Tag Archives: rarities

GREAT BLACK HAWK IN BIDDEFORD!!!!

IMG_1498-edited-edited

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).

IMG_1461-edited-editedIMG_1462-edited-edited
IMG_1520-edited-editedIMG_1583-edited-edited

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!
IMG_1555-edited-edited

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.
surface map, 4-25-17
wind map, 4-25-17

surface map, 4-26-17
wind map, 4-26-17

surface map, 4-27-17
wind map, 4-27-17

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.
L1090495_GCTH1L1090520_GCTH3

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.
L1090565_GCTH6

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.
L1090659_WEVI,BaileyIsland,4-28-17_edited-1

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.
IMG_2822_FIEL1,4-22-17

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.
Fieldfare_twitchers,4-23-17_edited-1

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…

Epic Twitch of Mid-Coast Megas, 1/30/17

Fully caught up on work and life from our recent vacation, Jeannette and I spent Monday and Tuesday birding hard!  On Monday, we did our monthly “South-coastal Tour” from Kittery through Wells, enjoying a total of 49 Harlequin Ducks, two unseasonable American Pipits at Seapoint Beach, a hen Northern Pintail in the Moody Marsh, and finding a rare Pacific Loon off of The Cliff House (distantly phone-scoped here within an armada of Common Loons).

I16388218_1538684886161460_2799068214130599250_n

But on Tuesday, it was time to get caught up with some of this winter’s rarities. And so far this year, the Mid-Coast is where it’s at!

We began at Owl’s Head Harbor, arriving at 9:25. In about 10 minutes, we found the recently-discovered 2nd-cycle Mew Gull at the second lobster impoundment. Undoubtedly the same bird that spent last winter here, it was exciting to see it has returned, and with a more mature plumage. We watched it for about 20 minutes, as it regularly took flight, foraged in the cove, checked out the pens, and loafed with other gulls. Eventually, we watched it as it flew out into the bay, rounding the corner to the east and out of view. It steadfastly refused to fly into good lighting, however.
img_3149-edited-editedimg_3174-edited-edited

A lingering Belted Kingfisher was present as well, but surprisingly, not a single Iceland Gull was around.

We then went over to Owl’s Head State Park, where a little seawatching produced a couple of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Razorbills, but to our surprise, the Mew Gull as well!  It was feeding quite a bit off the lighthouse, out at a tideline.

Next up was a search for two Pink-footed Geese that have been around since December.  We didn’t find them in the playing fields they usually frequent, so we began a search of Rockland Harbor. The Mechanic Street Boat Launch yielded a Northern Shrike and lots of Mallards, but no geese.

We worked our way around the harbor, expecting to eventually find them in the greens of the Samoset Resort. Instead, we spotted them on the green of a sunny lawn in a small backyard off of Samoset Road. However, we were viewing them through a scope from a considerable distance, out across the large cove, from our vantage point in the parking lot at the end of Fales Street in downtown. They were not close.

So we raced over to Samoset Road, and got really lucky, finding them – along with a group of merely 15 or so Canada Geese – between a couple of houses.
img_3199-edited-edited

After lunch, we worked our way towards Camden, checking a handful of waterfowl sites, but finding nothing of note. But a pair of Buffleheads off of Mechanic St in Camden were particularly photogenic.
img_3207-edited-editedimg_3222-edited-edited

We then arrived at 4 Central Street, the home that has been hosting a Bullock’s Oriole – merely Maine’s 2nd ever – since the early winter. Jeannette had not looked for it yet, so a visit seemed overdue. We arrived at 2:09, and after waiting a mere 7 minutes (many observers have waited multiple hours), it arrived, landing in a tall tree behind the house, catching some late afternoon rays.

It dropped to the feeder, and instead of its usual brief visit, it spent well over 5 minutes gorging itself on mealworms and grapes.
img_3263-edited-editedimg_3297-edited-edited

Mew Gull, Pink-footed Geese, and Bullock’s Oriole: an incredible January hat-trick of Mid-coast Megas!

I am so over birding in Portland.

Walking around various former hotspots and seasonal patches of significance in and around the Portland peninsula recently (including a few yesterday), I have come to one conclusion: I am so over birding in Portland during migration!

It used to be all I did – come late fall, head to the big city, especially the peninsula, and poke around the Eastern Promenade, weedy gardens, wooded hillsides, and scrubby patches. I’ve found lots of really good birds this way, from a Yellow-throated Warbler in a small grove of pines in front of the old Scotia Prince ferry terminal to annual Yellow-breasted Chats and regular Orange-crowned Warblers and Dickcissels.

But I give up.

I’ve chronicled the destruction to the uplands at Capisic Pond Park – after having once been a shining example of urban landscaping for wildlife and users, and a great way of showing what good can come of people, politicians, and professionals working together. And then it was gone. And that’s before the pond-dredging-skating-rink-creation-project-mess started.

The lack of oversight resulted in a road being built through some of the best woods behind Evergreen Cemetery – and that was even after the same city officials and engineers working on the same (necessary) sewer repair project supposedly learned their lessons with the Capisic Pond Park section. And then there’s the road the University of New England built through the other side of the woods, spreading invasive plants deeper into the forest and destroying some of the best scrub habitat in the park for migrants. Oh yeah, and natural and unnatural sedimentation in the ponds, along with the diminishing shoreline vegetation (erosion, overuse, etc) has greatly reduced the volume of migrant birds that find food and shelter around what was once one of the best spring migrant traps in the entire state. While the cemetery is still pretty good for birding – especially in spring, after “fallouts” – the degraded habitat just doesn’t hold birds like it used to.

Next, although the area known to birders as “Dragon Field” has long since lost its bird appeal due to mismanagement that allowed for the rapid overtake of invasive plants, there won’t be much of a chance of recovering it anymore. Of course, distributed solar is the way of the future, and this is truly a great project…I just wish it was atop a warehouse roof or over a parking lot instead of one of the city’s greenspaces. But it’s mostly going to be covering Japanese Knotweed and Stinging Nettles now anyway.

Do you see a theme yet?

Urban areas present all sorts of challenges, and it takes very knowledgeable and talented land managers to balance all of the issues, environmentally, socially, and economically. But we also know how important greenspaces are to urban areas, environmentally, socially, and economically.

While I do not expect that the number one priority of any city will be “migratory bird habitat and birding opportunities,” it is clear that Portland does not prioritize at all the health of its greenspaces and the welfare of the wildlife, especially migratory birds, that call these places home for some period of time and various parts of the year.

Today, I want to focus on how much the City of Portland has destroyed the green spaces on the Portland peninsula. Surrounded by water and dense, urban development, city parks and gardens provide critical cover for migratory birds. When certain weather conditions result in migrants being deposited within the urban jungle, they are forced to seek shelter and food wherever they can.

Personally, I love urban birding: immersing myself in fallouts, finding vagrants in the oddest places – like that aforementioned Yellow-throated Warbler – and seeing so-called “late” migrants eking out an existence in seemingly inhospitable corners.

But I am running out of places to bird in the city of Portland!  Especially now, in the fall through early winter, when “lingering,” “pioneering,” and vagrant birds seek the warmer microclimates of urban parks, or become “stuck” in low-quality habitat, unable to accumulate the fuel reserves needed to move further. However marginal urban habitats are, they are absolutely critical for these birds to have a chance. Healthy migrants will simply wait out the day and take off under the cover of darkness, while others will find the resources (such as weed seed in the case of many of our native sparrows) necessary for a full recovery.

But such places are becoming impossible to find in Portland.

The once-productive trees and scrub along the Commercial Street Extension is mostly gone – developed or simply clear-cut to hell. Replacing a fairly healthy canopy is little more than regenerating knotweed, bittersweet, and buckthorn.
west-commercial-st

Many small lots have been developed, and several years ago, the trees and brush throughout the Fore River Parkway Trail was clear cut. Not much for birds left there anymore.

Mercy Pond remains a miniscule oasis – although the edge is far to narrow to hold songbirds for very long.
mercy-pond

Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely much of this will remain if hospital expansion plans go through. Which seems incredible to me, as this little pond regularly hosts (are they even breeding?) State Endangered Black-crowned Night-Herons!

But I think the most egregious example of poor management and devastation of bird habitat and birding potential is along the Eastern Promenade. A favorite patch of mine since I moved here, I have seen a whopping 176 species along it, including some really “good” birds over the years. With a cumulative list of 208 species as of this year, a lot of people have enjoyed a lot of good birding in this urban greenspace.

Unfortunately, mismanagement and misguided “maintenance” continues to greatly degrade it. Native plants are significantly reduced, and invasive plants have taken over and continue to proliferate. Despite the efforts of the Friends of the Eastern Promenade (who I have worked closely with over the years), it always seems that for every step forward, there’s three or more taken back. In fact, it’s about as bad as ever now, following yet more devastating clearing in late fall of 2015.
2015-12015-22015-32015-4

Continued slashing of what’s left of the native vegetation continues.  On 9/9, I noticed yet more hacked swaths like this.
2016-22016-3

Unfortunately, this is so incredibly counter-productive on multiple levels, as all it does is allow dense and ornithologically-useless invasive plants, especially Japanese Knotweed to proliferate even more.
2016
knotweed

And makes it easier for Asiatic Bittersweet to take over everything else.
bittersweet-2bittersweet

Meanwhile, valuable native plants like this Gray-Stemmed Dogwood is hacked to hell.
gray-stemmed-dogwood

And it’s great at accelerating erosion.
bare-ground

The “Mid-Slope” Trail, which is often the most productive in late fall, has been destroyed…
mid-slope

…And the weedy slopes full of goldenrods, late-blooming primrose, and other great birdfood was mowed too early this year. Sparrows will be wanting for sustenance, and those late-lingering warblers – especially Orange-crowned – will be hard pressed to find food and cover. Additionally, it seems that it was mowed in perfect time to destroy any chance Monarchs would have had to breed successfully there this year. This is particularly unnecessary and unjustified mismanagement.
non-meadow

Based on the overall size of the greenspace and it’s placement along the shoreline at the northern terminus of the peninsula, there’s little doubt there will still be some birds along the Prom this fall, and perhaps even a rarity or two. But as for regular migrants and vagrants that are seeking shelter and sustenance, there will be little reason to stay very long.

Fallouts will occur because of weather events and the disorientation of migratory birds in city lights (especially in fog) and those birds will still descend on the Prom. However, most will likely leave as soon as they can, winging it inland in “morning redetermined migration,” hopefully not hitting windows or being hit by cars as they do.  It also likely means birding opportunities will be greatly reduced as these birds depart immediately in search of better habitat. Get there early!

But the exceptional days of fall birding, such as thousands of White-throated Sparrows scratching in the undergrowth or several Orange-crowned Warblers working the meadows, are unlikely to occur anymore. Birders lose. Birds lose more.

And what does any of this accomplish? It looks like crap. Thickets grow back denser, and people move back in – they’re just harder to see now. And then you clear-cut once again. And in between, tired and hungry migrant birds find little. And birders go elsewhere. Great solution.

As for me, with “Rarity Season” approaching and weather getting cooler, birds seek out warmer microclimates, like sunny hillsides, urban lots, and so on, where moderated temperatures can extend the availability of food resources, even insects.  This is the time of year – through the “Christmas Count Season” – where I usually would spend an increased amount of time birding all of the nooks and crannies throughout the peninsula, looking for late migrants and hoping for rarities.

Unfortunately, with so few opportunities left in Portland, I’m forced to look elsewhere. That means fewer eyes covering what’s left of the habitats, and fewer lunches I’ll be eating in town and fewer cash-burning errands.

But much more importantly, there are just fewer places that tired and desperate birds can go to find safety and refuel. That means even more birds hitting windows, being hit by cars, and being killed by cats. All of the trials and tribulations of a bird finding itself in an urban environment are exacerbated when there’s no good habitat left.

And all of the reasons there’s less habitat left in an urban environment are exacerbated when open space is managed as poorly as it is in the City of Portland. For a city that loves to bill and market itself as being “green,” it really does a terrible job in its greenspaces. While cities who honestly attempt to make themselves greener encourage or even mandate “bird safe” building guidelines to reduce collisions with glass surfaces (Portland on the other hand, promotes new developments with glass predominating), and work on “Lights Out!” campaigns to reduce the disorientation of birds from light pollution.

Taking things even further, 24 cities (Baltimore was the most recent) have signed onto the US Fish & Wildlife Service’s “Urban Bird Treaty City Program” which works to:

  • Protect, restore, and enhance urban/suburban habitats for birds
  • Reduce hazards to birds
  • Educate and engage citizens in monitoring, caring about, and advocating for birds and their conservation
  • Foster youth environmental education with a focus on birds
  • Manage invasive species to benefit and protect birds
  • Increase awareness of the value of migratory birds and their habitats, especially for their intrinsic, ecological, recreational, and economic significance

Now that’s what a “Green” Portland should be doing. Instead, all it does is fire up the brush-hogs and chain saws.

I’ll be birding elsewhere this Rarity Season. I just hope the birds find somewhere better to go as well.

Western Grebe at Simpson’s Point (4/17/16)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what a hotspot of Simpson’s Point in Brunswick currently is. I also predicted that it was about due for another rarity. And recently, with increasing numbers of migrant ducks, my Rarity Fever was further stoked.

Last Thursday, I counted an amazing 2600 Black Scoters – a really ridiculous count for interior Casco Bay. After enjoying a growing number of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers among other migrants (first of year Swamp Sparrows, etc) at Florida Lake this am, I took advantage of the finally-calm conditions to visit them again, and perhaps do a little sorting through the masses.

Those scoters were still present this morning, and the goodly number of Horned Grebes (20+ each day) continued. Horned Grebes molting into breeding plumage can look a lot like vagrant Eared Grebes, especially as the blond tufts are still growing in. I was scanning a small raft of Horned Grebes, thinking about finding the second Eared Grebe record for here.

That’s when I found…a Western Grebe! Not only was this a significant rarity, it was actually a “State Bird” for me (the first time I have seen the bird in the state). A long overdue one that was becoming a nemesis of sorts, it was #6 on my latest predictions list for my next 25 species to see in Maine. And of course, it is always sweeter and more rewarding for me to find it for myself.

It was not close, but the distinctive shape and profile was unmistakable. The relatively short body riding low on the water – like all grebes – looked disproportionally small as that long and skinny neck was craned up. The long bill and fairly large head (relative to the width of the neck) further added to the bird’s distinctive profile.

Upon closer look, the two-toned black-and-white neck and face was obvious. There’s little doubt as to this bird was a member of the genus Aechmophorus – Western and Clark’s Grebe. Luckily, as the active bird moved a smidge closer, I was able to scrutinize several features that ruled out Clark’s. For one, the black hindneck was evenly wide, not narrow and thin, and not pinching toward the top. Although it was too far to see the details of the face, it definitely did not look “white-faced” and I certainly could not see the eye (On Clark’s, the eye stands out in the white face in breeding plumage, on Western, the eye is harder to see as it is enshrouded by dusky black). The bill also looked yellow, but not as bright “banana yellow” or even orange-y like Clark’s.

But it was far, and perhaps a hybrid could not fully be ruled out. However, with one record of Clark’s for Maine (and all of New England) and with at least a dozen or so records of Western for Maine alone, there’s a fair “percentage play.”

Anyway, like many birds at Simpson’s Point, it was off to the east, and the light was not great in the mid-morning. After diving several times, it began to preen, and then loafed for a bit before tucking in its sinuous neck and falling asleep (had I scanned while it was asleep, I probably would have never picked it up!). In between, I managed to rattle off a bunch of phone-scoped “documentation” shots. Well, for what they are worth…

And here’s another lousy photo, from 4/21. However, it was in better light, so the bill color is a little more evident. However, the overexposure of the distant phone-scoped photo makes the face look much more whiter than it really is.
WEGR1,SimpsonsPoint,4-21-16_edited-1

The 2016 Maine State List (and my own) Predictions Blog.

The second record (and perhaps the first verified one) for Maine of Black-throated Sparrow was found in Winter Harbor on New Year’s Day, and continues through today, January 6th. I was tempted to chase it yesterday, but instead I am left to hope it sticks around until the end of next week when I return from a short business trip. Fingers crossed!

Before it arrived, I had begun to put together my annual list of the next 25 species to be found in Maine. I then follow that up with my own State List predictions, and no, Black-throated Sparrow was not on that list!

I know, I know, you’ve been awaiting this with baited breath for this. So without any further ado, let’s get started with the annual Maine State Birds Predictions List.

First, a quick recap of 2015.

Only one species was added to the state’s all-time birdlist, a Surfbird, which was discovered at Biddeford Pool in March. It was not a species on anyone’s radar, and it was most definitely not on my Predictions List for 2015!

But I did make several changes to my Next 25 Species for Maine list, and moved things around a bit. So here are the NEW prognostications:
1)Neotropical Cormorant – The new #1! With populations expanding in the Midwest and observations of vagrants increasing around the East, this one is only a matter of time now!
2) Graylag Goose
3) California Gull
4) Roseate Spoonbill
5) Spotted Towhee
6) Ross’s Gull
7) Hammond’s Flycatcher
8) Bermuda Petrel – see notes in last year’s blog entry at the link above.
9) Black-chinned Hummingbird
10) Fieldfare
11) Audubon’s Shearwater – on “hypothetical” list, but I think the record is good.
12) Little Stint
13) Anna’s Hummingbird
14) “Western” Flycatcher (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran) – Hope it calls! After a spate of reports in the Fall of 2015, this is another western bird increasingly being detected well outside of range.
15) Vermillion Flycatcher – Ditto.
16) Common Ground-Dove – A virtual irruption of this bird this fall, including one as close to Massachusetts had me thinking we would have added this in 2015. Maybe one is still out there awaiting discovery.
17) Allen’s Hummingbird
18) Redwing
19) Western Wood-Pewee
20) Spotted Redshank
21) Gray Flycatcher
22) Black-tailed Godwit
23) Brown-chested Martin
24) Black-tailed Gull
25) Common Scoter

As for me, I added three birds to my personal Maine State List in 2015:
A) Gyrfalcon – Wells, 1/17/15 (Ranked #5). This is one I wanted for a while! It was seen sporadically between Wells Harbor and Salisbury, Massachusetts for about a month. If first showed up while we were away at a trade show, but luckily, I caught up with it shortly after our return. I saw it on the 17th, and managed some photos  (my blog entry also includes more background about the sighting), but on April 5th, Jeannette got the better shots!
IMG_0332_edited-2

B) I also caught up with the aforementioned Surfbird on March 22nd (Definitely not on my list!) and Jeannette got these photos when we visited it again two days later.
IMG_0505_edited-2

C) Clapper Rail – Scarborough Marsh, 9/22. I had it as an “Honorable Mention,” a list that I also keep to work off of to come up with each year’s respective Top 25.
IMG_6223_CLRA1,JonesCreek,9-22-15

I missed a Franklin’s Gull on Sebasticook Lake in November, as it appeared just before I took a trip, and departed shortly after my return. There was also a one-day wonder on Stratton Island in Scarborough in June. With an unprecedented incursion of Franklin’s Gulls into the East this fall (the Sebasticook Lake bird clearly preceded the events that brought record numbers to New Jersey and several birds to Massachusetts and New Hampshire), I thought this would be my fall – and I definitely worked for one! But alas.

My two trips off of Bar Harbor this year did not yield a Great Skua (but a September trip did give me my 3rd South Polar Skua in the state!), and once again my summer went by without a trip up north for American Three-toed Woodpecker.

Therefore, I predict that my next 25 species in Maine will be:
1) American Three-toed Woodpecker
1A) Black-throated Sparrow! OK, I know this does not count as a prediction, but still…
2) Great Skua
3) Eurasian Collared-Dove
4) Graylag Goose
5) Say’s Phoebe
6) Western Grebe
7) American White Pelican
8) Neotropic Cormorant
9) Fork-tailed Flycatcher
10) Slaty-backed Gull
11) Tundra Swan
12) Franklin’s Gull
13) Sabine’s Gull
14) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
15) California Gull
16) Yellow Rail
17) Boreal Owl
18) Calliope Hummingbird
19) Cerulean Warbler
20) White Ibis
21) Gull-billed Tern
22) Hammond’s Flycatcher
23) Loggerhead Shrike
24) Ivory Gull
25) Ross’s Gull

Well, there ya have it! We’ll check back next year to see how I did!