Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Sod-pipers and Suds, 9/9/18

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Our latest Birds on Tap -Roadtrip! With our partner, The Maine Brew Bus traveled far afield on September 9th to take advantage of an unique seasonal birding hotspot.

When Saco River Brewing Company in Fryeburg invited us out to visit them, Don and I pulled out the good ol’ Delorme and came up with a plan. For a few weeks each late summer/early fall, the extensive sod farms in Fryeburg Harbor and nearby agricultural fields are a genuine birding hotspot. In fact, it is one of the best destinations in the state for a group of uncommon migrant shorebirds collectively – and affectionately – known as “grass-pipers.” In Maine, the two most sought-after grass-pipers” are very uncommon (and in some years downright rare): the elegant Buff-breasted Sandpiper and the spiffy Baird’s Sandpiper. Less uncommon, but still sought-after, American Golden-Plovers are also thrown into this un-taxonomic grouping that also includes the very common and familiar Killdeer, the boisterous sentinels of the grasspiper clan.

Furthermore, Fryeburg Harbor is a great place to look for Sandhill Cranes at this time of year, so “Sod-pipers and Suds” was born (with a little poetic license in changing “grass-pipers” to “sod-pipers” to keep our alliterative traditions going).

Our furthest drive of the Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! series, we passed the time with lots of good discussion on status and distribution, bird conservation issues, beer preferences, and a whole lot more. And yes, there was a stop for a restroom.

A flock of 10 Sandhill Cranes was reported the day before, so we began our search at that location. We arrived at the empty field, with little around except for Wild Turkeys and American Crows.  As I walked back on the road to scan one other field, I flushed an American Bittern, but then I heard the cranes calling. I began to run back to the group to get them, but then realized the cranes were heading towards the group, and by the time I arrived, the cranes had obligingly landed right where we were all standing!
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After enjoying the cranes for a while, we were able to relocate the American Bittern. Then, we headed to the sod farms to begin our search for the shorebirds. It has been very dry of late, and the fields were hard as a rock; invertebrates would be safely locked in below the surface. We did not find any standing water on the fields, not surprisingly, and the recently-harvested patches of sod which are often favored by the birds were lifeless.

We looked at Song and Savannah Sparrows, had a Cooper’s Hawk fly by low overhead, but we couldn’t even find a Killdeer as we slowly walked the quiet rural roads. There had to be Killdeer somewhere around here, and if we found them, we would find whatever else might be lurking with them.

The final habitat to search, especially when it was so bone-dry, is where a tractor had recently tilled the soil, bringing invertebrates and insects within reach of the short bills of these grassland shorebirds. And sure enough, the last field in the prime area had a tractor actively tilling. It had to be the place!

We walked over to the field, and began to scan – looking for earth-colored birds in freshly tilled earth. When one member of the group finally spotted a Killdeer, our optimism returned. I buried myself in the scope, and despite brutal heat shimmer, glimpsed what looked like a Buff-breasted Sandpiper.

We improved our angle, cut down a bit on shimmer, and in short time, all soaked in the glory of finding a Buff-breasted Sandpiper!  It was indeed hanging out with 6 Killdeer, in the most-freshly-turned soil.  Success! This is one of our only BoT destinations that really had specific “target species” so we were all very pleased (especially the guide!) with seeing the most-wanted of the targets.

One last field stop produced a stunning view and an American Kestrel…
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…and then Paul took us to our first beer-ing destination of the tour to celebrate our birding success. Unlike all of our other itineraries, our first stop was not announced…and it was not a brewery. You knew it was going to be special, but no one guessed what Paul and I had in store for them today.  “Holy —-, we’re at Ebenezer’s!” was the exclamation from one participant as Paul turned off the beaten path and into one of the most famous beer destinations in the world.

I’ll let their sign speak for itself.

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While we generally drive you to places where the beverages are made, this time, special arrangements were made for us to drop into this world-class location: Ebenezer’s Pub in Lovell. A two-page menu was provided, with 32 beers from around the world. Paul and I – and especially the bartender Liz and staff that took care of us – guided us through the selections. These beers were special, and although the menu was overwhelming, not one person could find more than one beer (Allagash White!) or two (a couple of the Barreled Souls options had been enjoyed by some) that they had ever had, and for the most part, had not even heard of.  There were lots of “lifers” today!
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Personally, I went for the Fantome (from Belgium) Boo! Saison, which Liz described as “fall in a glass.” Subtle pumpkin and spices proved what “pumpkin beer” can really be, with just a hint of sweetness and nutty complexity, far beyond the liquefied canned pie mix that many of us (myself included) think of when we think of pumpkin beers. I chose it because pumpkin beers are not my thing – as you may have guessed from the previous sentence!) and BoT-Roadtrips! are about learning new beers and often, challenging your palette and preferences.
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Different beers were ordered by all, and sips were exchanged, and lots of great beer was experienced. Liz guided us through the history of how this unassuming little golf-course-side restaurant has become one of the most award-winning bars in the world.  Numerous promises to be back were made as we departed.

After a surprise like a visit to Ebenezer’s, you’d think our next stop would be a let down,but that was not at all the case. While Saco River Brewing Company might have fewer accolades on their sign, they have rapidly acquired a very loyal following and are brewing a wide range of very good and very popular beers. Mason – the co-owner and head brewer – greeted us warmly, and welcomed us into the brewery.

In both the birding and beer-ing realms, the goal of our Roadtrips is primarily an educational experience. Therefore, it was very welcome to spend time with Mason as he explained the brewing process, discussed his expansion into the world of canning (with a mobile unit), and described the wide variety of styles that he has become known for.
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Then, it was time for the beer!
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Paul selected three options to get us started, beginning with the Clearwater Pale  – a hoppy pale that offered very good flavor with a light, “crushable” body. Next up was their new Lazy River IPA – the hazy, juice-bomb that has become known as the “New England IPA) chock full of tropical fruit and citrus notes, amplified by the use of lupulin powder. Relatively new on the brewing scene, lupulin – the fine powder of resin compounds and essential oils found in a fresh hop cone (technically, the flower) – adds a ton of aroma and flavor without adding to bitterness. In fact, the discussion of “hoppy verses bitter” was one of the revelations for some that Mason adeptly described as we sipped his not-bitter, yet definitely hoppy, brews.

Our third beer turned out to be the majority favorite of the bus, the Buck Brown Ale – very nutty, creamy, and easy-drinking; perfect for those who crave malt flavors with a lighter body than a stout or porter.
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As always, whether in birding or at our breweries, we never have enough time, so before we knew it, it we had to hit the road. It’s always a good sign when beers are purchased to take home, and several folks left with 4-packs of the newest Saco River Brewing cans.

The drive home went quickly, as we recounted the beers we had, and the birds we saw. Discussions on everything from the status and distribution of migratory shorebirds, citizen science “data,” and the growth of Maine craft beer and beer styles passed the time.

And with that, one of the most unique of our Birds on Tap – Roadtrips! came to a close. As we soon ponder the itineraries for 2019, don’t forget that there are still three more one-of-a-kind tours in 2018, starting with October’s “Migrants and Malts.”  All of these trips can be found on the  Tours, Events, and Workshops Page of our website.  If you missed out on this special trip – check out what’s in store for October. You won’t want to miss it!

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