Tag Archives: Harlequin Duck

Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Harlequins and Hops!

The first new “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” of 2018 with our partners, the Maine Brew Bus, was a resounding success. We enjoyed harlequins, hops, and so much more – including a much-hoped-for rarity. We even saw just about every single species suggested in the itinerary. And it was gorgeous out!

We had begrudgingly postponed the tour from the previous week due to the fear of ice in the morning and heavy rain and fog during the day. But the light winds, temperatures in the upper 30’s, and limited rain that the day actually featured made us wonder if we had lost the gamble. And when we woke up to 6-10” of snow (and not the 4-6 forecast!) on the morning of the 18th – and the resultant extra time clearing the driveway – I was definitely viewing the decision in hindsight.

However, the sun soon came out, the roads melted, and the temperature warmed to 40-degrees. A strengthening southerly wind was a little raw at one stop, but otherwise, it was impossible to beat the weather for a tour in February…and the fresh coating of fluffy snow only added to the aesthetically-pleasing scenery of the birding day. Furthermore, the coastal storm that spun through overnight was perfect for producing some nearshore pelagic alcids (members of the puffin family), which really got our hopes up for a life bird or two.

We began at Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth where we soon spotted the namesake quarry of the tour: a dozen snazzy Harlequin Ducks. We were already half-way to our titled goal for the day, but of course, we were only getting started.

At nearby Two Lights State Park, we enjoyed several more Harlequin Ducks, lots of Common Eiders, Black and White-winged Scoters, and one Red-necked Grebe while we took in the breathtaking scenery.

And then it happened.

I spotted a Dovekie – one of the most sought-after winter specialties of the region. It was sitting on the water (had it just flown in?) with a group of eider just off the shoreline, and in perfect light. It was feeding, diving under for a minute or two at a time, but eventually, everyone got great looks through the scope, and lots of photographs were taken. Barely larger than a starling, this hardy little bird spends most of its life on the open ocean, and only comes to land to breed and nearshore in specific conditions in winter than include storm tracks, winds before and after, offshore food supplies, nearshore food supplies, and likely other unknown factors. It was a bird we only hoped for today, but a life bird for just about everyone in the group; this was a find that was soon to be celebrated!

A few Purple Sandpipers were spotted at nearby Kettle Cove as were Surf Scoters and several Common Loons, but with a southerly wind and choppy water building, I decided to make a turn inland and head for some sheltered waters. Finding that at Mill Creek Cove in South Portland, photogenic, stunning Red-breasted Mergansers stole the show, and a 1st-winter Iceland Gull was teased out of the flock.

A short, pleasant walk through Mill Creek Park yielded hundreds of Mallards (BoT veterans know how much I enjoy looking at, and talking about, large aggregations of Mallards!), and among them, the overwintering hen Wood Duck – a real rarity in winter! Although lacking the gaudy, over-the-top coloration of the drake, the subtlety-beautiful hen with her glossy bronze and green tertials and over-application of white mascara was enjoyed by all.

One last stop at the Portland fish pier, was another chance to see Iceland Gulls – actually, we saw 7 of them, including a darkly-marked adult – and offered the opportunity to get up close and personal with several of our spiffy wintering sea ducks, such as this handsome drake Long-tailed Duck.

The benefit of this winter itinerary is that there are countless birding locales to visit, with worthwhile stops given almost any weather (or travel) condition. Therefore, Paul had to rein me in – the birding was so good, I certainly wanted to keep going! – and with that, we departed, and I handed the proverbial microphone over to our esteemed beer guide for the day.

Paul took the lead and escorted us to eighteen twenty wines in Portland, our only winery visit on the 2018 BoT schedule. Making wine from Maine-grown rhubarb, and hard cider in small batches from Maine-grown apples, this was going to be a unique and educational experience. Maine became a state in 1820, and it was also the first year were rhubarb was found in the public market, we soon learned. A very traditional beverage, rhubarb wine was popular – especially for medicinal purposes – in the early 1800’s.

We were treated to two wines, and two ciders. The first wine was Wintrus, a rhubarb wine aged in cabernet barrels, which imparted notes of the cabernet and oak-y woodiness, adding a little complexity to this rather light wine that was perfectly positioned between dry and sweet. The strawberry-rhubarb Honeoye was next, with plenty of strawberry flavor, but only a little sweeter and nowhere near the expectations of an overly-sugared strawberry-rhubarb pie which is its inspiration.

Ohm was our first cider, an “English Eastern Counties-style:” dry, light, and uncarbonated. This was soon followed by what turned out to be the crowd favorite, Ohm’s Law, the Ohm aged in cinnamon whiskey barrel. Reminiscent of an apple pie, but again, without the overt sweetness, and likely due to the lack of carbonation, finishing with a soft and smooth buttery flavor.

We also learned about the trials and tribulations of opening a new winery – especially given the legal definitions and the lack of grape vines in this “urban winery,” as well as future plans that include experimentation with the 60+ varieties of rhubarb.

The long commute to the other side of the building (this itinerary was designed to reduce driving, just in case the roads were normal-February snotty) presented us with the second half of the tour’s title: the hops. And hops were abundant and well spoken for in the brews of Goodfire Brewing Co, the newest brewery in the burgeoning “Yeast Bayside” scene.

We were handed samples of one of their IPAs, Prime, which I’ll admit my bias – it has rapidly become one of my favorite beers. A citrusy juice-bomb, I was keen to have the group compare it to our second selection, Waves. Also a hazy, New England-style IPA, this beer features complex tropical fruit notes instead.

Earlier, Paul had inquired about what beers and other beverages people did and did not like, and quite a few people on the bus proclaimed themselves as “not IPA fans.” New England IPAs are not your bitter IPAs of old, and so I wanted to challenge people’s ideas of what an IPA is, and hopefully open some minds. I was therefore rather pleased when one of those self-proclaimed non-IPA fans proclaimed Prime as their favorite beverage of the day on the ride back home. Mission accomplished!

The final sample was a choice between the hoppy “table beer” saison, Tiny Wrist Circles, and the hot-off-the-presses Hydro, their latest Double IPA. I’ll give you one guess to what I had, and then went home with!

It was a quick and easy commute to our Portland meeting location, followed by a smooth and clear drive to Freeport for the rest of us. Conversation included Dovekie ecology, IPA diversity, and what an amazingly beautiful winter’s day we had just experienced. Something tells me Harlequins and Hops will be back!

Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Surf And Suds! 2/28/16

brew bus at store

The first of six “Birds on Tap – Roadtrips!” with our partners at the Maine Brew Bus took place last Sunday. Our “Surf and Suds!” tour headed south, visiting two hotspots along the York County Coast, looking for waterfowl (especially Harlequin Ducks), Purple Sandpipers, and Great Cormorants and other winter denizens of the rocky shore.

We began at Marginal Way in Ogunquit, enjoying perfect conditions. With temperatures rapidly rising into the low 40’s on a very light, southwesterly breeze, it was more than comfortable. And with a high deck of clouds and calm waters, viewing conditions were perfect.
birders at Marginal Way

Harlequin Ducks are one of the premier “targets” of this tour, and they could not have been more obliging. At least 35 were along the pathway, with most very close to shore and several small groups hauled out on the rocks.

Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Marginal Way, Ogunquit, ME

Harlequin Ducks (Histrionicus histrionicus) at Marginal Way, Ogunquit, ME

(Photo with Leica V-Lux Type 114)

(Phone-scoped photo)

While we only encountered 15 Purple Sandpipers, we saw them exceptionally well. I just with the little raft of 8 Razorbills were a little closer! A Carolina Wren singing from the neighborhood and 250+ Black Scoters were among the other highlights, while we also took ample time to enjoy views of Common Eiders, Red-breasted Mergansers, and all three scoters.

Next up was The Nubble, where one Great Cormorant coming into high breeding posed nicely, and a goodly total of 38 Harlequin Ducks were present. It was a MUCH better look at the single Razorbill that was feeding just off the Nubble, and it would be impossible to obtain better views of a Red-tailed Hawk that was making rounds of the parking lot, the Nubble, and nearby rooftops.
birders at Nubble

(phone-scoped photo)

Before we knew it, it was “beer o’clock” and Don took over for the beer-ing portion of this unique tour. York’s SoMe Brewing was our first destination, and after a tour of their rapidly-growing operation as we discussed the ins and outs of brewing beer, we settled in for a flight of samples. Perhaps best known for their Whoopie Pie Stout and their go-to Apostrophe IPA, for me at least (and several others) “Sugar What?” stole the show. This Bourbon Barrel Aged Imperial Maple Amber hit all the right notes for me.



Back on the Brew Bus, we began our trek northward, continuing our discussions about birds, beer, and everything from “status and distribution” to bird-friendly coffee. We pulled into the unassuming South Portland neighborhood’s Fore River Brewing Company – a first visit for me, and all of the participants on the tour.

Lygonia IPA was my favorite of our samples, although the crowd was appreciating their John Henry Milk Stout quite a bit. We also learned how their brewing system, philosophy, and background differed from our first brewery; it always fascinates me on these tours to learn about the brewers and their approach to beer.

With the bus unloaded in Freeport, conversation continued at the store, and plans were made for the next Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! On April 10th, “Spring Ducks and Draughts” will visit Merrymeeting Bay for waterfowl migration and Bald Eagles, followed by visits to Oxbow Brewing Company in Newcastle (I love their woodland tasting room!) and Lively Brewing in Brunswick. These trips are truly unique and we hope you will join us for the next fun-filled tour of birds and beer!

A White-winged Gull Convention in Portland Harbor

On Sunday, Kristen Lindquist and I worked Portland Harbor for gulls.  In my usual routine, I started at the Maine State Pier and worked my way west, checking all of the piers and roosting locations in Old Port.  I was pretty happy with the 4 first-winter Glaucous Gulls and a healthy handful of Iceland Gulls from the state pier, and we continued to see Iceland Gulls here and there as we continued along.


It was a good day for gulls in the harbor, but we didn’t realize just how good it was until we got to the end of the “Fish Pier.”  There, everywhere we looked we saw white-winged gulls!  Out by the dredging barges there were white-winged gulls.  Feeding at the rips around the channel markers there were white-winged gulls.  And all around the fish pier there were white-winged gulls!

I was very conservative in my counts, and yet tallied an exceptional 12 first-winter Glaucous Gulls – an all-time state high count for me.  But it was the abundance of Iceland Gulls that stole the show; 4 adults (all with completely different wing-tip patterns of course), at least three 2nd-winter, and an astounding (for southern Maine, anyway) THIRTY-TWO 1st-winter birds.  With that many, it was not surprising that the whole range of variation of “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls was to be seen, but try as I might, I couldn’t find a single bird that even allowed for an attempted stringing of a Thayer’s.

Despite starting the day by saying, “I am not taking any more first cycle Iceland Gull photos this winter,” with this many birds around, I couldn’t help myself.  Here’s a selection of photos, starting with two phone-scoping using an iPhone 4S, Phone Skope adapter, and a Zeiss Diascope FL, followed by “better” photos using my Nikon D80 with a 300mm lens.



At the aforementioned outflow pipe.


1st cycle Iceland Gull feeding storm-petrel style.


1st/2nd cycle (L) and 2 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls (R), with a dark 1st winter Herring Gull for contrast.


Light and darker 1st-cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.


Worn, late 1st Cycle or early 2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.


Adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.


Adult and 1st/2nd Cycle “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.


1st cycle and adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gulls.


Wait, that’s not an Iceland Gull…sorry, I got distracted…

After second breakfast, we checked in at Mill Creek Cove, where the outgoing tide was attracting gulls to the mouth of the creek as usual.  With birds heading to and from the Old Port, we didn’t add to our earlier counts, but there were at least 4 1st-winter Iceland and 2 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls present.  Oh, and this rather confiding female Green-winged Teal was dabbling with the Mallards.

showing a little more green speculum than usual on one side.

Then we worked the Cape Elizabeth shoreline, highlighted by 3 Greater Scaup at Kettle Cove, 11 Brant at Dyer Point, and these 28 balls of awesomeness (aka Harlequin Ducks; phone-scoped photos).



But back to those gulls…why so many?  While the number of Herring and Great Black-backed gulls (and the expected relatively small number of Ring-bills) were average (at least by recent winters’ standards), this is by far the most total white-winged gulls that I have seen in PortlandHarbor in the 13 years I’ve lived here.  Some of these gulls are probably northbound migrants, but clearly there was something more at play here.

For one, there’s a dredging operation ongoing in the main channel of Portland Harbor.  While we didn’t see any gulls obviously foraging on the dredge spoils being pumped into the barge, or immediately around the buckets scooping up the muck, there were birds standing around on the new moving “islands.”   I wondered if a lot of these gulls were following/riding the barges in from where they are dumping the dredge spoils seven miles offshore.  But in today’s Portland Press Herald, I read that the occasional dynamiting of underwater bedrock would kill some fish, and then the “seagulls’ (sic… ahem!) were feeding on the dead fish.  That would certainly augment the already-occurring food sources in the harbor.

But most of the Iceland Gulls today were centered around the outflow pipes of various lobster-related facilities, as usual.  Meanwhile, the high tide limited roosting and foraging opportunities along the coast, and here in the harbor.

So my guess is that the time of year (migrants), the dredging operation, and the tides all helped to greatly increase the volume of white-winged gulls present today to numbers not seen in recent years – at least not since Portland had a thriving year-round fishing industry.  Obviously, this is just conjecture, but whatever made it happen, I was happy to be there to enjoy it!


Also gull-watching:

Scarborough through South Portland: Signs of Spring!

I decided to blog about my birding outing today, if only to give people a little hope that spring is around the corner. As temperatures plummet once again this week, perhaps the knowledge that spring migration has actually begun will provide a little comfort…and warmth.

Phil McCormack and I birded from Scarborough Marsh into South Portland today, enjoying a very spring-like day (highs in the mid-40’s) and some great birding. A few “new arrivals” and continuing wintering species combined for a respectably tally of 54 species without trying – and with ending our birding at 1:30.

We began on the Eastern Road Trail. Within mere seconds of saying to Phil, “I expect some early migrant waterfowl like pintail and Gadwall today,” three drake Northern Pintails came cruising by. I love the look of pintails in flight; they’re so elegant.  The long tail, thin neck, and long, relatively narrow wings suggest a miniature loon, and they have one spiffy pattern. The sense of spring really kicked in when a Killdeer sounded off and came cruising in to an exposed muddy bank – my first of the spring, and a bit on the early side considering the abundant snow cover.

A pair of Gadwall (first of the year – although they were actually southbound) flew over Pine Point, as did at least one Snow Bunting.  Twenty-eight Common Loons were in the channel, while over on Western Beach, the dredging operation was pumping sand onto the beach, collecting a nice concentration of gulls.  Sifting through them yielded two 1st-winter Iceland and 1 1st-winter Glaucous Gull.  American Robins – overwintering birds, not northbound spring migrants – were widespread today, with a high count of 50-75 around Seavey’s Landing.

Rounding the north side of the marsh, we checked a couple of neighborhoods for frugivores, before arriving at Kettle Cove.  At Two Lights State Park, a raft of 150 Black Scoter loafed offshore, with 18 Harlequin Ducks in the surf.  A Porcupine at the edge of the parking lot was the star of the show, however.

Ten more Harlequin Ducks and a Northern Shrike (an immature; my 6th of the winter) at Dyer Point were signs of the continuing winter, but a Black Guillemot in full breeding plumage was suggestive of the advancing season.

Moving into South  Portland, a Red-bellied Woodpecker was among the usual denizens at Trout Brook Preserve, but Mill Creek and Mill Creek Cove were hopping!  286 Mallards and a growing legion of American Black Ducks were joined by a single drake Green-winged Teal, our third “FOY” of the day!  Meanwhile, the gull turnover in the cove eventually amounted to eight 1st-winter Iceland Gulls and two or three 1st-winter Glaucous Gulls.

But perhaps our last stop provided the “bird of the day:”
lunch…the fried chicken and waffle from Hot Suppa!

Cape Neddick through Wells – Snowy Owl!

Jeannette and I birded from Cape Neddick through Wells on Tuesday, seeing a really pleasant variety of birds in the process in the calm before the storm. Delayed by a snowy start and somewhat slick roads (OK, not slick if didn’t drive like it was a dry race car track – 7 cars were off the road between Freeport and York, however) that backed up traffic (“Hey, there’s a car in the ditch, let me look!”), we didn’t reach the Nubble neighborhood until almost 9:00, but by then the snow had ended, the ceiling lifted a bit, and a very light wind made for decent  – albeit a bit raw – birding conditions.  Although we didn’t have anything earth-shattering, we did have a fair number of “good birds.”

Without a day off together in December (the store is open seven days a week from Thanksgiving to Christmas), our annual late November run through our usual route is the last time we focus on thickets and migrant traps in the hopes for lingering migrants and rare passerines.  Next time, waterbirds will be more of a focus.  And the limited number of non-resident passerines that we detected today (other than Dark-eyed Junco, White-throated Sparrows, American Tree Sparrows, and a scattered few Yellow-rumped Warblers) confirms that – as did the impressive, and growing, quantity of waterbirds.

Three Carolina Wrens was the highlight of a thorough check of the Nubble neighborhood thickets, although we did have a group of about 40 Snow Buntings fly over.  45 Black Scoters, 13 Purple Sandpipers, 8 Great Cormorants, 6 Harlequin Ducks, etc at The Nubble were a sign of things to come along the shoreline.

Passerines were few and far between along Marginal Way and the adjacent neighborhood, but great numbers of waterfowl along the shoreline more than made up for it.  As with everywhere we looked at the ocean today, all three scoters were present in numbers, including a close and talkative group of about 100 Black Scoters.  Lots of Long-tailed Ducks, Common Eiders, and a total of 20 or 21 Harlequin Ducks were also present, along with a half-dozen Purple Sandpipers.

OgunquitBeach was a hotspot today, with a flock of 75-100 Sanderlings being joined by 32 Dunlin.  200+ Mallards and a handful of American Black Ducks were in the river, and a Belted Kingfisher hunted from its shore.  One of the surprises of the day was two Ruby-crowned Kinglets actively foraging in four Dwarf Alberta Spruces in planters in front of the motel.  A Winter Wren at Beach Plum Farm was a very good bird for this late in the season (they’re the “All but in winter wren” in Maine), and we had two Peregrine Falcons and an immature Northern Harrier in and around Harbor Road and Community Park in Wells.

We checked WellsHarbor and the jetties from a couple of vantage points (wouldn’t this be a perfect place to find a Ross’s Gull!?) and then scanned the offshore rock ledges still above water on the incoming tide from the parking lot at the end of Mile Road.   Six more Dunlin were within the scattered flock of 75+ Purple Sandpipers, and there were a lot of the expected waterbirds, including 6+ Red-throated Loons and at least four Red-necked Grebes.

All day long we were scanning the marshes and shoreline rocks in the hopes of seeing a Snowy Owl.  There have been a rash of reports in the past 7-10 days, as it looks like an irruption is underway.  I have not heard any reports of lemming and vole populations on the tundra, but a southward push of Snowies means there are either too few rodents (a natural cyclical crash, especially in lemmings) or too many owls (good breeding productivity thanks to a boom year in lemmings).  Either way, there are a lot of hungry owls around Maine right now.  It was surprising that based on the recent uptick in reports, we did not see one all day…until our very last stop with the light rapidly fading.  One immature female-type (extremely heavily barred throughout the body, other than the face) was standing guard on the last of the rocking ledges that I scanned.  Any day with a Snowy Owl is a good day in my book!

Please remember that these birds are not down this far south by choice!  The birds are here because they are hungry, or even starving (one emaciated bird was found dead at Prout’s Neck the other day, for example).  While this charismatic and captivating species is sought by birders, photographers, and almost everyone else, we must be mindful of the dire straights that many of these birds are in.  Too often we have heard stories of birds harassed, flushed repeatedly, or otherwise bothered by supposed fans.  In the case of a Snowy Owl perched on a rock 100 yards or more offshore, there is little harm that can come from gawking at them from land.  But when they are in the marsh, in the dunes, out in a field, on a building, etc, how about we remain just as respectful to these magnificent creatures and admire them from a safe distance.  Besides, the birds’ natural behaviors will be more fascinating than watching it fly away from you.  No, you really don’t need to see the bird a little better, or get a photo a little closer . . . admire them from a distance and let’s not make life any more difficult for these birds – or ruin it for other birders!