Our seventh and final “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” of 2016, entitled “Farms and Fermentation” traveled inland on Sunday. Unlike most of our itineraries, Farms and Fermentation has a very flexible birding route, affording us the opportunity to take advantage of seasonal highlights and variables including weather, northern bird irruptions, and local food supplies.
The theme of the tour is the connection between agricultural lands and birds, but we also spent plenty of time checking out the region’s most significant bodies of water as recent cold weather has slowly frozen small ponds and lakes, pushing waterfowl to the open waters of the deep Lake Auburn and the fast-flowing Androscoggin River.
It was a frigid day, but with temperatures rapidly rising through the 20’s and virtually no wind at most of our stops, we enjoyed a very pleasant and productive morning of birding. Our first stop was a large, open agricultural field in Gray and New Gloucester, where we immediately found 16 Horned Larks within about 30 yards of the road. No Snow Buntings, as I had hoped for, but the views of the four larks that stayed with us were hard to beat.
Letting the temperatures climb a bit, we hit the road for a longer stretch to arrive on the north shore of Lake Auburn. Unfortunately, the ducks were elsewhere today – perhaps flushed by an eagle or two – but we did view two Horned Grebes (rare inland in Maine except for here and Sebago Lake and a rather late date for them away from the coast). One distant Common Loon was also spotted.
A short hop to North River Road sampled the birds of early successional forest, undoubtedly the first step in reforestation of an abandoned farm. American Tree Sparrows, quite a few Northern Cardinals, and a number of House Finches were present, while a Bald Eagle soared over the river beyond the cornfields across the road (still no Snow Buntings). The highlight, however, was a Red-tailed Hawk that circled up and then glided low over our heads, with the reflection of the thin coating of snow on the ground acting as a spotlight to really light up its pale plumage.
Three punk-rock Hooded Mergansers were at the nearby boat launch, and we finished up with some more waterfowl along the Auburn Riverwalk. Nearly 200 Mallards were present, affording us the chance to study individual variation and hybridization, as well as taking a moment to savor a truly beautiful critter.
As for this individual, I am not sure how to interpret its odd plumage: a very old female taking on male characteristics, a hybrid with something domesticated, or perhaps a male that for some reason is unable to fully attain an adult plumage. Whatever it is, it was a perfect example of how much there is to be learned from looking at our most common birds!
Four American Black Ducks and some odd Domestic things were present, but I was hoping for an unusual dabbler or two to have joined the masses with the recent freezing. However, we did have two more Hooded Mergansers, and downriver, two spiffy drake Common Mergansers. A Common Loon was a little out of place on the river, likely a bird that woke up to encroaching ice on a lake this morning!
Don then took over as layers were shed for good, as we crossed the bridge into Lewiston on our way to Bear Bones Beer. Don was giving us some of the history of this new brewery, but I interrupted to have him pull into a parking lot. We quickly disembarked to temporarily resume our birding with scope views of the local male Peregrine Falcon eating lunch atop of the steeple of the Franco-American Heritage Center, as per our tradition during “Birds on Tap – Roadtrips” to Lewiston!
Arriving at Bear Bones Beer, a nanobrewery with a focus on sustainable production and ingredients, co-founder Eban Dingman welcomed us into the comfortable space in a renovated portion of a former department store in the heart of downtown.
We began our tasting with their 2X C.R.E.A.M, a smooth cream ale that featured a very nice balance, avoiding overdoing it with the hops. Dry-hopped with fruity Mosaic hops, Robot Bear Porter finished with a fruit flavor not typical of porters, putting a nice twist on a good winter stand-by. Picea, a dry stout brewed with spruce tips added to the whirlpool process, featured a subtle hint of spruce/resin, especially on the back end.
After sampling some of their applewood smoked barley malt, we tasted it in action. I went with the New Dead Smoked IPA, with just the hint of the smoky flavor and a more subtle hop kick than most IPAs these days. The “over-hopping” bandwagon had definitely not arrived – thankfully, if you ask me – here on Lisbon Street.
Winston provided additional entertainment
Trekking back across country, keeping an eye out for Northern Shrikes (we did spot two Northern Mockingbirds today however, much rarer in winter in interior Maine than shrikes!) as we returned to New Gloucester for a special visit to Norumbega Cidery. Open to the public only for the occasional special event, this was a real treat to learn about Noah Fralich’s family farm and his four-year-old cidery. Discussing his plans for the property, including the cultivation of a wide variety of heirloom and specialty apples, we also discussed the value of orchards to birding: in fact, if Pine Grosbeaks or Bohemian Waxwings had made it this far south by now, we likely would have visited an orchard or two on today’s tour – and wondered if in a few years, we might see these species right here at Norumbega.
I’m not a big cider guy, as I usually don’t like sweet drinks in general. Many of the most popular hard ciders today (at least from the national brands) are loaded with sugar, and are more akin to soda. Dry ciders, however, are closer to wine, and the white wine yeasts that Noah uses produce a very crisp, very dry, and very delicious product that retains aromatics and subtle flavors.
We began with the clean and crisp Classic, with just a hint of tartness followed by the Berry Medley with a sweet and bitter contrast from the tannins and sugars found in four varieties of berries. Sweeter than the others, but still finishing very smooth and crisp, the Honey (technically, a ceyser because of the use of honey) was next up, featuring its very subtle honey notes and nose. And finally, we tried the Spice – my new favorite cider that I left with four bottles of – with a really complex taste profile and depth of flavor produced by only three added spices: cinnamon, nutmeg, and cloves (admittedly, I also tend to love anything with nutmeg) that made me think of an unsweetened apple pie.
Taking the back roads back to Freeport, we slammed on the breaks when a Barred Owl was spotted, and quickly unloaded. Unfortunately, the Barred Owl was less excited and melted away into the woods, bringing our birding day, and our successful “Farms and Fermentation” tour to a close.
With ten tours on the schedule for 2017, including some really exciting new itineraries, we look forward to having your on board soon. All of the tours are posted on the “Tours, Events, and Workshops” page of our website, with direct links for online reservations.