Daredevil ducks and magic ginger: a cruise around Isle au Haut

Mussel shells crunched and popped under the tires of my car as I drove onto the dock at the corner of Seabreeze and Bayview avenues in Stonington. The blue-green waves of the bay sparkled. Gulls wheeled overhead. And a cool, salty breeze swept in through my open window.

After a long winter, spring had emerged just in time for the Island Heritage Trust’s second annual duck cruise.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Stonington, March 29, 2014

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Stonington, March 29, 2014

I parked, took a moment to wonder how much bird poop would accumulate on my vehicle while I was on the 3-hour boat ride, shouldered my backpack, and joined the group of about 30 people waiting on the dock.

“I’ve got crystallized ginger here for anyone who gets seasick — it’s a natural remedy,” called out Sandi Duchesne, who was leading the trip with her husband Bob Duchesne, founder of the Maine Birding Trail. Both experienced birders are from Old Town.

“I don’t know if I get seasick,” I mused, standing behind Sandi Duchesne as we lined up to board the boat.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki A common loon stretches its wings near Stonington on March 29, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
A common loon stretches its wings near Stonington on March 29, 2014.

“Then you’ll want to take a few pieces,” she said, holding out the bag. I pulled out two sticky pieces and gnawed on the spicy root as we shuffled along the dock toward the Mink, the ferry that would serve as our wildlife watching vessel for the day.

The group was fairly uniform — middle-aged birders. I was the inexperienced kid, and they welcomed me with open arms. So what if I couldn’t tell the difference between white-winged and black scoters? (And pronounced it as “scooters” at first.) I wanted to learn.

Before we even left the dock, a common loon rose out of the water near the boat and stretched its wings. And the rest of the trip was just like that — birds galore.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Common eiders near Stonington on March 29, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Common eiders near Stonington on March 29, 2014.

With my 300-mm camera lens, sometimes I had difficulty seeing what others were seeing with their binoculars, but for the most part, we motored close enough to identify birds with the naked eye. After all, many seabirds have distinct markings or certain colors that give them away.

I noticed that black scoters had vibrant orange bills; black guillemots, bright red feet; longtailed ducks; long tails (go figure); red-necked grebes, skinny little necks; common eiders, a lot of white and a yellow stripe on their head. We saw all of those birds, and more.

Standing shoulder to shoulder, clutching the rail of the Mink, we scanned the waves for flashes of color.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Great cormorants near Isle au Haut on March 29, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Great cormorants near Isle au Haut on March 29, 2014.

“Is it a buoy bird?” a woman asked me as I inspected a shape in the distance through my camera.

“What?” I asked, leaning closer to the woman as the boat bounced over the waves.

“A buoy bird.”

“Umm.. I don’t know,” I replied, thinking she was saying the name of a seabird I’d yet to learn.

“You know, like a lobster buoy,” she said, grinning.

“Oh!” I laughed. “Yes. I think so.”

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Harbor seals near Isle au Haut on March 29, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Harbor seals near Isle au Haut on March 29, 2014.

Through my camera, I watched a loon catch and eat a crab, great cormorants loafing on the rocks and purple plovers roosting in the shadow of a boulder. A group of fat harbor seals, lounging on a tiny isle, lifted their heads as we motored by.

The trip brought us around the west side of Isle au Haut, where we searched along the cliffs and sea boulders for harlequin ducks. We found them there, fishing in pairs and groups in the frothing water and sea spray, riding the tumultuous waves perilously close to the rocks.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki Harlequin ducks along the coast of Isle au Haut on March 29, 2014.

BDN photo by Aislinn Sarnacki
Harlequin ducks along the coast of Isle au Haut on March 29, 2014.

I couldn’t help but laugh at the show. Harlequin ducks don’t look particularly rugged. They’re small ducks, with dainty bills and rolly-polly bodies. Their black, white and red markings are so defined that they appear to be delicately painted. Yet they throw themselves into the waves as if indestructible.

Several groups of harlequins emerged from the waves as we approached the south end of the island, where the waves grew and tossed the boat from side to side. I began feeling queasy and looked around to see my fellow passengers munching on bagged lunches.

Don’t be the girl that puked starboard, I thought as I fixed my gaze on a nearby buoy. Luckily, that’s when Captain Garrett Aldrich decided to turn the Mink around and travel back to Stonington. By the time we reached the seal-covered isle, my stomach had calmed with the ocean.

Island Heritage Trust, the conservation land trust of Deer Isle, Stonington and surrounding islands, hosts outdoor trips and events for the public year round. For information, visit islandheritagetrust.org.

More photos of the trip:

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Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.