Monthly Archives: November 2017

An Incredible 2017 “Fall Ducks and Draughts!”

One of the most popular Birds on Tap – Roadtrips! is our annual “Fall Ducks and Draughts.” One of the original two BoT – Roadtrips! back in 2015, this popular outing visits Sabattus Pond near the peak of fall waterfowl migration with our partners, The Maine Brew Bus.

It rarely disappoints, but today it far surpassed expectations! We began at the south beach, where an American Coot was a surprise. However, more surprising was the flock of shorebirds littered around the south end. While many of the 30 or so Dunlin took off and kept going, about 10 White-rumped Sandpipers returned and landed right in front of the group, no more than about 30 feet away! We were able to carefully study the progression from juvenile to 1st winter plumage, with most individuals, such as these two, mostly still in colorful juvenile plumage (with one bigger, grayer Dunlin in the background).

With our focus back on waterfowl, we began to sort through the masses, starting with 6 spiffy Northern Pintails joining the Mallards nearby, while one lone female Green-winged Teal quickly paddled away. 18 Ring-necked Ducks loafed just a little further offshore, providing a good intro to the genus Aythya. Sabattus Pond is famous for its legions of Ruddy Ducks, and this cute little “stiff tail” was out in full force. We had a couple of hundred nearby, but a distant raft of many hundreds remained just a little too far to enjoy. We also began our comparison of Greater and Lesser Scaup, and took a moment to learn about the Chinese Mystery Snail that makes up a large percentage of the food source of all of the diving ducks we were here to enjoy.

I had set the over/under for waterfowl species at 13.5, and our list quickly began to grow: Buffleheads, Hooded Mergansers a’plenty, but surprisingly only one Common Merganser and a mere three Canada Geese. American Black Ducks and a single hen American Wigeon made for a tally of 13 species of waterfowl; just falling short of covering the spread…in part because we never did make it to our third stop!

Over at Martin’s Point Park on the southwest side of the pond, we worked the dabbling ducks and enjoyed stunning Hooded Mergansers. Then, I finally had a nice, close group of the two scaup species in perfect light to give us a lesson in how to identify this challenging species-pair.

We began to walk closer, I began the lecture, and then I heard a call note from the trees that stopped me dead in my tracks. It was not a Yellow-rumped Warbler – the only expected warbler species at this season – and it’s sharp tone was very suggestive. I knew it wasn’t supposed to be here, whatever it was, and my suspicions of its identity were soon proven correct when a gorgeous Yellow-throated Warbler popped out!

Sticking close to the trunk of some large Eastern White Pines, it foraged within a small mixed-species foraging flock of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, White-breasted Nuthatches, and Golden-crowned Kinglets before eventually disappearing towards the neighborhood.

This is a real rarity in Maine, and because of the white in the front of the supercilium, we know it is of the interior subspecies albilora, and therefore not likely the result of the recent storm system. While there was unprecedented three together on Monhegan earlier in the month, this is quite the rarity, especially so far inland, and especially in Androscoggin County (I couldn’t help but wonder if there has ever been a record of this species anywhere in the county).

Unfortunately, in the meantime, some fisherman came to the shoreline, and the closest scaup departed. We did have a slightly farther raft to work through, but I ended up having to employ my rudimentary artistic skills to explain how to differentiate the two species!
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It was truly hard to leave the pond today, and I of course couldn’t help but wonder what was around the next corner, but it was time to switch gears, turn our attention to Dawn – our driver and beer guide today – and make our way over to Baxter Brewing Company, you know, to celebrate our vagrant warbler discovery!

At Baxter, housed in one of the beautifully restored mills down by the Androscoggin River, we enjoyed five samples of their most popular beers. We learned about their philosophy and history – including the noteworthy fact that they were the first 100% canning brewery in Maine – and sampled some of their best selling beers, such as Pamola pale, Tarnation lager, Per Diem stout, and the venerable Stowaway IPA. We also sampled Ceremony Green Tea IPA which surprised a lot of people and showed off the creativiTEA (sorry, I couldn’t help myself) of the brewery.


We stepped outside of the brewery and were once again greeted by the local Peregrine Falcon atop the steeple of the Franco-American Heritage Center. After a few minutes of enjoying it through the scope, we hit the road, and discussed the beers we had just sampled. People’s favorites were rather evenly divided, aligning with their preferred style of beer, showing that Baxter really does offer something for everyone.

We followed the Androscoggin River towards the coast, and soon arrived at Maine Beer Company. MBC needs no introduction – at least if you are into IPAs or hoppy pales – but with so many folks on the trip today from “away” and/or making their first visit to this popular destination, we started things off with none other than their Peeper – their first brew that got it all started.

Spenser came out to introduce the beers and tell us all about how MBC is dedicated to “do(ing) what’s right.” And that philosophy transcends the beer.

They graciously offered everyone a choice of their next samples (I of course followed Lunch with Another One) and then Spenser really rolled out the red carpet for us, taking the group on a rare behind-the-scenes tour of their brewhouse…including a sneak peek at the massive new expansion that is underway. Clearly, Spenser’s excitement was evident and the group came out of this special tour absolutely bursting with MBC enthusiasm, and lots of promises to be back soon.

Thirteen species of waterfowl, many up close and personal. A most-unexpected rarity that no one in the group had seen in Maine before – and for some, a “life bird.” Urban Peregrine Falcon. Baxter Brewing Co and Maine Beer Company. Yeah, this is what Birds on Tap – Roadtrips are all about!

There are still some spaces left for the 10th and final Roadtrip of 2017, “Farms and Fermentation” coming up on Sunday, December 10th. And stay tuned – we’ll soon be announcing all TWELVE BoT Roadtrips for 2018!

Why There are No Birds at Your Feeders Right Now (November 2017 but mostly applies to Fall of 2019!)

Fall favorites at feeders, Dark-eyed Juncos have been slow to arrive in yards due to a combination of factors. This blog will attempt to explain why, in this case, the sky is not in fact falling.

For most of the past two months, we have been spending our time here at the store mostly answering the question “Where are all of my (feeder) birds?”

Your feeders have been slow. Our feeders have been slow. And feeders throughout all of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic have been slow. We’ve talked to reporters about this. We’ve talked to our seed distributor about this. And we have talked to many of you, our loyal customers and friends, about it. We’ve also written about it on our Facebook page, in our eNewsletter, and a synopsis will appear in the next edition of Freeport Wild Bird Supply News.

But I wanted to expand on it here, and at the very least, have all of the FACTS in one place.

Let’s start with this: Birds always prefer natural food sources (our feeders are only a helpful supplement) so if they can find what they need in their natural habitats, they do not need to visit our feeders nearly as often. If there’s ever proof-positive to finally kill this silly myth about birds being dependent on feeders, seasons like this are it!

So let’s talk about what’s really happening. And as usual in nature, it’s not completely simple. It’s a myriad of issues and events that have collided in a “perfect storm” of low feeder activity scenarios.

1) Abundance of Natural Food Sources.
For the most part, it is the abundance – or paucity – of natural food that determines how much activity you will have in your yard. This is particularly significant for our seed-eaters, like finches and sparrows, and fruit-eaters, like waxwings. Many trees go through “masting” cycles. This is a survival strategy in which a tree will produce a huge amount of fruit or seed one fall, followed by one or more years of very little production. Therefore, in the high production years, there is so much seed/fruit that predators cannot possibly consume it all, and the tree is all but guaranteed that a large number of its seeds will survive to germinate.

This fall has been a high production year for several common tree species. The same acorns you are swearing at in your lawn are a big part of the reason that your have less birds at your feeders. Take a look at the spruces next time you are out for a walk in the woods; you will see that most of those trees are brimming with cones, especially White and Red Spruces. And I don’t recall the last time I’ve seen so many cones on Eastern White Pines.

Many seed crops are excellent to our north as well, so we will have to wait and see if our “winter finches”, such as Common Redpolls and Pine Siskins, make it down our way this year. Interestingly though, the spruce cone crop is the best it has been in over a decade in the northeast – this could bring big numbers of Red and White-winged Crossbills this winter, and large numbers have already arrived to breed in western and northern Maine (more on “irruptives” a little later).
Purple Finches have been in short supply this fall, and are likely to not be around much this winter due to plentiful favored foods to our north.

2) Record Mild Fall.
October is on pace to set an all-time record high by multiple degrees. This is an incredible deviation from average. When it’s this warm, the energy demands of our birds are lower, reducing the need to consume as many calories to keep warm. And the lack of snow or ice has kept natural food uncovered and accessible. Insects are still out, and open water is easy to come by.

3) Facultative Migrants
While most of our long-distance migrants (like warblers and orioles) are long gone, having returned home to the tropics, many of our later-season migrants (like blackbirds and most of our native sparrows, as well as most of our waterfowl) are facultative (or “flexible”) in their timing. They can adjust their respective arrival and departures based on abundance and/or access to food. Dark-eyed Juncos, White-throated Sparrows, Fox Sparrows, and the last wave of blackbirds are still not here in Southern Maine, lingering as far north as they can for as long as they can. These birds will move a short distance south as soon as they have to, and if the winter is a short one, they will begin to work their way north earlier – or even “overwinter” further north than normal. Not even a freak snowstorm will affect them – they are built for it, and will make range adjustments as needed.

4) Irruptives
With the abundance of natural food to our north, many species (such as the so-called “winter finches” like Purple Finch and Pine Siskin) are simply not coming south this year, although we do have hopes for the wintertime appearance of Common Redpolls. We expected this – as outlined in the annual Ontario Winter Finch Forecast – and those birds are very few and far between this fall. In fact, we knew in August that it would not be a “winter finch year” because of how few Red-breasted Nuthatches (only a handful in all!) were moving past Sandy Point in August and September. After record-setting flights in late summer/early fall last year, it was safe to assume that there would not be an irruption this year.

While residents are still around (in some winters they leave when our food is not abundant), they are busy feeding on the abundance of spruce and White Pine in our area.
White-winged Crossbills are in western and northern Maine…hopefully they’ll arrive at the coast this winter by way of post-breeding dispersal.

5) Memory Bias.
Humans inherently think of the recent past first, and so we find ourselves often comparing this fall to last fall, which saw exceptionally high feeder visitation thanks to the prolonged drought we had experienced throughout the summer, greatly reducing perennial seed crops. Some of the masting trees were at cyclical lows, and cyclical lows of many cone and seed crops. And irruptions of Red-breasted Nuthatches, and to a lesser extent Pine Siskin and Purple Finch, were underway.
Red-breasted Nuthatches have plenty of spruce, pine, and other natural food sources throughout our region this winter.

6) The Filthy Feeders and Stale Seed Catch-22.
When activity is low at feeders, we can become a bit blasé about maintenance. Not keeping feeders clean and filled with fresh seed will only make it less likely that birds will want to frequent your yard. And, with the recent prolonged wet weather, you want to make sure that mold is not becoming a problem, or that seed is not getting clogged in the feeder. No one likes to waste seed, but if it has been sitting in a feeder untouched for more than a month or so, it is time to toss it and start over. This is especially true for Nyjer, hulled sunflower, and shelled peanuts, which are most susceptible to the elements. (If you dump it in the woods, rest assured that something will eat it, or at the very least nothing will be harmed by it. If mold is visible, however, it is best to bury it). Clean your feeders, and disinfect them with a mixture of one part white vinegar to four parts water if mold was present. Fill your feeders halfway until activity builds up again if you are concerned about waste. When birds return and they find stale or spoiled seed in your feeders, they’ll continue right on by.

7) The Big Picture
We certainly do not want to downplay the significance of population declines in many of our bird species due to a whole host of large-scale issues (a topic for a different article), but rest assured that “your” birds are probably doing just fine from one year to the next over the short term. In fact, most of our resident “feeder birds” have steady, if not in some cases, increasing populations. Climate Change is affecting bird populations. Habitat loss is affecting bird populations. Cats are killing up to 4 BILLION birds a year. Windows are killing up to 1 BILLION birds a year. We could go on.
However, this has not changed in the past 6-8 weeks. Those long-term declines are often subtle and hard to detect without coordinated scientific investigation. We have absolutely zero evidence that populations have crashed in the short term. All it takes is a walk in the woods (like on our free Saturday Morning Birdwalks!) to see that the birds are out there. In fact, there are a lot of them out there, and they are doing just fine. They just don’t need our feeders right now.

8) It WILL Change!
Natural food supplies will slowly get used up, nights will get colder and longer, and our facultative migrants will come. Eventually, we’ll see some snow and ice that will make it harder to find the remaining natural food, and when all of those things happen, our feeders will be ready for them!

We hope this helps clear up some of the misinformation out there. And please do share this widely – we want to get the word out. And finally, if you have any additional questions, feel free to drop by the store.

December 13th Update:  With the arrival of winter – rather suddenly – here in Maine, including a second significant snowfall in a week followed by a thick coating of ice, the birds that have been around us all along – just not at feeders! – have come back in full force. Based on our own yard, our feeders here at the store, and numerous reports from customers in-person and via Facebook, it’s clear that birds have returned en masse. Dark-eyed Juncos have inundated many feeders once again (increase from 4-6 at home to 28 by the end of the day on the 12th) as the ground got covered. And American Goldfinches, that have been numerous in the woods feeding on birch and alder, descended on nyjer feeders (as long as that seed was fresh!) as ice coated the trees. For example, we increased from 2-4 a day at home and up to 4 a day at our store to 12 and 14, respectively by the morning of the 13th). But alas, still no “winter finches” in our neck of the woods. They’re back…for now.
Are Common Redpolls on their way for the winter to cure the bird feeding blues? The Winter Finch Forecasts suggests that they will get here, eventually.