Tag Archives: South Portland

Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Harlequins and Hops!

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

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

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

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

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

And then it happened.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Rarity Fever Juices are Flowing – It must be November, and There was a Storm…

Rarity season is upon us, and there’s no better time for a big ol’ storm. Especially with an impressive southerly flow before and during the storm, and a strong cold front clearing things out behind it, my “Rarity Fever” symptoms got fired up.

Just look at those extensive southerly winds on Friday and Sunday, for example…
wind map,10-28-15

wind map,10-30-15

…following Thursday’s storm system.
surface map, 10-29-15

Heavy rain Wednesday night into Thursday gave way to a few hours of well-above normal temperatures and mostly sunny skies before winds and rain began to pick up in the late afternoon ahead of the cold front. I was able to squeeze in a visit to Sabattus Pond in the early afternoon, hoping for storm-grounded waterbirds.

While it was simply gorgeous out, the waterbird numbers remained below seasonal-norms here. A continuing pair of Redheads was the highlight, and a pair of White-winged Scoters was just the type of rare-inland migrant seaduck I hope to find after some weathah’. Otherwise, waterbird counts were modest: 219 Ruddy Ducks (well, modest for Sabattus – this is an epic count for anywhere else in the state!), 164 Lesser Scaup, 75+ Ring-billed Gulls, 62 Mallards (not sure where the masses were today), 41 Bufflehead, 39 Greater Scaup, 36 Ring-necked Ducks, 16 American Coots, 13 American Black Ducks, 11 Canada Geese, 2 Common Loons, 1 Mallard x black duck hybrid, and 1 Double-crested Cormorant.

On Friday, with southwesterly winds (more rarity wind!) gusting ahead of a secondary cold front, I spent the morning in Cape Elizabeth. While I had Cave Swallow on my mind, I settled for a nice mix of late migrants, including four species of warblers (Orange-crowned at Kettle Cove, my 4th of the year; Blackpoll and “Western” Palm at Pond Cove, and scattered Yellow-rumps), a Gray Catbird at Kettle Cove, and an Indigo Bunting on private property.
BLPW,PondCove, 10-30-15_edited-1

With a light (but decent-for-the-date) migration overnight, I started at sunrise at “My Office” at Sandy Point to take in what’s left of the Morning Flight. Calm winds seemed to preclude as many birds from reorienting here as I would have expected based on the decent-for-the-date radar image overnight. However, it was a very pleasant morning with nice little flight featuring good late-season diversity. I tallied a total of 247 migrants, led by an even 100 American Robins, 66 Dark-eyed Juncos, and a nice total of 14 Snow Buntings. “Tardy” birds included 3 “Yellow” Palm Warblers, an Eastern Phoebe, 2 Hermit Thrushes, a Red-winged Blackbird, and best of all, a late Black-and-white Warbler that I found in the trees after my Saturday Morning Birdwalk group had joined me.

But on Sunday, vagrant-hunting was the name of the game. Although I did not organize a South Coast-wide “Rarity Roundup” this year for the first time in a decade, Kristen Lindquist, Evan Obercian, Jeannette and I ran my usual Portland Rarity Roundup itinerary, scouring the Portland peninsula for vagrants, “lingering” migrants, and other surprises. It was not exactly the birdiest of days on the Portland Pen’ but the Eastern Promenade was fairly productive, led by 2 Orange-crowned Warblers, a Palm Warbler, a Field Sparrow, and three Hermit Thrushes.
Here’s a terrible shot in the dawn dark and drizzle of one of the two Orange-crowns.

Elsewhere in the East End, we turned up a Hermit Thrush on Anderson Street, and a Gray Catbird on Sheridan Street, but then the passerines really dried up. The usually-productive stretch of woods on either side of West Commercial Street has been rendered useless, and was essentially devoid of birds.

On the riverside, there’s development, clearing a great stand of birch and scattered crabapples that once resided here:

But it’s a city, and development occurs, and there are lot worse places for trees to be cleared. The abandoned railyard and old docks along this stretch of degraded river is hardly habitat worth conserving. “There are more important places to protect,” as Evan stated. However, it was at least some habitat for tired and disoriented migrants that found themselves in the city and looking for food and shelter.

But degraded urban “brownfields” are exactly where development should occur. More frustrating – and rather perplexing – however, is the continued ravaging of quality habitat throughout the city by the City of Portland. From incredibly valuable parkland habitat at the Eastern Promenade to scattered thickets on undeveloped hillsides, it’s as if Portland doesn’t want birds to find refuge in the city. Of course, there are “other considerations” for this land mis-management, but that’s a blog for another day. But the misguided efforts to do whatever it is the city thinks it’s going to accomplish by clear-cutting what was the best strip of woods on the peninsula, reduced habitat for migrants – and resident species from Black-capped Chickadees to Hairy Woodpeckers, to Barred and Great Horned Owls (breeding) to this:

What a mess, and what an abomination! And what a waste. So yeah, there weren’t any birds here, either.

So after lunch, we gave up on the city (and crossed off several birding hotspots from the list…don’t get me started about what they have done to the Fore River Parkway Trail area!) and headed to Cape Elizabeth.

Unfortunately – especially with an increasing southerly wind in the afternoon – it wasn’t overly productive here. In fact, several of the best hotspots were incredibly slow – as slow as I have ever seen them at this time of year. However, we did hit some hotspots, led by a great amount of activity at Trundy Point. The five Snow Buntings on the beach were nice (photo below), but a feeding frenzy of 40+ Common and 6 Red-throated Loons, a single Red-necked Grebe, 1 Bonaparte’s Gull, and a goodly amount of Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls made for a fun visit. Northern Gannets were diving further offshore as well.
SNBU, 11-1-15

Maxwell’s Farm was productive, too: 17 Eastern Bluebirds, 5 American Pipits, and a Wilson’s Snipe led the way, and we had another snipe flying over little Joe’s Pond Park in South Portland. Mill Creek Park might have been the birdiest stop of the day – even if it was almost all Mallards and Ring-billed Gulls, however!

We then finished up the day, with the sun setting, at Portland’s Back Cove, with arguably the bird of the day – a late American Golden-Plover going to sleep with 9 Black-bellied Plovers and 5 Dunlin at the edge of the marsh. It was a nice way to cap an enjoyable day of birding with good friends, with the senseless optimism of Rarity Season keeping us going through nearly 14 miles of walking and searching.

No major rarities were to be found at Reid State Park on Monday morning, either, but Jeannette and I enjoyed a lovely, birdy walk on a beautiful morning. 8 late Semipalmated Plovers joined 151 Sanderlings on the beach, along with 8 American Pipits and 18 Snow Buntings. A lingering Nelson’s Sparrow (subvirgatus) was in the saltmarsh, and we spotted a Northern Harrier flying south, low over the water offshore. In the water, winter ducks and waterbirds are rapidly increasing: 31 Red-necked Grebes, 15+ Red-throated Loons, all three scoters, and a whole bunch of Long-tailed Ducks were among the growing legions today.

And then, I came into the store for a couple of hours of work this afternoon and was distracted by a Dickcissel at our feeders!

After spending so much time sifting through urban House Sparrow flocks yesterday, of course one would show up right in front of me. It was a long overdue addition to our store’s yard list – #114! And it was my 5th mainland Dickcissel of the fall.

While the appearance of a vagrant after a storm could simply be coincidence, storms can facilitate the departure of already-wayward strays (to oversimplify things a bit). It’s hard to pin any one bird down to any particular weather event, but the appearance of a Swainson’s Hawk (about 6 or 7 state records) that was nicely photographed at the Cadillac Mountain Hawkwatch in Acadia on Friday, only served to further flare my Rarity Fever Symptoms. However, despite my best efforts, I didn’t turn anything of great significance up this weekend, and nor did anyone else in Maine.

From the lack of birdlife in many Portland spots (the ones that still have vegetation that is!) and especially in the warm Cape Elizabeth microclimates that I have been checking, it’s possible that the mild weather (remember we’ve only had that once cold snap so far) has simply not yet concentrated lingering/pioneering individuals and wayward vagrants in the little nooks and crannies that we seek them in at this time of year. And with a very mild week in store, perhaps it will be a little longer before we see them concentrate.

But there is one thing we can be sure of: there will be a “Mega” rarity soon. How do I know? Because I am going away during Rarity Season!

A White-winged Gull Convention in Portland Harbor

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


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

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

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



At the aforementioned outflow pipe.


1st cycle Iceland Gull feeding storm-petrel style.


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


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


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


Adult “Kumlien’s” Iceland Gull.


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


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


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

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

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

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



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

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

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

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


Also gull-watching:

Scarborough through South Portland: Signs of Spring!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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