Over The Horizon, What Can It Be?

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It’s a good thing I really, really love the sound of fog horns.  Because this morning, by the time I rolled out of bed, I could hear the Ram Island Light sounding off (one blast every 30 seconds), the Burnt Island Light sounding off (one blast every ten seconds), and way over off Southport, almost too far to hear, the Cuckolds Light sounding off (one blast every fifteen seconds).  It sound like every thirty seconds you’d get a good, hard, loud blast, doesn’t it?  And yet, the blasts last for trivially different amounts of time, which means that even should they all sound at once, it won’t happen again for quite a while.   So the Seas Were Alive With The Sound of Foghorns.

With all that, I expected when I threw back the curtains, to be met with an impenetrable wall of fog.  Yet not so…it was hazy, certainly, with wisps of fog, certainly, but I could see 90% of the land masses that are typically within view.  All of the lighthouses on the coast of Maine are automated – the Coast Guard hasn’t stationed any lighthouse keepers out here for about 30 years.  Which raised the question for me: how on earth do they know when there’s a fog, to sound the horn?

The answer is simple, and amply explains why I heard three of them sounding off when the visibility was actually pretty good this morning:  they have a meteorological sensor that detects humidity, and when the humidity rises “enough”, the system concludes that there must be a fog.  Obviously, this is going to lead to the horn sounding when there is no fog, but I expect that erring on the side of caution is entirely justifiable…and the worst thing that happens is that the lighthouse uses a little extra juice, and that the nearby coastal areas must suffer through the sound.  I haven’t met anyone who hates it, and I’ve met plenty of people who, like myself, love it.  So, not too much difficulty with this decision.

I was very happy that the fog was minimal as we’d planned to go out on a deep-water cruise this morning.  A few miles off the coast of Port Clyde, to the northeast of here (and thus, “downeast” in local parlance) is Eastern Egg Rock.  Eastern Egg Rock is a ringing success in the history of major conservation efforts:  it is the southermost nesting place for the Puffin.  The cruise is true eco-tourism – part of the ticket price is donated to the Audubon Societies Puffin Project, the people who are responsible for restoring this treasure.

Puffins are an endangered species in Maine, although there are quite a lot of them up closer to the Arctic Circle.  The shipboard guide from the Audubon Society told us that in 1604, when the first Brits reached the coast of Maine, they had naturalists on board who described the island skies as sporting a blizzard of birds.  Thanks to egg harvesting, overhunting, and the women’s fashion industry, the population had been decimated as of 1900 or so.  From a blizzard of birds to a desert, the guy said.  Puffins were locally extinct, as were terns, cormorants, eagles, and several other birds (none of which I was familiar with).

So enter the conservationists and the government passing protective legislation banning hunting outside of a season, and banning hunting of certain species entirely.  Then enter the conservationists again, with some remarkably inventive solutions to the long-term depletion of the population.

With these Puffins, we were told, they found the rock – and it is just a rock, there is some scrubby grass but no trees, and it’s small, you can’t even see it until you’re only a mile or two from it – but this rock the histories indicated as having been a major nesting grounds for the sea birds.  Puffins chicks, apparently, require their parents mainly to deliver fish, but not to eat it for them like some other bird species do.  So our Audubon-ites thirty, forty years ago determined to bring a big load of Puffin chicks from the closest extant nesting grounds, way the heck up off the Newfoundland coast.  They dropped off fish for the chicks, and let them grow up.

Here is the very interesting bit.  Puffins need to be four or five years old before they mate (and then they mate every year, but they only lay one egg per year, probably why they got wiped out so easily). AND they lay their eggs, not in nests, but – get this – underground.  In caves, crevices, cracks, or they’ll even dig tunnels to lay the egg under the dirt.  I gotta confess, this extremely complicated reproductive process seems to present certain evolutionary difficulties.  NOW, the eggs hatch, the parents drop food off for the chicks, and then in mid-August, these birds that were born underground discover a passionate desire to take to the sea.  And they do, and that’s it for the land, for them.  They live on the sea, they sleep on the sea, they eat on the sea.  Land is for making babies on.

So, the idea here was that the Audubon chicks, having grown up on Eastern Egg Rock, would then come back there to make their own babies…four years down the line.  Fortunately, a Bright Light in the organization decided it would be a good idea to put Puffin decoys out on the rock so that the Puffins would know they were in the right place when they came back.

And, by golly, it worked.  He said that in the fourth year, there were Puffins on the rock snuggling up and rubbing beaks with the decoys (the level of intelligence implied here also, in my opinion, raises certain evolutionary difficulties).  In the fifth year, some biology students who were stationed out on the rock reported back that they’d seen Puffins flying in toward land with fish in their beaks:  BINGO! Puffin babies! That was ages ago. This year, I think he said, there were 150 nesting pairs on the island, all happily reproducing.

While this all was going on, the Audubon decided to lay in a resurgence of terns, too.  And a few other things, but what I remember mostly was the Puffins and the Terns.

The guide warned us, on the way out, that these Puffins were not going to be “Disney Birds – four feet tall and standing there waving at us as we come close”.  I laughed.  Puffins are actually the size of an Amazon parrot, maybe 15″ from top to tail.  They weigh a pound.  I’m sure there were some people on the boat expecting Disney Birds, but the vast majority were ardent, fanatic birders, with multiple viewing impedimenta strung about their necks, and cameras with whacking huge zoom lenses.  The insurance losses, just on electronics alone, if the ship had gone down would have been staggering.

We scored.  We scored huge.  We got to the rock, a bloody great fog descended that left us in a weird bubble with the ship and the rock, and the Audubon guide, who was standing right next to me, shouting “OH MY GOSH, THERE’S A HUGE RAFT OF PUFFINS ON THE WATER AT TWO O’CLOCK! THERE MUST BE FORTY OF THEM!” into his microphone and adding that this was probably going to be our best chance to look at Puffins all day.  Wow, was he wrong on that front.  We saw hundreds of them.  We saw them floating in rafts, we saw them flying away, we saw them diving for fish.  We saw them fighting with each other.  Sometimes, they flew right over the deck of the ship.  It was AWESOME.  There were plenty of terns, too, and a deafening cacophony of calls from the big colony of Laughing Gulls (they sound like it, too) on the island.  The Gulls were monstrously stirred up for some reason…

…and when we swung around the northern point of the rock, we saw why.  There were two BALD EAGLES crouching on the rock, peering in a Highly Interested Manner at the young Gulls.  Holy cow.  They were maybe 150 feet from us, and even without binoculars, you could easily see their head markings.  As we swung around the southern point, every Gull on the island erupted into the air – the guide felt certain that one of the Eagles must have made its move.

I’m really not much of a birder, but it was impossible to remain unawed by this scene.  A breed, carefully tended and brought back home.  On a hostile bit of rock, miles out to the ocean.  And an explosion of life from what looked, to all other effects, a barren wasteland.  It was grand.  And now, it’s time to join the afternoon Sunset Promenade.

Ram Island Light

The Ram Island Lighthouse, the one that blasts every thirty seconds for fog.

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About Lori Holder-Webb

I'm a Southern Woman by birth and a Texan Woman by upbringing...and yet I find myself living in New England and married to a New York City boy. Up here we use the same currency as we do at home, and I don't need to travel with a passport, but the commonalities pretty much end there. The language is different, the jokes are different, the people are different, and the weather and terrain sure are different too. I moved away from Texas in 2002, and ever since then, I've been the stranger in the strange land... I've had some questions about the name of the blog - if you were not alive, or living abroad or under a rock, or in grad school during the late 1980s, Oldsmobile attempted to shuck its stodgy image with a series of commercials intended to bring brand appeal to the younger generation: this car, they said, is not your father's Oldsmobile. If you have a morbid curiosity, hit YouTube for William Shatner Oldsmobile...it will take you right there.

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