Monthly Archives: January 2015

GYRFALCON in Wells (January 2015)!

Gyrfalcons are one of those enigmatic birds of the high northern latitudes that are always a favorite among northern birders, and lusted over by those further south. I’ve been lucky enough to see quite a few in Alaska, one in Michigan, and even one in South Boston. And few sightings of mine will ever surpass the eyrie of three white morph juveniles that we saw in Kamchatka.

But I had yet to see one in Maine. Or, at least, seen one for certain: there was this large, dark falcon with shallow wingbeats that screamed by during a snow squall while birding at Fort Halifax in Winslow one winter morning with a friend. It probably was, but…

On January 13th, a dark morph Gyrfalcon was found ravaging a Herring Gull on a ballfield in Kennebunk by Shiloh Shulte. His crippling photos of this beautiful bird can be seen here.

We were in Georgia.

Meanwhile, the plot thickened. Shiloh’s photos were strongly suggestive of the dark morph Gyrfalcon seen in Madbury, New Hampshire on December 15th, with at least one more sighting later at the Rochester Waste Water Treatment Plant. Meanwhile, it came to light the bird was actually photographed in Maine on January 10th, in the Ogunquit River Marsh from Ocean Street in Ogunquit.

Then, yesterday (Saturday, 1/17), Bob and Sandi Duchesne, et al, refound the bird in the Webhannet Marsh, just north of Wells Harbor (via Harbor Road). Quite a few birders were able to make it down to the marsh, and observe the bird in the area through sundown.

Not surprisingly, a lot of birders converged on Wells Harbor this morning. Myself included.

I arrived at Harbor Road at about 8:00am, and a short while later, chatted with folks at the end of the road, at the marina and boat launch of the harbor. No sign of the “Gyr.” Several us decided to split up and search elsewhere, keeping in touch of course.

I walked Community Park, scanning the marsh along the way (9 Horned Larks, 2 Yellow-rumped Warblers). I then went up to Parson’s Beach, where there was a possible sighting a few days ago. No luck, but I was surprised to find a small flock of 6 Savannah Sparrows at the end of the road; unseasonable.

Next up, I drove Drake’s Island Road. A car was pulled over, and seeing that they were looking at a Rough-legged Hawk (also seen earlier by others from Harbor Road), I too pulled over. I watched the hawk for several minutes, before it took off rather abruptly. I thought I saw something streaking low across the marsh, but blocked by trees, I really assumed it was a figment of my imagination. Driving ahead to a better view of the marsh, I scanned to the south, spotting a dark lump in the middle of the marsh – a lump that I had not noticed before. Four Common Redpolls flew over. The lump moved. I scoped Harbor Rd and did not see any birders. It was dark, it seemed small-headed, and it was fairly big. But there was heat shimmer, and it was far, very far.

I called Noah Gibb, wondering where he was, and mentioning I spotted a “promising lump” to the north of Harbor Rd and I was racing over. As I pulled into the parking lot at the end of Harbor Road, at least a half dozen birders were now present, but looking in different directions, and clearly not excited. “Damn it,” I thought. Was my lump just a bona fide lump? My excitement waned.

But I set up the scope anyway, pointed it towards said lump, and turned to the other birders and said, “Do you guys know the Gyrfalcon is sitting out here?” After they all saw it, we enjoyed a good chuckle, but most importantly, we all knew where the bird was, and dozens of birders converged.

Between 9:55 and 10:50, many of us enjoyed this magnificent bird, which, through a scope, afforded more than satisfactory views. During the time, it made two sorties, one low over the marsh, taking a run at an American Crow, and another higher flight over the water, flushing up roosting gulls.

This is one beastly bird, almost certainly a female based on its size. Gyr’s don’t have narrow wings like a lot of falcons, but big, broad (especially at the base) wings that seem to fight tapering to a point. In many angles, they even suggest buteos or goshawks. The flight of a Gyr is incredibly fast and seemingly effortless. Its shallow wingbeats generate a lot of power. It’s really like a Peregrine Falcon on steroids.

After each flight, the bird returned to a piece of driftwood in the marsh, north-northwest of the end of the parking lot at the end of Harbor Road (Wells Harbor), about 1/3rd the way between here and Drake’s Island Road. From the boat launch on the north side of the parking lot, looking out at about 11:00, somewhat in line with a marsh-edge house along the western end of Drake’s Island Road.

This phone-scoped photo was the best that I could muster:
GYRF1,Wells Harbor, 1-17-15

And this was the best flight shot I got of the bird in flight with my Nikon:

On a couple of occasions, the bird took off to the west, and we all lost site of it behind trees and buildings. It crossed the road once, heading over the salt pannes near the beginning of Harbor Road, and disappearing to the south. Several of us failed to locate it in the marsh to the south, and eventually, Luke Seitz and I gave into the call of second breakfast at Congdon’s Donuts.

When we returned to Harbor Road at 12:25, the Gyrfalcon was once again on her low driftwood perch to the north. At least today, the bird seemed to come back to this spot reliably, and it was observed there on and off through a little before 3:00pm. In other words, for birders seeking the bird, spending time patiently looking north from the end of Harbor Road (also, the parking lot at the end Atlantic Road in Wells Beach, accessed from Mile Road off of Rte 1) would likely be a good idea – and keep an eye out for promising lumps! And clearly, the bird covers some ground, so if it is not being seen, spreading out would be useful eventually. Hopefully, my description of the day’s sightings (and lack there of) offers some help in directing the next search, if necessary.

This was my 366th species in Maine, and Gyrfalcon was #5 on my personal “next birds” for my state list, as I wrote about earlier this month. But it was a Gyr, and Gyrs are awesome, no matter what list they are or are not on.

Several dozen birders came and went today, and not surprisingly, with so many birders in an area, and with so many people spread out and looking for the bird, there was a classic “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect” underway: when birders seeking one rare bird start finding others nearby. In addition to the Rough-legged Hawk (not many have been around this winter so far) seen on all three days, 2-3 Yellow-rumped Warblers at Community Park, and scattered Horned Larks, some of the other birds in the area that were reported included:

(Updated, 11:00am, 1/21)

– 1 Eastern Meadowlark on Furbish Road in Wells (presumably the same bird that Kristen Lindquist and I found there on the York County CBC in December and has been seen at least once since).
– 6 Savannah Sparrows, Parson’s Beach.
– 2 Bohemian Waxwings, Wells Library.
– 1 Northern Flicker, Drake’s Island Road.
– 1 Snowy Owl, Drake’s Island Beach.

– 1 Swamp Sparrow, Eldridge Road.
– 1 Merlin, Wells Harbor.
– 2 Dunlin with 128 Sanderlings, Ogunquit Beach.

– Snowy Owl, over Wells Beach.
– 128 Sanderling, Ogunquit Beach.

Meanwhile, the overwintering drake King Eider at The Cliff House in York had quite a bit of visitation during these few days.

While dozens, if not hundreds, of birders from throughout New England were looking for the bird in the afternoon on the 19th and all day on the 20th, the Gyr apparently moved on. Late in the afternoon on the 20th, it was reported back in New Hampshire, in the marshes of Hampton – not far from where it was first spotted last month! Will the bird stick around there? Will it be back in Wells? Who knows, but hopefully, people will continue to enjoy the bird, and when its not being seen, spread out and look throughout all of the marshes of both states. Gyrfalcons travel widely in search of food, and there’s no reason why the entire area from Hampton through Kennebunk can’t be part of this bird’s winter range.

In the meantime, please enjoy Luke Seitz’s photos of the Gyrfalcon from Harbor Road on the evening of Saturday, January 17th (note especially the bird’s massive size and girth, and broad wings in relation to a Red-tailed Hawk that it took a run at).


2014-15 Freeport-Brunswick CBC: West Freeport Territory.

The Freeport-Brunswick Christmas Bird Count (CBC) was conducted on Saturday, January 3rd. With the exception of the last two winters in which we were away visiting family during the count, Jeannette and I have taken part in the count since 2004.

In our first year, as newcomers to the count, we were assigned the least-popular “West Freeport” territory, which includes all of Freeport west of I-295, a corner of Yarmouth and Durham, and a sliver of Pownal. With open water (in some winters) limited to a small stretch of the Cousin’s River and Pratt’s Brook and adjacent brackish marsh, the territory doesn’t get the diversity of the other sections, that include productive places like Cousin’s Island, Winslow Park, and Harpswell.

While Hedgehog Mountain Park and Florida Lake Park are included, these are not usually very productive places in the middle of winter. But I still enjoy being able to cover two of my favorite patches, plus our own backyard (which makes for a good excuse to take a mid-day break for a hot lunch while counting at our feeding station). But in order to adequately sample this large area, with lots of yards, woodlots, and scattered fields, adequately, Jeannette and I spend a lot of time walking.

And whether it’s a CBC or any other birding, I always prefer more time walking than driving. So instead of driving all of these suburban and exurban roads, we walk them. And we walk a lot. Leap-frogging each other with the car, walking one mile stretches at a time, we walk about 20 miles (about 11-12 miles each) in all, and drive only 18-20. In doing so, we pass by a lot of feeders, and encounter mixed species foraging flocks that we would most likely never detect by just driving around.

And so we count a lot of birds. We sift through hundreds of Black-capped Chickadees as we pick out the other members of the winter flock. We listen for finches, check out feeders, and otherwise just go birding! This is how I like to CBC!

One of the other things I particular enjoy about covering this territory is that I am able to quantify some of my impressions of the winter’s birding that I have been noting walking Sasha at the ‘Hog, or watching my own feeders, and just while birding in general.

This year, a lack of snowcover made for easy walking, but reduced concentrations of birds, especially at edges and feeders. Some of the impressions that I have had turned out to be true: although feeders are often a little slower than usual, there are plenty of birds around. Red-breasted Nuthatches are abundant, but Golden-crowned Kinglets are nearly absent. Irruptive finches are still in short supply, but I expect them to now increase as winter returns. There also seem to be a lot of Red-tailed Hawks around, Wild Turkeys and Red-bellied Woodpeckers continue to increase, and the daily “commute” of gulls overhead (which I often note from the yard and Florida Lake Park in particular) no longer occurs following the closing of a feed lot in Auburn (gulls used to travel from Casco Bay to and from this and other Lewiston-Auburn feeding locations).

Dan Nickerson joined us this year, also welcoming the opportunity to bird his neighborhood as well, and making sure his feeder birds get counted. And we really lucked out with the weather. It was indeed the calm before the storm, with light winds all day and the first flurries not falling until we were at the wrap-up in the evening. It was cold though: 10F to start, with a high of only 21F. Increasing humidity and cloud cover made for a very raw afternoon, and a bone-chilling day. That lunch break at our feeders was a necessary respite today, as was some hot chai.

Due to the complex geography of the circle, we actually have two compilers, and two compilations, splitting the long peninsulas of the eastern edge off from the rest of the circle. Therefore, we usually speak of the western half of the circle (nicknamed “The Bean Count”) when comparing our numbers. Of the western half teams, we tallied 9 high counts, and had the only Common Redpolls, White-winged Crossbills, and Northern Shrike of the parties in our area.

The bird of the day was definitely the four White-winged Crossbills that Dan and I had departing a feeder on Beech Hill Road in Freeport. Jeannette and I were very excited to find a shrike at Hidden Pond Preserve where we also hope to see one, and hopefully the two Common Redpolls that flew over us on Granite Road in Yarmouth are a sign of things to come.

But my highlight was the Red-bellied Woodpecker that Dan and I found along Hunter Road. As we were coming up onto the Hunter Road Fields, the Red-bellied called and we spotted it at the edge of the road. I greatly amused Dan, apparently, as I sprinted across the road, got my feet onto the Hunter Road Fields property – which is part of my Hedgehog Mountain Patch List area – and logged the Red-belly for my 148th Patch Bird! …A long overdue, border-line nemesis patch bird at that!

Good conversation throughout the day, and Stella’s chili at the wrap-up at the store, were icing on today’s frosty cake. While our crossbills were one of the best birds of “The Bean Count” area, one could argue the Snowy Owl found at Brunswick Landing would take the crown. 31 Northern Pintails in the “Winter of the Pintail” at Simpson’s Point may have been the most unexpected, along with a Common Grackle in Brunswick, and two Barrow’s Goldeneyes were other highlights.

Because Jeannette and I conduct the CBC with such a consistent route and methodology, I find it unusually valuable to compare data from year to year. Therefore, as I offer the list of this year’s sightings, in parenthesis, I also offer the average for our territory. An *asterix signifies a new record high for our territory.

American Black Duck (8): 4
Wild Turkey (12): 23
Cooper’s Hawk (<1): 1
Red-tailed Hawk (1): 4*
Herring Gull (23): 3
Rock Pigeon (14): 19
Mourning Dove (47): 54
Red-bellied Woodpecker (<1): 2*
Downy Woodpecker (12): 26*
Hairy Woodpecker (7): 27*- by almost triple the previous high!
Pileated Woodpecker (2): 1
Blue Jay (66): 97
American Crow (76): 66
Common Raven (2): 3
Black-capped Chickadee (283): 380
Tufted Titmouse (24): 48*
Red-breasted Nuthatch (13): 44*- by more than triple!
White-breasted Nuthatch (20): 45*
Brown Creeper (3): 2
Golden-crowned Kinglet (13): 0 – our first-ever miss of this species
American Robin (42): 7
European Starling (14): 7
American Tree Sparrow (24): 30
Song Sparrow (1): 3*
White-throated Sparrow (1): 1
Dark-eyed Junco (15): 34
Northern Cardinal (5): 21* – more than double the previous high
House Finch (6): 3
American Goldfinch (63): 66
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: 4* 1st territory record.
House Sparrow (12): 22

Total (31): 33 species.

The “West Freeport” section of the Freeport-Brunswick CBC doesn’t offer the rarities of the “Moody” section that I annually cover on the York County CBC, nor does it offer the intrigue and surprises when I cover the Portland Peninsula on the Greater Portland CBC. However, this is our “home field” CBC, and with thorough coverage, we quantify a nice sample of what occurs away from the shorelines in the winter. I look forward to learning more, counting lots of chickadees, and getting my exercise on next year’s CBC.

2015 Maine State List Predictions

It’s that time of the year again! Time for me to look into my birding crystal ball, and make random guesses…err, insightful, educated, prognostications about what the next year will bring to Maine and birders’ state lists.

But first, let’s, as usual, review the previous year. For the full list of 2014 species predictions, you can visit my blog from last January here.

Two species were added to Maine’s all-time list in 2014, a Brewer’s Sparrow on Monhegan in May, and a Crested Caracara in Unity (and later in Norridgewock) in August. While both species were on my “long list” for future additions, neither made the top 25. Following the report in the spring of 2014 of a Crested Caracara in New Brunswick (the 2013 caracara in Nova Scotia – and NJ – was apparently not a fluke…albeit distinctly possible to have been the same individual), there’s little doubt Crested Caracara would have made it onto the list this year. But I don’t update the list as the year progresses, so alas, no credit for me.

Meanwhile, perhaps even more remarkable, was the Tufted Puffin seen sporadically off of Machias Seal Island in June and July. Without getting into geopolitical boundary disputes, I believe both Maine (waters to south and east of island at least) and New Brunswick (definitely when it was on land) can claim this bird. While the puffin was not technically new for Maine, it was the first record – and unequivocal record – since a somewhat-disputed record claimed by Audubon in 1834.

Next, I would like to call attention to #23 – Bermuda Petrel, an annual species that is on my list, but this is the lowest it has appeared. However, it very already occurred in Maine. Geolocator (“data-loggers”)data from researchers puts the birds well into the Gulf of Maine, and even within the margin of error, perhaps several birds have appeared within the usual boundaries association with state bird lists (it is well beyond the 3 mile political zone).

“Conservation and At-Sea Range of Bermuda Petrel” by Jeremy Madeiros, Bob Flood, and Kirk Zufelt in the June-July 2014 issue of North American Birds (V.67, no. 4) includes a map (p.555) of hundreds of locations from around the Atlantic Basin, including about a half-dozen within the Gulf of Maine.

(Members of the American Birding Association can read the article in its entirety here)

Whether or not we “believe” geolocators are accurate enough to document an occurrence is a discussion for another time, but I predict a bird will be seen or confidently tracked into nearby waters in the future. Therefore, that species has moved up the list. Neotropic Cormorant’s continued increase to the north and east, with increasing frequency of vagrants, bumps that species up quite a bit as well. I shuffled things around near the end as well, including replacing Yellow-legged Gull with Black-tailed Godwit

Otherwise, I have made few changes to my list of the next 25 species to appear in Maine:
1) California Gull
2) Graylag Goose
3) Neotropic Cormorant
4) Roseate Spoonbill
5) Ross’s Gull
6) Fieldfare
7) Hammond’s Flycatcher
8) Bermuda Petrel
9) Black-chinned Hummingbird
10) Spotted Towhee
11) Audubon’s Shearwater (on “hypothetical” list, but I think the record is a good one)
12) Little Stint
13) Anna’s Hummingbird
14) Redwing
15) Barolo Shearwater
16) Allen’s Hummingbird
17) Black-tailed Gull
18) Common Ground-Dove
19) Western Wood-Pewee
20) Spotted Redshank
21) Gray Flycatcher
22) Black-tailed Godwit
23) Brown-chested Martin
24) Long-billed Murrelet
25) Common Scoter

Personally, I added two species to my own “State List” this year, the Brewer’s Sparrow (not on my predictions list) during my MonhegZen Spring Migration Weekend:

And, on the MonhegZen Fall Migration Weekend, I finally added Yellow-headed Blackbird to my state list (after moving it out if the top 10 for the first year, dropping it all the way down to #24 for some reason – probably out of frustration about still not having seen one…it worked!)

(And yes, this is why birders go to Monhegan Island!)

Once again, I didn’t make it up north to look for American Three-toed Woodpeckers (#2), which were again reliable near Baxter State Park, and despite Great Skua (#3) being seen regularly off of Bar Harbor this summer, I only made it offshore on a whale watch there once in October – on a skua-free day. I did not see the reported Western Grebe (#9) off of Harpswell last week, and I missed the Crested Caracara three times! I also did not chase a Tundra Swan (#12) in Winterport in October, or a Virginia’s Warbler (long list) on Monhegan. I also did not see a Cerulean Warbler (long list) that was on Monhegan this fall as well.

So, without any further ado, here are my predictions for the next 25 species to be added to my personal list here in Maine (with quite a bit of reshuffling this year):
1) American Three-toed Woodpecker
2) Great Skua
3) Eurasian Collared-Dove
4) Slaty-backed Gull
5) Gyrfalcon
6) Graylag Goose
7) Say’s Phoebe
8) Western Grebe
9) American White Pelican
10) Boreal Owl
11) Fork-tailed Flycatcher
12) Tundra Swan
13) Yellow Rail
14) Sabine’s Gull
15) Franklin’s Gull
16) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
17) California Gull
18) Ivory Gull
19) Calliope Hummingbird
20) Cerulean Warbler
21) White Ibis
22) Gull-billed Tern
23) Hammond’s Flycatcher
24) Loggerhead Shrike
25) Neotropic Cormorant

So there it is, the annual list. Now, it’s time to go birding!