Puffins on Machias Seal Island, Gulf of Maine

August 5-8, 2004
[Photos] [Video] [Book]

Images from this trip are featured in the the book "Nothin' But Puffins: And Other Silly Observations," available at

My photo trips to Maine in recent years have been disappointing due to bad weather and lackluster tours. But this time everything came together to provide the kind of experience that makes the effort of getting there worthwhile.

Little Brothers

My primary photo target for the weekend was the Atlantic Puffin, scientific name Fratercula Arctica, which translates as "Little Brother of the North." I've taken alleged puffin boat tours before, but all I had to show for these aquatic drive-bys was a few distant shots. Last year I somehow managed to avoid getting more than a fleeting glimpse of puffins in Iceland, which is home to millions of the birds. I had read about the observation blinds in the nesting areas on Machias Seal Island which has several thousand nesting pairs, and decided that it was my best puffin viewing option on this side of the Atlantic. With the Maine weather and past disappointments in mind, I adopted a belt-and-suspenders approach to making arrangements. Not only did I schedule trips to the island on both Saturday and Sunday, but used different tour operators leaving from different ports. I also took a "Whales and Puffins" cruise from Bar Harbor on Friday, just in case the rest of the weekend was a washout.

After driving to Bar Harbor on Thursday the 5th, the puffin portion of the cruise on Friday brought us near the island of Petit Manan. The boat didn't get real close to shore, so our closest viewing of the members of the small puffin colony was as they flew past. During the whale viewing portion of the trip, we had some brief views of two finback whales and quite a few dolphins. We swung by Mount Desert Rock, which has an impressive 1847 lighthouse and a colony of seals. It was an interesting tour I guess but the boat was packed and the views of the whales were brief and not spectacular. Crowded and touristy downtown Bar Harbor wasn't my kind of place, so I got out of there as quickly as possible and headed "Down East" toward the town of Machias. It was an OK day, maybe even a good day, but I wasn't willing yet to say that my Maine jinx had been broken.

Saturday began early with a drive over to Cutler where I caught Bold Coast Charter to Machias Seal Island. There is no dock on the island so landings are made by small boat onto a rocky shore. Once the 19 passengers were ashore, we were scattered among the four blinds located in the puffin nesting areas. Opening the little window in the blind revealed a sight not unlike what I had seen eight months earlier at the opposite end of the world -- hundreds of (dare I say) cute little seabirds going about their lives in a busy colony, with plenty of attendant noises and smells. The difference with puffins versus penguins is they can fly, which they do with furious effort. These flying eggbeaters flap their little wings at up to 400 beats per minute and can reach 55 mph. The light was good and I started snapping away as the birds went about their business, sometimes coming within a few feet.

Puffin peers out of his burrow.

I try not to ascribe human characteristics to birds but there's no doubt puffins are popular because they are so cute. If a toy company had been in charge of designing and naming them, they couldn't have done a better job. Often the word "puffin" is accompanied by the adjectives "comical" and "clownlike." But, like penguins, they make their living in conditions which humans would find extremely challenging at best and lethal at worst. As with penguins, if I had to pick an adjective I would say "brave."

After perhaps an hour we had to turn over the blinds to the next group. As we waited in the picnic area before heading back to the boat, we could see many of the hundreds of tern chicks which also claim the island as their birthplace. There are a couple of other species which also nest on the island -- razorbills and murres, both relatives of puffins. We saw them but didn't get nearly as close as we did to the puffins. Before we headed back to Cutler we checked out haulout areas on adjacent Gull Rock and nearby North Rock and found hundreds of seals. Captain Andy Patterson kept up a running commentary on the pelagic birds and everything else we saw throughout the journey. He pointed out an empty bald eagle nest as we approached Cutler, and a few minutes later when he noticed that two adult eagles had returned to the nest we backtracked and took another look. Eventually a huge juvenile eagle swooped past, interested in the fish that one of the adults had. By the time we got back to Cutler we had been gone for about seven hours. For the price ($60), it was the best tour I have ever taken. I was thinking about starting a Hall of Fame just so I could induct Captain Andy into it.

Except for a few moments clambering over rocks the tour was not that strenuous, so to cap the day I drove up to Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge and hiked the trail near the headquarters. Not much wildlife along the trail except for a few small birds. Afterward I continued north almost to Canada and found the refuge's signature eagle nest on an osprey platform near the intersection of US 1 and Charlotte Road. The juvenile eagle there apparently hadn't flown yet. I watched for a while, but he wasn't doing much and the parents weren't around. I did see three osprey buzzing around another platform to the south. One of the osprey had a fish but seemed more interested in flying in circles rather than eating it. It was too far away for decent photos but I got a good view through the binoculars. That capped a busy Saturday.

Back from fishing trip

Sunday morning I headed down to Jonesport for a return trip to the island, this time with Captain John Norton. Captain John pointed out the occasional seabird but didn't feel the need to keep up a running commentary or go looking for seals. (We did get a good view of an eagle on the homeward journey, but didn't slow down.) The round trip took about five hours. The only other boat that brings visitors to the island comes from Manaan Island, New Brunswick.

There was a lot more fog than the previous day, and it was impossible to see the island just a few yards away when we first arrived. The fog mostly burned off while we were there and didn't interfere with photography. There were only 11 of us on this trip, so there was only one other person in the blind with me rather than four. That made it easier to move around, but it must have been more humid than the day before because it seemed much hotter locked inside that box. But still, the hour flew by too quickly.

So finally I had a good photo trip to Maine. Or had I? I took most of my photos on and near Machias Seal Island. According to Canada, the island is part of New Brunswick, not Maine. The lighthouse staff and wildlife researchers on the island are Canadian. On a map it is obvious that the island is closer to Maine, but New Brunswick has been running the lighthouse on the island for 170 years. The two countries have differing interpretations of what the relevant historical documents say or meant to say. When territorial waters and fishing rights are involved things become serious, but if you are just there to see the puffins and other seabirds, no one cares which side of the border you are from. The diplomatic thing to say is that the birds own the island and humans are merely visitors.

Top Menu | Destinations | Years | Species | Aircraft, etc. | Blog | Contact Info

All photos ©1998 - 2024 by Thomas O'Neil