Seal Island, John Drury and the Red-billed Tropicbird

My game face was on.  Today would involve serious birding.  No political debates with Dunn; no BS sessions with Kaempfer and Gent about Colorado birds and birders.  Since the moment I awoke at 6:00 AM this morning, butterflies were in my stomach- a mixture of apprehension and anticipation. We caught the 10:30 AM ferry from Rockland, Maine to Vinalhaven Island. The butterflies stayed with me over the course of the hour and a half ferry trip and throughout the check-in process at Payne Homestead.

Payne Homestead B & B on Vinalhaven Island, ME (Photo by Linda Vanderpoel)

Linda and I grabbed some sandwichs and caught a ride with Donna, the proprieter of the Payne House, over to the dock so as not to be late for our boat trip.  I saw his 34 foot boat approaching the dock at 1:30 PM which was the agreed upon time.  I walked down to greet him and asked, “Are you John Drury?”  All he said was “Yep”. A stoic guy, this John Drury was.  And the boat was nothing fancy, but large enough at 34 feet to provide a stable viewing platform in the calm sea of the Gulf of Maine.  We were now motoring towards Seal Island.

Wilson's Storm-Petrels in the Gulf of Maine (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

A Wilson’s Storm-Petrel flew right to left cutting across the bow of the boat.  Some ornithologists believe it to be the most abundant bird in the world. They have one of the largest ranges of any bird, breeding in the waters of Antartica and spending summers in the northern hemisphere north to the arctic.

Razorbill at Seal Island, Gulf of Maine (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

A Razorbill flew past us racing towards Seal Island, most likely with herring for it’s chicks.  Seal Island lies 12 miles off the coast of Vinalhaven. This 65 acre island is managed in cooperation with National Audubon Society for colonial nesting seabirds, including, Arctic and Common Terns, Common Eiders, Black Guillemots, Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills. Through its Project Puffin, the National Audubon Society successfully helped reintroduced Atlantic Puffins to the island by transporting chicks from Newfoundland, Canada. Puffins now nest on the island after a 150-year absence. Seal Island also has grown in to one of the Gulf of Maine’s largest tern colonies, supporting more than 2,200 pairs of Arctic and common terns.  It also was the summer home to a Red-billed Tropicbird, at least for the last three summers.  That’s pretty far north since their known breeding range is in the West Indies from Puerto Rico south to Tobago.

What fabulous weather to be on the open seas.  I glanced back and saw Linda basking in the sun and sea breeze. I turned around and kept one eye towards the open waters in hopes of a shearwater or albatross and the other towards John Drury. He was constantly scanning the waters. He knew his seabirds I could tell; in his youth he had traveled with his father, a well-respected ornithologist who studied the distribution of seabirds in the Gulf of Maine, to Nome and the Bering Sea. He wore psychedelic yellow-rimmed sunglasses.  Some birders say he zens in the tropicbird.  One guy on the Maine Birding List Serve said he was “spooky” when it came to successfully seeing the tropicbird.  Personally, I think he just knows the bird’s habits and haunts and looks for it during the best time of the day.  That’s why we were visiting Seal Island this afternoon and that’s why we were with John Drury.  This was my best chance for a Red-billed Tropicbird.  Not my only chance, but certainly my best one.  It hadn’t escaped me that Red-billed Tropicbird had been missed by both Bob Ake and Lynn Barber during their respective “Big Years”.

After the hour boat ride we anchored in Eastern Bite Cove and John Drury began fishing for Pollock using two poles made out of tree limbs and hooks without any bait on them.

John Drury Fishing for Pollock (Photo by Linda Vanderpoel)

I asked how he expected to catch anything and he answered “Pollock aren’t too smart.”  We wanted pollock to use as chum later to draw in gulls with the hopes that the feeding activity might draw in shearwaters.  I began concentrating on photographing terns while John caught a fish. And another. And another.  This went on for twenty minutes.  We had twenty pollock in the bucket. All caught on bare hooks.  He was right, pollock weren’t the smartest of fish. I glanced towards John Drury; there he was, fishing with the stick poles and bare hooks when he looked up through his yellow-framed sunglasses and pointed towards the southern sky while he continued to fish.  He never said a word, but I knew, the Red-billed Tropicbird had arrived.

Red-billed Tropicbird at Seal Island in the Gulf of Maine (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

It flew in from sea towards the island.  Oh my I got excited.  I fumbled for my camera and snapped off a couple of hasty shots in case it left.  But he flew around the boat again and again.  For at least half an hour he gave us a show.  What a stunning bird.  It was big, the size of a Royal Tern with a bright red bill and a long flowing tail feather that was longer than his body.  Twice it glided with his wings held in a V shape and twittered loudly perhaps announcing his arrival to the thousands of terns below him. A North American lifer for me.  This was a thrill.  One of the bird adventures of the year for me, in fact, only the Ivory Gull and the frantic wild chase over the rocks of Gambell to see it might surpass this moment in time.

Red-billed Tropicbird Chased by Common Terns (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

Red-billed Tropicbird Showing Barring on Back (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

After about a half an hour we left Eastern Bite Cove and the tropicbird to search for Manx Shearwaters off Matincus Rock.  I hope for many more adventures over the next six months in many corners of North America, but the vivid images of Seal Island, John Drury and his yellow rimmed sunglasses, and the Red-billed Tropicbird are now etched in my mind for all eternity.

Manx Shearwater at Matincus Rock, Gulf od Maine (Photo by John Vanderpoel)

John Drury and John Vanderpoel (Photo by Linda Vanderpoel)

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3 Responses to Seal Island, John Drury and the Red-billed Tropicbird

  1. Jim Vanderpoel says:

    Great one! John Drury looks as tall as you. Manx Shearwater and Razorbill would be lifers for me too.

  2. LindaVanderpoel says:

    Gail and Alison, Notice I got “credit”!!

  3. Stephen Klaus says:

    Do you have a contact email for John? We’re old friends as far back as college and I’ve relocated back to the east coast after 10 years in California


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