A thick-billed murre in Bar Harbor. PHOTO COURTESY OF SCOTT ROBINSON

Nature: Close encounter of the guillemot kind

Nice sightings of thick-billed murres (uria lomvia) this week in Bar Harbor waters. Two birds were seen near the fisherman’s float by Scott Robinson. These birds are not common in this harbor. They are more at home far out at sea and near their nesting colonies far to the north. My daughter and I have watched them in Newfoundland many times and have seen their nests there on the narrow ledges on coastal cliffs. The colonies are huge and there are thousands of birds including murres, auks, puffins, gannets and various gulls flying all about. It’s a noisy place.

There are two murres to be seen here, the common murre and the thick-billed murre, but neither is a frequently seen bird in the waters around MDI. You must carefully look at the bill when you suspect you are seeing a murre. When they stand near their nests you are reminded of penguins smartly dressed in tuxedos. I heartily suggest you look at the “Sibley Book of Birds” for great pictures and good identification aids.

Think of these birds as birds of the open ocean. That’s where they are truly at home. The best place to really see them is at their nesting colonies. It’s a long drive to their nesting areas along the coast farther to the north in Canada but well worth it. Bonaventure Island on the Gaspe is an excellent viewing spot and the colonies of sea birds on the east coast of Newfoundland are wonderful. Seeing and hearing these nesting colonies up close is an unforgettable experience. To have a few of these birds coming close to shore in Bar Harbor is quite special.

Puffins nest on the same cliffs and rocky shores to the north and I remember last summer looking up to the sky as we toured along on a whale watching trip and saw thousands of puffins swirling overhead and landing in the water. That same day we saw huge tuna fish jumping out of the water as they became so excited fishing in a school of smaller fish called capelin. The tuna fish is a very large fish and impressive moving through the air. I’ll never forget the sight!

Murres belong to in the alcids, and share that position with dovekies, razor-billed auk and black guillemots. The Atlantic puffin in the same family of birds.

Of these birds, the black guillemot is the one we see commonly in our water year round. However, it really changes its appearance in the winter.

If you see this pigeon-sized bird on the ocean now it is mostly white with a bit of black on the wings, tail and back of the head. In its breeding plumage later it is all black except for some white upper-wing feathers. Noticeable also are its crimson feet and crimson lining of the mouth which you often get to see as it yawns or stretches. Look for them now in our harbors and watch for the change when spring comes. They are commonly in all our harbors.

A young friend of mine one day was moving along quickly in his small powerboat in the harbor when a small group of guillemots rose up to move. One bird flew up over his small boat to escape and bird and man almost collided head-on, which would not have been good for either of them.

Mockingbirds used to be birds only seen and heard in the southern states. In the last 40-some years this bird had moved and nested farther north and is a bird you can expect to see on this island all winter. Do you have any mockingbirds coming around your yard or property now? Mockingbirds are excellent musicians and mimics!

These birds are capable of imitating many other birds and also barking dogs, cats, squeaky hinges and a few insects. They often sing all night long. When I wrote a nature column called “Birds In Your Dooryard” many years ago in Norwalk, Conn., I had a letter from a woman asking me how to stop the mockingbirds singing all night. They were keeping her awake. It was hard to answer her politely but I tried. She had come from the city where other sounds abound.

Even in cold weather here in Maine and farther north this handsome bird can survive, for it eats various frozen fruits, and visits feeders. Like bluejays, mockingbirds are quite territorial. and will even take on crows and ravens and even cats, especially during the nesting season

Please send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.

Ruth Grierson

Ruth Grierson

Send any questions or observations to [email protected] or call 244-3742.
Ruth Grierson

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