Monthly Archives: April 2016

Western Grebe at Simpson’s Point (4/17/16)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what a hotspot of Simpson’s Point in Brunswick currently is. I also predicted that it was about due for another rarity. And recently, with increasing numbers of migrant ducks, my Rarity Fever was further stoked.

Last Thursday, I counted an amazing 2600 Black Scoters – a really ridiculous count for interior Casco Bay. After enjoying a growing number of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers among other migrants (first of year Swamp Sparrows, etc) at Florida Lake this am, I took advantage of the finally-calm conditions to visit them again, and perhaps do a little sorting through the masses.

Those scoters were still present this morning, and the goodly number of Horned Grebes (20+ each day) continued. Horned Grebes molting into breeding plumage can look a lot like vagrant Eared Grebes, especially as the blond tufts are still growing in. I was scanning a small raft of Horned Grebes, thinking about finding the second Eared Grebe record for here.

That’s when I found…a Western Grebe! Not only was this a significant rarity, it was actually a “State Bird” for me (the first time I have seen the bird in the state). A long overdue one that was becoming a nemesis of sorts, it was #6 on my latest predictions list for my next 25 species to see in Maine. And of course, it is always sweeter and more rewarding for me to find it for myself.

It was not close, but the distinctive shape and profile was unmistakable. The relatively short body riding low on the water – like all grebes – looked disproportionally small as that long and skinny neck was craned up. The long bill and fairly large head (relative to the width of the neck) further added to the bird’s distinctive profile.

Upon closer look, the two-toned black-and-white neck and face was obvious. There’s little doubt as to this bird was a member of the genus Aechmophorus – Western and Clark’s Grebe. Luckily, as the active bird moved a smidge closer, I was able to scrutinize several features that ruled out Clark’s. For one, the black hindneck was evenly wide, not narrow and thin, and not pinching toward the top. Although it was too far to see the details of the face, it definitely did not look “white-faced” and I certainly could not see the eye (On Clark’s, the eye stands out in the white face in breeding plumage, on Western, the eye is harder to see as it is enshrouded by dusky black). The bill also looked yellow, but not as bright “banana yellow” or even orange-y like Clark’s.

But it was far, and perhaps a hybrid could not fully be ruled out. However, with one record of Clark’s for Maine (and all of New England) and with at least a dozen or so records of Western for Maine alone, there’s a fair “percentage play.”

Anyway, like many birds at Simpson’s Point, it was off to the east, and the light was not great in the mid-morning. After diving several times, it began to preen, and then loafed for a bit before tucking in its sinuous neck and falling asleep (had I scanned while it was asleep, I probably would have never picked it up!). In between, I managed to rattle off a bunch of phone-scoped “documentation” shots. Well, for what they are worth…

And here’s another lousy photo, from 4/21. However, it was in better light, so the bill color is a little more evident. However, the overexposure of the distant phone-scoped photo makes the face look much more whiter than it really is.

Putative Ring-necked Duck x Scaup Sp Hybrid on Sabattus Pond, 4/11/16



On Monday, April 11th, Jeannette and I found a fascinating duck, clearly of the genus Aythya, at Sabattus Pond in Sabattus.  Off of Martin’s Point Park in the southwest corner of the pond, it was hanging out with a mixed flock of Ring-necked Ducks and Lesser Scaup.

Appropriate enough, because this bird appears to be a hybrid between Ring-necked Duck (RNDU) and one of the two scaup species! Unfortunately, it was windy, a light rain was falling, and so my phone-scoped attempts at the moderately-distant bird don’t capture this critter in all of his glory. But, they’re good enough for “documentation,” and they offer a chance to do a little analysis.

2nd from the left, with Ring-necked Ducks.

2nd from the left, with Lesser Scaup pair and a drake Ring-necked Duck

With Ring-necked Ducks, Lesser Scaup, and a Bufflehead. Note the apparent size (see below).

The hybrid (right), with Ring-necked Duck and overexposed Lesser Scaup.


Note the dark gray back (intermediate between RNDU and scaup) and the gentle curve on the upper edge of the sides, very much like a RNDU. The sides and flanks are very pale gray, also intermediate between RNDU and breeding plumages scaup. There’s also a narrow whiter area on the front of the chest-sides, suggestive of the distinct white “spur” on the sides of RNDU.

The head shape is also intermediate, with a decidedly peak-headed appearance that is closer to RNDU than either scaup, with a fairly straight nape and the peak at the rear of the head. The bill has a wide, but diffuse pale subterminal ring, suggestive of RNDU as well, but not as crisp or narrow (and no additional ring at the base of the bill). I could not see the width of the black tip at this distance, nor did I have the ability to see if there was a maroon ring around its neck (the namesake, if not very field-worthy, ring-neck of the Ring-necked Duck!).

So, it’s clearly part RNDU. Whether the other half is Greater Scaup (GRSC) or Lesser Scaup (LESC), well, that is another question entirely. While RNDU x LESC are the expected species pair (in large part due to an extensively-overlapping breeding range) that Reeber calls “regular,” RNDU x GRSC have also been recorded.

I never saw the spread wing, and I think a detailed and sharp photo of the wingbar could shed some light on the subject. Short of that – or preferably, a DNA analysis – we can’t say for sure, but there were two interesting observations.


Note the Lesser Scaup on the left and the apparent size of the hybrid compared to it and the nearby Ring-necked Ducks. 

For one thing, in all lights, the head had a distinctly greenish sheen; never purple.  While head color on scaup is notoriously misleading and the interpretation of it is of little value for ID in most conditions, I found it interesting that when seen side-by-side with LESC, it still always looked green as the LESC looked purple (as does RNDU). However, Reeber notes that this hybrid pairing can have a green sheen as well. Remember, not all characteristics of hybrids are necessarily intermediate.

However, the one thing that was intriguing about the possibility of a GRSC  as the other parent (documented, but likely exceptionally rare) is that in almost every angle, the hybrid was noticeably larger than the LESC it was occasionally with, and it usually appeared larger than the RNDUs. Unfortunately, no GRSC were present – they were all on the other side of the pond today. If this bird was indeed larger than RNDU, it’s hard to imagine that one parent was the even smaller LESC. But with a scope shaking in the wind, the play of light on light colors verses dark, and the inherent subjectivity of the judgment of size, I would not swear to it that this bird was large enough to rule out LESC as one of the two parents.  Therefore, I am most comfortable with calling this a Ring-necked Duck x Scaup species hybrid. A rare and beautiful bird regardless!

The hybrid (left) with Lesser Scaup and Ring-necked Duck.

Reeber, Sebastien. 2015. Wildfowl of Europe, Asia, and North America. Christopher Helm: London.

Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Spring Ducks and Draughts 2016

NOPI female1, Riverbank Park, 1-9-12_edited-1
One of the trips’ highlights was the two dozen Northern Pintail at the Mouth of the Abby. We enjoyed the gorgeous males, but also took time to appreciate the subtle beauty of the hens. We also learned how to separate “all the brown ducks” but considering shape and size. Female Northern Pintail, April 2009 – Riverbank Park, Westbrook.

On Sunday, our “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” tour headed up to the spring waterfowl hotspot of Merrymeeting Bay. The Spring edition of “Ducks and Draughts” focused on the multitudes of waterbirds that congregate on this productive body of water with our partners at the Maine Brew Bus.

With the abnormally (even by modern standard) early spring, ice was out on ponds, lakes, and rivers to our north well over a month ago. Not surprisingly then, diving ducks were few. Dabbling ducks, however, are still present in great numbers, taking advantage of the food resources (last year’s wild rice and other seeds) in the fine mud of the bay’s extensive flats.

After a quick stop at Bowdoinham’s Mailley Park (Double-crested Cormorants, Common Mergansers, and my first Pied-billed Grebe of the year), we moved over to the famous “Mouth of the Abby,” where the Abagadasset River drains into the bay proper. And it most definitely did not disappoint: About 1,000 American Black Ducks were joined by 200 or so Green-winged Teal, at least 100 Mallards, a goodly tally of 24 Northern Pintails, a dozen more Common Mergansers, 8 Canada Geese, a mere 8 Ring-necked Ducks, and a pair of Wood Ducks. 6 Killdeer also foraged on the flats, and the second Bald Eagle of the day passed right overhead.
With Jill hard at work taking photos for the paper.

The three Wood Ducks in the small pond on Brown’s Point Road flushed as the bus approached, and they didn’t let us get much closer on foot as we walked back. A Cooper’s Hawk was well seen, however.

After squiggling cross-country to Newcastle, we pulled into the brewery and rustic tasting room of Oxbow. After a couple of samples – Bandolier, their spring printemps was one of the favorites; it certainly was mine – Rocky took us on a tour of the brewery, and a part of the impressive property.

Oxbow’s connection to the land is evident, from the sour cherry orchard to the welfare of their livestock (pigs coming soon!). We learned about the philosophy of their beer, and some of the new and creative things they’re working on.
Sorry folks, not “countable!”

After another round, it was back on the road, as we weaved our way through scenic rural vistas to Brunswick, where we made a quick stop at Bay Bridge Landing Park. We hoped to add a previously-reported Eurasian Wigeon to our waterfowl list, but the tide was already too high, and the low pass from a Bald Eagle – our 6th or 7th of the day – probably did not help matters! However, a low pass of an Osprey, hovering right overhead, was a nice consolation prize.

Lively Brewing at Ebenezer’s Brewpub was our second brewery stop of the day. Kelso offered up three samples of some of their representative beers, guiding us through the different styles and some of the intriguing and creative options they play with here.

Whether it’s the birding or the beer-ing portion of these tours, there really is never enough time, so before we all knew it (time really does indeed fly when you are having fun; please excuse the pun) it was time to head back to Freeport and Portland, bringing another fun and successful Birds on tap – Roadtrip! to a close.

So that’s my recap on the trip. But this tour welcomed Meredith Goad, the food writer from the Portland Press Herald on board. You know you have a unique collaboration when you have a food writer wanting write about a birding tour! For Meredith’s perspective, comments from the participants, and more information about this truly unique birds and beer tour concept, check out Meredith’s excellent article in today’s paper!

Needless to say, the rest of the year’s four tours are filling up fast! For more information on those, see the Tours, Events, Programs, and Workshops Page of our website, and check out my blog about all of this year’s journeys. And don’t forget about Birds on Tap – Monhegan! in May.

My beautiful picture

No matter how common they might be, there are few things more stunning than a drake Mallard!

Simpson’s Point, Brunswick – Our Local Duck Hotspot.

Common Goldeneyes, Common Mergansers, and Greater Scaup (Vermont, March 2014)

Simpson’s Point in Brunswick, at the northern end of Middle Bay (Delorme Map 6: C-3) has become one of the best waterbird-watching spots in Casco Bay over the last few years. That trend continues this spring, with outstanding concentrations of waterfowl.

While there might not be a rarity or an addition to your year list right now, I highly encourage a visit to see the concentration (a scope is highly recommended), and it is certainly ripe for a rarity to be discovered!

I visited the point twice times this week, each yielding some remarkable counts (my attempts to visit it for a third time today was thwarted by unexpectedly dense fog). The first number is the count or estimate from 3/26 with my Saturday Morning Birdwalk group, and the second is from Monday, 3/27 with Jeannette.

– Mixed Black and Surf Scoters (roughly 60-65% Black: 1200/2100. A really incredibly count for the bay, this is by far the largest raft(s) of scoters I have seen within Casco Bay.
– Mixed Scaup (at least 80% Greater, but plenty of Lesser usually visible): 650/650. Down a few hundred birds from the massive overwintering flock.
– American Black Duck: 100/40
– Common Goldeneye: 75/40
– Bufflehead: 50/125
– Common Eider: 40/60
– Horned Grebe: 43/30
– Red-breasted Merganser: 10/25
– Common Loon: 5/3
– White-winged Scoter: 0/2

While more birder attention has definitely worked in its favor, it was always a well-known duck-watching hotspot. However, these numbers are outstanding, even based on the renewed attention to this spot over the last few years. I wonder what has changed? Sure, this winter the water was open and that kept the scaup around, but what is attracting all of these scoters? Is there a new food source? Is there a lack of some food somewhere else?

But it’s the oversummering birds (exceptionally rare for the state birds in summer like scoters, Red-necked Grebes and Red-throated Loons, and Long-tailed Ducks) that really suggest the uniqueness of this area. While rarities over the past few years, including Eared Grebe and Pacific Loon, have put this spot “on the map,” it is the numbers of common birds and small numbers of oversummering “winter” ducks that is most noteworthy. Is it nothing more than more birders paying more attention in mid-summer? I certainly am.

So go out and have a look, and perhaps you’ll get there on the day the scaup are close enough to pull out a Tufted Duck!

Meanwhile, nearby Wharton Point is always worth a visit, and can easily be combined with a trip to Simpson’s. Currently, it is hosting more typical-for-here large numbers of dabblers, led by American Black Ducks (800/495). On 3/28, Jeannette and I teased out a pair of American Wigeon and 1 Green-winged Teal from the masses, while 8 Dunlin were on the flats.

So in between the excitement of new arrivals, hawkwatching, and the anticipation of the diversity of May, I know I’ll be taking some more time to do a little local ducking!