Seabirds to Spot While Paddling Coastal Maine
When you’re kayaking on the coast of Maine, you won’t be the only one cruising around out there. You’ll be sharing that water with boaters, commuter ferries, fellow paddlers, and a whole lot of seabirds.
Some of those birds are easy-going floaters and others dive talons-first into the sea to pluck out a meal. Some, like the gulls, are notorious wherever they go. And others, like the eider and the guillemot, aren’t as well-known. Getting to know them all is a special skill that takes time and practice to master, but it sure feels awesome to see a bird you recognize and be able to name it. And it’s another way we can all continue to appreciate and feel connected to Maine’s amazing coastline.
To help you get acquainted with some of the seabirds you might see while you’re on the water, here’s a roundup of some of Maine’s notable characters:
Common eiders are big ducks. They’re the largest ducks in the Northern Hemisphere, if you want to get technical about it. The males are easy to spot, with their black-and-white plumage (white back, dark sides, and black cap. Look closely and you’ll see some pale green on the sides of their necks, too). Males and females, which are reddish-brown, are often spotted swimming together in flocks. When females are raising young, they’ll gather the kids together so they can feed safely, like eider play-dates. Maybe they swap stories about sleepless nights and picky-eating eider babies, too. Speaking of eating, eiders love shellfish and will swallow them whole. The shells are then crushed in their stomachs. Eiders often sound rather comical, like hungry diners presented with a gluttonous dessert (maybe a shellfish sundae piled high with seaweed). “Oooooh!” Have a listen: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Eider/sounds
More about common eiders: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Eider/
Cormorants often look like street hustlers, opening their trench coats to offer low-priced knock-off watches to passersby. If you spot a dark-feathered bird standing in the breeze – perhaps on a piling or at the rocky shoreline – with its wings outstretched, it’s probably a cormorant. You won’t find any watches on them, though, they’re simply drying out their feathers, which aren’t water repellant. When they’re in the water, they’re typically fishing – diving under water for several beats at a time – unlike ducks, which tend to float around and hang out. Cormorants have long necks and tails. Both great cormorants and double-crested cormorants can be seen in Maine. In the summer, double-crested are common in Casco Bay – they have orange-yellow skin around the base of their bills. And while it’d be hard to see from a kayak, the inside of their mouths is bright blue. Their call is unexpected – a guttural noise that sounds more like pig than a seabird: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Double-crested_Cormorant/sounds
More about cormorants: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Double-crested_Cormorant/overview
Also called “sea hawks” or “fish hawks” on account of all the fish they eat, osprey are impressive hunters, diving for fish feet first and capturing them in their talons. Also cool: their outer toe can flip around, so they can carry fish with two toes in the front and two in the back. When they’re flying with a fish in their talons, they’ll face it head-first to be more aerodynamic. Their nests are often easy to spot from the water – a rather slapdash pile of sticks perched atop a tree, channel marker, or utility pole. The nests can be over 6 feet wide and used by several generations – getting bigger with every new couple. As for the birds themselves, look for a large bird with brown wings and back and white underparts sitting high in a tree or in its nest. Osprey have a brown line/mask through their eye and dark, hooked beak. When flying, their wings make an “M” shape, bent at the wrist. Not-so-fun fact: DDT use in the mid-1900s caused osprey populations to dwindle (bald eagle and peregrine falcon populations, too). After DDT was banned in the 70s, populations of those birds began to recover. Now they’re fairly easy to spot near Maine’s waters.
More about osprey: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Osprey/
Gulls need no introduction. They’re prolific birds, after all, well known for their ability to swoop down and steal a french fry from your hand. They seem right at home standing in grocery store parking lots, bobbing in the waves along the Maine coast, or chasing a fishing boat as it baits and drops traps in Casco Bay. Basically, wherever there’s food (raise your hand if you can relate). Gulls are comfortable in freshwater and saltwater. They have salt glands situated just above their eyes, so when they drink saltwater, the glands pull excess salt out of their system. That excess salt is then excreted out of their nostrils. Nice. Another entertaining gull tidbit: the British Army tried to train gulls to spot submarine periscopes – and even poop on them – during World War I. It didn’t work (but not because gulls aren’t smart. They are. Gulls have been known to bait fish with bread and to wait for people to walk through automatic doors at the supermarket so they can fly in and grab some chips.
There are nearly 30 species of gulls in North America – a fact that may surprise you since, at a glance, they all look pretty much the same. In Maine, there are three you’re most-likely to spot: the great black-backed gull, the ring-billed gull, and the herring gull. They’re pretty easy to differentiate once you know what to look for.
|The great black-backed gull is so named thanks to its dark, nearly black wings and back (more of a charcoal gray). They’re bigger than their counterparts, too. In fact, they’re the largest gulls in North America and can weigh over 4 pounds.
More about great black-backed gulls: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Great_Black-backed_Gull
|The ring-billed gull has pale gray wings and back and (maybe the name gave it away), a black band around its bill.
More about ring-billed gulls: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Ring-billed_Gull
Herring gulls also have pale gray wings and back, but rather than a black band, they have a red spot on their lower bills. (Many gulls have this red spot – including the great black-backed gull – but if you’re in Maine and see a gull with pale gray wings and a red spot on its bill, it’s probably a herring gull.)
More about herring gulls: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Herring_Gull/id
Once you start to notice the differences in gulls, you might also start to notice that some of those gulls…aren’t gulls. Terns do fancy their gull cousins – with similar coloring and a penchant for hanging out in similar places. There plenty of different terns, too, but the most common tern is the common tern. Go figure. Unlike the white head of the herring, ring-billed, or great black-backed gulls, common terns have a black cap and a slender red bill with a black tip. They also have a forked tail and will dive for fish, which gulls don’t do. Like gulls, they can drink freshwater and saltwater – the common Tern can even drink “on the wing,” flying close to the water’s surface and dipping its bill in. In the late 1800s, when feathered hats were all the rage, common terns were captured for their feathers and the population nearly wiped out (along with many other birds). The North American Migratory Bird Act made possession and sale of many bird feathers illegal, so the terns returned.
More about common terns: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Common_Tern/
Those legs! Guillemots (gill-uh-mott) look like they’re dressed up for a fancy party. These birds are all black aside from a sharp white wing patch – and they also have striking red legs. Even the inside of their mouths is a bright red, like they’ve been enjoying plenty of cherry Fla-Vor-Ices at the aforementioned fancy party. (Fancy parties have Fla-Vor-Ice, right?) In the winter, their plumage turns mostly white. They’re great divers, they tend to sit on the water like ducks, and they’re able to remain underwater for two minutes or longer. Guillemots are often seen on their own, away from other species. (Their fancy parties are private parties, apparently.)
More about black guillemots: https://www.allaboutbirds.org/guide/Black_Guillemot/id
To learn more about Maine’s seabirds and shorebirds, check out https://www.inaturalist.org/guides/7648