Red-billed Tropicbird (Phaethon aethereus); Seal Island NWR, Maine; 23 Jul 2011

Five CT birders (Bill Asteriades, Patrick Dugan, Frank Gallo, Phil Rusch, Glenn Williams) joined me last weekend on a trip to Maine for the Red-billed Tropicbird that has been summering there for the past seven years. We chartered "Fluke," John Drury's vessel out of Vinalhaven, ME on the afternoon of Saturday, July 23rd.

John is the go-to guy to see the tropicbird, which has spent the past couple summers around Seal Island NWR. Seeing the bird is far from guaranteed, but John knows its habits as well as anybody. His plan for a PM attempt is based on his knowledge that the bird often swings by the island for a mid-afternoon visit.

I had received my Canon 7D that week and went out of my way to rent the Canon 100-400mm IS lens on Friday evening, just in time for the weekend. On this page are my first photos taken with the camera (or any SLR, for that matter), so keep in mind I had little/no idea what I was doing. Frank and Patrick gave me a few tips as we went along. I had fun with it, and got some nice photos thanks to modern technology, but it was readily apparent that this is going to take a while to get good at.

We left the dock at 1pm and headed toward Seal Island, stopping briefly to check out a Great Cormorant colony and a few Harbor Seals on the way. Wilson's Storm-Petrels and Black Guillemots were scattered about. Northern Gannets were fairly common, many of which were obviously heading down the coast to the south/southwest.

Northern Gannets

Black Guillemot

Double-crested Cormorant (left) and Great Cormorant (right)

Upon arrival to Seal Island John spotted two distant jaegers harassing terns. With no tropicbird in sight at the moment, we diverted our route to check them out, both being Parasitics (one light, one dark). On our way back to the island we had a great side-by-side comparison of Razorbill and Common Murre on the water.

Razorbill (left) with two Common Murres

Common Murre

Back at the island, no tropicbird yet. John slowly took us around the island once, showing us its various landmarks including the tropicbird's preferred nighttime roost spot (empty, as expected). We anchored in one of the sheltered coves to wait and hope for a tropicbird appearance.

Arctic and Common Terns zipped back and forth past us, many returning with fish, presumably for hungry chicks. A single adult Black Tern joined the colony briefly. Dozens of Atlantic Puffins surrounded the boat and provided great looks.

Arctic Terns

Just after 4pm Bill announced that he had spotted the Tropicbird at quite a distance to the east. We all got on it...a flickering white bird with a long, thin white tail (it was wayyy off). The good news was that it was approaching the island. Over the next half-hour the T-bird put on quite a show, even making a few close passes by and eventually over the boat. On a few occasions it strafed the terns roosting on the island itself while calling aggressively! At one point it landed on the water with streaming tail cocked up behind itself.

Red-billed Tropicbird, missing one tail streamer, here about to strafe some terns on the island

This totally exceeded our expectations. As I write this one week later it still brings a huge smile to my face. All of us were thrilled.

The boat ride back to Vinalhaven was full of laughs and smiles. We added another nice bird to the list when 4 Manx Shearwaters passed by heading southeast. Several Bald Eagles were loitering on the small, rocky islets just offshore from Vinalhaven.

Seal Island NWR

Four of the six of us, with John Drury at the helm

Bald Eagle

the harbor, thick with lobster pots


After that incredibly successful trip, we enjoyed dinner and celebratory drinks on Vinalhaven, where we would spend the night.

- Nick


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