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Watching migratory birds on disputed Machias Seal Island

by Carol Patterson

Barnacles crunch under my feet as I scramble up a seaweed-covered ramp onto Machias Seal Island. It’s my first visit to a territory that Canada and the United States both claim. Located between the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy, this tiny island about the size of 10 sports fields has strategic importance to both countries. It also has tremendous value to nesting seabirds, and in 1944 was declared a migratory bird sanctuary by the Canadian Wildlife Service. I hope diplomatic relations hold as I snatch a rare chance to sit amongst thousands of Atlantic puffins. 

I journeyed 90 minutes across the Bay of Fundy from Grand Manan Island in a lobster boat that Sea Watch Tours owner and Captain Alec Ingalls repurposed for birdwatching duty. From late June until early August, only 30 people are allowed on the island daily (weather and sea conditions permitting), 15 from Canada and 15 from the U.S.  

Huddled among 14 other camera-toting adventurers, I’m eager to visit a small island few Canadians are aware of, and even fewer ever see.  

The Indigenous Passamaquoddy people visited the area as hunting grounds for millenia. With European contact, things got complicated. The Treaty of Paris, signed in 1783, claimed the U.S. had rights to any territory less than 20 leagues (about 97 kilometres) off its coast, south of the St. Croix River mouth, and north of coastal Florida. A 1621 land grant from King James I, deeding Nova Scotia to Sir William Alexander, said any island within six leagues of the Canadian coastline would be Canada’s. Both seemed to apply to Machias Seal Island, a situation as murky as the fog surrounding our boat.  

The British took the bold move of establishing a light station on the island in 1832 and the Canadian Coast Guard continues to keep two lighthouse keepers on the island for 28-day shifts. In 2018, the United States tested the ownership issue when American Border Patrol agents questioned Canadian fishermen near Machias Seal Island. 

As I contemplate the ways governments assert ownership, I admire the clean white lines of the lighthouse tipping the balance towards Canada. Long, green grasses wave in the wind and bird silhouettes are visible on the red roofs of tidy bungalows. This was one of the most remote Canadian destinations I’d visited, but it’s not human border guards I worry about as I grab a metre-long stick for protection.  

The island is home to razorbills, Leach’s storm petrel, common murres, and one of the most southerly Atlantic puffin colonies. It’s also host to an Arctic tern colony that may be the largest in North America.  

Many terns nest close to the boardwalks between shore and the various buildings. Not taking chances with junior’s survival, the terns dive bomb humans, often drawing blood with their sharp beaks. Holding a stick straight up in the air prevents a clean flight path to your noggin.  

Puffins are known as the clowns of the sea because of their colourful bills. The charming migratory birds nest in great numbers on Machias Seal Island every summer.

Photo Credit: CAROL PATTERSON

As I hurry to the outhouse-shaped birdwatching blinds, a bird calls near my right ear. A sideways glance confirms a tern eager to move me along.  

Also keenly watching our arrival is a lightkeeper. Due to COVID-19 protocols, no one approaches, but a few weeks later, I speak to lightkeeper Ken Ingersoll. “We are more keepers of the island than we are lightkeepers. It’s our job to make sure that no one else gets on the island except for the two designated tour boats that come once a day,” says Ingersoll.  

Like most lighthouses along Canada’s shoreline, Machias Seal Island’s light is now automated. The lightkeepers maintain buildings, monitor equipment, discourage unapproved visitors and landings, and maintain Canadian sovereignty.  

There’s always a lightkeeper on duty. “During the federal strike that we had here (recently), they (the Canadian Coast Guard) took every lightkeeper off every light station except for Machias Seal Island,” Ingersoll says. He recalls his first sighting of American boats near the island, “The first month I was there, the border patrol went around the island,” he says. “Very, very close. And I went and waved, and they just powered by. They didn’t acknowledge me.”  

But most days, the biggest challenge is weather or birds. “January’s pretty harsh out there. There are days we could not safely exit the dwelling,” Ingersoll says. And when the terns are nesting, sometimes in grass millimetres from the boardwalks, their attacks are dangerous. “We have our helmets (to wear outside). We have a coat hanger straightened out and duct taped to the back of the helmet with a flag on top of it,” Ingersoll says. “One of them laid an egg right by our barbecue so we couldn’t use it.” It took 22 days for the chick to hatch. 

Ingersoll, a lifelong Grand Manan resident, knows these birds are also important to the island economy, attracting visitors to local hotels and restaurants. “About the end of June, you start hearing ‘puffin people’ saying, ‘We’ve been to Machias today,’ and you see them watching sunsets at the lighthouses. And they all just love it,” he says. 

My excitement over one of Atlantic Canada’s closest puffin encounters builds as we were split into groups of four and led to blinds set amongst thousands of flapping, waddling, squawking clown-coloured birds. I would have just over an hour of uninterrupted puffin watching before we’d have to leave.  

I quietly raise the slats on our blinds and peek into a seabird world few would ever witness. Football-sized puffins line ridges and march over rocks with tangerine-coloured feet. They leap from ledges and land in a sprawl of outstretched feathers and orange toes.  

A few metres from my feet, a clown-like face peers up from amongst the rocks. The orange-and-grey-striped beak holds a tender green leaf. I expected a fish, since puffins can hold several dozen at a time, but this bird seems content amongst the plants. A black-and-red triangle frames its dark eyes. A wrinkle of orange skin at the corner of its mouth punctuates this distinctive facial beauty.  

Black-and-white birds dot the landscape, and clouds of sea birds flit over the island. Someone told me puffins sound like chainsaws idling. I don’t hear the resemblance, but I shiver as their feet padded across the thin roof above me. 

I take picture after picture, then put the camera down. I want to remember what it feels like to be here. There’s nothing but the sound of birds and wind as they fly over and into each other. One bird shows his open beak to another puffin, a sign it was too close to coveted territory, much like how people act about this rocky ground.   

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