ECOLOGY IS COOL IN THE SUMMER
June 28, 2009
hot, humid, oppressive summer weather as much as the next person, so when
I was invited to spend a few days last week with a friend in Maine, I
quickly said yes. I had dug out my favorite fleece jacket before I even
accepted the offer.
by ferry to Islesboro, an island in Waldo County. Where is Waldo County?
Beside Penobscot Bay, halfway up the Maine coast. My host was J. D. Willson,
an ecologist at the Savannah River Ecology Lab; he frequently finds he
has work to do in Maine during the summer.
not an ardent birder, I enjoy nature-watching in general. During my visit
to Maine I could have added several bird species to my life list, if I
kept a life list. On a boat trip to an island called Matinicus Rock, known
for its variety of seabirds, we saw common and Arctic terns, dainty Wilson's
storm-petrels, and four species of auks. For me, the truly exciting auk
was the puffin. These cute, white-faced, black-capped birds with the fat,
red-tipped bill looked just like the pictures we have all seen of them
sitting on rocks. The ones we saw were also swimming, flying, and diving.
J. D. is
an expert on North American birds and was able to identify every one we
saw or heard on land and at sea. Our most dramatic bird encounter involved
three species and was a true circle-of-life adventure. One foggy day,
we were approaching one of the hundreds of gigantic rocks that peek above
the surface at high tide and must be skirted by lobstermen in their boats
and by us in ours. Peering forward, J. D. said, "Must be an eagle
ahead, the way those sea gulls are acting." I peered into the gloom
and could barely make out the little island, let alone any birds. I scrunched
into my fleece jacket and, being polite, said, "Oh, yeah."
As the fog
cleared, I saw what he meant. About a hundred herring gulls were swarming
around the rocky island like bees around a hive. A short distance from
the island a pair of bald eagles were circling, each being chased by a
sea gull the way a mockingbird chases a crow. Then J. D. pointed out a
bird we had not yet seen on this trip--an eider duck. One duck in particular
was of special interest. It was a young one 200 yards offshore from the
little island and it was being circled by one of the eagles. While we
watched, the eagle made an unsuccessful dive for the duck, which had gone
The drama played out as the little duck popped to the surface; the gull
following the eagle abruptly did a barrel roll and plucked the baby duck
from the water. The gull headed toward the island with the peeping duck
in its mouth. The eagle, meanwhile, was leaving the scene when it realized
the gull was no longer pestering it. Not only that, the gull had a meal
in its mouth! J. D. and I watched in wonder as the eagle did a 180 in
midflight then turned on the afterburners. It flew within a few feet of
our boat in pursuit of the duck-snatching gull.
overpowering speed, the eagle caught up with the gull near the edge of
the island. In cartoon fashion, the gull raised both wings in surrender
and opened its mouth. The eagle swooped up the eider duck in midair and
left the scene with the baby duck in its beak. As the final act came to
a close, we looked over at a harbor seal with its head poking out of the
water. It was swimming in the direction of another eider duck bobbing
in the water. Little eider ducks are apparently a popular menu item in
the cold waters of the northern Atlantic.
When I got
back to South Carolina, I made a point to tell J. D. that I will keep
my fleece jacket close at hand in case we need to check on the ecology
of the seals, puffins, eagles, gulls, or eider ducks again this summer.
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