Winter North-country Birding


Pine Grosbeaks are an enigmatic symbol of NE winter birding.

With little notice, I had a chance to travel to Maine last weekend and I jumped on it. Most of the people who I told about the trip scratched their heads when I told them that I was excitedly headed for Maine. Why would anyone want to leave the relative warmth of Alabama for the frozen wastelands of Maine? For me the answer is obvious: for northern birds. Northern states like Maine host a number of hard-to-see winter birds in January. And when I first set of my trip, a week before departure, there were easy-to-find Pink-footed Goose and Great Gray Owl near where I was going. Unfortunately, both the goose and the owl disappeared about 4 days before I arrived.

Even without the goose and the owl, I had a lot of bird species to look for. In the vicinity of Bangor and Orono, there were several reports of Bohemian Waxwings and Northern Shrikes, which were both life bird photos for me and birds that I had not seen in decades. Ruffed Grouse was also occasionally being seen, although I knew that would be hard to find in a 2-day trip. At the coast, I had a chance at Barrow’s Goldeneye, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, and Thick-billed Murre. And there was one stake-out Boreal Chickadee, although the ebird reports were 3 weeks old.

I landed in Bangor at 11:30 pm and was really glad that I had booked a room in the hotel that connected to the airport. I was in bed by 11:45. I couldn’t get a rental car until 8am on the following Saturday morning, an hour after sunrise, but it was cold and windy (about 28F with a steady 15mph breeze) when I headed out, so an earlier start would not have been that much fun anyway. First rule of north-country winter birding: birds stay active all day as they struggle for survival.

I first drove north to the area where the Great Gray Owl had last been seen. I didn’t expect to see the owl since many birders had failed to find it during multi-hour searches over the previous few days, but both Bohemian Waxwing and Northern Shrike had been seen several times recently in the same area. I slowly drove the roads around Sunkhaze Meadows NWR and down Stud Mill Road with the windows down despite the cold. I was shocked at how birdless the forest was. During a one-hour stretch, I detected zero birds. None. Not a crow or raven or chickadee. That simply would not be possible anywhere in Alabama—maybe in the hottest hours on the hottest day of the year, but I still doubt it. There are always birds around in any habitat, anywhere, anytime. Maine is not birdy in the winter.

Evening Grosbeak was the first true northern bird that I saw and photographed during my Janary trip to Maine.

After my drive around the owl area without seeing Northern Shrike or Bohemian Waxwing (or a bird) it was around 11. I had less than 6 species on my Maine list and I was starting to get anxious to see something unique to the north. So, I next went to Steve Mierzykowski’s feeder in Orono where Evening Grosbeaks were coming in. Steve has kindly granted permission to pull into his driveway and finally I was looking at a decent variety of Maine birds. There were Mourning Doves, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Black-capped Chickadees on the feeders and I could hear American Goldfinch as I pulled in. Within a few minutes four Evening Grosbeaks flew in and posed for me. My only previous photo of Evening Grosbeak was a blurry shot taken before I got a Digital SLR, so these were nearly life photos.

The birds at Steve’s feeder buoyed my spirits and I headed for the stakeout Boreal Chickadee. I had gotten in touch with Cindy D who maintains the feeder and she said the Boreal Chickadee was still coming in every day. My arrival time was 1230, however, not the best time for feeder birds, so I knew I could easily miss the bird. I easily found the location—a suet feeder set up near the back patio door of a town house. I set up between two town house buildings with a clear view of the feeder 70 feet away. I was out of sight from within anyone’s house, but I was standing out in the middle of the frozen yard on slippery ice-encrusted snow. The wind was whipping between the buildings and I knew I made a pathetic image as I stood there. I found myself complaining about the situation and getting pessimistic, so I took a deep breath and decided to give it an hour without complaining. In the meantime, I needed to stay alert and watch. As I started to more carefully look around instead of feeling sorry for myself, I was shocked to see a flock of turkeys that I had completely missed working their way along the edge of the woods on the other side of the creek valley. There were a few American Crows flying around and a few Blue Jays flew in scolding. I heard a Downey Woodpecker and then watched it fly in and land in Summac near the feeders. Just as the downy flitted over to the suet, I heard a distance “chick-a-dee-dee-dee”. The chickadee calls got louder and then two chickadees flew into the sumac. I was just turning my camera around and getting ready when I saw the Boreal Chickadee on the feeder. It only stayed for about one beat and was gone—too fast for a photo. For the next two or three minutes Black-capped Chickadees came and went from the feeder and I couldn’t see or hear the Boreal Chickadee—Dang I thought, I missed my photo. And then, the Boreal was back, at the suet cake. This time it stayed for over a minute and let me get my photos. When it flew from the feeder, it landed in the sumac and I got get photos of it among the colorful sumac fruits. For once I had gotten a tough stakeout bird.

This Boreal Chickadee in Augusta Maine was a stakeout bird coming to the same feeder every day during the winter of 2016/17.

Then drove south and east to the town of Yarmouth just north of Portland. I went to the Yarmouth marina where Barrow’s Goldeneyes had been reported and they were waiting for me when I pulled in. A flock of a dozen male Goldeneyes with a few females on the perimeter were diving in the middle of the river and through binoculars it was easy to pick out the Barrow’s Goldeneye in with the Commons. I wasn’t as close as I would have liked but I still got a number of nice shots of Common and Barrows Goldeneyes together as well as decent shot of a male Barrow’s Goldeneye in flight. It was, perhaps, the photo I most wanted on this trip. I'm working on a new species concept and Barrow's versus Common Goldeneye is a great example of my new theory.

A male Barrow's Goldeneye was waiting for me when I pulled into the Yarmouth Marina. It was great to be able to compare male Common and Barrow's Goldeneye.

After a quick stop at the Portland Pier, where I missed King Eider and Thick-billed Murre, I drove out to the Rocky Coast at Fort Williams Park. The Park was amazingly crowded for a Saturday afternoon when the air temperature was about 34 F and there was a stiff breeze. People in Maine are cold hardy and they were obviously enjoying the relative warmth of an above-freezing Saturday afternoon.

In the ocean and around the rocks below the lighthouse there was a nice assembly of cold-water rocky-coast birds. There was a nice flock of several dozen Common Eiders conspicuously off the lighthouse point with scattered groups of white-winged and black Scoters closer to the rocky coast. Common Loons were scattered over the ocean surface and just at the edge of binocular view, I spotted a pale winter Black Guillemot. The Guilemot was another new photo for me. The sun was starting to set when I spotted two Harlequin Ducks feeding in the suring waves among the rocky coast. It was a beautiful evening studying a habitat that I rarely get to see, but I was disappointed that there were no Razorbills, murres, or kittiwakes.

At the end of my first day of winter birding in Maine, I was treated to sea ducks at sunset, including Common Eiders and Harlequin Ducks

The next day was something of a bust. I drove back to the coast in the morning but I still failed to get photos of Razorbill or Thick-billed Murre. I went to a Bohemian Waxwing site but found no waxwings and I ended the day driving around the Gray Gray Owl sites but finding almost no birds again. I didn’t get any of my target birds.

On the last morning of my trip, my grad student Ryan Weaver was with me and we were on the University of Maine campus to have some of the meetings that was the point of the trip. On our way into campus we made a quick detour along University Farm Road and had a big bonanza by Maine standard. At the end of the road at the very tippy top of a 30 foot pine was a Northern Shrike—a bird I had missed on several recent excursions. After a snapped a few less-than-perfect photos, the shrike launched from its perch to chase House Sparrows around the barn. We got a few more brief looks at the shrike and then it was gone.

We spotted a Northern Shrike in the very top of a pine tree, and I finally had my photo of Northern Shrike.

On the way out, we saw some bird activity near a chokecherry near the edge of the road and pulled up next to a flock of about two dozen Pine Grosbeaks. The grosbeaks were feeding on the choke cherries and flying down to the road for grit and they put on quite a show.

Pine Grosbeaks are very tame and allow close approach. The flock we found near the University of Maine campus was feeding on chokecherries and swallowing grit on the road.

Maine was not a birdy place in January. I lived for two years in Kingston, Ontario, about as far north as Maine, and I remember how depressing the winters could be for a birder. But, while I wouldn't want to live that far north, it was fun to visit. I got my first photos of Boreal Chickadee, Black Guillemot, Barrow's Goldeneye, and Northern Shrike. It will make me appreciate winter birding in Alabama, where 100 species days are always within reach, much more.

© 2015 Geoffrey Hill

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