On Sunday, Jeannette and spent the day participating in the annual Brunswick-Freeport Christmas Bird Count. For 14 out of the past 16 years, we have covered the “West Freeport” territory, which includes all of Freeport west of I295, with a corner of Yarmouth, a sliver of Pownal, and a notch of Durham.
As I have written about before, this suburban and exurban route covers a lot of ground. We walk miles upon miles of backroads, and we sample the public open spaces of Hedgehog Mountain Park, Florida Lake Park, and Hidden Pond Preserve. Our only waterfront is the Cousin’s River marsh complex, which was mostly open today – as were almost all flowing streams, woodland drainages, and the outlet channel at Florida Lake. This was the most open water we have had in some time.
The weather was fantastic: after a chilly start, bright sunshine and virtually no wind made for a pleasant, temperate day, and aided detection. The lovely morning even led to singing from some of our resident species, especially White-breasted Nuthatch, and territorial drumming by Hairy Woodpeckers.
By doing this route consistently year in and year out, Jeannette and I can use it to compare winter seasons. We like to compare the tallies to test our preconceived notions of the season, and we can even use it as a sample to gauge seed sales at the store for the coming months! 2019 was a good example of that.
Yesterday, we did confirm several recent trends and hypotheses that we have seen so far this winter. Native sparrows including Dark-eyed Juncos are very low, woodpeckers are above average, and “winter finches” have really cleared out. Even Pine Grosbeaks are now diminishing, but the bulk of other nomadic species have either moved through (Pine Siskin; Evening Grosbeak) or are just not around in large numbers (Common Redpoll).
Meanwhile, the very mild fall and early winter has helped “half-hardies,” like our first sector records of Hermit Thrush and – finally a – Carolina Wren survive. The minimal snow cover and mild temperatures usually keeps a lot of ground-feeding sparrows around through the winter, but this is not the case this year – low “weed” seed crops due to our summer-long drought continues to be my hypothesis.
Fruit crops, especially crabapples, are being rapidly depleted as Pine Grosbeaks and American Robins have moved through en masse of late. It will be slim pickings for Bohemian Waxwings if they arrive.
But perhaps most relevant was the fantastic numbers of birds that make up our “mixed-species foraging flocks.” I was surprised to tally only our average number of Black-capped Chickadees (310 compared to an average of 307.9), but Tufted Titmouse, Red-breasted Nuthatch, White-breasted Nuthatch, and Downy Woodpeckers were well above average (see below). Blue Jays were a little above average (but that number fluctuates widely based on acorn crops), as were Northern Cardinals. Cardinals, Red-bellied Woodpeckers, and especially Eastern Bluebirds reflected their continuing steady increase as wintering species in the region.
These are also many of the most common and conspicuous visitors to feeding stations, and our survey correlated with what we have been hearing at the store all season. We also noted that neighborhoods with well-stocked feeders had far more birds than wooded parks, neighborhoods with few or no feeders, or other less developed stretches. Clearly, feeders and their supplemental food are important to our resident birds this year. And our bird seed sales, even after the massive finch flight of the fall has moved on, reflect that as well.
But yeah, our first-ever Hermit Thrush, Carolina Wren, and Pine Siskins, plus our first Ruffed Grouse in 11 years, and yeah, Pine Grosbeaks, were all nice, too!
Here is our full, annotated checklist:
Begin: 7:19am. 20F, clear, calm.
End: 3:45pm. 30F (high of 31F), mostly cloudy, calm.
Party Miles/foot: 22.5
Party Miles/car: 23.5
American Black Duck: 2
Ruffed Grouse: 1
Wild Turkey: 0
Rock Pigeon: 20
Mourning Dove: 46
Herring Gull: 11
Cooper’s Hawk: 2
Red-tailed Hawk: 3 (*tied highest count)
Red-bellied Woodpecker: 3
Downy Woodpecker: 30
Hairy Woodpecker: 13
Pileated Woodpecker: 5
Blue Jay: 94
American Crow: 115 (*new record high)
Common Raven: 2
Black-capped Chickadee: 310
Tufted Titmouse: 53
Red-breasted Nuthatch: 28
White-breasted Nuthatch: 47 (* 2nd highest)
Brown Creeper: 3
Carolina Wren: 1 (*1st sector record, finally!)
Golden-crowned Kinglet: 3
Eastern Bluebird: 31 (* New record high count…old record was 10!)
A little more time this week in the field produced the following observations of note:
678 Scaup (too far to sort through, but probably 5-10% Lessers, which are regular to even common within these early winter scaup flocks on Casco Bay contrary to recently published information), Simpson’s Point, Brunswick, 1/1 (with Jeannette). Another smaller raft of scaup continue at Wharton Point (12/27 and 1/1 with Jeannette), but too far to sort through.
1 1st winter male Red-winged Blackbird, feeders here at the store, 12/27.
Continuing ROCK WREN, Marginal Way, Ogunquit, 12/29 (with Jeannette). Highlight includes watching it ravage a Western Conifer Seed Bug.
1 Peregrine Falcon, odd location in a tree along Pennell Way, Brunswick, 1/1 (with Jeannette).
This Week in Finches:
EVENING GROSBEAK: 0
Red Crossbill: 2 (our yard in Pownal, 12/27).
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: 4 (Furbish Avenue, Wells, 12/29 with Jeannette).
PINE GROSBEAK: up to 10 daily (in and around the yard here at the store all week); up to 18 daily all week (Pine Tree Academy, Freeport); 2 (Route 1, Brunswick, 12/28).
Purple Finch: 0
Common Redpoll High Count This Week: 6 (Simpson’s Point, Brunswick, 12/27).
I don’t usually get out birding much in the week before Christmas, and this year it was even less. But a few quick stops, dog-walks, and incidental observations produced only the following observation of note over the past seven days.
1 GRAY CATBIRD, Saco Riverwalk, 12/20.
This Week in Finches:
Although my birding was limited, the dearth of finches was noteworthy. Has the flight passed us by? Did the largest volume of redpolls simply move southward to the west of us? Are there more in the pipeline, or will we have a rather quiet January and February?
EVENING GROSBEAK: 1 (Old Town House Park, North Yarmouth, 12/21).
Red Crossbill: 0
WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILL: 0
PINE GROSBEAK: up to 10 daily (in and around the yard here at the store all week).
Purple Finch: 0
Common Redpoll: 0
Pine Siskin High Count This Week: 3 (Merrill Road Ext, Freeport, 12/19).
I didn’t get out birding much this week, but my morning on Bailey Island was fantastic! But the good news is that Pine Grosbeaks have been around our store daily, and this morning lost getting snow tires on my car produced the biggest flock I have seen in the area so far this season. It is nice when the birds come to you!
My observations of note over the past seven days included the following:
1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet, 1 Hermit Thrush, and 1 Northern Flicker, Bailey Island, Harpswell, 12/7.
I didn’t get very far afield much this week, but feeder-watching, local patches, and a visit to Sabattus Pond at week’s end made up for it. My observations of note over the past seven days included the following:
1 continuing LINCOLN’S SPARROW, feeders here at the store through 11/21.
8 American Pipits, Highland Road, Brunswick, 11/21.
1 Fox Sparrow, feeders here at the store, 11/21.
1 Turkey Vulture, over the store, 11/24.
100+ Horned Larks and about 40 Snow Buntings, Mayall Road, Gray/New Gloucester, 11/25.
1 Common Grackle, feeders here at the store, 11/25 -present.
Sabattus Pond, Sabattus, 11/27:
It was a great morning as the fog lifted and the water was dead calm. Unfortunately, a high-speed fishing boat, several duck hunting parties, and two hunting Bald Eagles made it difficult to make an accurate count as birds were flushing in different directions.
301 Canada Geese
231 Ruddy Ducks
174 Common Mergansers
144 American Black Ducks
44 Greater Scaup
26 Hooded Mergansers
18 Lesser Scaup
4 Green-winged Teal
4 Common Goldeneyes
3 Northern Pintails
2 Common Loons
1 drake American Wigeon
1 probable hen American Wigeon (very brown-headed individual found last week by P. Moynahan and N. Houlihan. Spotted off South Beach but flushed by fishing boat. Refound on west shore and distantly phone-scoped, but flushed by eagle before I could get closer. Appeared to have white bar on upperwing greater coverts to rule out Eurasian, but not conclusively viewed…other details suggestive or ambiguous. Good luck ruling out a hybrid on a hen wigeon, however!)
1 CACKLING GOOSE (FOY) – in distance from South Beach with large group of Canadas. Flushed by fishing boat before I could get to Riley Road to attempt phone-scoping. Very tiny bird with short neck and very short, stubby bill. Barely larger than the Mallards. Flew north, but not relocated, including searching of farm fields along eastern shore.
1 Belted Kingfisher
The Finch-Tastic Fall festivities continue:
EVENING GROSBEAK: 9 continue daily at our feeders at home in Pownal; 1 (Highland Rd, 11/21); 2 (Martin’s Point Park, Sabattus, 11/27.
Red Crossbills: 3 (Highland Road, 11/21).
PINE GROSBEAK: 4 (Highland Road, 11/21); 3 (Yarmouth Library, 11/25).
Purple Finch: 0
Common Redpoll: scattered very few.
Pine Siskin High Count This Week: 6 (our feeders in Pownal, 11/22).
It’s getting colder and quieter out there. But, we are in the midst of the late fall Rarity Season, so I made time to check as many of the migrant and vagrant traps as I could this week. Other than a great morning with Jeannette on Bailey Island on Tuesday, I didn’t find much in the way of “lingering” birds. Did the late-October unseasonable cold snap have something to do with it? And/or the lack of natural food resources because of the drought? Or I was in the wrong places?
My observations of note over the past seven days included the following:
2 PINE GROSBEAKS, Private Property in Durham, 11/14.
1 Red-shouldered Hawk, Wolfe’s Neck Center, Freeport, 11/15.
1 AMERICAN REDSTART, 9 WHITE-WINGED CROSSBILLS, 1 PINE WARBLER, 1 “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow, 1 Ruby-crowned Kinglet, and 1 Winter Wren, Bailey Island, Harpswell, 11/17 (with Jeannette).
We were very excited to kick off a new partnership between Freeport Wild Bird Supply and Cap’n Fish Cruises with a half-day pelagic birding trip out of Boothbay Harbor on Indigenous Peoples’ Day, October 12th. We departed the wharf at 9:00am and returned at about 1:45pm.
Cap’n Fish’s Dominique Caverly joined me in narrating the tour, adding additional natural history information. Captain Tabor did an exceptional job keeping the boat as comfortable as possible, finding some interesting underwater topography, trying to position the boat to view birds in the best light, and catching up with those two jaegers! Ian Carlsen was our chummer extraordinaire, getting fulmars and Great Shearwaters within a few yards of the boat – while simultaneously keeping track of our eBird transects.
With a forecast for 2-3ft seas, we were not all that happy to find them more like 2-4 with the occasional 5-footer, but Captain Tabor did a great job in picking a track that maximized our time with comfortable following seas. There were a few bumps and splashes along the way, but so goes pelagic birding in the fall in the Gulf of Maine. We were just happy to successfully get offshore!
Heading into deeper waters of the Portland shipping channel about 20 miles offshore, we explored an area where the seafloor rises from 500 feet to 300, before dropping off again to over 600. What’s great about departing from Boothbay – and bodes well for future tours from here – is that we don’t have to travel too far to get to some good deep-water and interesting seabed topography.
Fall pelagics in the Gulf of Maine, especially in southern Maine, are a fickle beast, and can be really hit or miss. In fact, I have been out on whale watches in October that failed to record a single tubenose! But, having had a significant amount of success with Cap’n Fish’s whale watches during the fall, I was quite excited for the chance to head out on a dedicated bird-finding mission.
And it did take some work to find birds today. Even Northern Gannets and gulls were in very short supply. However, once we got to that aforementioned ledge, we had a lot of birds all around us.
But 3 Leach’s Storm-Petrels were anything but expected! Even one would have been a headliner, but today we had three – two of which were seen extraordinarily well for prolonged periods of time. I was hopefully for this species, but they are so hit-or-miss, I only included it on my “possible” list. And then I expected the sighting to be like our first – one zipping by and only seen by a few observers. Those second two, however: wow, just wow!
Any day with a jaeger is a good day in my book, and we had two good sightings of Pomarine Jaegers today, including one that was around us and reigning terror for a while. I called them both “Poms” in the field, but I looked forward to receiving photos to confirm their identify – no one should be above going to instant replay for jaegers! In fact, one early photo I received had me rethinking the first bird, but upon receiving a full set, the play was confirmed as called on the field.
Three Atlantic Puffins and 9 Northern Fulmars were more expected, but no less great to see. Unfortunately, the Razorbill was seen in flight by only a few. My tally of 91 Great Shearwaters is likely woefully conservative. When chumming, it became impossible to keep track of how many birds were circling us rather than just passing by for a look (and sniff!). And while this was indeed a birding-centric tour, we were disappointed to only encounter Harbor Seals and Harbor Porpoises during our travels; yes, this pelagic brakes for whales!
And finally, passerines are always exciting when encountered offshore, and always a challenge. I was a little surprised we didn’t encounter more as there had been a massive flight overnight, but the lack of a westerly component kept those birds from drifting offshore. In fact, both birds we saw were heading southwest, likely “onward” migration rather than compensating for overnight drift. One was relegated to “passerine species,” but photographs confirmed the other as a Yellow-rumped Warbler.
Beginning and ending with Black Guillemots and Common Eiders in the harbor and returning to a lovely warm and calm afternoon in the sheltered town, we can unequivocally call the day’s outing a success…and yes, plans are already in the works for more trips together in 2021! Sat tuned!
Here is the annotated checklist from the day:
Common Eider: 23 beyond mouth of the bay; numerous in harbor.
Surf Scoter: 61
dark-winged scoter sp: 20
Pomarine Jaegers: at least 2 winter adults; possibly a third bird.
Razorbill: 1 fly-by spotted by Captain and a few participants.
Black Guillemot: x
ATLANTIC PUFFIN: 3
Ring-billed Gull: 2
Herring Gull: x
Great Black-backed Gull: x
Common Loon: 15
LEACH’S STORM-PETRELS: 3. All photographed. First bird seen only by a few, second two birds seen insanely well and for prolonged periods of time.
Northern Fulmar: 9
Great Shearwater: 91 (very conservative count)
Northern Gannet: 30 (low)
Yellow-rumped Warbler: 1 (about 22 miles from land)
Passerine sp: 1 (probably a warbler but that’s as much as I can say)
Only marine mammals were Harbor Porpoises and Harbor Seals.
It sure felt good to have a normal tour run, well, normally, in 2020! Other than the requirement of wearing masks all day – despite the annoyance of fogged glasses in the 100% humidity, and some logistical and safety changes at mealtimes, it was as close to normal as 2020 gets. And that felt good. The birding was great, too!
Most of Friday’s participants arrived with me on the early Hardy Boat out of New Harbor, and we sure hit the ground running! A strong flight the night before yielded tons of birds, and it was very birdy right off the bat. Yellow-rumped Warblers were still darting overhead and were in every bush. White-throated Sparrows virtually littered the ground in places. Small flocks of Purple Finches seemed to be everywhere.
A continuing juvenile Cooper’s Hawk (a very good bird out here) and a Dickcissel got us started, while in the afternoon we found two Lesser Black-backed Gulls (a juvenile and a really messy 2nd Cycle) and at dusk, a fly-by from a late Common Nighthawk. We ended up with 63 species on the day, which isn’t bad for arriving at 10:15, and likely there were many other species around; we just couldn’t see them through all of the Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows.
But before you ask, I’ll let you know: No, you will not find the gratuitous annual photo of Novelty Pizza in this blog this year. It was different, and it was terrible. I was sad. But the handpies for lunch at the Trailing Yew made up for it (but I repeatedly remembered to take the obligatory photo only after it was rapidly consumed in its entirety).
We awoke to very dense fog on Saturday morning, and with very light southerly winds overnight, only a very light migration had occurred. There was a decent amount of call notes overhead (mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers) at what was supposed to be the time of sunrise, but these birds could have just been moving around. Nonetheless, throughout the day we found plenty of Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows once again, along with ample number of Purple Finches and Red-breasted Nuthatches. It was birdy, but the diversity remained rather low.
By the afternoon, things had slowed down quite a bit, but we grew our triplist steadily with pockets of activity here and there. Two continuing Rusty Blackbirds put on a good show for us, as did an unusually cooperative Ovenbird. It’s always nice to see Indigo Buntings; we had two today. Although it seemed rather slow and lacking in diversity, our thoroughness accumulated 64 species by day’s end.
We awoke to more dense fog on Sunday morning, with no detectable migration overnight on a southwesterly flow. But sometimes slower days allow us a chance to be more thorough, and by covering a good amount of ground today, we caught up with – and discovered – several very good birds.
We began with coffee in hand as we marched down to the Ice Pond to catch up with the three continuing Yellow-crowned Night-Herons which we had someone missed each of the previous two days. The drake Wood Duck – very close now to full-spiffiness (technical term!) added to the joy. Then, after breakfast we had the thrilling discovery (OK, Tom discovered it; he deserves the credit) of a Yellow-breasted Chat. Glimpses were fleeting, and through fogged glasses, were not always satisfactory. We then found a Marsh Wren at Lobster Cove, and continued to slowly add birds to the list, such as an Eastern Towhee, a few more warbler species, and the fog finally lifted enough for us to see the water and nearby islands to sort out Great Cormorants from Double-cresteds.
On Monday, our last day of the group tour, we had significant turnover in participants from the weekend, but less turnover in birds. With another night with little to no nocturnal movement on persistent southerly winds and fog. Only a few Yellow-rumped Warblers were calling overhead at coffee pot o’clock, and it was very slow on our pre-breakfast walk. Northern Flickers were definitely moving around though, so it’s possible a few of these birds were new arrivals overnight.
Like all of Maine, Monhegan is desperate for rain, but of course we selfishly were hoping it would not fall on us! The forecast was looking good to get most of the day in, rain-free, but when we reconvened at 9:15, there was a steady light shower. It did not last long, however, and we continued on, unimpeded. Once again, we spent a lot of time sparrow-workshopping, as we regularly encountered fun mixed flocks all weekend of Song, White-throated, Savannah, and often one other species, be it Chipping, White-crowned, Swamp, or Lincoln’s. The side-by-side comparisons are very instructive, and as a guide, I tend to pivot to whatever the birds were offering, and this weekend, they were offering a chance to study, learn, and appreciate the diversity and beauty of sparrows.
We covered a fair amount of ground in the afternoon, checking in with two of the three Yellow-crowned Night-Herons, the continuing Wood Duck and 2 Rusty Blackbirds, and some blooming Fringed Gentian. At least 6 Baltimore Orioles were still present (we had a high of 9+ on Friday), and we had some really good looks at Cape May Warblers and others. Partial clearing in the later afternoon was just enough to get our first view of town from Lighthouse Hill. A mere 56 species by day’s end showed the lack of overall diversity after three full nights with some birds leaving, but very little arriving.
With the last boat of the day at 4:30, the Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend officially came to a close. However, one of Monday’s participants stayed on for a day of private guiding, so Kate and I continued on for a full day of birding on Tuesday. But, like the weekend, we awoke to more fog and another night of little to no migration on SSE winds. There was, however, some more swirling of Yellow-rumped Warbles around dawn, coming to and from Manana. It was very suggestive of zugunruhe (migratory restlessness) after four days of being stuck on the island with unfavorable winds. Or, it could have been some birds had indeed arrived overnight.
The extensive southerly winds had finally started to pay dividends, however, with the delivery of a Blue-gray Gnatcatcher and a Yellow-billed Cuckoo. The Dickcissel continued, and we had our best look at it since Friday. With only two of us, we covered grown more quickly and efficiently, so we tallied several species that the group had not seen together, such as the two ridiculously cooperative Soras at the Pumphouse. We also found an unusually-cooperative Mourning Warbler, which is always a treat in migration.
With a storm a’brewing, Kate and I departed together on the 3:15 Hardy Boat, and were treated to a Cory’s Shearwater and a Northern Fulmar that materialized out of the still-thick fog. Once a rarity in these waters, the Cory’s was rather late in departing, while the fulmar was on the early side of their arrival. I don’t recall having seen both species on a boat trip on the same day before, and any tubenose is “good” in these nearshore waters.
So that officially brought the 2020 Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend tour to a close; ending on a real high note. Below, I will include Tuesday in the list, but I have separated out the species count for the four-day weekend for comparison sake. Please let me know if I missed something (it’s easy to do as I sit down and try to recall the day as the bed is calling my name!), but our tally for now was a solid 92 species – just two species below our average for the past 10 years.
However, the 12 species of warblers were well below our 10-year average of 18 species for the weekend. But given the accelerated migration season (food supply shortages due to drought and/or benign weather allowing migration to proceed relatively unimpeded), this was expected. And we made up for it with more sparrows than usual, and an impressive irruption underway. This was the most Purple Finches and White-breasted Nuthatches I can recall on the island, and along with a goodly number of Red-breasted Nuthatches and the first few Pine Siskins of fall, our island sample reflected what we are seeing on the mainland, and throughout the East.
While out to dinner last night (9/23/2020), I pulled my phone out to look up a couple of things on the menu Jeannette and I were perusing. I usually don’t bother clicking on an email with a subject line “Bird ID” when I am out to dinner; that’s for working hours. But I decided to click on this one from Dave Fensore.
I am sure glad that I did, because those were the photos it contained. Dave and his daughter, Sarah, were out for an afternoon stroll when they found this bird which they identified as a Say’s Phoebe. But they also noted its range: breeding no closer than central North Dakota and winter no closer than southern Texas, they began to have their doubts. Luckily the Sibley Guide shows that they are rare throughout the East, so it is not without precedence, but still, rare birds are rare, and so they sent the photos to me to be sure.
Needless to say, there’s not much question about the birds identify from these stellar photos!
The only question I had was whether or not it would be there in the morning, because for me, the chase was on!
See, Say’s Phoebe (with over a dozen records in Maine) is what I can definitely call a “nemesis” bird in the state for me. I’ve missed three birds on Monhegan, by a sum of less than about 30 hours. One that I missed by a couple of hours resulted in a sprained ankle that lingers with the occasional flare-up of tendinitis. A few friends love to point out how many Say’s Phoebes they have seen in Maine (what are friends for, afterall!). So this bird has physically and mentally scarred me for some time. I also missed at least one on the mainland because I was on Monhegan for the week.
But not anymore.
Sure, I skipped another Morning Flight at Sandy Point, but as of 6:55am this morning, I had finally seen a Say’s Phoebe in Maine. Dave and Carolyn, and Matthew Gilbert, were waiting there, fingers pointing, as I rolled up.
Early morning backlighting made for challenging photography conditions, and my camera is having some front-focusing issues. So my photos are not very good. Dave’s are definitely better, and my flight shots turned out to be a complete disaster. But mine are sweet, oh, so sweet. And my ankle doesn’t even hurt today.
The bird can be observed from the quiet and safe side of Shaker Rd (Old Rte 26…note that Shaker Rd leaves the Rte 26 Bypass a short distance south of here), from the crest of the hill immediately south of the historic village.
Please note, the Village is currently closed. There is no parking there or trespassing into the fields. Luckily, there is plenty of roadside parking on a wide shoulder, and all of the fields are easily visible from the roadside, so this should not be an issue. In fact, it cannot be an issue here; we must respect the community.
The bird is moving around the various fence lines, with the temporary white fence through the closest field being one of its favorite haunts.
I got the word out and birders began to arrive. I departed, owing Dave a whole lot of thanks. And wondering if I’ll find a Say’s Phoebe on Monhegan this weekend, because once you see your nemesis…