Daily Archives: January 2, 2019

2019 Maine Birds Predictions Blog

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Great friggin’ Black Hawk. In Maine. Nope, not on my predictions list. And not in a city. And not eating squirrels. And not in the snow…

Yup, it’s that time of year again. Hey, remember when we couldn’t wait for 2017 to end? And then 2018 happened? Yeah, well…come on 2019 – we need you! But 2018 did feature some incredible birding in Maine, with some “Mega” rarities that at least provided temporary distraction from everything else.

And as 2018 comes to a close, it’s once again time for my annual Predictions Blog, where I view into my crystal binoculars and attempt to forecast some of the “new” birds to grace the State of Maine, and my own personal state list, in the coming year.

But first, let us check in with my 2018 Predictions post, and see how I did.

For the second year in a row, an impressive five birds were new to Maine in 2018. The first new bird of the year was a Violet-green Swallow in Bar Harbor on April 14th. I had that on my long Honorable Mention list, but I did not have it ranked in the top 25.

But I did have Roseate Spoonbill at #4, and one arrived in a farm pond Sebec on August 27th (NOT where I would have predicted the first record to be!). I, and many others, were lucky enough to see this bird during its stay of several weeks.

A Western Wood-pewee in June in Jonesport on June 12th provided the state’s first confirmed record, but it wasn’t chaseable. This was #17 on my Predictions List, but it would have been much higher if it was easier to identify, and especially confirm!

Monhegan got on the scoreboard once again when it hosted the state’s first Gray Flycatcher on October 4th – #20 on my list. I feel western Empids are under-detected in Maine, so this was probably more overdue than unexpected.

And the fifth, and certainly not least, was the incredible and mind-blowing Great Black Hawk that first showed up in Biddeford on August 6th and remained for a few exciting days. After a tantalizing sighting on October 30th on Portland’s Eastern Promenade, the bird has called Deering Oaks Park – and nearby neighborhoods – home since November 29th! Thousands of birders from across the continent have been treated to this insane occurrence. Not only is it a first for Maine, but it has been conclusively identified as the SAME BIRD that provided North America’s (US and Canada in birder-speak) first record on South Padre Island in Texas in April of this year. And no, I have no explanation for this…or how it’s still alive.
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So I went 3 for 5 on predictions for 2018. Not too bad! The Violet-green Swallow was on my Honorable Mentions list as well, but no, I – nor not another person on this planet – predicted a Great Black Hawk in Maine! And I was so very close on my #1: Neotropic Cormorant. Literally close, as in just a few miles, as New Hampshire’s first was discovered in Gorham in August, just up the Androscoggin River from the Maine border.

Therefore, my updated predictions for the next 25 species to occur in Maine for 2019 is now:

1) Neotropical Cormorant
2) Graylag Goose
3) California Gull
4) Spotted Towhee
5) Hammond’s Flycatcher
6) Bermuda Petrel
7) Black-chinned Hummingbird
8) Common Shelduck
9) Trumpeter Swan (of wild, “countable” origin)
10) Audubon’s Shearwater – on “hypothetical” list, but I think the record is good.
11) Little Stint
12) Anna’s Hummingbird
13) “Western” Flycatcher (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran)
14) Common Ground-Dove
15) Allen’s Hummingbird
16) Redwing
17) Spotted Redshank
18) Zone-tailed Hawk
19) Painted Redstart
20) Ross’s Gull (another one that was very close, being seen in NH/MA waters in November)
21) Lesser Nighthawk
22) Elegant Tern
23) Kelp Gull
24) Black-tailed Gull
25) Common Scoter

Personally, I added 3 species to my own Maine list this year as well. There was the aforementioned Roseate Spoonbill that we caught up with “on the way” back from a weekend of birding fun with friends in Washington County on August 29th. This was #22 on my predictions list for myself.
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A territorial Chuck-will’s-widow that was found in Orland on June 9th luckily stayed around, singing its heart out, long enough for me, and a carload of friends, to enjoy it on the evening of June 26th. It was on my honorable mention list, but no credit is given for that.

Then there was the Great Black Hawk that I definitely dropped everything to chase back in August, and I have visited several times since in Portland. Just because it’s a Great Black Hawk in Portland! And no, it wasn’t on my personal predictions list either, obviously.
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Then, as always, there were the misses. My Great Skua (#1) nemesis continues, with several weathered-out boat trips out of Bar Harbor late in the fall once again. But, I do have a Bonxie on my state list now!
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Rapidly rising up the list of nemesises, however, is American White Pelican (#5)! One was in Wells while I was leading a tour on on Monhegan in May, and then Jeanette and I dipped on one in December, also in the Webhannet Marsh in Wells. We got a chance to look for it the day after it left (and arrived in New Hampshire) after about 24 hours in the Maine. On Christmas Eve, it was spotted briefly about a half hour after we drove through Portland on our way south, and was seen by a lucky few on Christmas Morning. Jeannette and I go away on Thursday – I have no doubt it will show up and remain visible for several days while I am gone.

I missed another Slaty-backed Gull (#12) as well, one that showed up in February while Jeannette and I were on vacation. A Brown Booby (Honorable Mention) off Bar Harbor in June wasn’t chaseable.

So now, my updated list for my own next 25 species in Maine receives only minor changes:
1) Great Skua
2) Eurasian Collared-Dove
3) Graylag Goose
4) Say’s Phoebe
5) American White Pelican
6) Neotropic Cormorant
7) Tundra Swan
8) Franklin’s Gull
9) Brown Pelican
10) California Gull
11) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
12) Slaty-backed Gull
13) Boreal Owl
14) Calliope Hummingbird
15) Cerulean Warbler
16) White Ibis
17) Gull-billed Tern
18) Hammond’s Flycatcher
19) Spotted Towhee
20) Wood Stork
21) Common Ringed Plover
22) Yellow Rail
23) Loggerhead Shrike
24) Virginia’s Warbler
25) Common Shelduck

But, we are in often-unpredictable times, and this includes the bird world. Increased trans-Atlantic shipping could offer respite for a bird to arrive “ship-assisted” (we’ll save that discussion for another day, but in my opinion, we’re in the Anthropocene, so riding a cargo ship is just as “natural” as flying a thousands miles in the wrong direction on its own). The globe is warming – droughts, fires, floods, extreme hot and cold temperatures, the opening of the “Northwest Passage…” Could pesticides impact a bird’s ability to navigate? Recent research suggests so. So really, I could probably put any of the world’s 10,000+ birds on my predictions list and have a chance at this point!

Without vagrancy, no remote islands would have birds. No Hawaiian honeycreepers or Darwin’s Finches. These anomalies that excite us birders are not always evolutionary dead ends, but perhaps the vanguard, the pioneers, of a new species that in 10,000 to 1 million or so years, might be added to my next 25 species in Maine list!

Are There “No Birds Out There?” – A Day on a Christmas Bird Count as a Case Study.


It was a record year for Evening Grosbeaks in our CBC territory.

On Sunday, December 30th, Erin Walter joined me for the Freeport-Brunswick Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My annual territory covers most of Freeport west of I-295, with a small bite of Yarmouth, a sliver of Pownal, and a corner of Durham. It’s suburban and ex-urban, almost exclusively residential, and public open space is limited to Hedgehog Mountain Park and adjacent playing fields, Florida Lake Park, and Hidden Pond Preserve.

Like all of the CBCs I do, we walk…a lot. And this year was no exception. While the rest of the team abandoned me (the car was full just the day before!), Erin stuck with the deathmarch to its chilly end, and Jeannette (and Bonxie) covered the Hedgehog Mountain Park area in the early morning for us. With just a team of two for the day, Erin and I spent most of our time split up, dividing the length of roads we cover by walking mile stretches and leap-frogging each other with a car. Using that strategy, we cover a majority of the sector’s roads, and we cover it thoroughly: woodlots, fields, feeders, yards, etc, are all checked.

In the end, we walked up to 12 miles each, with a total of 17.5 miles covered by the two of us, and another 2 covered by Jeannette.  About 18 miles were covered by car. In other words, we spent most of the day outside, working each and every mixed-species foraging flock we encountered.

I have covered this sector for 13 of the past 14 years, and each year I have done it the same way. It’s nothing if not thorough as less than 8 hours of useable daylight can offer. Therefore, the 13 years of data provide an interesting little dataset, one that can be compared and dissected. That’s why I like to do this relatively unproductive (by coastal Maine standards) territory. And, this is why I am writing this blog today: because I think the consistency and standardization provides a way to contrast seasons more than just anecdotally.

With a cold – but not brutally so, it was -16F when we started last year! – and calm day, weather wouldn’t be a factor in limiting detections, so our count should be a little snapshot of “what’s going on out there.”  It’s a good way for me to collect data for my preconceived notions, or find out that I need to refute them. So what IS going on out there?

Total species were just below average for us, while total individuals were a little above average. Let’s try and break it down a bit.

After a very cold start to the winter, it’s been mostly above normal, and we’re down to just a patchy layer of icy snow. Some running fresh water is open, but most small ponds are still frozen. But our section has limited water, so waterbird numbers are uninspiring no matter what. The Cousin’s River Marsh west of the interstate was mostly frozen, and the little stretch of open water in the river was completely devoid of ducks. It’s a Sunday, so the Brunswick Landfill is closed, so we didn’t have the evening commute of gulls returning to roost on the bay to tally.

However, I know for a fact we cover the landbirds as exhaustively as anyone, and this is where the data gets interesting. Oak, beech, and White Pine nuts and seeds are virtually non-existent this year, as we all have been noticing. There’s not much spruce cone in our area either and very little Eastern Hemlock. Paper Birch and especially Yellow Birch, however, are in decent shape, as is Speckled Alder.  Ash seeds are in good supply.

With so little natural food resources overall, it was an extraordinary fall for bird feeding, augmented by the early cold and snow. Since then, however, it has felt like birds have “disappeared,” and many folks coming into the store are reporting slow feeding stations. Are there birds out there and just not coming to feeders? Or did everything move on? Or, is our perception simply wrong?  Erin and I wanted to find out.

As always, the answer differed between species. We had a record low for Blue Jays, more than 1/3 of average. Clearly, with the lack of acorns to cache, most of our Blue Jays simply moved on – those caches of Black Oil Sunflower seeds and peanuts they hoarded in the fall can only go so far. And we set a new record low for Rock Pigeons (0!) as they were all apparently at our store’s feeders outside our territory all day. And on some days of birding, you just don’t see a lot of raptors.

Woodpeckers were interesting. We were above average in Red-bellied (continuing their increasing trend in Maine) and Downy, but Hairys had their second highest tally – almost double average. They were also drumming more widely than usual for the end of the year; did that simply increase detection or are there more around this year, perhaps following a very good breeding season?

33 European Starlings was a new record high count for the territory. American Crows, Brown Creepers, Eastern Bluebirds, Northern Cardinals, and House Finches were all above average. The measly 5 American Tree Sparrows were a new record low, however, perhaps due to that early snowfall. Then again, Dark-eyed Juncos were well above average, so who knows?

Considering birch and alder are the only good tree seed crops around, we were not surprised to find an above-average number of American Goldfinches. Common Redpolls aren’t here yet, and the good numbers of Purple Finches and Pine Siskins from the fall have clearly moved on. However, the best winter for Evening Grosbeaks in at least 20 years continues – we had a new record high for the territory, with 2 in a yard on Hunter Road and 1 loner on Merrill Road in Freeport, and an impressive group of 26 on Webster Road, which Erin was able to extensively photograph.

But of most interest to me are the core members (joined by the woodpeckers and to a lesser extent some of the finches) of the mixed-species foraging flocks that travel our woods and pass through our yards. The “feeder birds and allies” if you will. The insect-eating Brown Creepers were above average, but Golden-crowned Kinglets were extremely low. I don’t have an explanation here, so I’ll concentrate on the seed-eating members of the flock.

We were interested to find that Black-capped Chickadees were just about average; they seemed low of late, making me wonder if they too moved further south this winter. Yet surprisingly, we had a new record high count for Tufted Titmice, more than doubling our 13-year average. Good breeding season, or do these resident birds not clear out when food resources are slim?  Both nuthatches were above average, but I was really surprised to find Red-breasted Nuthatches so common. I thought they too had continued on, but there was 1-2 with almost every flock we encountered.

But where we saw these birds was definitely telling. In an hour at Hedghog Mountain, Jeannette has all of 3 Black-capped Chickadees, 2 White-breasted Nuthatches, and 1 Red-breasted Nuthatch. Erin and I had absolutely nothing at Florida Lake Park.  Other stretches of mostly wooded habitat was very quiet. But in neighborhoods with well-stocked bird feeders? Lots of birds!  Although we didn’t necessarily see as many birds at feeders themselves as in and around yards that have them, I t’s clear that the supplemental food resources offered by people increases the number of birds in the area in winter. And on a relatively mild and benign day, they were mostly out feeding elsewhere – but we know where they’ll go as the pressure starts to drop this afternoon with the approaching storm.  And in contrast, while we had some goldfinches at feeders, we had most of them in birches and alders, even weedy areas –all natural food which is readily available at the moment, as opposed to many of the other tree crops.

So what does this all mean? Well, good question! And I don’t really know!  But clearly it’s not quite as “slow” out there as many bird watchers are reporting. While Evening Grosbeaks were rightly the star of the show today, I learned a lot about the current status of our “feeder birds.”  More questions and answers, as always, but I enjoyed the exercise of analyzing and postulating (i.e. pretending I am still a scientist). This small section of the state, on only one day, covered by only 2 people, can only tell us so much, but after 13 years of doing this essentially the same way, the numbers are easy to compare and contrast. And perhaps, after a handful of more years, we might even have a little fun with some trend analysis.

Until then, here’s our annotated checklist for the day (and yes, the taxonomy of my spreadsheet is woefully outdated). Averages are in parentheses.

Begin: 7:17am. 19F, mostly cloudy, very light NW.
End: 3:55pm. 23F (high of 25F), clear, calm.

Miles by foot: 17.5 + 2
Miles by car: 18.0

Total species (31.6): 29
Total individuals (903.5): 1017

Red-tailed Hawk (1.3): 1
Wild Turkey (11.2): 5
Herring Gull (24): 1 *record low
Rock Pigeon (25): 0 *record low.
Mourning Dove (50): 40
Red-bellied Woodpecker (.75): 3
Downy Woodpecker (17): 19
Hairy Woodpecker (12): 23 *2nd highest
Pileated Woodpecker (1.9): 1
Blue Jay (76.1): 21 *record low
American Crow (76): 103
Common Raven (2.6): 2
Black-capped Chickadee (307): 317
Tufted Titmouse (33): 72 *New Record
Red-breasted Nuthatch (17): 23
White-breasted Nuthatch (27): 37
Brown Creeper (3): 5
Golden-crowned Kinglet (11): 3
Eastern Bluebird (1): 4
European Starling (14.5): 33 *record high
American Tree Sparrow (23.2): 5 *record low
Song Sparrow (1.1): 2
White-throated Sparrow (0.6): 1
Dark-eyed Junco (28): 69
Northern Cardinal (11): 18
House Finch (8.4): 23
American Goldfinch (83): 119
EVENING GROSBEAK (2.4): 29 *record high
House Sparrow (13.8): 1 (was a lone House Sparrow the rarest bird of the day?)

To compare, check out my blog from late fall of 2017, entitled: “Why there are no Birds at Your Feeders Right Now,” for a completely different reason.