Tag: Maine

Birding Maine & Canada – July 2022

You couldn’t get more east in the lower 48 than we did

Maine in July is Fantastic

July once again meant a family vacation to Maine (last’s year trip report is here). And Maine in July means endless green as far as the eye can see. For a resident of Los Angeles, where it basically never rains and concrete and buildings cover the landscape, Maine is an impossibly lush environment. The roads are lined by all manner of green trees. The hikes wander through forests of green trees and fields of green bushes and green grasses. The rocks are covered in green mosses. This green bounty creates a curious dilemma. For an urban birder like me, life can be easy because the birds are usually concentrated in the small patches of available bird-friendly habitat.  But when you get to a place like Maine, it’s all habitat. In every direction. The birds could be anywhere. Looking for a Northern Parula? Just walk a few feet in any direction and look in the trees. No spot is all that much better than another. Birding in a place like Maine defies the (increasingly, in my view, noxious) eBird idea of birding hotspots. 

Greens trees around Sargent Mountain Pond, Acadia National Park

Another joy of Maine is the chance to see species that don’t regular come to the West Coast. There is a certain set of birds that I associate with being in Maine. There’s the Bobolink, who sound like R2-D2 and emerge from tall grass fields in surprising numbers as you walk by. There’s the unbelievable fiery face of the Blackburnian Warbler that makes the bird look like a tiny meteor entering the atmosphere. There’s the Bald Eagle majestically perched in pine trees at the water’s edge. There’s the impossibly long and intricate song of the tiny Winter Wren emanating from somewhere deep in the forest.

Of course, a trip to Maine is also good for unexpected sightings. This year, I added a half dozen birds to my Maine life list. An Indigo Bunting popped out of some bushes one day, and left before I could snap a photo. A Bonaparte’s Gull was hanging out at low tide in a cove while some Common Mergansers swam past. One evening, a Common Nighthawk danced high above a grassy field. On our drive back to Boston airport, we stopped at a Henslow’s Sparrow stakeout. And a lunch break in Portland got me a Northern Mockingbird at almost the northeastern edge of its range. In addition, I got great looks at birds I don’t see every time I come. They included Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Red Crossbill, and Pileated Woodpecker, who I tracked down thanks to its impressively loud drumming.

One day during the trip, my oldest son and I took a drive to Canada. The border was just over two hours from where we were staying. Since he’d never been to Canada, and I hadn’t been there since I became a birder, we both were looking to check some boxes on our to-do list. There wasn’t much in the way of cities nearby. Since it was just going to be a day trip, we decided to visit Campobello Island in the province of New Brunswick. Despite being Canadian land, it’s the home of a U.S. National Park–Roosevelt Campobello International Park (it’s actually jointly managed by the U.S. and Canada). Apparently, Franklin Roosevelt had a summer home there, and some buildings are preserved.

We skipped the home tours and headed straight for East Quoddy (Head Harbour) Light at the northeastern tip of the island. The lighthouse is on a rocky islet. It is an island at high tide, and accessible by foot at low tide (the tides here shift some 15 feet from low to high, and can rise 5 feet an hour). It’s picturesque. Our timing was almost perfect – we had to wait about 15 minutes until the tide was low enough to walk over. It’s a fun, short adventure – there’s some slippery rocks to manage, mysterious fish heads decaying, and some rusty, off-kilter stairs to ascend and descend. The lighthouse itself was closed, but it was a nice spot to chill and see some whales (no Great Cormorants, which would’ve been a lifer, but the only Black Guillemot of the trip). We checked out a couple of other spots on Campobello Island, including a cool little cove with 5 old shipwrecks, and then stopped for lunch. All told, we got 10 species of bird, and were able to turn all of Canada light yellow on our eBird profiles.

Head Harbor Lighthouse, not quite at low enough tide to access

After lunch, we went back to the United States and out to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. It is the easternmost point of land in the lower 48 states (apparently the U.S. Virgin Islands is farther east). We checked the rocks for Great Cormorant (none), and took a short hike along the coast. Now we’ll need to go to Washington, Florida, and Minnesota is we want to hit the westernmost, southernmost, and northernmost points in the contiguous 48 states.

Before we drove back to Boston for our flight home, I checked eBird to see if there were any possible lifers along the way. It turned out that a guy had recently found a Henslow’s Sparrow in a field along the side of the road (he was apparently driving by with his windows down, and heard the bird. Notably, Henslow’s Sparrows have the shortest song of any North American songbird, so this is quite a ridiculous find). It was only the 4th record ever for Maine of this declining grassland sparrow, and the spot was just 5 minutes off the highway. It promised to be a short stop: either the bird was there when we pulled up, or we’d stand in place for 5-10 minutes and strike out. If we were lucky, there’d be some birders already present with their scopes pointed at the bird. We were lucky. As we drove up to the location, two other car loads of birders pulled up almost simultaneously with us. At least three different birders were present, peering through binoculars out into the field. We walked up, they pointed to the bush where it was perched singing, and I had a lifer. The bird was a bit far out in the hot field for me to get good photos (see below).

I snuck in one last birding excursion before we boarded the plane. Near our airport hotel was a place called the Belle Isle Marsh Preservation. It offered a chance to catch a glimpse of a Saltmarsh Sparrow, and maybe some other birds that would bump up my year list. To my delight, there were Saltmarsh Sparrows moving around. They never stood still out in the open, but darted from one patch of marshy cover to another. You never knew where one would pop out, so you had to be quick on the trigger if you wanted to good photo. I totally failed to get an identifiable picture of one (see above), but it was fun to try. 

As usual, it was great to get to the northeast.


Birding Downeast Maine (2021)

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.