Tag Archives: rarities

This Week’s Highlights, 11/6-11/11

No shame in chasing a bird that is this stunningly gorgeous! And like the chase of the ATFL earlier this week, we put in the effort to find out own beforehand – and then rewarded ourselves with another exceptional rarity!
What a dapper goose.

Despite my best efforts, my “best” birds of the week were all chased and not found. Nonetheless, I had a great week of birding and birdfinding. My highlights over the past six days were as follows:

  • 1 continuing CATTLE EGRET, 2 Common Yellowthroats, 1 Pine Warbler, 4 Semipalmated Plovers, 8 Laughing Gulls, etc, Wolfe’s Neck Center, Freeport, 11/6 (with Saturday Morning Birdwalk group).
  • 2 Blackpoll Warblers, Saco Riverwalk, 11/7 (with Cameron Cox and Evan Obercian).
  • 3 Great Egrets, The Pool, Biddeford Pool, 11/7 (with Cameron Cox and Evan Obercian).
  • 1 continuing PRAIRIE WARBLER, 1 ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, 1 Indigo Bunting, 1 Great Horned Owl, 1 “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrow, etc, Biddeford Pool neighborhood, Biddeford, 11/7 (with Cameron Cox and Evan Obercian)
  • 1 ORANGE-CROWNED WARBLER, 2 Lincoln’s Sparrows, etc, Private property in Cape Elizabeth, 11/7 (with Cameron Cox and Evan Obercian).
  • 1 still-continuing late Fish Crow, Cook’s Corner, Brunswick, 11/9 (with Jeannette).
  • 1 continuing BARNACLE GOOSE, South Elementary School, Rockland, 11/9 (with Jeannette). Photos above and below.
  • 1 American Coot and 10 American Wigeon, The Samoset, Rockport, 11/9 (with Jeannette).
  • 1 American Woodcock, Rte 1, Thomaston, 11/9 (with Jeannette).
  • 2 American Wigeon and 1 Killdeer, Old Brunswick Road, Durham, 11/11.
I simply love the subtle beauty in the color and pattern of the wings and back of this species.

This Week’s (Non Sandy-Point) Highlights, 9/24-9/30: Monhegan Island

This Blue Grosbeak was among the stars of the show from an exceptional weekend of
great birds on Monhegan Island.

I haven’t yet posted a Monhegan tour blog from last weekend, so I figured I’d at least post some of the highlights from our extremely exciting weekend chock-full of great birds!

9/24 (with Monhegan Fall Migration Weekend tour group):

  • 1 adult GREAT BLACK BACKED X HERRING GULL HYBRID
  • 1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull
  • 1 Sora

9/25 (with tour group):

  • 1 adult PROTHONOTARY WARBLER. Found by me at “Chat Bridge” and refound nearby a short while later by Kristen Lindquist and part of my group.  Only bird of the weekend not seen again.
  • 1 YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT
  • 8 DICKCISSELS (in flock together at one point)
  • 2 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS (in flock with 8 Dickcissels).
  • 1 Gray-cheeked/Bicknell’s Thrush (presumed Gray-cheeked)
  • 1 Yellow-billed Cuckoo

9/26 (with Tour group):

  • 1 YELLOW-BREASTED CHAT
  • 1 immature male BLUE GROSBEAK
  • At least 4 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS
  • At least 7 DICKCISSELS
  • 1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

9/27 (with tour group):

  • 1 WESTERN KINGBIRD (found by Kristen Lindquist. Refound by us at the Trailing Yew, then later by our group again at the cemetery. Last sighting?)
  • At least 5 DICKCISSELS
  • At least 4 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS
  • 9/28 (with Jeannette and Kristen Lindquist):
  • 1 immature male BLUE GROSBEAK
  • 2 LARK SPARROWS
  • At least 4 CLAY-COLORED SPARROWS
  • At least 4 DICKCISSELS
  • 1 Orange-crowned Warbler
  • 1 unidentified jaeger at a floating Minke Whale carcass offshore.
  • 1 adult Lesser Black-backed Gull

Other Highlights:

  • 2 AMERICAN OYSTERCATCHERS, Dry Ledges off of Allen Island from Port Clyde Ferry, 9/28 (with Jeannette).

And don’t forget, our next pelagic with Cap’n Fish’s out of Boothbay Harbor is coming up, on October 11th. Information and registration can be found here.

OK, back to work on my Monhegan blog.

A Rufous Hummingbird in our Yard!

On Saturday, July 31st, Jeannette and I were sitting on our back porch in Pownal sharing a beer in our usual after work beer o’clock/feeder and yard bird watch. We almost skipped it, however. We were leaving for a trip the next day and had yet to pack, the mosquitoes have been annoying, and besides, the Olympics were on. But I said “It’s my birthday and I can have a beer on the porch if I want to!”

We were enjoying our beverage while watching the constant activities of baby woodpeckers learning the ropes at the suet and nut feeders, and the aerial acrobatics and constant combat of hummingbirds. I’ve worked hard at increasing our hummingbird population with feeders, of course, but more importantly a near-constant source of natural nectar throughout the season.  We have been rewarded in our efforts with two nesting females almost every year, and a constant stream of adult males.  And now juveniles were about to fledge, adding to that activity.

It was about 7:00pm when I was enthralled with a particularly aggressive dogfight in the red Bee Balm. And then I basically did a spit-take when one of the combatants flashed rufous in its tail.

A SELASPHOROUS HUMMINGBIRD!!!!

I scrambled for the binoculars, Jeannette raced for her camera, and Bonxie wondered what all of the commotion was about and why we were disturbing his chipmunk watching.

We observed and photographed it for over an hour, finally retiring inside for dinner at about 8:15 when the hummingbird activity shut down for the evening. Emails were sent and calls were made.

Here are Jeannette’s best photos from the evening:

It was already getting dark, it was tough to observe details, and her shutter speed was too slow to capture motion: and we really needed to see the spread-tail to have hopes of identifying this inordinately tricky genus.

We decided to invite a handful of folks over to our yard the next morning to share in our excitement over this special backyard visitor. We also hoped to have more long lenses pointed at that tail! 

Studying the books and reviewing the photos – along with soliciting some input from other birders – it became readily clear that this was an adult female (based on overall wear and throat pattern) Rufous or Allen’s Hummingbird. We systematically eliminated the other members of the genus, and saw nothing suggestive of the even less likely Allen’s.  But this is one of the most challenging species-pairs in North America, depending on the age and sex.

The next morning, 6 people joined us on the porch, and luckily, our bird showed up. And eventually, showed up really, really, well! Unlike the previous evening however, where she spent prolonged periods at the feeder, she rarely lingered at any one flower or feeder for long before be driven off by one of the resident Ruby-throats (at least two adult males, 2 adult females, and either another female or a juvenile were all present and protecting their resources).  Plenty of photos were taken, but we had not yet seen the tail pattern clearly.

Jeannette and I really needed to go pack now, and so we left the hummingbird watchers to themselves.  Eventually, Bonxie went off to camp, I packed the car, and soon it was time for us to depart.  Luckily, Ethan and Ingrid remained vigilant as Ethan finally acquired those critical tail shots:

His arrows point to the critical R2, the 2nd tail feather from the center on each half of the tail. On most – but not all – adult female Rufous Hummingbirds, there is an emargination (often called a “nipple tip”) which is not present on Allen’s Hummingbird.  Unfortunately, this birds tail is worn – not surprising at this time of year – and the exact original pattern is just impossible to deduce. 

We are therefore left with less-reliable set of field marks and circumstances.  Often, the fallback here is to band and measure it, but we decided not to consider that unless she was still present when we returned.

So this is what we have:

  • Tail feathers, including R5, look “wide enough” to be a Rufous. This is pretty subjective visually, however, and usually takes in-hand measurements to confirm.
  • Limited rufous in the uppertail coverts as expected on Rufous.
  • Overall wear and fading of plumage is rather minimal; most Allen’s Hummingbirds would look very worn and likely really tattered by now.

The circumstantial evidence is also quite strong:

  • Rufous Hummingbirds are early long-distance migrants who are on the move in the west by now. Breeding as far north as southeastern Alaska, Rufous Hummingbirds have a pattern of fairly regular vagrancy to the East in late summer. Allen’s does not.
  • The only New England record of Allen’s Hummingbird is from Nantucket on 8/26/1988 (Massachusetts Avian Records Committee). Admittedly, that is only a month later (I was surprised to learn!).
  • The next closest records are seven in New Jersey (mostly from Cape May) that all were first found between September 3rd and November 14.
  • Of course, the preponderance of unconfirmed/unidentifiable “Rufous/Allen’s Hummingbirds” records clouds the judgment of this pattern of occurrence a little.

We already had scheduled someone to take care of our feeders while we were gone, and when he did so on 8/4, he did not see our Selasphorous. We returned home in the evening of 8/8, and sugar water was still available and our meadow of Wild Bergamot was now in full bloom. But alas, our visitor was not present. There were plenty of Ruby-throats still buzzing around – perhaps one less adult male and one more juvenile now, but not surprisingly, our vagrant had continued on, whether by choice or by force. 

Now if she was still here, we would have pondered opening our yard up to visitors (not visible from the road, let alone a public one) and perhaps arranging for a bander to visit and attempt to capture her for measurements.  But alas, these are the best shots and information we have to work with at this time.

So I am still soliciting comments, but personally, I think this bird is a Rufous Hummingbird. While we might not have absolute conclusive proof, I see absolutely nothing to suggest Allen’s so for me, I am happy with the most probable identification and Rufous Hummingbird is our 133rd Yard Bird!

And after 16 years here, our backyard has finally attracted a bona fide vagrant (although the two Hoary Redpolls were pretty great as well). I just wish her timing was a little better.  Then again, she could have shown up the next day and we would have never known!  Nevertheless, it was a wonderful birthday present!

Thanks to Michael O’Brien and Paul Lehman for helpful comments on the bird’s suspected identity, and especially to Ethan Whitaker for the diagnostic (or nearly so?) photos.

References:

Howell, Steve N.G. 2002. Hummingbirds of North America: The Photographic Guide. Princeton University Press: Princeton and Oxford.

West, George C. 2015. North American Hummingbirds: An Identification Guide. University of New Mexico Press: Albuquerque.

Williamson, Sheri L. 2001 Hummingbirds of North America. Houghton Mifflin Company: New York and Boston.

2021 Maine Birds Predictions

It might “only” have been a second state record, but the Rock Wren that was discovered along Marginal Way near the Perkin’s Cove parking lot in Ogunquit in November was a state bird for everyone who enjoyed it during its long stay that continues right through today.

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 then my own personal state list – in the coming year.

2020 was definitely a different year. “Worst year ever” was a common refrain by year’s end, but don’t tell that to 2021 which seems to be taking up the challenge so far. I’ve written this blog for over a decade now, but this was the first one written about, and during, a national crisis that was so deadly that many birders stayed home for much of the year. Before spring had arrived in Maine and the deadly COVID-19 pandemic had fully arrived in Maine, trips were cancelled, many folks stayed closer to home if venturing out at all, and many birders avoided crowded seasonal hotspots. I wrote about birding in a pandemic in this early spring blog, but a small silver lining to this tragedy was the huge growth in birding, especially in the backyard.  I was even interviewed about this in the New York Times this summer.

By fall, the growth in birding and bird-feeding and the new online community connections made while stuck at home yielded even more opportunities to see amazing birds and add some really spectacular rarities to brand-new life lists. A massive incursion of birds from the western US was underway throughout the East this fall, and this resulted in some of the most incredible “mega” rarities, such as Rock Wren and Bullock’s Oriole. The first chaseable Rufous Hummingbird in many years was another real crowd-pleaser and was made accessible by gracious hosts.

Nonetheless, there were not any first state records detected this year. Therefore, my list of next 25 species to occur in Maine for 2021 remains unchanged:

  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. Painted Redstart
  19. Ross’s Gull
  20. Black-capped Petrel
  21. Lesser Nighthawk
  22. Elegant Tern
  23. Kelp Gull
  24. Black-tailed Gull
  25. Common Scoter

Despite such a great year for rare birds in Maine, I actually only added two birds to my own state list however. But they were good ones! But first, let’s check in with last year’s prediction list to see how I did…at least for the birds, the rest of the year, no, I did not predict.

Of course, there was (is) the Rock Wren (Honorable Mention) in Ogunquit (photo above), but for me, the bigger one was the Say’s Phoebe in New Gloucester on 9/24. It was #4 on my list, but my #1 nemesis bird.

As usual, there were also a handful of potential state birds for me that I did not see.  Common Ringed Plover (#12) on Seal Island in September and a Sooty Tern (Honorable Mention) on Matinicus Rock following Tropical Storm Isaias were obviously beyond my reach, obviously, a Franklin’s Gull (#5) in Lamoine on 11/5 did not linger, and a Yellow Rail (#22) was kept secret. The big miss however was the Golden-crowned Sparrow (Honorable Mention) in October at a feeder in Abbot that I just did not chase for a variety of reasons, including how busy the fall was at the store.

So a few tweaks to my list for my next additions to my personal state list are as follows:

  1. American White Pelican
  2. Neotropic Cormorant
  3. Franklin’s Gull
  4. Brown Pelican
  5. Graylag Goose
  6. California Gull
  7. Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
  8. Slaty-backed Gull
  9. Boreal Owl
  10. Calliope Hummingbird
  11. Common Ringed Plover
  12. Cerulean Warbler
  13. White Ibis
  14. Gull-billed Tern
  15. Hammond’s Flycatcher
  16. Spotted Towhee
  17. Pacific Golden-Plover
  18. Wood Stork
  19. Ross’s Gull
  20. Black-chinned Hummingbird
  21. Brewer’s Blackbird
  22. Yellow Rail
  23. Loggerhead Shrike
  24. Virginia’s Warbler
  25. Common Shelduck

So let’s see what 2021 brings to the Maine birding world. A return to a sense of normalcy would be a nice start, however.

My favorite rarity photo of the year, however, was the Freeport Bullock’s Oriole feeding in front of the Maine state flag!

Say’s Phoebe – A Maine Nemesis No More!

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…

Birding a Pandemic: The “well, we might as well go birding, kinda” Perspective.

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March and early April birding in Maine is such a tease. The first new arrivals – Turkey Vultures, Common Grackles, and Red-winged Blackbirds – begin arriving in late February, and waterfowl are on the move shortly thereafter. In a mild spring such as this, the diving ducks that have graced our open waters all winter rapidly begin to disperse – no more big flocks of goldeneyes to sort through for a Barrow’s anymore, for example. And while dabbling duck migration is in full swing, the near-total lack of ice already has limited concentrations and kept the birds on the move. So we are left anxiously awaiting the arrival of new migrants – raptors first, and then the “new arrivals” under the feeders in the backyard.

But when it feels like floodgates are about to open any day now, we get a snowstorm or a requisite cold snap. Or just a few days with a persistent north wind to impede progress. And then we realize it is still March, and the floodgates won’t open for several more weeks or even a month. Even when we turn the page to April, it takes a while to really get going – especially if we have a large area of low pressure stock spinning offshore as we do at the moment.

And then we get a pandemic.

After weeks of limiting our travel, social/physical distancing, park closures, and other methods, we have failed to stem the exponential growth of the illness, those who it is affecting, and very sadly, those who are dying from it. This is no joke, and impacts on our birding are really the least of our concerns. But we’re birders, and we simply have to look at birds for our well-being. Birding walks, backyard bird feeding, and outings to look for a recent rarity are all part of our mental health, and necessary physical activity. And numerous studies have shown the mental and physical health benefits of birding, or many other forms of being immersed in nature. And mental and physical health – including our immune systems – are intrinsically connected.

But our birding needs to change, and it needs to change now. No matter what our reasons, excuses, apathies, and/or concerns are, Maine is now under a “Stay at Home” mandate from the Governor.  We still can – and should –  recreate to the best of our ability, but we have to do it wisely and safely. 

Especially as I take still-fairly-quiet walks in the local woods with the dog or an afternoon stroll down my road, waiting for the next wave of migrants to show up, I have been thinking a lot about what that the coronavirus and COVID-19 pandemic means for birds and birding. And not the obvious, such as some birders we know could get sick or that physical distancing means no birding groups and tours, but more subtle differences. Really, this is nothing more than a thought exercise; something to think about and discuss to pass the time. And nothing here should suggest I am downplaying the threat of this disease, but instead, just occupying some of the brain time in between. Besides, we’re birders. We find a bright side to everything from massive devastating hurricanes (vagrant seabirds) to climate change (new expanded breeding ranges)…it’s what we do; our optimism is what keeps us going.

• BIRDING HOTSPOTS and NEW PATCHES.
Many birding hotspots are now closed or too crowded to be safely enjoyed by smart people. Stay-at-home orders are now state-wide in Maine, and many more of us are just trying to be as safe as possible. In other words, the birders’ wings have been clipped.

I squeezed in a visit to Scarborough Marsh on Tuesday morning, with the 2020 Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch Official Counter, hours before the stay at home order was announced rather unexpectedly. I’m glad Luke got a chance to see this wonderful place, and we had a pretty good few hours of birding. A total of 26 Gadwall between three different locations was probably an all-time state high count for me, and we enjoyed our first of year Great Egrets (4) and Greater Yellowlegs (1) as well. Northern Pintails, Green-winged Teal, and other dabbling ducks were in relative short supply as they are already moving inland and to points north, but we enjoyed good diversity.

But now Scarborough Marsh is too far from my home for me to comfortably visit. On Wednesday morning, I hit Wharton Point on the early morning outgoing tide and was thrilled to find a Eurasian Green-winged Teal x American Green-winged Teal hybrid, as well as my first 3 Northern Shovelers of the year. And there were a lot of ducks at Simpson’s Point to.

But, for me, I cannot justify heading out to stand still (no exercise, although if it’s as raw and cold as this morning, I would be burning plenty of calories!). Perhaps a seed delivery run (more on that below) will take me past at the right time in the tide for a quick check.

In other words, like you, I am losing my hotspots. So what’s next? Will birders just bird less? There’s a reason that these are hotspots – they have proven over the years that they are some of the best places to go birding. Or, will we – like I tend to find myself doing anyway! – simply shift to under-visited areas? While I usually prefer to bird off the beaten path, now there is no other choice. Personally, I had been allowing myself one or two mornings a week to go slightly further afield, but for the most part, I have been sticking within a 15 minute radius of my home: dog walks, feeder-watching, local patches, and especially the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch. With the new state-wide order in effect, my birding radius – like yours – will be reduced much, much further. Luckily, us birders – whether limited to a small yard, an outdoor deck, or access to miles of trails, can still indulge in our beloved pastime, at least in some way. But rarities and the unexpected are a large part of what drives many of us.

So what is a birder to do? Do you keep a “Patch List” – a list of all the species seen or heard from your local park, woodlot, neighborhood, etc. Now might be the perfect time to start one (as I wrote about in my first book, How to Be a Better Birder). If you can walk to it, even better! Keep in mind that the less we move about, the less likely we are to spread the virus, or use services – such as emergency services should we have an accident, for a brutal – but ever so real – example – that are already strained right now. And save money on gas and vehicle wear-and-tear – and emit less carbon.

Will that new land trust property down the road turn out to be a new birding hotspot? If it does, will you tell anyone? And I don’t mean this facetiously, especially as many (but certainly not all) birders are always looking to be socially distant when they’re out birding. My Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide includes locations throughout the state, and not just conventional hotspots. Perhaps its time to check out a new site in the book? Or, grab a map and figure out some interesting bird-concentrating geography to explore. Or, pull out Google Maps, put on the satellite mode, and identify a wetland nearby that might end up having something you don’t see every day.

The benefit of a Patch List is that every bird – no matter how common overall – counts. Depending on the habitat, even overall abundant migrants might become patch mega-rarities! Like when a puddle becomes large enough to host a migrant yellowlegs, or when a harrier is spotted as it passes over a forested area. The thrill of discovery is just around the corner, and is likely all yours!

• RARITIES.
Early April isn’t a great time for rare birds in Maine, usually with the exception of waterfowl. But if people aren’t getting out to traditional hotspots will rarities be found? And what will happen if a “Mega” is discovered? Will we forget the rules and race out for it, standing in large, anxious groups discussing and reveling? Or – especially if the bird is in an area that can’t handle crowds – will it be shared at all? Should it be?

As April rolls on, and migration continues in earnest, we usually get a wave of rarities near the end of the month. Especially after a warm spell of southwesterly winds, southern “overshoots” sometimes occur in good numbers. These species flew just a little bit too far north, as their airspeed was aided by strong tailwinds. This deposits species like Summer Tanagers, Hooded Warblers, and Blue Grosbeaks much further north than usual. With food supplies still limited in these parts, some of these – especially Summer Tanagers – show up at feeding stations.
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If rarities and listing are a primary driver, there’s no way around it, the next month (at least) is going to be a real challenge. While we have to make many of our own decisions, we simply have to put more and more of our desires aside for the greater good. While I like a good “twitch” now and again, I’m even happier watching for new yard birds or working on a local patch list while walking the dog. And, of course, there is Bonxie’s Life List to work on!

• FEEDERS.
Speaking of rarities at feeding stations, the backyard is really the place to be. And a lot of us are enjoying watching the feeders right now, safe at home and getting fresh air in the backyard. Our store remains open – with free local delivery and curbside pickup greatly encouraged – and we’ve made it easier than ever to order a much wider range of products online. If our store is one sample, then people are turning to backyard birdwatching as an import source of entertainment and the mental health benefits of watching birds and being in nature are very well established. This is definitely how I am doing much of my birding right now – although I have been making lots of stops at ponds, wet fields, etc, as I go about our seed delivery runs!

But what’s going to happen if a Painted Bunting shows up at a feeder? What if it’s not visible from the road? What if we’re worried about the crowds that might show up? Will it be shared? I definitely don’t think people should be opening their house to birders right now for views out the window, that’s for sure! With more people looking at their feeders – home for work and birding from the window – all day, I bet more unusual birds will be noted (as long as we get the weather patterns that produce rarities), but will the community as a whole find out? Should “yard birds” be posted and publicized right now? This is likely an individual decision, but one in which the desire to share is greatly overshadowed by the need to stay safe. But at least document the rarity and we’ll figure out all the records later. I’d just be very careful right now about posting specific locations that people can find in eBird or on Facebook, especially without the background knowledge of how to behave at that site (e.g stay in the car and view from the road only) being very evident.

Especially with our wonderful new garden at the store, we have been anxiously expecting its first vagrant. Of course, it will happen when the store is basically closed and the only reasonable way to view our feeders without flushing the birds is from inside; figures!

We had 22 species at the feeders here at the store this week, and while our feeders are not quite as diverse at home at the moment, we still have plenty of Dark-eyed Juncos and tons of American Goldfinches. Many more individuals of our common woodland species are augmented by a regular Pileated Woodpecker pair and increasing numbers of Purple Finches right now. We’ll soon have a wave of White-throated Sparrows and the first Chipping Sparrows munching away on the White Proso Millet, and Pine Warblers are starting to show up at feeding stations – the most common (by far) warbler to show up at feeders and the only “yellow warbler” to appear before the end of the month when Palm Warblers start to arrive (which almost never visit feeders).
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• APPRECIATE THE COMMON!

On our currently-suspended Saturday Morning Birdwalks, we have “The Cardinal Rule:” If there is a male cardinal singing in the sun, we all have to stop to look at it through the scope. It’s a reminder to appreciate the most common birds around us, which in many cases are some of the most beautiful. There are few places in the world where the most stunning birds – think cardinals, Blue Jays, Red-winged Blackbirds, etc – are common feeder visitors; no distant travel or long searches required!
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Seriously, when was the last time you REALLY looked at a Blue Jay? Watch how the light plays with a pallet of colors as a Common Grackle moves – this is not just a black bird! Check for newly arrived migrant sparrows under your feeders, and step into the backyard to hear the growing chorus of spring birdsong. There is so much beauty around us, right outside our windows. We firmly believe in the mental health benefits of maintaining our connection with the nature world, especially birds, in this time of stress and uncertainty. There is nothing better to do right now for your health and safety than enjoying watching the beauty of birds at our feeders and in our yards.

Personally, on some of my walks recently, I can’t help but smile every time I hear a Brown Creeper sing, and the ethereal and brilliant song of Winter Wrens – which are just now arriving – can bring joy to any day. Pileated Woodpeckers are vocal and conspicuous, and if you live in the boreal zone, now’s a great time to look for Spruce Grouse and Canada Jays! And I was very excited to finally see my first Fox Sparrow of the year under our feeders at home this morning – a Fox Sparrow can brighten any day, even one like today!
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• ROADKILL.
On a completely different note, yes, I was thinking about roadkill when walking the dog the other day. And no, it was not because Bonxie tried to eat some, it was only because a small group of Turkey Vultures were passing overhead. So it got me thinking about how the greatly reduced amount of traffic on the roads will reduce the number of small animals and migrant birds hit by cars. Squirrels battling over territories, porcupines being porcupines, and flocks of migrant sparrows flushing in panic from the roadsides will all likely see reduced mortality. But what does this mean for scavengers? How will Turkey Vultures, still marching northward with a warming climate, find food if the interstates are clear? Will crows spend less time scavenging and more time looking for nests to raid? It seems odd, I know, to think about roadkill as a good thing, but it does now fill a niche, so it’s part of the equation.

I will say, for certainty, however, that if the amphibian migration “big night” occurs while we’re still under stay-at-home advisements or orders, then a whole more frogs and salamanders will make it to their vernal pools to breed. Thursday (4/2) might just end up being a “Big Night,”when a mass migration of amphibians (especially Spotted Salamanders, Wood Frogs, and Spring Peepers) takes place – at least in the southern third of the state. Regardless, on any wet night for the next few weeks, skip the take-out run and leave the car in the driveway. Instead, take a walk with a good flashlight and patrol your local roads for crossing frogs and salamanders as they move from the uplands they spend the winter in to the vernal pools and small ponds they breed in. As long as you don’t have insect repellent or any other products on your hands (or just wear gloves), you can pick them up and carry them to the other side. Just be sure you know which way they were heading before you got to close, so you don’t make them start this deadly part of the trip over.

• BACKYARD HABITAT. As a tie-in to the discussion about bird feeding, this spring is a perfect time to improve the habitat for birds in our backyard. If only to be self-serving by having more birds to enjoy around us, we can improve our habitat with many small steps or larger overhaul projects. Lawns suck, and native plants are always better. Maybe place an order with FedCo or call your local nursey or garcen center for some wildflower seeds for birds and pollinators and convert a few square yards at a time to something more productive than a chemically-laden monoculture? Starting seeds indoors is a great way to be productive right now. Or perhaps get to work on removing invasive species and planting more native plants that offer food and shelter to our native birds and insects. Perhaps our garden projects will yield more birds for us to enjoy the next time we’re stuck in the house for a prolonged period of time? Or better yet, if enough of us convert our yards to wildlife sanctuaries, perhaps we can even stem the decline of some bird populations!

We do, however, have to keep in mind that if we are attracting more birds to our yard, we are bringing them closer to two serious threats – cats and windows. If you still refuse the science and allow your cat to roam free outdoors despite their devastating ecological impact, then please ignore this. At least 3.8Billion birds a year are killed by cats in the US alone. We don’t have that many birds to spare anymore. (But hey, now’s the perfect time to build that “catio” of your feline’s dreams! Seriously). And we really need to work on this window collision issue – that’s as many as another Billion or so birds. We need to rethink window design and construction, but for now, at least leave your screens up and use consumer products especially BirdTape and Feather Friendly (both available here at the store)

These are a few of my recent thoughts and ideas. What do you think? Any potential costs or benefits to birds and birding come to mind for you? Let me know your thoughts in the comment section below.

2020 Maine Birds Predictions Blog

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After missing Maine by just a few miles in 2018, it’s only a matter of time before we see the state’s first Neotropic Cormorant – a species that is rapidly expanding northward. Be sure to double-check a lone cormorant in a tiny pond or river!

As we put 2019 to bed and begin 2020, we have our eyes set on the birding future. As for the future of birding, well, that’s a blog for another day, but for now, what about the next “new birds” to be seen in Maine?

Yup, 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 then my own personal state list – in the coming year.

But first, let us check in with my 2019 Predictions post, and see how I did.

The epic 2018 was going to be hard to follow – in fact, who knows if we’ll ever see a year as exceptional for new birds like that.  While an above-average five new species were added to Maine’s state list in 2018, the infamous Great Black Hawk is a headliner for the ages.

We came back to Earth in 2019, with only 1 or 2 new species for Maine. The first, was a Zone-tailed Hawk in Bridgeton on May the 4th. This was #18 on my predictions list for next new species to be found in Maine following several regional sightings over the past few years.

I say 1-2 because on October 30th, I found a Barolo’s Shearwater in Maine waters, just west of George’s Bank. The problem was it was a single-observer sight record and that’s hard for a functioning and respected rare birds records committee to accept as a first state record. So who knows what Maine’s will do.

Barolo’s Shearwater was on my honorable mention list, but I certainly did not expect to see it; I would have assumed it would have been photographed from a NOAA fisheries research ship in the summer in deeper waters near the continental shelf, or perhaps immediately following a hurricane.

With only 1-2 new species for Maine in 2018, I’ve only made a few minor changes to my forecast, including the debut of Black-capped Petrel. Therefore, my updated predictions for the next 25 species to occur in Maine for 2020 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) Painted Redstart
19) Ross’s Gull
20) Black-capped Petrel
21) Lesser Nighthawk
22) Elegant Tern
23) Kelp Gull
24) Black-tailed Gull
25) Common Scoter

Personally, I added a respectable 5 species to my own Maine list this year as well, including my long-sought #1 (and #1 nemesis): Great Skua. We scored one in Maine waters on our cruise – the aforementioned cruise that resulted in the Barolo’s Shearwater.  Whether you have respect for your state records committee or not, functioning ones are not the “list police” that tell you what you can and cannot count. After much review, study, and discussion, I am confident I saw a Barolo’s Shearwater, so I am putting it on my list. Since I don’t submit my list the the ABA, eBird, or anyone else, I get to make my own rules!  But sorry folks, if you are playing the listing game, you have to play by the listing rules.

Regardless, I did not have Barolo’s on my own prediction list, so for this particular game, it definitely does not count. But prior to getting my #1 bird, I also was lucky enough to be leading a group on Monhegan and was minutes away when my #2 bird – Eurasian Collared-Dove – was discovered(only the second ever in Maine…for now).
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We were at a trade show in Portland when a Tundra Swan (#7 on my list) was spotted at Dunstan Landing in Scarborough Marsh, so we skipped out for a spell and successfully “twitched” it. It was a welcome break from being indoors all day, and it was an easy 15-minute chase.
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Last, but definitely not least, was the Harris’s Sparrow at a feeder in Levant that I was lucky enough to see with friends on December 8th…my 385th species in Maine, but only on my list of honorable mentions. But I’ll call predicting 3 our of 5 new state birds a win!
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Then, as always, there were the misses. American White Pelican (#5) is becoming a nemesis, with several brief sighting in Portland on May 16th, and another bird in Aroostook County in August. I worked hard for post-Hurricane Dorian rare terns in late September, but missed out on a Gull-billed Tern (#17) at Hill’s Beach on 9/28.

Not in my top 25, but no less disappointing to miss was Brown Booby that was spotted on and off, here and there, for perhaps much of the summer and a Tropical Kingbird in East Machias on 10/31. Much worse, however, was the dead Purple Gallinule found under the wires at Sandy Point on 10/19.

So with some big changes at the top, my updated list for my own next 25 species in Maine looks quite different.

1) American White Pelican
2) Neotropic Cormorant
3) Graylag Goose
4) Say’s Phoebe
5) Franklin’s Gull
6) Brown Pelican
7) California Gull
8) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
9) Slaty-backed Gull
10) Boreal Owl
11) Calliope Hummingbird
12) Common Ringed Plover
13) Cerulean Warbler
14) White Ibis
15) Gull-billed Tern
16) Hammond’s Flycatcher
17) Spotted Towhee
18) Wood Stork
19) Ross’s Gull
20) Black-chinned Hummingbird
21) Brewer’s Blackbird
22) Yellow Rail
23) Loggerhead Shrike
24) Virginia’s Warbler
25) Common Shelduck

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Maybe 2020 is the year for this nemesis of mine in Maine to come in for a landing in front of me!

GREAT BLACK HAWK IN BIDDEFORD!!!!

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No seriously. This is not a test, do not adjust your television. This is not a drill. This is insane, but it is real.

The Timeline.

8/7.

9:13 AM. Ryan Wirtes posted a photo to the “What Bird is This Facebook Page” of a raptor photo sent by a friend. He suspected a black hawk of some flavor, but at the time, the sighting information was nothing more than “photographed this month in Maine.”

10:35 am. Tim Swain shares that post to the “ABA Rare Bird Alert” Facebook page. All hell breaks loose. While many people discuss the ID, others immediately jump to the conclusion that it is far too rare and far too out of range to be possible, so the conspiracy theories take hold. One person claimed to debunk it in multiple forums based on the plants in the scene. His plant ID was seriously flawed. I was brought into the discussion and identified the plants in the two pictures as all occurring in and around Biddeford Pool: Japanese Knotweed, Red Maple, and an invasive bush honeysuckle that I left as Lonicera sp (presumably tatarica). I know these thickets and habitats extremely well, and all looked just like a number of areas around here. While I was not vouching for the credibility of the sighting, the misidentification of the plants should not have impacted anyone’s decision to get the heck out there and search for it. And while skepticism and critical evaluation of exceptional sightings is important, I felt too many people were immediately looking to debunk it – that is not constructive, especially when using nothing more than simple misinformation spoken loud enough to be believed.

Luckily, people were out searching for it, and didn’t need my plant ID to be encouraged to do so!

Later in the day, Michael Smith was able to contact the photographer, and it turned out the bird was photographed only one day prior, on Maddox Pond Road in the Fortunes Rocks Beach section of Biddeford. The plot thickened.

8/8.

Birders searched the area extensively in the morning. The exact location of the photograph was confirmed. There was no hoax, conspiracy, or simple mistake/miscommunication. But there was no bird.

6:03 pm: Doug Hitchcox relocates the bird in a backyard on nearby Lily Pond Road. Birders converge. I arrived at about 7pm, and about 15 of us continued to observe the bird, with several remaining through dark.

I managed a few phone-scoped photos.IMG_2287_best,kinda_edited-1preening1_edited-1

But, given the low light, I had better luck with video, which I did extensively. I posted one here, on our store’s Facebook Page.

For the record, it was perched in a Black Locust when I saw it.

8/9.

7:20 am: With dozens of people from several states converging and looking, it was refound on Lily Pond Road. And now all hell will really break loose! Jeannette went down this am and scored some great photos as the bird flew around, hunted eggs and nestlings (it was observed eating a nestling and robbing an American Goldfinch nest for eggs), and as since its first observation, being constantly mobbed by passerines (for good reason).

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For those looking to find it, I’d recommend the play-by-play on the ABA Rare Bird Alert Facebook Page. I’ll leave it to there, and the Maine-birds listserve, to provide the specifics on sightings, observation details, and any concerns (like extensive and problematic permit parking restrictions in the area) that may arise.

Furthermore, Fortunes Rocks Beach is covered in Site Y11 in my Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide and Biddeford Pool (including parking tips) is extensively treated as Y12.  Besides carpooling, my recommendations are to arrive early or late, or hoof it (I’ll throw a bike on the rack next time I go) a considerable distance from somewhere with open, public parking.  And, like with several of the “Mega” rarities that have occurred in recent years, I am (somewhat) available for private guiding, including round-trips from the Portland Jetport!

But since I have been asked by many people about “how,” “why,” and “WTF?” I figured I would pull some info together here for convenience.

The Identification:

First, the identity of the bird is not in question: it is an immature Great Black Hawk (often written as Great Black-hawk), separated from the similar Common Black Hawk by a combination of plumage and structural features. I’ll quote Howell and Webb’s A Guide to the Birds of Mexico and Northern Central America:

“(GBH) has narrower wingbase, longer tail (esp juv) often less spread when soaring and gliding. At rest, note longer legs and short primary projection…juv and immature usually have whitish head that lacks strong dark malar stripe; note more numerous dark tail bars of the juv. With very broad distal dark band or narrow dark bars to tail tip.”

I believe those are the same features that are used to separate it from the Cuban Black Hawk (or Cuban race of the Common Black Hawk), but I need to do more research on that.

And finally, Solitary Eagle is “larger with more massive legs and bill; at rest, wingtips extend to or beyond relatively shorter tail…juv and immature have solidly dark brown thighs, juv has pale grayish tail band with no distinct dark barring, imm. tail similar but with broad paler median band. (Howell and Webb, 2014)

Great Black Hawk is a large buteo-like raptor of Northern South America, extending north along the coasts of Mexico. Many folks are citing the first accepted “ABA-area” record that occurred only this past spring in Texas.  The Texas Bird Records Committee voted unanimously to add it to the official list on July 3rd:

“The TBRC has voted unanimously to add GREAT BLACK HAWK (Buteogallus urubitinga) to the state list. A juvenile was well documented with several excellent photos as it landed briefly and passed over South Padre Island on 24 April 2018. This species has been somewhat hoped for/expected to show up in Texas as it regularly ranges as close as southern Tamaulipas, Mexico but it was still a surprising and exciting find for folks that were on the island taking in spring migration that day. The addition of Great Black Hawk brings the state list to 649 in good standing. This record will now be considered by the ABA Checklist Committee as a first for the ABA. There have been a few Great Black Hawk sightings in Florida since the 1970s though there has been questions/concern about the provenance of those birds.”

Ah, but yes, those Florida birds. Here’s where things get murky. And while Great Black Hawks do not seem to be kept by falconers, they are kept in captivity. And with all records of exceptionally far-flung vagrants, captivity needs to be considered. The “cage bird” and wildlife smuggling plague in the world is rampant, and likely constitutes billions of dollars annually. While “charismatic megafauna” (or parts there of) get all of the attention, birds are being smuggled – as well as legally traded – all over the world. And I believe it is much, much worse than usually suggested, so it’s worth considering “provenance” and just because it’s not used for some purpose, I do not believe we can immediately discount captive origin. But let me be clear: there is absolutely no evidence of that here – no bands, no “cage wear,” no obviously problematic behavior – although it is rather confiding and does allow close approach which could be suspect.

Jon Greenlaw, co-author of the recently-fully revised and updated The Robertson and Woolfenden Florida Bird Species: An Annoted List (2014) wrote to me with the following analysis of the Florida occurrence of “black hawks:”

“They occur in Mexico in Yucatan north to Tamaulipas on the Atlantic side, so both possible in Texas and Florida. To my knowledge only the Great Black Hawk is known from the Atlantic coast in Florida. No Common Black-Hawks have been confirmed from Florida out of more than 20 reports, but one of the two records (photographic) (one specimen w/ no label details in Archbold BS collection) remained for several years in the Greater Miami Area (Virginia Key, Key Biscayne) and was seen by many observers and photographed well by Robin Diaz of Miami. It was initially ID’d as a Common Black-Hawk, but it was later confirmed as a Great Black-Hawk as more photos & details came in. Greenlaw et al. 2014 provides the most recent update of status in Florida. Smith FFN 23:101, 1995 reviewed the Florida reports and concluded them to represent Great Black-Hawks. The belief previously has been that the Florida reports were likely escapes in captivity (they are known to occur as captive birds in s. Florida), but the numbers of reports here over the years make it difficult to totally reject the presence of vagrant individuals (esp immatures) from their range in the Americas, esp Yucatan. Still, photographs of the Virginia Key bird (the most recent occurrence example) indicate the adult was from the sedentary population (nominate) in South America.

And more extensively treated here for those looking for the complete story of this complex conundrum, click here.

Let me reiterate, there is absolutely no suggestion of non-wild origin, and while a hoax or miscommunication has been debunked, provenance (where it came from and how) must always be carefully considered. While listing powers-that-be may eventually decide whether or not you “can count it,” I would recommend going to look at this magnificent bird and, well, my list is my list…and I’ll probably count it!

The How.

Besides feeling like the tropics these past few weeks, the weather pattern that has brought us this oppressive (well, to us in Maine not used to it) heat and especially humidity could very conceivably result in a bird escorted this far away from its usual home range.

Although a resident species not particularly prone to wandering, some likely do, and presumably this would especially true of juveniles. Some have suggested this could even be the same bird as the South Padre Island sighting in April; photos will undoubtedly be studied carefully to see if there are any clues. Whether it’s the bird from Texas or another individual, the extensive and stubborn southerly flow created by a strong and persistent Bermuda High spinning off the southern Atlantic Coast would certainly facilitate the bird’s peregrinations. Whether originally “lost,” misguided, navigationally-challenged (simply mis-wired, or as one of the apparent impacts from our chronic use of pesticides), or just a “pioneer” prospecting for new habitats in the face of a rapidly warming climate and rampant tropical deforestation, there are a lot of ways where a large raptor that can soar with little effort and cover hundreds of miles in a day and end up in the Northeast.  While weather rarely “causes” vagrancy, it certainly plays a role in where a vagrant could show up.

Heck, North America’s first record of the tropical Variegated Flycatcher occurred (in November of 1977) in the Biddeford Pool neighborhood just up the road! Which is more exceptional would be up for debate, but clearly birds from a long way off can make it to Maine’s coast (for additional example, our relatively numerous records of Fork-tailed Flycatcher). And, as circumstantial evidence that the recent weather pattern is delivering birds from the south to New England, notice that New Hampshire currently has a Wood Stork and a Neotropical Cormorant!

Now what?

Birders are flying in from all over the country already, and likely hundreds if not thousands of birders will descend on the area in the coming days, and if we are all lucky, weeks. Of course, the bird could leave any minute now.

Folks will debate provenance, and others will simply enjoy the sighting and take a lot of photographs. Hopefully, birders will spend a few dollars in the area (can I recommend Bufflehead’s restaurant on Hill’s Beach, Palace Diner in Biddeford, and Saco Island Deli in Saco to start?) and let it be known that they are here to see this epic rarity.

Furthermore, there is always the chance of the “Patagonia Picnic Table Effect,” wherein birders descending on an area for a rare bird sighting find additional rare birds.  What could be next? And from where? I very much look forward to what else is turned up. This could be fun.

At the very least, don’t forget there is a Little Egret just up the road in Scarborough Marsh! Remember when, 4 years ago, that’s what everyone was flying in for?

Final Disclaimer:

I’m not the first to say it, but it needs to be repeated. This is a quiet, residential area with extremely limited daytime public parking. The bird is often in yards, and since the best hours to visit are before 8:00am and after 5:00pm when parking is available at nearby Fortunes Rocks Beach, PLEASE be extremely respectful to local residents and private property. Do not enter any yard unless invited to do so, and do not block driveways. And yes, police have been actively patrolling the parking areas! And always, put the bird – and its neighbors – first, no matter how much you want a slightly better look or photo!

Thanks for reading!
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UPDATE #1:
Photo reviews by Tom Johnson and others of the April Great Black Hawk from Texas and our Maine bird shows the exact same pattern of brown flecks on the outermost underwing coverts. Variable in this species, this is too perfect to be a coincidence, so it is almost unquestionably the same bird!

UPDATE #2:
Unfortunately, at 1:52pm (I believe) on Thursday, August 9, the black hawk was observed flying over Fortunes Rocks Beach and “out to sea.” It has not been seen again since. Birders scoured the area for the rest of the day, and again on Friday, August 10th to no avail…and so far without turning up anything else of note. In fact, not even the Little Egret has been seen in the last few days (I looked carefully at every Snowy in Scarborough Marsh this morning when guiding for a family from Indiana). We’ll see if any interesting reports roll in by day’s end.

Gray-Cheeked Thrush, Hooded Warbler, and Other April Rarities thanks to this Storm.

While outdoor enthusiasts, those with yardwork to do, Zane at the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, and many others bemoaned the coastal storm that made for inclement weather from Tuesday through Friday morning, birders from the Mid-Atlantic to Nova Scotia were gearing up.

With the large (if not overall strong) area of low pressure riding up the Atlantic seaboard in late April when numerous species are now on the move, “Rarity Fever” symptoms were reported widely. As if recent “Megas” like Vermillion Flycatcher and Fieldfare here in Maine weren’t enough to stoke the fire, friends in Cape May began posting their “wish list” of possibilities. Storms such as these, sometimes called “slingshot” events can deposit birds further north than usual, facilitate the arrival of record-early migrants, and perhaps produce some astounding vagrant.

This far north, I simply had daydreams of southern “overshoots” that occur in most years – but especially following such storm systems – such as Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, and Hooded Warbler. But I also started thinking about things from further afield like Swainson’s Warbler, all sorts of terns, and maybe even something from even further away like a South American Fork-tailed Flycatcher who overshot its goal and then got caught up in the system. Maybe a Magnificent Frigatebird? Or perhaps something else on one of my predictions lists for next birds for Maine, and myself.

While weather isn’t truly the ultimate cause of many vagrants, it certainly facilities their arrival in far-flung places. And weather can certainly impact migrants and displace them slightly further afield than they usually range. And storms like this, moving out of the Bahamas, strengthening in the South Atlantic Bight, and marching up the coast has quite a history of producing some great birding. (I wrote more in depth about some of these factors and causes of vagrancy in Chapter 4 of my first book, How to Be a Better Birder).

Here are the wind maps and surface maps from Tuesday through Thursday.
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So, I cleared my schedule, kept an eye on the listserves to our south during the rain on Wednesday, and hit the field on Thursday, starting at Biddeford Pool. A few years ago, one similar (but stronger) storm system yielded a Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and Hooded Warbler in the neighborhood, and I had similar hopes for this morning.

I got really excited when one of the first birds I saw was a Magnolia Warbler (very early, perhaps by as much as 10-14 days!). Surprisingly, it was the ONLY warbler I saw all morning, and its early arrival is undoubtedly related to the storm. My first House Wrens were right about on schedule, however, and my first Veery was only marginally early.

However, in the same yard on Third Street, and loosely associating with said Veery, was not a bird I expected at all! In fact, I have a rule that I like to instill on my birdwalk participants: if it’s April in Maine and you see a dark-spotted Catharus thrush, it IS a Hermit Thrush. This was the exception to the rule.
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There’s no doubt it was either a Gray-cheeked or a Bicknell’s Thrush, but those birds can be very challenging to ID. Generally very secretive in migration, getting good looks – let alone good photos – is often impossible. And neither is expected to be walking around front yards in a neighborhood!

It is also incredibly early, as neither of these species is usually detected in Maine (if at all, especially Gray-cheeked) until the third week of May, and sometimes not until even later. This was beyond early, and certainly suggests its arrival here was at least partially influenced by the storm system.

The overall cool gray appearance without any hints of reddish-brown anywhere (no matter what light angle I viewed it in) immediately suggested Gray-cheeked Thrush, but the date and circumstances warranted careful study. I even posted the photos online, sent them directly to friends, and added them to at least one forum, hoping for additional feedback.
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However, other than the seemingly “dumpy” shape of the bird, nothing here suggests Bicknell’s Thrush to me. There’s just nothing warm anywhere in this bird’s plumage, and the cheeks are finally streaked gray, not more even washed warmish-brown as in most Bicknell’s. There’s no contrast within the wings, or especially between the uppertail and the rump, either.

Although this bird’s bill is fairly extensively pale, it isn’t as bright yellow as many Bicknell’s – although I can admit to not really being a fan of this fieldmark – and even has a hint of pinkish.

In other words, as several commenters mentioned, this really looks like a “classic” Gray-cheeked Thrush, with perhaps the appearance of a smaller size and more compact shape suggestive of the subspecies minimus that breeds mostly in Newfoundland and Labrador (it’s also the subspecies whose breeding range makes the most geographical sense to appear in Maine in spring). Of course, without measurements or vocalizations, there is still a little tinge of doubt in coming to a conclusive identification.

Now, a Bicknell’s Thrush, wintering somewhere in the northern West Indies or perhaps Cuba, beginning its trek to the mountains of the northeast, could have been entrained or “slingshot” by this storm. In fact, it would make a lot of sense. But Gray-cheeked Thrushes winter mainly in northern South America, and head north through Central America. That route would not seem to be effected by this storm. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, and the storm was only a proximate cause of its arrival in Biddeford Pool.

Anyway, elsewhere in Maine, a White-eyed Vireo was in Cape Elizabeth (present through Friday) and a Summer Tanager was reported in Southwest Harbor. Early migrants included a Scarlet Tanager in Ogunquit and one found deceased in Cape Elizabeth, along with a few scattered Indigo Buntings as far inland as North Yarmouth.

Meanwhile, to our south, birders in Cape May had a White Ibis (and, even more excitingly, a –our!? – Little Egret, a first state record that may not have anything to do with the storm); a Red Phalarope and a smattering of birds just beyond their normal range, such as Summer Tanager, were in Manhattan, and a Kentucky and Yellow-throated Warbler were on Cape Cod among some of the widespread reports of “early” migrant arrivals.

During the day on Thursday, the low pressure system continued to weaken and dissipate over the Gulf of Maine, with a snotty easterly and drizzly onshore flow continuing. A weak, slow-moving cold front finally cleared things out mid-day on Friday.
surface map, 4-28-17
wind map, 4-28-17

In the dense fog on Bailey Island in Harpswell early Friday morning, I found pockets of migrants (mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows) but also several surprises, led by 1 male Hooded Warbler and a White-eyed Vireo, both along Elden Point Road – the kind of southern “overshoots” we have come to expect here in Maine from these type of storms.
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There were quite a few other migrants around, as well. A total of 9 Blue-headed Vireos included a flock of 6 together, and there were scattered other migrants such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and Savannah Sparrows.

An early Yellow Warbler was also present, as were marginally-early (based on the current progress of the season) included 1 Common Yellowthroat and 1 Great-crested Flycatcher, while other personal FOY’s included more on-time Black-and-white Warbler (7) and Ovenbird (1-2). 11 Palm Warblers were my seventh species of warbler on the morning (plus Pine Warblers singing at home).

Elsewhere, another Hooded Warbler was found at Timber Point in Biddeford, and smattering of other early migrants included a Warbling Vireo on the Eastern Promenade (where a goodly number of birds were reported in the fog this morning)

I can only imagine what might have been found if every peninsula and island was covered over the past few days! So, with more birders hitting the field this weekend, and more people home from work to check on their feeders, I wonder what will be found. Maybe a Painted Bunting at a feeder? A Purple Gallinule in a marsh? But you know what I would like the most? A Swallow-tailed Kite over Bradbury Mountain during my hawkwatch workshop as part of the annual Feathers Over Freeport events!

Reference:
Clement, Peter. 2000. Thrushes. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

FIELDFARE in Newcastle (and a rare April case of Rarity Fever!)

Last week was an incredible week in Maine birding. First up was the state’s first Vermillion Flycatcher that appeared on Hog Island on Monday the 17th. While it was #15 on my list of “Next New Birds for Maine,” HOW it was discovered defied imagination: it was seen by on observer watching the Hog Island Osprey Cam, as the black-and-scarlet little bird sallied for insects from the platform. Simply incredible.

Then on Wednesday, a long overdue(#10 on my predictions list) Fieldfare was discovered in Sheepscot Village in Newcastle. No, it wasn’t within a flock of thousands of wandering American Robins of the subspecies/clinal extreme from Newfoundland, it was in a front yard with a handful of “normal” robins. And Jeff Cherry saw it on his way to work.

I have been very busy of late with the new book, spring business at the store, the peak of the flight at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch, the obligatory spring yardwork, and all of those usual things in life, plus – and most importantly and distractingly – our dog’s failing health. With Jeannette running the Boston Marathon on Monday, chasing the Vermillion fly wasn’t in the cards for me. Neither was skipping out on the 7,000 seed delivery on Wednesday morning when the Fieldfare was found.

But when the bird was reported again at 2:30pm, I dropped what I was doing and raced up to Newcastle. I spent a couple of hours unsuccessfully looking for the bird. A Vesper Sparrow was a small consolation prize.

Now, I don’t chase very often, but a first state record within an hour’s drive is usually fair game. And I really like Fieldfares. And I’ve wanted to see one in Maine (or anywhere else in North America) for a long time. I’ve daydreamed about finding one as I searched through wintering robin flocks in orchards or migrants passing Sandy Point in late fall or Bradbury Mountain in the spring.

While it was not seen on Thursday, but I made a dumb decision of heading inland to look for a possible waterbird fallout. There was no such waterbird fallout. My first of year Ruddy Ducks at Sabattus Pond and a singing Louisiana Waterthrush at the Papermill Trail in Lisbon were the highlights. Not a Fieldfare.

My book release party was Thursday night, and I was down in Salem, Massachussetts for a book signing and presentation to the Essex County Ornithological Club on Friday night.  The Fieldfare was refound on Friday afternoon.

During a wet and dreary – but fairly productive, actually – birdwalk on Saturday morning, the Fieldfare was reported again, and it continued to be reported for regular intervals throughout the day. And as the cold and rainy day tempered business in the afternoon, Jeannette says “you should probably go” despite having plans to chase it with friends on Sunday.

So I went. And after a mere fifteen minutes, it popped out into the open. FIELDFARE!

In addition to being my 375th species in Maine (although it just fell out of the top 25 of my personal next birds in Maine), it was a new “ABA-area” bird for me. This was a good one.  I spent an hour watching it for a few minutes at a time, as it hopped between a copse of dense scrub and young trees and a mowed field, foraging with a small group of American Robins for a few minutes before disappearing again into the brush.

After about an hour, a total of 24 American Robins flew up from various corners of the fields and into the tops of some nearby Red Maples, where it lingered for about 5-10 minutes before flying off towards the center of town.
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Drizzle, fog, and distance precluded very good photos, but I did Facebook Live the sighting for about 30 seconds…just because.
 
Of course, I was semi-responsible as I headed back to work, while a few other folks relocated the bird much closer to the road in the village. Oh well, I still had Sunday morning.

Terez Fraser, John Lorenc, Erin Walter and I drove east and met up with Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist, and about 50 other fellow birders. It was not being seen, so people were beginning to split up and check other areas, besides the fields across the pond from 611 Sheepscot Road, where the bird was most often seen (including by me in the previous day).  So the 6 of us began to mosey down a promising side road, and as we strolled back to the corner, we saw the crowds were on the move.

It was seen in roughly the same spot (other side of the island of trees between the fields on the other side of the pond), but most people had scattered by now, so only a lucky few saw it (and apparently saw it pretty well). Unfortunately, it had disappeared into the larger island of trees by the time we got to the edge of the pond.

So we waited. And waited. And then waited some more. At least it was nice out.
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Then a couple of hours later, it was spotted in the leaf litter within the dense, young woods. It was glimpsed by many, frustratingly missed by others, and seen well by no one over the course of about 45 minutes.

Unfortunately, I had to force my carpool to depart (although we were all very much ready for lunch by then) to head back to the store for a meeting, which was frustrating to me as I had to pull my friends (only 2/3rds of which had unsatisfying glimpses) away from the stakeout. I was also the genius who suggested we walk first and caused us to miss that initial, decent observation. Well at least we had a great lunch at the Montsweag Roadhouse!  (And yeah, I did see it decently at one point, but not like I wanted).

But such is birding life.

More frustrating to me is the selfish birder who decided to walk down through the woods, opposite the group of more than 50 patient people, pishing (which thrushes don’t respond to, by the way) as he went. At one point, when the bird was coming out in the open, people could see this dumbass through their scopes, and he clearly flushed the bird back into the deeper depths…where it was not, as of at least 3:00pm that day, seen again.

While one might be able to argue he pushed the bird into our view, it seemed tough to argue that he didn’t directly ruin the opportunity for it to come out into an open edge for all to see, including those who had driven in from several states away. Of course, we all know who it was, and we all know how selfish some birders can be. And frankly, if there was one prick in the state of Maine who would act this way, it would be that guy. Thanks, buddy.

Anyway, we had a beer at Montsweag and that made me feel a little better.

Moving on…

So in the course of about a week, there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in East Machias (also on Monday morning), a Vermillion Flycatcher in Bremen, and a friggin’ Fieldfare in Newcastle. I feel a bit hamstrung right now to hit the field as hard as I like to find out what else might be out there. Perhaps I’ll find the next one tomorrow…