The Petrel

Theme Essay Douglas Canter

A Return Trip to Maine—and a True Sense of Self



Leach's Storm-Petrel

Six of us cling to the small red dingy. We sit on each side, delicately balanced. A hundred yards east of Great Duck Island, Maine, we head for the slippery wooden ramp that extends like a tongue out of the white boathouse high above the shoreline into the Atlantic Ocean.

My stomach is still queasy from the hour-long boat trip that began at Bar Harbor. We’re here with students from the College of the Atlantic to observe the island ecology, to see the petrel. Like my own situation, the petrel’s is precarious.

Great Duck Island is one mile long and a quarter mile wide. Our group of nine science writers and two student ecologists lands on the eastern side, facing the open ocean.

Kate, one of our student guides, has blonde hair, pimples, glasses, and a soft-spoken voice. She says there are 5,000 petrel burrows on Great Duck Island. With about 10,000 petrels, it’s the largest colony in the eastern United States.

We gather in the grassy area outside the boathouse, near a pile of discarded pipes and machine parts. Crows and ravens hunt petrels, Kate tells us, but it’s the snowshoe hare that may, in the long run, hurt the petrels’ chances of survival on the island.

Leach’s Storm-Petrels, Oceanodroma leucorhoa, are black seabirds a couple of inches longer than an outstretched hand. Yet, their wingspan is more than twice their body length. They’re built for flying. Notwithstanding their fragile appearance, they travel long distances alone, wings deftly flickering just above the water, in search of plankton and small fish, braving the fierce weather that gave them their name.

We walk north on the fire road, a grassy path about six feet wide, through partially dead spruce trees. Spruce live for 80 years, Kate says. The entire island’s forest is now about the same age. The July sun sends streaks of light through the dense tree cover.

We come to a cluster of bare trunks pointing at the blue sky. Kate and our other guide, SJ, a slim college junior from Michigan who wears a scarf tied in a band around her head, decide we should reverse course. On our way, we stop to inspect the soft ground near a log on the edge of the path.

“There’s a burrow,” SJ says.

I strain to see it. She bends down to point again toward the small nest hole. Great Duck Island petrels start breeding in June—will we find an egg?

No, the dark space inside the smudge of moist dirt is empty.

Storm petrels live mainly over the ocean but breed on land, laying one small white egg a year, building their burrows under the spruce. Like a womb of earth, the burrows regulate the temperature of the eggs. Meanwhile, the adults head for the water, moving like large butterflies but with the speed of falcons, only returning at night. Unlike most birds, petrels rely on their sense of smell to find their nests.

The hares help the petrels, at least in the short run. They eat the ground cover, which keeps the soil soft around the spruce trees and allows the petrels to dig burrows in the shade near the edge of the forest. But in winter, the hares, innocuous-looking white bunnies, chomp down the saplings, killing the new replacement growth.

Except for students who use the island as a field laboratory, it’s uninhabited by humans. That wasn’t always the case. At various times in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, farmers grazed sheep and cattle, and lighthouse keepers lived here. (During the 1970s, a Boston doctor even operated a psychiatric clinic.) Legend has it, according to Kate, that somebody brought hares to the island in the mid-1900s, either as pets or for food. Then they bred, leading to the current booming population.

“If you limit the hares, it will remove an animal that helps clear some of the ground cover, making it easier for the petrels to nest,” SJ explains. “But if you don’t, it will make it harder for the petrels to nest after all the trees die.”

SJ turns toward me. “It’s a real catch-22.”

“Maybe it’s just nature’s course,” I say.

Our eyes meet. She understands my confusion about the petrel, about the ambiguous role of the island ecologists in this struggle. But she doesn’t know why the bird’s uncertain future resonates so strongly with me.


Great Duck Island Lighthouse

• • •

I intended this trip to Maine, part science-writing retreat, part vacation, as an opportunity to think about changing my own direction. For most of my adult life, I’d dreamed of returning to Bar Harbor, but this is my first time back in more than thirty years.

We enter a grassy clearing. I see the white petals of blackberry flowers and the red fruit on the short bunchberry plants. I used to love walking through the woods around my childhood home in Connecticut. Back then, no matter what kind of teenage turmoil blew through me, I had those woods. In elementary school, my friends and I played army, hiding behind trees with BB guns and clumps of packed dirt. When I needed to escape, I’d wander for hours with my little brother and dog.

Now, I pass through more spruce trees. I hear the rhythmic stomping of my feet, recalling the last time I tromped through New England forests on an ecological expedition. In 1969, I was a high school student studying environmental biology in a summer college program, and I did a solid week of field work under the supervision of undergraduate biologists. I loved following those students, helping them collect soil samples, testing water quality, hiking the Maine forests and New Hamphire mountains.

This visit to Great Duck brings me back, reconnecting me to something I’ve lost. For decades, I’ve worked instead as a private-practice lawyer, helping natural gas companies build their pipelines through peoples’ backyards.

After reaching the wooden white house where Kate, SJ, and other students live, we eat lunch at a picnic table. Leftover breakfast potatoes, almonds, and a green apple quell my hunger. The table stands in an open space surrounded by high grass and yellow buttercups. Three students remove the propane tanks that have arrived via a tractor fueled by biodiesel. A solar panel rests atop the roof of a small building near the picnic table.

Munching my apple, I walk onto the weathered wooden walkway constructed of two-by-four planks of various lengths. Herring gulls gather on the roof of a brick structure to the right of the now automated lighthouse, which emits a low sporadic hum.

Kate, SJ, and the other students inspire me. They’re budding environmental biologists who have chosen to spend a summer working in week-long shifts, banding the legs of gulls and eider ducks, observing the impact of predator bald eagles on newborn gull chicks, counting the petrel burrows.

I was like them once, before I attended law school, before I married my law school sweetheart and started a family and decided to leave the government, accepting a job as an energy-regulatory attorney. I steered a course toward what others said was right and lost sight of myself.

Yet, the students make me hopeful, too, even if it’s only a small hope, confined to this place, to seeing the powerful ocean lap the rocky shores carved by centuries of storms, to hearing the noisy chorus of herring gulls sing clew, clew, kee-ou, kee-ou kee-ou.

Herring Gulls

• • •

Kate and SJ lead us back toward the boathouse. We stop for a break by rock cliffs that protrude in an almost perfect rectangular shape into the Atlantic.

I walk out onto the farthest rock and sit alone, overlooking the water. As the waves hit and the sun warms my face, my mouth feels dry. I taste the staleness left by our day’s walk.

I stare over the edge into the ocean, feeling unusually serene. My own worries matter little amid the tremendous ecological spectrum. A few perfect moments like this make life worthwhile, and maybe that’s all we need, all we ever get. I’m struck by the intersection of so many fates—the petrel and the hare, the death of the old spruce trees and the precariousness of new growth, my own past and future.

I have roots in Maine. My paternal grandfather lived in Gardner, about two hours from the coast. I spent two memorable visits in the state: one studying ecology in southern Maine, the other before my senior year in college. Both made such a lasting impression that I urged my then fiancée to go to Bar Harbor for our honeymoon.

We didn’t. She wanted to go to the North Carolina beaches that had meant so much to her as a child. A good thirty years have passed since, until I finally booked this trip, and she and the kids decided to join me in Maine for the second week.

After my wife and two of my three children arrive, we’ll stay in a cottage built on a hill at the edge of town with a second floor view of the harbor. We’ll eat wild blueberries that grow near the top of the Gorham Mountain trail in Acadia National Park. We’ll sip local beer and savor fresh lobster. We’ll ride our rental bikes.

My wife and I will stroll the nature trail near Jordan Pond in Acadia. For the first time in several months, we’ll sleep in the same bed on the second floor of our cottage. My wife, my children, and I will laugh, all of us, at nothing, at everything, at ourselves.

It’s what I imagine, and it’s what comes to pass, although I don’t know that yet while on Great Duck Island.

“Why wouldn’t you come to Maine for all those years?” I asked my wife before I left.

“We could have.” Her voice rose with the exasperation I knew so well. “All you had to do was plan a trip.”

In the late afternoon, our group prepares to return to Bar Harbor by boat. We walk slowly down the wet ramp toward the water’s edge. Two students carefully carry an empty propane tank. Before stepping into the dingy, I tighten my life preserver and take one last look at the geometrically shaped, weather-carved rock on the island’s shore.

Like a petrel following the scent of other petrels back to their burrows, I chose to follow my wife to North Carolina all those summers. I relished the cocoon of family life, willingly wrapping myself completely in her world and our children’s lives but failing to retain a recognizable sense of self. My eyes were useless in navigating my course.

But that was before I returned to Maine, which I’ll always love. It was before I found Great Duck Island, where petrels and other sea birds keep returning, making it their home.

While flying, petrels change speed and direction often, hovering over shimmering white-capped waves, adjusting midair, finding their route. I’m adjusting, too, still with my family, but now with a truer sense of my internal beacons.

Like the petrel, it’s time to change direction for myself.


Publishing Information

  • Much of this piece is based on conversations with the College of the Atlantic student ecologists (called “Ducklings”) on a July 5, 2012, tour of Great Duck Island. Followup emails (July 13, 2012, and March 22, 2013) from Wade Lyman, one of the Ducklings, also contributed.
  • Great Duck Island,” entry on the College of the Atlantic website.
  • Oceanodroma leucorhoa,” entry for Leach’s Storm-Petrel on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology website.
  • Leach’s Storm-Petrel,” entry on Birds of North America Online website.
  • The Minds of Birds by Alexander F. Skutch (Texas A&M University Press, 1996).

Art Information

  • "Leach's Storm-Petrel" © Tim Lenz; Creative Commons license.
  • "Great Duck Island Lighthouse" © Justin Russell; Creative Commons license.
  • "Herring Gulls" © Sergey Yeliseev; Creative Commons license.


Douglas CanterDouglas Canter is a practicing energy attorney and freelance writer in Washington, D.C. His essays and other nonfiction writing appear in the Evansville Review, American Bar Association Energy Committees Newsletter, Montgomery County Gazette, and the Danya Institute and Discovery Channel Tech websites, among others. He lives in Bethesda, Maryland, with his wife, their youngest child, and a yellow lab named Gretchen.



This is beautiful and intriguing. What a wonderful example of what Martha Nichols describes in her editor's note as nature writing "about our inner landscapes as much as the wild things we celebrate." As well, I appreciate the way you reveal a great deal of your inner landscape without compromising the privacy of your family members. That's no small feat.

Add new comment

More Like This

Oct 8, 2012 | Writerly Sins
“Gentle Caress of Light” © Travis Miller
Jun 24, 2013 | Memoir, Nature, Sex
Nov 7, 2011 | Food