Bobolinks Maine

Bobolinks on alert

Birds from a Week in Maine (2021)

Every July for most of the last 12 years, we’ve taken a vacation to Maine. My spouse’s relatives all live in the northeast, and we converge on a spot right near Acadia National Park. COVID prevented us going out there last year. But with all 4 of us fully vaccinated, we braved the emerging wave of Delta variant cases and flew across the country. 

Since this year’s trip to Maine was our first since 2019, it meant that I got to see a lot of East Coast birds for the first time in a long while. There were several Bald Eagles around, perched in trees, on snags, waiting for a dead fish to turn up. Winter Wrens could regularly be heard singing their impossibly long and winding songs. Black-capped Chickadees flitted about in small groups. And one of my favorite North American warblers, the Blackburnian Warbler, was a regular high up in the pines (alongside Black-throated Green Warblers).

The habitat where we stay is dominated by pine forest, but there are also big fields of wild grasses and flowers, and trails take you past some small creeks and a couple of ponds. Deciduous trees line the clearings. There isn’t a lot of low bush cover. As a result, there aren’t very many birds on the ground. Still, in my 10 week-long visits, all in the first half of July, I’ve managed to find 84 species.

The fields provide critical breeding habitat for the declining Bobolink. Bobolinks winter in the pampas grasslands of South America, and fly 6,000 miles to breed in the northern United States. It’s always great to see the sharp outfits of the males. The same fields occasionally produce American Woodcocks, but the encounters are unexpected and brief. I’ve only managed to get a single blurry photograph of one flying away from me.

 One thing you get in Maine that you we don’t deal with in Los Angeles is mosquitos. In some spots, you’ve got 5 seconds of standing still to get a bird in the binoculars before the maddening buzz begins. Both the Common Yellowthroat and Common Grackle above were doing their job to keep the population down. Question: would more mosquitos mean more birds? If so, would it be worth it?

Wherever you do find bushes, you’re likely to find a Gray Catbird or two (and a family of Song Sparrows). The catbirds are fairly loud and conspicuous, so getting a good shot of one isn’t that much of a problem. Hidden in this photo is the rusty-red undertail. The Hairy Woodpecker below was part of a 3-bird group that was moving through the forest very loudly. The White-throated Sparrow was quiet while I saw it, but you frequently hear their “oh-sweet-Canada” song from far off. Cool story: a new White-throated Sparrow song has emerged in the 21sy century and is spreading across the continent.

Since it is July, and spring starts late in Maine, there were baby birds all over. There was even an active nest above the back porch. I reached up with my phone to check if there were eggs, and found 5. Our presence unfortunately kept the parent Eastern Phoebes away from the nest most of the day, and I’m worried it won’t be successful.

Eastern Phoebe nest Maine

Eastern Phoebe nest above the porch

American Robin hatchling

American Robin hatchling playing possum

The forests were also full of the entrancing song of thrushes. By the end of the week I was able to distinguish unseen Hermit Thrushes from Swainson Thrushes. These photos show the visual difference between the two: the Hermit Thrush on the left has a grayer head, white eyering, and a redder tail. The Swainson’s Thrush on the right is buffier around the eye, and the back and tail more uniformly colored.

For the second time during a Maine visit, a few of us went on a boat ride out of Bar Harbor to the Gulf of Maine. The first trip a few years ago went to Petit Manan Island and targeted seeing Atlantic Puffins. This one was a straight-up whale watching trip. That meant that our big catamaran spent most of the time going 35 knots headed 40 miles off-shore. With overcast skies, some wind, and chop, that made bird-spotting quite challenging. Whale-wise, it was a great success. We found a Humpback Whale, and stayed with it for just over an hour.

Bird-wise, there wasn’t a ton of action. We didn’t come across any big flocks of pelagic birds. When we did see birds, the naturalists on-board weren’t much help. “There’s a few shearwaters at our 2 o’clock” and “the small birds bounding across the surface are storm-petrels” is better than nothing, I guess, but not much better. Is one a Cory Shearwater, by chance? Care to help me pick out a Leach’s Storm-Petrel from the Wilson Storm-Petrels? 

I did manage my only lifer of the trip to Maine on the boat: a pair of South Polar Skuas. These dark, pot-bellied birds were flying low over the water while we were speeding back to harbor. They had a small white patch at the end of the wings, somewhat like a nighthawk. I wasn’t sure what they were, and put “skua?” down in my notes. I fired off some shots, hoping they wouldn’t be too blurry. Back ashore, it was pretty clear that they were South Polar Skuas. They breed further south on Earth than almost any other bird and “winter” (our summer) in waters across the globe, including the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. They are aggressive bullies – chasing shearwaters and gulls and terns, forcing them to drop any food they catch. 

South Polar Skua Maine

South Polar Skua (lifer!) very far from the South Pole

The boat ride also produced some good looks at Great Shearwater, Northern Gannett, and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. A couple of Razorbills flew over the bow, and a lone Atlantic Puffin cruised past. And we got a good show from the Humpback Whale. 

Great Shearwater Maine

Great Shearwater

Humpback whale Gulf of Maine

“Thar she blows!”

One last bird picture, of the boss of the chicken coop: El Guapo. He’s mean, he’s loud, and it’s a good thing there’s fencing between him and us. But god bless him for all his work, because there is nothing like fresh eggs in the morning.

Chicken Maine

El Guapo

I didn’t get to explore much during this trip outside of where we were staying. After our visit, we drove to Cape Ann in Massachusetts. A couple potential lifers were possible on the way. Upland Sandpipers had been seen outside Portland, Maine, but disappeared before we took the road. We stopped at Scarborough Marsh to try for Nelson’s Sparrow, but we didn’t get there until mid-day, and only had 30 minutes. Luck wasn’t on our side and I struck out. But I have no complaints. As always, it was a great trip.