They were back!
It turned out that this pioneering effort to bring puffins back to these islands was a huge success. The methods these scientists used are now being used worldwide to restore seabirds to habitats long abandoned.
We picked up some information about a cruise that would go out to Egg Rock to try to see puffins, and a few days later, found ourselves on the road to New Harbor.
When we got there, we found that the puffin cruise left in late afternoon, but earlier in the day there would be a cruise out to another rocky island where we could see seals. We decided to buy tickets for both.
The boat left the dock and headed out through the bay, passing by a beautiful shore and islands. Lobster fishermen were working their traps and it was a very enjoyable ride. The seals were lying on the beach sunning themselves and just being seals, occasionally we would see one or two swimming with their heads up above the water. The boat wouldn’t get close enough to disturb them, to see them well you would really need a pair of binoculars. Luckily, we were able to zoom in close enough with our telephoto lenses to get some photos, but don’t expect to see any of them in National Geographic.
On the way out, the boat captain would describe the sights we were passing, and shortly after we left the dock he mentioned the Rachel Carson Salt Pond. A salt pond is a depression on the beach that floods during high tide, but holds water when the tide goes out. At low tide you can walk out to it and observe the various shellfish and plants that live in it. Rachel Carson, author of several books including Silent Spring, would often spend time at this particular pond. After the seal cruise, we had a bit of lunch (crab cakes for Chari, fried haddock for me) and since the tide was out, took a walk down to the salt pond.
Had I known we’d be doing this, I would have worn different shoes, maybe sneakers that I wouldn’t mind getting wet. The rocks we had to walk out on could be a bit slippery. It was three days before my shoes were dry enough to wear again! But it was worth it. The pond was a photographer’s dream. The various shellfish, crabs and seaweed were very colorful and fascinating to see.
The sun was beating down on us, and while we had brought some drinking water along, after a while we both thought a cold drink would taste awful good. So we walked back to the dock area, where there is also a restaurant (where we had eaten lunch) with a deck overlooking the harbor. I had a cold beer while Chari sipped on a glass of sangria, and we watched the lobstermen coming in and unloading their catch.
Eventually it was time to board again, and we were off to Egg Island. Two members of the Audubon Society were aboard to act as tour guides, and they described the various birds we hoped we’d see as we went out. We saw common eiders and herring gulls. We saw black-backed gulls and black guillemots. And we saw… wait a minute, is it? Yes, I think so! Here he comes!
A puffin flew out from the island, circled around our boat, and went back again. Then we saw some floating on the water. Then another in the air.
Again, as with the seals, the boat would not get close enough to disturb the birds. A puffin, about the size of a pigeon, from a hundred or more yards away makes a pretty small photo. And, like the seals, don’t look for any of our puffin pix to appear on the pages of Nat Geo. But it was a real thrill seeing these north Atlantic birds, and getting a few photos to remember the experience is certainly enough for us.
Back to the dock, where we picked out a couple of lobsters to have cooked for tomorrow’s supper, then the two hour drive back to Camden.
Ahhh… Life Is Good!