Tag Archives: Snowy Owl

A January Big Day

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Yesterday, (Monday, January 10, 2017), Luke Seitz and I partook in a semi-serious Big Day, attempting to see as many species as we could in one day. Winter Big Days are tough because the days are short, rarities are usually relatively few, wintering birds tend to move around a lot more than territorial songsters, and it’s often firggin’ cold.

And it was certainly cold to start – 11 degrees to be exact as we greeted the sunrise seawatching at Dyer Point. Heat shimmer and sea smoke impacted our tally, but much worse was finding our second stop, Grondin Pond, completely frozen! Just 2 days ago it had at least three “good birds:” American Coot, Lesser Scaup, and Ring-necked Duck!
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We then dipped on the long-staying Orange-crowned Warbler at Pond Cove, but the unexpected fly-over Northern Harrier plus Northern Mockingbird, Red-throated Loon, and Golden-crowned Kinglet put us back in the game. We then found a female Wood Duck at Mill Creek Cove in South Portland – our 50th species of the day, and it was only 9:53.
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Phone-binned by Luke

Hmmm…maybe we should start taking this a little more seriously.

We started to clean up with a slew of successful twitches of very good birds: Green-winged Teal and Northern Pintail in South Portland, King Eider in Portland Harbor, Barrow’s Goldeneye in Cumberland, Great Blue Herons in Yarmouth, and Ruddy Turnstones and Dunlin at Winslow Park.

We even celebrated our good fortunes with a fueling, hot breakfast sandwich from Maple’s Organics in Yarmouth.
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Unfortunately, we then hit a cold stretch, striking out on Purple Finch and Hermit Thrush in my yard, and Evening Grosbeaks at a Pownal feeder. Snowy Owl and Snow Bunting at Brunswick Landing was followed by a strategic error – the absolute slowest service in history at the Five Guys in Brunswick!

Like I said, we were only so serious about this Big Day, as exemplified by stopping for food…twice! But a to-go order of some fries, a veggie sandwich, and a milkshake should not have taken so long. First, our sandwiches were left on the counter as they forgot to bag them with fries. Then they had to wait for more fries to cook, and then it turned out someone had accidentally switched off the milkshake machine.
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Although that whole event really only wasted about 10 minutes, it was 10 minutes further behind schedule…our Pownal swing was a time suck, and the walk at Winslow took much longer than planned. And the days are short this time of year!

A Gadwall in Damariscotta was a nice pick-up, and we added a few en route twitches, but we got to Rockland with way too little time. We failed in our search of the harbor for the Pink-footed Geese and Snow Goose (they weren’t on the school fields due to the recent snow cover), and dithered on our decision to head to Camden, picking up a nearly-drive-by Bonaparte’s Gull on the way.

We didn’t run into any Bohemian Waxwings or Pine Grosbeaks on our drive, and we arrived way too late in the day to be graced with a visit from the Bullock’s Oriole. The thickening clouds ahead of the approaching storm was rapidly bringing the birding day to an early end. Quick-thinking rewarded us with the female Greater Scaup which we relocated in the Megunticook River after not seeing her in the harbor, and in very last light we somehow picked up American Wigeon in Rockport Harbor (not one as had been reported, but three, plus another Green-winged Teal), our 73rd and final species of the day.

We had hoped for a Barred Owl on the drive home; surprised that we didn’t run into one during the day, but the arrival of a mix of ice pellets, sleet, and dreezing rain didn’t help matters. However, with almost no scouting, no owling, and only about 9 hours of daylight, we agreed that this day was really an extraordinary success. 22 species of waterfowl in the middle of winter is pretty darn good, and we saw some great birds over the course of the day.

It’s almost certainly a record – if only because we don’t think anyone has done a January Big Day before (or submitted to the ABA as such!), even if it fell short of our goal of 75. And with quite a few misses and birds “left on the table,” we can’t help but wonder what a little planning, more discipline, and a packed lunch could have resulted in? (Or, having run it a couple of days earlier when Grondin was open!)

Finally, here’s an annotated checklist of the species we encountered, with notes on the rarities, single-sightings, or species seen only at one location.

Canada Goose
Wood Duck: female at Mill Creek park, South Portland
Gadwall: 1 drake, Oyster Creek, Damariscotta
American Wigeon: 1 male and 2 females, Rockport Harbor
American Black Duck
Mallard
Northern Pintail: male behind Bay Harbor Car Wash, South Portland
Green-winged Teal: male behind Bay Harbor Car Wash, South Portland and female at Rockport Harbor
Greater Scaup: female, Megunticook River from Mechanic Street, Camden
King Eider: female, Portland Harbor from Fish Pier
Common Eider
Harlequin Duck: Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth
Surf Scoter
White-winged Scoter
Black Scoter
Long-tailed Duck
Bufflehead
Common Goldeneye
Barrow’s Goldeneye: male, Cumberland Town Landing
Hooded Merganser
Common Merganser
Red-breasted Merganser
Wild Turkey
Red-throated Loon
Common Loon
Horned Grebe
Red-necked Grebe
Great Cormorant: 1, Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth.
Great Blue Heron: 2, Lower Falls Landing, Yarmouth
Northern Harrier: male, flying over Pond Cove, Cape Elizabeth
Bald Eagle
Red-tailed Hawk
Ruddy Turnstone: 3, Winslow Park, Freeport
Dunlin: 30+, Winslow Park, Freeport
Purple Sandpiper
Razorbill: several, Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth
Black Guillemot
Bonaparte’s Gull: 1, Glen Cove, Rockland
Ring-billed Gull
Herring Gull
Iceland Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Rock Pigeon
Mourning Dove
Snowy Owl: 1 Brunswick Landing
Red-bellied Woodpecker: at least 8-9 over the course of the day!
Downy Woodpecker
Hairy Woodpecker
Pileated Woodpecker
Peregrine Falcon: 1, Portland Harbor
Blue Jay
American Crow
Common Raven
Black-capped Chickadee
Tufted Titmouse
Red-breasted Nuthatch
White-breasted Nuthatch
Brown Creeper: 2, Winslow Park, Freeport
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Eastern Bluebird
American Robin
Northern Mockingbird
European Starling
Cedar Waxwing
Snow Bunting: 20+, Brunswick Landing
American Tree Sparrow
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Song Sparrow
Northern Cardinal
House Finch
American Goldfinch
House Sparrow

Total=73

Misses: Pink-footed Geese and Snow Goose in Rockland; American Coot, Lesser Scaup, Ring-necked Duck, and Northern Shoveler at Grondin Pond; Black-legged Kittiwake; Barred Owl; Cooper’s Hawk; Sharp-shinned Hawk; Rough-legged Hawk, Northern Shrike; Hermit Thrush (1); Bohemian Waxwing; Orange-crowned Warbler (1); Bullock’s Oriole (1), Purple Finch, Pine Grosbeak; Evening Grosbeak.

(Also,we posted a little play-by-play in a thread on the store’s Facebook page during the day. Check it out…we added commentary in the comments section, culminating with a video of me doing what it takes to get those wigeon at last light!)

Not Your Usual December Highlights!

While this fall’s rarity season got off to a fairly slow start at the end of October, things have really heated up lately. In fact, it’s been a really outstanding couple of weeks.  And in the past few days, I have enjoyed some really great birding.

The mild temperatures have certainly played a role – while the southerly and southwesterly winds that have ushered in much of the unseasonably warm air may still be facilitating the arrival of some vagrants, at the very least the mild temperatures and benign weather are allowing vagrants and unseasonable “lingering” migrants to survive long enough to be found! And, the lovely weather is certainly keeping more birders out in the field. I have certainly been taking full advantage of this beautiful weather.

On Sunday, Ed Hess and I visited the Saco Riverwalk. While this is always a hotspot at this season, it is really extraordinary this year. After 8 species of warblers were seen there in November, the mild weather has allowed at least 5 species to continue – almost unprecedented for December. Ed and I saw the Tennessee Warbler, a really remarkable December record…
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…both of the two continuing Yellow Warblers (the photos are of one of the two individuals), which is another exceptional species for the date…
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…the Nashville Warbler (and confirmed the continued presence of a second Nashville!)…
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…the Common Yellowthroat (more expected for the season)…
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…and we saw one of the two Ruby-crowned Kinglets still present (much more regular in December than any warbler).
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And although we didn’t see it, the most amazing of them all, a Blackburnian Warbler is still present. (Jeannette and I saw and photographed it earlier in the week, 11/30).
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Ed and I then headed to Cape Elizabeth, where we photographed the continuing Grasshopper Sparrow at Dyer Point, and odd bird to see juxtaposed with Harlequin Ducks (18) and Purple Sandpipers (6)…
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…And we twitched a Wilson’s Warbler found earlier in the day nearby, just so we could say we saw five species of warblers in a day in December!  It cannot, however, be said that we “photographed” five species:
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The Grasshopper Sparrow was also our fifth species of sparrow on the day (Song, American Tree, White-throated, and Dark-eyed Junco) – I doubt I’ve had five species of warbler and 5 species of sparrows in the same day in December in Maine before.

Of course, that only somewhat consoled us about missing the vagrant Western Tanager that was found at the Riverwalk later in the afternoon. Damn.

On Monday, I headed over to Reid State Park in Georgetown with Kristen Lindquist. It was a rather quiet day here, but it’s always one of my favorite places to take a walk, especially on such (another) gorgeous morning.  43 Red-necked Grebes, a Northern Harrier, a flyover Red Crossbill (my first of the season), oh yeah, and another rarity: “Oregon” Junco.

While some might dismiss it as “merely a subspecies,” the westernmost subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco is truly a rarity in the Northeast, and this was the first definitive “Oregon” Junco that I have seen in Maine (although I have never chased one at a feeder, where they are usually seen). It was in a small flock of “Slate-colored” Juncos and an American Tree Sparrow in the scrubby central ridge in the middle of the Griffith’s Head parking lot.

The flock flushed from short grass at the edge as we rounded the corner, and as it briefly alighted in a shrub, I was shocked to see a black-hooded junco. Closer inspection as we followed it for about 20 minutes yielded all of the pertinent field marks for a “textbook” Oregon, nicely eliminating the intermediate “hybrid swarm” – or whatever it is – that we sometimes refer to as “Cassiar’s” Junco.

Note the complete, black (not dark gray) hood, lacking contrast in the supraloral area. Also, the hood is cleanly demarcated on the back of the head, contrasting crisply with the reddish-brown back. The flanks and sides are particularly pale salmon-buff, which is not atypical for adult males (although many are much brighter). At the lower margin of the hood, note the smooth, rounded margin across the chest and up to the “shoulder.”
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Afterwards, Kristen and I birded around Bath – no white-winged gulls or Barrow’s Goldeneyes yet, no doubt related to the mild temperatures as well, but we did spot one of the Snowy Owls at Brunswick Landing – unlike warblers, a slightly more expected highlight for early December in Maine.

While Jeannette and I didn’t turn up any rarities – or much of anything else for that matter! – birding Harpswell Neck this morning, I very much look forward to what the coming weeks will produce, especially when it finally turns cold!

The 2015-16 Winter SnowBird(er) Contest is Underway!

L1010480_RECR1_immMale,CousinsIsland,3-28-14_edited-1A group of Red Crossbills on Cousin’s Island that landed at our feet was just one of the highlights during the 2014-15 Winter SnowBird(er) Contest.

It’s December, and you know what that means! It’s time for the SnowBird(er) Contest here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply!

We are very excited to announce the start of the 7th annual “Winter SnowBird(er) Contest,” which was introduced as a way to encourage people to get outdoors in the depths of winter.  Just because it’s cold out does not mean there aren’t a lot of great birds to see!  While we offer free Saturday morning birdwalks throughout the year, it is much easier to entice people to participate in May when warblers are around, or July when it is nice and warm out.

Therefore, to get more birders out and interested in the great winter birding our area offers, we have added an extra incentive: prizes!  Participants accumulate points based on the temperature at the start of the birdwalk – the colder the morning, the more points are awarded.  The contest runs December 5th through March 26th, and at the end of the period, over $250 in prizes will be awarded!

Winter birding can be a lot of fun.  It is prime season to see seaducks, such as Common and Red-throated Loons, Common Goldeneye, Bufflehead, and scoters.  The southernmost wintering flock of Barrow’s Goldeneyes on the East Coast resides in the lower Harraseeket River in South Freeport, and we frequently visit Winslow Park and the Freeport Town Wharf to enjoy this beautiful duck.
female BAGO with imm COGO1, East Machias River, 2-13-12_edited-1
Barrow’s (center) and Common Goldeneyes side-by-side is another highlight of winter birding in the area.

We’ll look for Northern Shrikes, enjoy our year-round woodland residents, and who knows what else? Last year, we spotted everything from a vagrant Townsend’s Solitaire to Red Crossbills literally at our feet. And, if this winter turns out to be another “irruption” year (and there is a good suggestion that for many species, it will be), we may find Snowy Owls, Common Redpolls, both crossbills, and much more!

Droll Yankees logoThe person with the most points at the end of March wins this year’s Grand Prize: a B7 Domed Caged Feeder complements of DROLL YANKEES. Large capacity, Gray Squirrel-resistant, pigeon-proof, and sheltered from the weather, this great feeder solves feeding station problems. Like all of Droll’s products, it is made in the USA and has a Lifetime Guarantee.

Royal River Massage logoThe runner-up will receive a one-hour massage from ROYAL RIVER MASSAGE in Yarmouth. Relieve “warbler neck” and other aches and pains in a 60 Minute Therapeutic Massage! It’ll be a great way to recover from the winter season of shoveling snow.

Laughing Stock Farm logoAnd, finally, the third place finisher will receive 2 weekly organic vegetable pickups (“medium” shares) at LAUGHING STOCK FARM CSA in Freeport. A selection of veggies will be available on each of two pick-up dates in April.  We’ve been members of the farm’s CSA for 10 years and love having fresh, organic, and local vegetables all year long.

Betsey Puckett, President at Droll Yankees was excited to provide the Grand Prize for the second year in a row, “Kudos…for providing a challenging and educational event. But then again, you Mainers are known for your endurance.”

There are some mornings in mid-winter that can make it tough to get out of bed, so we hope to add a little extra motivation. The real prize of course, is the birding our area offers in the depths of winter.

For a recap of what we have been seeing on our recent birdwalks, you can always visit the News page of our website to see what you are missing. And with 240 species seen in the 11 years of free Saturday Morning Birdwalks, you have been missing a whole lot!

So join us on a Saturday this winter to see how fun winter birding can be, and start accumulating points! Birdwalks meet at the store at 8:00am for a short carpool to a local site, rarely more than 10-15 minutes away. We return to the store between 10 and 10:30 for free shade-grown, organic, bird-friendly coffee and a look at what’s hanging out at our feeders.  The birdwalks are free and do not require advance registration.  Hope to see you soon!

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This Snowy Owl in Brunswick during last winter’s birdwalk was the 237th species ever seen on a Saturday Morning Birdwalk

“Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” Trip(s) Report

June is my busiest guiding season. Bicknell’s Thrush, Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows, Roseate Tern, and Atlantic Puffin are my most popular requests, and there is little doubt that I could fill my entire month with Bicknell’s Thrush tours!

My first visit of the season to the realm of the thrush was last week, as part of a very successful three-day tour for a client visiting from Vancouver. We saw 7 of 8 of our targets: Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrow, Great Cormorant (3!), Bicknell’s Thrush, American Woodcock, Atlantic Puffin, and Manx Shearwater. And most we saw very, very, well. We only missed Razorbill due to a strategic decision that we agreed upon, and in the end, said decision worked out very well as we had unbelievable views of the shearwater.

DSC_0006_GRCO1,CapeNeddick,6-10-14_edited-1 First-summer Great Cormorant.

DSC_0049_MASH1,Revere,6-12-14_edited-2 Manx Shearwater!

In addition to the species we were seeking, we ran into several other highlights, the most noteworthy of which was an unseasonable subadult male Common Goldeneye at Cutt’s Island in Kittery. Other highlights included a truant Olive-sided Flycatcher at Reid State Park, and an Arctic Tern – usually an offshore feeder – feeding with Roseate and Common Terns off of East Point in Biddeford Pool.

Then, this past weekend was my popular annual “Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” van tour. Meeting at the store on Saturday morning, we headed for the hills, beginning with a surprise detour to West Paris.  For this:

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That’s right, a Snowy Owl in Maine in June! Really remarkable. And how’s that for a way to start off a weekend tour?  We then made a turn for the White Mountains, and after a couple of stops, arrived at Trudeau Road for this:

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Of course, as awesome as a Snowy Owl and a nest-ful of Black-backed Woodpeckers (this is the male above, who kindly paused to preen between visits to feed the young. We also had a great look at the female, who nearly dropped a fecal sac on the group!) are on a birding tour, this is a thrush trip, so our remarkable day of birding would rapidly fade into memory if we didn’t find our one true quarry.

After an early dinner, we boarded the specialized vans of the Mount Washington Stage Line for our private charter up the mountain. It was gorgeous at the base, but looking up, we knew the summit would be different.

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And it was!

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Luckily, the thrushes’ habitat was below the clouds tonight, and so after visiting the summit and checking for American Pipits (too windy, but the flowers were fantastic), we dropped down and began our real mission.

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Although it took a lot more work than usual, we were all eventually rewarded with good to great views of this enigmatic species. We saw two or three different birds, and heard up to 4 others – a good count for the short stretch of habitat that we cover. It was even the 700th ABA-area bird for one of the clients – a fantastic bird for an impressive milestone. A short celebration was called for upon our return to our hotel.

On Sunday morning, the second day of this two-day “target species” tour, the weather looked gorgeous, but the birding was challenging. Granted, it was going to be hard to top Day 1 anyway – we were probably the first tour in history to see a Bicknell’s Thrush and a Snowy Owl in the same day!  It certainly was a novel – and a completely unexpected – experience for me.

Birding the Caps Ridge Trail in dense fog and cool temperatures to start the day was less productive than usual, but it was still a nice walk into boreal habitat and enjoy the beautiful forest here. Blackpoll Warblers and Yellow-bellied Flycatchers were conspicuous today, at least.

Very strong, downsloping winds cleared the skies for us at our next few stops, but those winds only increased, and birding became a challenge. My favorite spot for Philadelphia Vireo, for example, was just too windswept. Actually, standing upright was occasionally a challenge. But finding some shelter on the backside of a mountain via a short, but steep hike, a few of us were treated to another view of a Bicknell’s Thrush – just as a little more icing on the cake.

A great lunch followed our birding, fueling us for the drive back to Freeport (or, at least, until the ice cream stop) and capping another successful “Bicknell’s Thrush and the White Mountains” weekend.  With one more private thrush tour next weekend, I can only hope my luck with the weather and with seeing the thrush – a mythological bird to some – continues.

IMG_3632 Happy Thrush-watchers!

Biddeford Pool Snowy Owl and Weather Discussion

This was the birding highlight of Tuesday morning’s visit with Katrina to Biddeford Pool.
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The first photo was taken shortly after our arrival to The Pool, while the second two -with much more pleasant skies – was taken as we departed around noon.  Although its plumage is much more faded and worn now, it is likely that this is the same Snowy that has spent the winter near the western end of mile stretch.  Today, it was hunting voles once again on the incoming tide from one of its favorite rooftop perches.

While this was my latest Snowy in Maine, it is far from unprecedented following a massive irruption year. But seeing a Snowy Owl a mere two days away from May is still special; it could be a lifetime before we see an irruption of this magnitude again.

A little further down the road, where the second of the Mile Stretch Snowies overwintered, we found a pile of pellets below one of that bird’s favorite perches. Most were full of small mammal fur and bones, and the skulls were all of voles. One pellet, however, was pure thick, downy feathers – probably from a duck.
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But with migration still at a virtual standstill, the rest of the day’s highlights were rather few and far between; very few migrants were around. A pair of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers around the beach parking lot was a nice, and I had my first House Wren of the year in the neighborhood, and my first Laughing Gull off of East Point. 1-3 Black-crowned Night-Herons were also my personal “FOY’s,” but they have probably been present here for at least a couple of weeks now.

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The seas and skies sure looked like winter today, and the raw winds and low temperatures – and Snowy Owl! – sure made it seem more like early March than late April!

But yeah, migration has been kinda slow.  Although, interestingly enough, the House Wren and Laughing Gull were right on time for me, most of the usual late April arrivals (Black-throated Green Warbler, Northern Waterthrush, Black-and-white Warbler, etc) are nowhere to be seen, and really, have I only heard one Blue-headed Vireo so far this season?

We all know spring has been running late this year, and I would say bird migration is now about 7-10 days behind schedule (catching up from the 2-3 weeks behind schedule of early April).  Recently, our onshore winds (not conducive to facilitating migration for birds heading north) in this stubborn blocking pattern (a pattern that has seemingly become more and more regular recently) have not helped matters.  Here, for example, is the wind map from Sunday, showing the low pressure system just south of Nova Scotia that was pumping in those onshore winds since late last week.
wind map, 4-27-14

But take a look at today’s wind forecast…
wind map, 4-30-14

Here we see the massive low pressure system marching across the Great Plains. But now, on the leading edge of it, we see a deep southerly flow, originating all of the way from the Gulf Coast.  This southerly flow is expected to last for at least the next 48 hours.

Although the weather will remain unsettled – and we’re about to get a pretty good soaking tonight and tomorrow – through at least the weekend, I would expect quite a few migrants to begin to trickle in over the next few days. Simply put, some birds are running low on time to wait!  And, as evidenced by the 73 and 110 raptors tallied passing The Brad over the last two days, respectively, despite easterly winds, it is clear that some birds simply have to make some progress, and will do so when conditions are at least somewhat favorable (or, at least not completely unfavorable).

Furthermore, these deep southerly flows at this time of year can facilitate the arrival of annual spring “overshoots” from the south (see Chapter 4 of my book, How to Be a Better Birder for a full explanation of this phenomenon). When I see weather patterns such as this, I begin to think about things such as Summer Tanagers, Blue Grosbeaks, and Hooded Warblers!

At least potential food sources (insects emerging from ponds; insects attracted to blooming trees) are getting a little chance to catch up before the bulk of migrant birds arrive.  This phenology, or timing, of the plant and insect cycle is critical for migrant birds that need to refuel and/or then fuel up for the next leg of their journey. “Weird” weather such as this doesn’t bother birds as much as it bothers us, but it becomes a real problem when the weather results in the lack of specific food sources.

I haven’t seen much in the way of nectar-producing flowers yet – but Ruby-throated Hummingbirds and Baltimore Orioles often begin to arrive in the first week of May. This is going to be one of those seasons where well-stocked feeding stations are critically important to migrants, especially those that need insects and nectar.  Our hummingbird and oriole feeders are out and ready for business, and our feeder is stocked with insect-laden suet blocks (check out our “Photos from Friends of the Store” gallery on our Facebook Page to see what one particular feeding station in Brunswick has been seeing eating insect suet) and live mealworms.  It lies in wait for the first hummers, orioles, or any other migrants in need of assistance…oh yeah, any vagrants from the south, too!

A (Very) Early Spring Week in Review

Our Saturday Morning Birdwalk surveyed the waterfront in Freeport and Yarmouth.  On Sunday, Kristen Lindquist and I enjoyed an epic white-winged gull show in Portland, before working our way around the Cape Elizabeth shoreline.  Then, on Monday, we birded from Biddeford Pool through Scarborough Marsh with Snowy and Great Horned owls, Rough-legged Hawk, and Ruddy Turnstones among the many highlights.

Further south, Jeannette and I covered Kittery through Wells, as is our tradition on the first Tuesday in March.  Another exceptionally productive day was enjoyed, including two more Snowy Owls and a Common Eider of the northern subspecies, borealis.

Wednesday was spent dealing with various car issues and seed delivery, so birding was limited to the woods near our house, and the feeders of course.  Same for Friday, where at Hedgehog Mountain Park, a mere 7 species was actually the most that I have detected in a couple of months there.  In between, I was back in Portland and Westbrook on Thursday, and although the Westbrook riverfront was a disappointing, the continuing white-winged gull show in Old Port more than made up for it.

While “new arrivals” were few and far between this week as bitter cold continues, there were definitely signs of the season.  Waterfowl are obviously on the move: Brant, Canada Geese, Mallards, and American Black Ducks are returning in numbers, while the concentrations of seaducks, especially all three scoters, was greatly reduced as these birds have begun to disperse – if not actually migrating north.

For the first week of March, I recorded very few “first-of-years” this week: Great Horned Owl, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Fox Sparrows.  Of those, only the sparrow is likely a true migrant; the owl is a resident, and the warbler likely wintered locally.  American Robins were definitely on the move, however, with several flocks noted moving northbound (at least at the given time), and American Tree Sparrows also seem to be on the go.

New reports of Snowy Owls – especially inland – likely included northbound migrants.  While all three of the individuals that I saw this week seemed to be birds that were continuing in a specific area for several weeks or more now, the fact that Kristen and I only saw one bird in a very thorough search at Biddeford Pool (four had been present for a couple of months now) suggests birds are already departing. Northern Shrikes – such as the one that briefly visited the yard here at the store on Thursday (our second of the season) are also likely migrating right now.

In the woods there is a different story, however, as even the local residents are a little less active vocally right now than we would expect.  I have yet to hear a Brown Creeper sing – although I am seeing them on regular basis – and Golden-crowned Kinglets remain very few and far between.  And other than goldfinches and resident House Finches, finches remain virtually non-existent.

But all of this is about to change, and my guess is that it will change rather rapidly.  In fact, with the winds turning south today, I wouldn’t be surprised if a few Turkey Vulture and Red-winged Blackbird reports trickle in this weekend.  And once the snow really begins to melt (especially to our south), expect those floodgates to really open!  (Any day now…any day now…)

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Snowy Owl, The Cliff House, York, 3/4/14. As you have seen on this blog, our store’s Facebook and Flickr pages, etc, most of our Snowy Owl photos this winter have been of relaxed birds, often with their eyes closed.  Few have been “perfect” shots, whether in lighting or resolution.  And we’re proud of that!  To us, the birds ALWAYS comes first, and we pride ourselves in minimizing any chance at disturbance.  Unfortunately, this bird was sitting close to the parking lot and we spooked it before we knew it was present.  A pair of crows likely also affected the bird’s immediate response.  As it flew away from both us and the crows, Jeannette snapped some photos, as the bird first flew straight out to sea – thereby ditching the crows – before returning to land a short distance away.  We backed off and left it alone.  With a lot of unethical and selfish behavior occurring – as always – around charismatic owls around the country, we support the idea that the circumstances of photos be explained when it shows a behavior that may have been modified by our presence or behavior.

Random Photos Using SLR and Phone-scoping Techniques Over the Last Few Days.

Over the past few days, I have squeezed in a healthy amount of birding, giving the season and a life in retail!  It has been fruitful birding, too, and I posted daily highlights to our store’s Facebook Page for the complete story of recent birding outings.

I also took an unusual amount of photos for me.  I’m really not a bird photographer.  Instead, I call myself a “birding photographer.”  I even wrote an article for the recent Birder’s Guide to Gear from the American Birding Association about techniques of birding photography, from traditional digital SLR’s to phone-scoping.

In the past few days, I have employed both techniques to grab some photos while birding.  Some are better than others, and some are nothing more than “documentation” shots. In the shots below,  I employed either a Nikon D80 with a 300mm F4 lens and a 1.4x teleconveter, or a iPhone 4s coupled with a Zeiss Diascope T*FL 65 using a Phone Skope brand adapter.  Unfortunately, fairly thick cloud cover on both days impacted my lame photographing attempts.  Please remember to double-click the photos to get a larger image.

Yesterday, Luke Seitz, Maegan Krieger, and I met at Back Cove in Portland.  While waiting for their arrival, I spotted this Snowy Owl, and phone-scoped it early in the morning.
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When we returned to the parking lot around 2:00pm, the day was marginally brighter, and the bird was significantly closer.  We used an excersize wall in the playing field as a very convenient blind, and I went to the SLR.
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Upon our arrival at Pine Point, this 1st-year Bald Eagle landed nearby.  I was without the SLR, so I snapped these photos using my phone-scoping system!
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We also found some good birds during the course of the day, including these treats at Grondin Pond: a 1st-winter Lesser Black-backed Gull and a male Gadwall – both of which were phone-scoped.
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This morning, I visited the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta to study gulls, such as this rather dark 1st-winter Iceland Gull, which I phone-scoped on top of the hill.
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However, at least a dozen Bald Eagles of various ages were particularly active today, so I grabbed the SLR and fired away.  There was this 4th-year bird:
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And this interesting 2nd or 3rd year individual:
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Rarity Season Ain’t Over Yet..and Fun Store News and Contest Stuff

“It ain’t over ‘til it’s over” – Yogi Berra

Before we get to my birding of recent days, a couple of quick orders of business. First of all, tonight is our “After Hours Sale” here at the store.  This is our biggest sale of the year.  From 6:00 to 8:00 tonight only, everything in the store (with the usual exception of seed, optics, and sale items) is 25% OFF!  And we’ll have treats, coffee, and other refreshments to fuel your shopping

Then rest up and be sure to join us on Saturday morning for our usual Saturday Morning Birdwalk (meets at the store at 8:00am for a carpool to a local park.  We’ll return for coffee and feeder-watching between 10 and 10:30).  While I would, of course, love to see you all year long, you don’t want to miss tomorrow (or any of the next 17 weeks) as it’s the start of the Fifth Annual “SnowBird(er) Contest,” where we’ll award points to birdwalk participants based on how cold it is.  The top three birders at the end of March will receive some great prizes!

GRAND PRIZE: MAINE BIRDS by RALPH PALMER!
The classic tome from 1948 is still a valuable reference for students of the birds of Maine. This excellent condition copy is valued at over $75. It’s great for comparing status and distribution from then to now, and for collectors of birding books.

2ND PRIZE: BACKYARD BIRDHOUSE from Coveside Conservation in Casco. Perfect for everything from House Wrens to White-breasted Nuthatches, this house is perfect for any yard and made from New England White Pine.

3RD PRIZE: $25 GIFT CERTIFICATE to EDNA & LUCY’S in Pownal – Enjoy a great sandwich, award-winning donuts, and more. Perfect for your next trip up to the Bradbury Mtn. Hawkwatch!

Visit our website for more information and how the game is played. 

OK, back to birding….

In my blog a few weeks ago in which I summarized the Rarity Season through the middle of November, I suggested that it was unlikely that many rare passerines will turn up away from feeding stations.  However, the possibility of strays “concentrat(ing) along the coast as they seek out more favorable microclimates or seasonal food sources,” still seemed like a cause for hope.  And sure enough, yesterday, I found female Hooded Warbler in the Biddeford Pool neighborhood – a wicked good December bird anywhere in the US!

Unseasonable rarities like this really fascinate me.  How did it get here?  Had it flown the wrong way during the usual period of Hooded Warbler migration and only now was detected as it moved towards the coast to escape the recent cold?  How long has it been present – maybe it’s been in these thickets for months and only now did someone walk by the right place at the right time? (Based on how thoroughly I, and a few others, work this area in November, I find this scenario a little less likely)  Or perhaps, it was a mirror-migrant afterall that flew north instead of south from its usual range in the Southeastern US.  Instead of ending up in Central America, it ended up somewhere in the interior of southern New England.  Then, the recent cold “encouraged” the bird to move on.  But “mis-wired” somehow, it just kept flying the wrong way.  I always wonder why so many birders assume that once birds have made a mistake (i.e. flown north instead of south), they’ll magically figure things out and do the “right” thing the next time.  Of course, who really knows?  But it’s a fun thing to ponder (well, it is to me anyway).

Of course, I was only down at the Pool to look for Snowy Owls.  In that same blog, I wondered if we were seeing the first signs of an irruption.  My goodness, were we ever, and so far, it is HUGE!  There have been dozens up and down the Maine coast.  Jeannette had an amazing TEN in and around Biddeford Pool on Tuesday.  Not only are they widespread, but they are in unusual concentrations.  I “only” found four yesterday, but some of my time was spent walking a mile back for the camera (it was raining and my shoulder was aching when I departed the car) and then not refinding the warbler.
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This particular bird, that Jeannette also photographed on Tuesday, has made a temporary home for itself in the marsh behind Hattie’s.

While it is unlikely that this density of Snowy Owls will continue, we’ll certainly enjoy it while we can.  Some will head further south, and unfortunately, no small number will succumb to starvation (the reason they’re here in the first place – and with up to 80% of raptors dying in their first winter, it’s no surprise that most of these birds will not make it back to the tundra).  I also wonder if these recent very high tides (astronomical high tide plus a deep low pressure system well offshore) will flood the marshes too much.  In such cases, many rodents (especially voles) will drown as they run out of high ground.  That’s a natural occurrence, but if there are few voles in the marshes, that will be a lot less food for hungry owls.

Meanwhile, in that aforementioned blog I also postulated about the potential of finally getting a good goose in the “Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields,” despite the late date.  Finally!  Although my high count of Canada Geese was only 434 birds (on Wednesday), they were punctuated by an adult Greater White-fronted Goose, in the field off of Cross and Winn Road in Cumberland – the first rarity of the season in the fields.  My stubborn perseverance finally paid off.  Today, I improved upon my photos, and I posted a couple here.

I also had a Gray Catbird at Biddeford Pool yesterday, along with the Hermit Thrush that Jeannette found on Tuesday.  I also had a Winter Wren near the store while walking Sasha on Wednesday afternoon and a Northern Flicker fly over the highway in South Portland yesterday. So there are still some “lingering” migrants around.  Meanwhile, with another increase in seaducks offshore (250+ Black Scoters off of East   Point for example), things are picking up along the coast.

Oh yeah, and there are Snowy Owls everywhere!  In other words, go birding…well, after you visit us at the store, that is!

A Day Along the New Hampshire Seacoast

It was like birding in another world yesterday as Kristen Lindquist and I headed south of the border…to the New Hampshire Seacoast.  For one, we saw birders everywhere!  Well, everywhere where there wasn’t wall-to-wall development.  And goodness, even in winter, there are a lot of people around here (relatively speaking of course). Yup, we weren’t in Maine anymore!

But I have a lifetime listing goal of seeing 200 species in every state, and my goal was to hit that mark in New Hampshire by the end of this year.  This goal is not for any “total ticks” target, or submission to any listing competitions, or anything else other than an excuse and occasional extra motivation to see more parts of the country.  The 200 number seems a reasonable goal to me for most states (I won’t reach it in Hawai’i!) that involves seeing a fair sample of what a state has to offer, and usually in multiple seasons – whether its scenery, food, or other interests (i.e. Rutgers football bowl games!), there’s always a good reason to travel near and far and lots of fun to be had in the process.  And of course I will be birding in between anyway, so long ago I began keeping track of it.

So the 200 goal was born, and it was time to get to know my neighboring state a little better.  Outside of the White Mountains (where I love to bird, hike, and of course, guide), I really didn’t know New Hampshire birding and birding sites very well, and I am happy to say that has changed this year.  While I joked with friends about “never having to bird in NH again!” after the goal was met, I did learn quite a bit about birding the state in the process.  But yeah, I am partial to birding in Maine.

Anyway, I have been watching the NH listserve and plotting my visit.  I needed 5 more species, and I kept an eye on when a handful of uncommon to rare birds joined the more expected species that I “needed.”  Seeing recent reports from the Seacoast – and seeing that my days off will be limited (aka: likely non-existent) from now to Christmas, I decided yesterday would be the day, despite early morning ice that slowed our drive (lots of cars off the Turnpike yet again) and persistent drizzle and occasional light rain.

We began in the Hampton Marsh, where the high tide was pushing Horned Larks to the edges. Check. We then ran into Ben Griffith and Lauren Kras, and then joined them in a Snowy Owl search.  Unfortunately, this was to no avail.

Pulling into Hampton Beach State   Park, the two hen King Eiders (197) performed nicely.  I teased out a few Purple Sandpipers (199) from the flock of 100 or so Dunlin (198), and ran into more friends.
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Compare the “Queen” Eider with the hen Common Eider on the right. Note especially the concavity of the bill, the face pattern, and the cooler, grayer tone to the plumage.

After chatting and enjoying the eiders for a bit, Kristen and I grabbed some lunch and then returned to the coast.  Snowy Owl would make a nice milestone bird.

Shortly thereafter, I received a text from Ben “Nelson’s-type Gull on Eel Pond,” followed by “Correction – possible Thayer’s Gull.”  And off we went.

Arriving at Eel Pond, the bird in question immediately stuck out, and I set about studying and photographing it.  While it seemed that people were at least leaning heavily towards a Thayer’s Gull by this point, I had my doubts.  But, I also have limited experience with 2nd Cycle Thayer’s Gulls.  I also did not have a better explanation for this odd bird at the time.  But Thayer’s Gulls are tough, 2nd Cycle gulls are a pain in the ass, and a rarity like this (potential 6th NH record) of course warranted extra scrutiny.

I began to take notes, and even a little feather-sketching.  I took lots of photos.  Birders came and went.  Ben, Lauren, Jason Lambert, and I continued to work on the bird.  Kristen headed to the car to check on the Patriots and to warm up.  She was clearly the smart one.

There were a series of things that bothered me about this bird being a Thayer’s Gull, and I scribbled those down in my notes:
–          The primaries were multiple shades darker than any other part of the bird.
–          The tertials were extensively marbled.
–          The bill was so extensively pale with such a finely demarcated black tip for a bird that was otherwise not very advanced in plumage.
–          The bill looked rather large and heavy, especially at the tip.
–          The eye color was orange-yellow, not light, but definitely not dark.
– The legs were dingy pinkish-flesh.

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While none of these features really eliminate Thayer’s Gull, they are consistent with “Nelson’s Gull,” the name given to Herring x Glaucous Gull hybrids as well.  But try as we might, we could not get the bird to fly closer.  I never saw it with the wing fully outstretched, but the bird was photographed well in flight earlier.

It was not a big bird, and looked smaller than most – but definitely not all – of the nearby Herring Gulls.  Most Nelson’s I’ve seen are noticeably larger, but large gulls are notoriously variable.  But look at this shot – it sure doesn’t look small compared to the 1st cycle Herring Gull on the left!  And see that deep build?  It doesn’t look at slim and dainty as many Thayer’s look (speaking of variable – and subjective – gull criteria).  The head looks rather blocky, and the bill was rather hefty.
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Meanwhile, shortly after my arrival and the beginnings of ponder the mystery gull, a Carolina Wren sang…number 200!  Yeah, it was pretty obvious to all that my NH birding has mostly been in the mountains, but this was a silly hole that somehow was not filled on previous coastal trips.  Mission accomplished.  So I went back to pondering the gull.  And, with daylight fading and the long drive (especially for Kristen) still ahead of us, we hurried over to RyeState   Park to catch up with a Snowy Owl (201), which was one of our real targets of the day.  With at least 12 birds seen along the coast on Saturday, we were surprised that – despite the amount of birders combing the coast – it took us all day to see a Snowy (it sounds like a total of 2 or 3 were seen along the coast by day’s end).
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Driving home, we listened to the Pats once again stage a come-from-behind victory, and as Kristen departed, I hit our library and the internet for some gull study time.  After reviewing my photos of the standing gull, and comparing that to the photos in references – especially Howell & Dunn – and online, I was definitely leaning more towards Thayer’s Gull, as most of my concerns seemed to be accounted for.  But I needed to see the spread wing.

And then Ben forwarded me Jason’s photos.  My response was simple, “Ewww.”  The extensively dark primaries were as extensive and dark as they appeared in the field.  While darker Thayer’s can show dark shading bleeding onto the inner webs of the outermost primaries, the outer three primaries on the Eel Pond bird were clearly wholly dark, and the dark was extensive on the next two as well.  I just don’t think a Thayer’s can show that.  While no single field mark alone can define any gull, this very well could be enough on its own to eliminate a Thayer’s (or, dare I say it, a pure – whatever the hell that means – one), a bird known for its “picket fence” primaries of dark outer webs contrasting with pale inner webs.  Adding that with the other features – including the structure of the head, bill, and body – I’m unable to call this a Thayer’s Gull.  Short of a DNA sample, it’s a “Nelson’s Gull” to me, although I think there is some argument to be made for this to not be a first-generation hybrid.  I sent the link to Jason’s photos (which are far superior to my own) to a handful of friends, and they have so far concurred that this is a Nelson’s-type gull.  But, gulls are one of those birds that everyone can have a different opinion on, so I await responses from others.  I just hated to rain on the parade, especially since Lauren and Ben were so helpful in my little listing quest that initiated the day.

Ahh, large gulls. The Snowy Owl was easier to identify. I like Snowy Owls.

Cape Neddick through Wells – Snowy Owl!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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