The Nova Star Ferry to Nova Scotia

I love birding Nova Scotia, but it’s been a few years since I was last there. This year, with the rebirth of ferry service from Portland, I knew it was time; there were no more excuses.

I finally got a chance to make the voyage this week, with two primary agendas: explore the birding potential of the Nova Star (and scout for the potential of making this a new weekend tour), and visit with my friend Eric Mills for a little southern Nova Scotia birding.

Ever since we lost the Scotia Prince, I have been hoping for a bird-able boat that traverses the Gulf of Maine. The short-lived, high-speed catamaran that replaced the Scotia Prince was of little value – it had almost no outdoor space whatsoever, and it moved far too fast.  With the return of ferry service, and this time with a ship that moved at a more reasonable speed for birding, I was optimistic for a new pelagic birding platform.

I waited until August to take my trip, as the warmer late-summer waters host more pelagics now (especially birds that arrive from their sub-Antarctic breeding grounds). Furthermore, the high cost of a trip on the Nova Star would not permit me to take many journeys this year, unfortunately (and will clearly be the biggest hurdle in running a tour that utilizes this boat), so I had to choose my dates wisely.

Boarding at 8pm on Tuesday night for the 9pm departure, I settled into my spartan, but plenty comfortable, bunk.

Next, I walked every corner of the boat in search of the best location for my birding. There’s no access to the top deck, the bow, or anywhere close to it on the sides. The only forward-view was the piano bar with occupied tables, and less than a desirable view to the sides. Really, the only places to view are outside decks on the stern. Not expecting a big ol’ cruise ship to attract many following birds, I was concerned about the birding potential. Quite concerned (especially at this price).

Come morning, the viewing locations were the least of my concerns, however. We were socked in with fog, too thick to see a thing.

It wasn’t until we were about to enter Yarmouth Harbor that we finally exited the fog, but other than a single Northern Gannet, there would not be any seabirds for me this morning.


Entering the harbor, however, the sun was shining, gulls were busy with newly-arrived Herring trawlers, and the mudflats were lined with shorebirds.



After disembarking (and I must say, having the relatively few walk-ons wait until every car had offloaded was just stupid; I get why we couldn’t walk down the deck with traffic, but had we been allowed to go first, we all would have been clearing customs before the first cars were being offloaded, but I digress), I met Eric, who I had not seen in four years; it had been way too long.  After the usually greetings and pleasantries, we of course immediately began birding.

The first order of business was Yarmouth Harbor, where I was evaluating the birding potential of a vehicle-free tour. Good shorebird habitat, with decent numbers of Black-bellied Plovers and Short-billed Dowitchers were close by, and we encountered perhaps the last two Laughing Gulls (rare but regular in Nova Scotia) from the fall-out of this species that was caused by Tropical Storm Arthur – the first addition to my Canada list on the trip. A couple of thickets and small parks hold potential for migrant landbirds.

Moving on, we drove up and down the Yarmouth Bar (Nelson’s Sparrow, Peregrine Falcon, more shorebirds) and north to Mavillette Beach Provincial Park (more Nelson’s Sparrows). After dipping on two Black Skimmers that had also been lingering post-Arthur, we met up with local birder Ronnie D’Entremont for a shorebird survey at Cook’s Beach on Pinkney’s Point. Well, the survey was easy! All of the birds were jam-packed into one gravel spit due to very high tides. The estimation, however was not easy, but we came up with about 1500 Semipalmated Plovers (a very impressive count), joined by about 750 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 100 Least Sandpipers, 51 Short-billed Dowitchers, 20 White-rumped Sandpipers, 17 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 Killdeer, and 1 Ruddy Turnstone.

What was particularly cool about the roosting Semipalmated Plovers was that once we rotated to the side of them, we saw how carefully lined up they were in little, linear depressions in the cobble beach.

One last check of Yarmouth Harbor – OK, there are three lingering Laughing Gulls, apparently – and then it was beer o’clock and dinner time at Rudder’s brewpub.

On Thursday, the birding hotspot (to say the least) of Cape (Sable) Island was our destination, and it surpassed all expectations!  Jeannette and I birded here in late September during our first visit to the province beyond Yarmouth 8 years ago, but here in August shorebird season. it was in its full glory.  First, we twitched a vagrant American Avocet that had been present for about a week, finding it within seconds of pulling over.

While we missed peak shorebird density at Hawk Point by perhaps as much as an hour, one of the 4 pairs of American Oystercatchers in the entire province were visible, as were plenty of shorebirds, with a combined guesstimate of several thousand Short-billed Dowitchers, Black-bellied Plovers, Semipalmated Sandpipers and Plovers, with smaller numbers of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs, Least and White-rumped Sandpipers, along with handfuls of Ruddy Turnstones, “Eastern” Willets, and Sanderlings. Only one Whimbrel, however, and no Hudsonian Godwits.  I was still impressed – especially if we had missed the peak – and thoroughly enjoyed the waves of shorebirds streaming overhead and out of the bays, heading towards their high-tide roosts on the sandy barrier island of Cape Sable.

Next up was South Side Beach at Daniel’s Head. Wow. Simply, wow. We knew there was a Buff-breasted Sandpiper here, and we knew a lot of shorebirds roost here at high tide, but we definitely did not know there would be this many birds!  The narrow strip of sand was coated with shorebirds – the best Eric has ever seen here, and we estimated around 10,000 total birds!  Semipalmated Sandpipers, Sanderlings, Least Sandpipers, and Semipalmated Plovers led the way, followed by goodly numbers of White-rumped Sandpipers, 3 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 “Eastern” Willets, and 1 Short-billed Dowitcher.




Oh yeah, the Buff-breasted Sandpiper was there, too.

After lunch, we picked up another staked-out rarity in a juvenile Yellow-crowned Night-Heron, as my Canada list grew nicely. Back at South Shore Beach, we found very few shorebirds – another birder saw two harriers flush them out, so Eric and I considered ourselves incredibly lucky to have hit the beach at prime time. While we were there chatting, small numbers of bird began to return as the tide just barely began to recede.

The weather forecast for the day had been a concern, leading us to expect rain on and off throughout the day. But we lucked out, as the rain stayed away until around 2pm, at which time we were already working our way back to Yarmouth, with a detour to Lower West Pubnico.

My short trip was coming to an end on Friday morning, but the most important part – professionally anyway – was about to begin. Eric and I said our goodbyes (after a quick check of the harbor once more), promising it won’t be nearly as long this time until we see each other again, and I boarded my vessel for the return trip.  Unfortunately, the view in the harbor, and for quite some distance offshore, looked familiar.

We departed at 10:00am ADT with nearly zero visibility.  A small hole in the fog just outside the harbor presented a Red Bat that circled the boat a few times before moving on.  It wasn’t for an hour and a half that the fog lifted enough to see much else, and a short-lived hole produced several Great Shearwaters and Northern Gannets: a frustrating tease as the fog closed back in.

We were in and out of dense fog for the next two hours, but whenever there was visibility, I was on deck, scanning the gentle (today!) seas. Great Shearwaters, Northern Gannets, a few Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, and two Atlantic Puffins were welcome, and then several Leach’s Storm-Petrels. I could only help but wonder what was out there as thick fog once again swallowed the boat, and I set off to find some lunch (the buffet was fine, but not very impressive in quality, especially for a hefty $17…it felt like mediocre college dining hall; breakfast was only marginally better).  Sitting at the window, doing my best to get the most out of my dollar, the fog started to clear, and views of Leach’s Storm-Petrels sent me scrambling for the deck at 1:10 EDT. I sat down again at 6:25 EDT.

The fog cleared, the winds were light and the seas were fairly calm, and birds were everywhere. As it turned out, my scouting of birding locations worked out – the corners of Deck 9 provided a decent view from about 2:00 (using the bow of the boat as 12:00) on out. I couldn’t see what was crossing the bow, but I could pick birds up before and after. And, the height of boat gave me great visibility to see well away on either sides, where I spotted most of the action.

Nonetheless, I would not have guessed that the birding would have been this good!  Shrouded in fog, I was beginning to think my money had been wasted. By the time we arrived in Portland, I was thinking about how I could bring a group aboard and when I could afford to take the trip again (a rather large hurdle, especially for a tour).

I swept all of the expected tubenoses (4 shearwaters and 2 storm-petrels), with the count of Leach’s Storm-Petrels most impressive. While most phalaropes were too far to ID, there were plenty of Red Phalaropes to be seen. Four Fin Whales, 9 Mola Mola (including a patch of five in close proximity), a pod of wake-riding Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, and a breaching Blue Shark were among the non-avian highlights.  At nearly the mid-point of the crossing, well south of Mt. Desert Island, a wayward Yellow Warbler came aboard.

When all was said and done, I had one of the better pelagic birding trips that I’ve had in Maine (list not including near-shore stuff on either end, plus Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls of course):
173 Great Shearwaters
167 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels
131 Northern Gannets
105 unidentified phalaropes
55 (!!!) Leach’s Storm-Petrels
10 unidentified storm-petrels
10 Laughing Gulls
7 unidentified terns
3 Cory’s Shearwaters
2 Sooty Shearwaters
2 unidentified jaegers
2 Atlantic Puffins
2 unidentified passerines
1 Manx Shearwater
1 Common Tern
1 Ruddy Turnstone
1 Yellow Warbler

While the height of boat preclude great photography opportunities, I did alright with “documentation” shots of Leach’s Storm-Petrels as they flew around, bounded like sea-worthy nighthawks.


Great Shearwaters, however, were a little more cooperative.

Passing south of Matinicus Rock…


…and Monhegan Island!

So while the birding situation is not optimal, clearly the boat passes through some productive waters. I’m sure not every trip will hit this much activity (‘tis the nature of pelagic birding), but at least my concerns about the feasibility of birding (at least for a small group) from the Nova Star are alleviated. Fog and inclement weather will always be a concern; this is the Gulf of Maine after all.  As for a future weekend tour, I have a plan in mind. Let me give this some thought (and make some calls). But at the very least, suffice to say that birders traveling to and from Nova Scotia, or those just looking for a ride to sea, have another option now.

Birding By Schooner 2014!

There are no promises when you lead birding trips by sailboats, but the 2014 Birding By Schooner Aboard the Lewis R. French Tour once again delivered!  This is a very unique trip – not just unique in terms of the tours I lead, but unique for Maine, and as far as we know, everywhere else.

While last week found us plagued by beautiful weather – yup, plagued, we need wind! – great birding, great food, and good company were thoroughly enjoyed.  While our total trip list of 78 species of birds (plus 5 mammals: Harbor Porpoise, Harbor Seal, Gray Seal, Minke Whale, Red Squirrel, one amphibian: Red-backed Salamander, several dragonflies, and 6 species of butterflies) was below our average, we had a few real treats…one in particular.

The wind direction and intensity (or, as in this week, lack there of) dictates where we can and cannot go over the course of our 6 days at sea. Luckily, the first day found conditions acceptable for heading to our number one goal: Seal Island.  Departing Camden Harbor, we set sail directly to this remote seabird island.

IMG_2142_Heading to Seal, 8-4-14_edited-1

Perhaps our only true “schedule” of the week, our goal was to arrive at a very specific time, for a very specific bird. Captain Garth Wells adeptly navigated our way to arrive about 10 minutes before show time.

“Troppy,” the famous Red-billed Tropicbird that has called Seal Island and vicinity its home for the past 10 summers arrived right on queue. I first spotted it flying around the island in the distance.


Then, he made a sharp turn towards us…


…and proceeded to circle our boat several times at an increasingly close proximity…

DSC_0038_Troppy1,8-4-14_edited-1 - Copy

…Before turning away and heading back to the island, often escorted by Arctic Terns.


Oh yeah, there were several hundred Atlantic Puffins in the water too, and later, as we hosted the Seal Island biologist crew aboard for dinner and conversation, a Parasitic Jaeger.


As the sun set, fog rolled in, and by 10:30, we began to hear the cackles and chatters of Leach’s Storm-Petrels as they commuted to and from the island in the cover of darkness. Several of us awoke in the middle of the night to listen, and we were rewarded with a constant cacophony of this intriguing, and a bit disconcerting, sound. Since we have the luxury of anchoring off of Seal – weather permitting of course – we not only have a great success rate with Troppy, but we also have the rare opportunity to listen to the nocturnal chorus of this pelagic specialty.

Come sunrise…

Seal Island Sunrise,8-5-14

…we enjoyed countless puffins, Black Guillemots, and Arctic Terns, along with at least a dozen Great Cormorants from the local breeding colony, a couple of re-orienting migrant Yellow Warblers at dawn, and several singing Song and Savannah Sparrows.  Surprisingly, we tallied 9 species of shorebirds (plus Sanderling the day before): the locally-breeding Spotted Sandpipers, but also 40+ Semipalmated Sandpipers (plus another 50 unidentified peeps), 9 Ruddy Turnstones, 9 Short-billed Dowitchers,  3 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Semipalmated Plovers, 3 Lesser Yellowlegs, 2 Least Sandpipers, and my first White-rumped Sandpiper of the fall (and a pretty good bird out here).  A single Red-winged Blackbird dropped in from high above, and we spotted another Parasitic Jaeger.

Shorebirds – a continued theme throughout the trip – were one of the benefits of conducting this tour two weeks later than usual. We also had high hopes for pelagic shearwaters, but our doldrums had set in. Little wind was present as we traveled from Seal to Matinicus Island, and therefore any shearwaters in the vicinity were likely sitting tight, conserving their energy. Two unidentified jaegers, 5 Red Phalaropes, and 28 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, along with several more Atlantic Puffins and a few Northern Gannets kept our interest however.

Arriving at Matinicus Rock…


…we saw plenty of puffins and more Arctic and Common Terns, but our late departure date cost us: Common Murres and Razorbills were nowhere to be found (don’t worry; we resume our usual third week of July itinerary next year!). But, we did have a treat with a single cooperative Manx Shearwater!

As we made a pass around Matinicus Rock, it was time to read the winds (or once again, the lack there of) and make a choice. We had hoped to turn towards Monhegan Island for birds (and the brewery!), but that would have been a very long, perhaps even uncomfortable slog. So instead, we turned inland, and set a course of Port Clyde.

We traveled through some relatively deep and open waters, but shearwaters were nowhere to be found. Another Parasitic Jaeger, 100+ Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, 21 Northern Gannets, 4 migrant Short-billed Dowitchers, a Minke Whale, and two Mola Molas were enjoyed, as were the numerous Harbor Porpoise that were constant companions throughout the tour, easily seen in the often glass-calm waters.

Rounding Metinic Green and passed Marshall Point Light, we dropped anchor in the quintessential mid-coast harbor of Port Clyde.  In the morning, we hopped ashore, and took a bird/plant/sightseeing walk to the lighthouse, slowly but steadily building our trip list. A Broad-winged Hawk being mobbed by a half-dozen or so American Robins was the avian highlight.


Once again, our goal was Monhegan, but once again, barely a puff of breeze was available. Even if we pushed our way out there with our yawl boat, we would have had a hard time making it back the next day – no wind was forecasted, and we only carry so much fuel!  We also have to plan one step in advance, and set ourselves up for where we needed to be the next day. Mutiny was considered, but the difficult decision to turn east was made.

Heading towards North Haven, another 16 Wilson’s Storm-Petrels were added to the tally, but our chumming attempt in these inshore waters was expectedly futile (but we had to try as we had picked up bait in the morning.  Unfortunately, the deepest water that we were to pass through was traversed in the middle of a rather heavy thunderstorm, which we were not able to outrun sailing at a mere 3 knots (well, until the storm itself was upon us!).

IMG_2169_first t-storm,8-6-14

We entered the Fox Island Thoroughfare and dropped anchor in a little bay off of Amesbury Point on North Haven Island. Another delectable dinner was then served by Chef Scott – who is not your average schooner cook!


The storm clouds cleared by dusk…


…and we heard several shorebirds calling from up the bay, and two Snowy Egrets passed by overhead.  Therefore, we decided to mix things up a little with a pre-breakfast row to check things out.


I took the helm, and somehow guided us successfully to and from the boat.


I was just happy to not run into anything, but a nice mix of shorebirds included 8 Least and 2 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 2 Spotted Sandpipers, and one each of Killdeer and Greater Yellowlegs.

A short sail (again, little wind) through the Thoroughfare yielded the first Bonaparte’s Gulls of the trip, some Common Loons, and plentiful Ospreys.  Dropping anchor off of the Calderwood Island Preserve, much of the boat hit the water, including our Captain.


Then, it was time to row ashore for one of everyone’s trip highlights: the lobster bake!  While things got cooking, I led a walk around the preserve, adding a few landbirds to the list. Song Sparrows and Common Yellowthroats were especially conspicuous, but I couldn’t help but wonder what migrants the extensive raspberry-gooseberry-juniper thickets that covered much of the island would hold…and rarities?


Storm clouds built up once again…


…But the lobster bake went off without a hitch…


…perhaps with the exception of Nihls, who bit off a little more than he could chew.


Returning to the boat, we adjusted our position for the night, and scoped a small rocky islet that as the tide rolled in, amassed 64 Bonaparte’s Gulls and several families of Common Terns – adults were commuting to and from the island with fish for their hungry fledglings.


It was clear and calm once again at sunrise (we joined the Mary Day at anchorage last night), but a Winter Wren serenaded us from the island. We rounded the southeast corner of North Haven Island, and headed for Islesboro.

The waters of Penobscot Bay are not overly birdy at this time of year – other than plentiful Black Guillemots, Ospreys, Bald Eagles, gulls (mostly Herring and Great Black-backed with smaller numbers of Laughing, Bonaparte’s, and scattered Ring-billed), Common Eiders, scattered Common Loons, Double-crested Cormorants, and so on. But as we passed various little islands, our triplist slowly grew with the likes of a migrant group of Tree Swallows, a single Barn Swallow, a hunting American Kestrel, and plenty of Harbor Seals. Ruddy Turnstones were also scattered about.

But once again, the day’s calm conditions gave way to building thunderstorms…

IMG_2217_off_North Haven,8-8-14

…but we managed to make it to the shelter of Gilkey Harbor off Islesboro before things got too hairy today.

IMG_2220_Gilkey Harbor,8-8-14

And as it had for the last three days, the storms cleared for lovely sunsets…

IMG_2224_Gilkey Harbor2,8-8-14

…more delectable food, and evening entertainment from the crew.


Several flight calls early in the night overhead suggested that the front had finally cleared, and fall migrants were once again on the move.


Another lovely morning greeted us on our final day aboard the French, but not before we raced ashore for one last birdwalk. This time, we checked out Warren Island State Park.

We added several species to our list in one single Paper Birch just off the pier (Brown Creeper, Northern Parula, Yellow-rumped Warbler, and Black-and-white Warbler) while a delightfully birdy stroll added Hermit Thrush and Gray Catbird, plus great views of a variety of other species as we also spent time looking at plants and discussing the ecology of the Maine islands once again (and ranting about invasive plants).

But alas, all good Birding By Schooner tours must come to an end, so sails were set and we headed for home.



Turkey Vultures over the Camden Hills and Chimney Swifts over the harbor were our final 77th and 78th species of the journey and we pulled into the dock. Goodbyes were said, belongings were gathered, and Captain Garth and I immediately began to plot for next year’s trip.

A special thanks go to Jenny and Garth Wells, and the crew of the Schooner Lewis R. French for making this special trip a reality, and as always, making it a resounding success.  I hope you will consider joining us next year.  For more information, check out The “Tours, Events, Workshops, and Programs” page of our website, or visit the the Lewis R. French

Here’s our birdlist of 79 species from this year’s tour, listed in order of appearance:
Canada Goose
House Sparrow
Herring Gull
American Crow
Rock Pigeon
Song Sparrow
Cedar Waxwing
Ruby-throated Hummingbird
Great Blue Heron
Black Guillemot
Double-crested Cormorant
Common Eider
Ring-billed Gull
Laughing Gull
Great Black-backed Gull
Northern Gannet
Wilson’s Storm-Petrel
Atlantic Puffin
Arctic Tern
Common Tern
Savannah Sparrow
Spotted Sandpiper
Ruddy Turnstone
Short-billed Dowitcher
Semipalmated Sandpiper
Semipalmated Plover
Yellow Warbler
Black-bellied Plover
White-rumped Sandpiper
Lesser Yellowlegs
Red-winged Blackbird
American Goldfinch
Bald Eagle
Mourning Dove
American Black Duck
Blue Jay
European Starling
Black-capped Chickadee
Common Yellowthroat
Gray Catbird
American Robin
Chipping Sparrow
Hairy Woodpecker
Black-throated Green Warbler
Broad-winged Hawk
Downy Woodpecker
Northern Cardinal
Dark-eyed Junco
White-throated Sparrow
Greater Yellowlegs
House Finch
Snowy Egret
Swainson’s Thrush
Northern Flicker
Red-breasted Nuthatch
Bonaparte’s Gull
Golden-crowned Kinglet
Winter Wren
American Kestrel
Tree Swallow
Barn Swallow
Brown Creeper
Northern Parula
Yellow-rumped Warbler
Black-and-white Warbler
Hermit Thrush
Gray Catbird
Turkey Vulture
Chimney Swift

“Chebeague Birds” – quite possibly the greatest thing on the internet, ever.

After a friend posted this to Facebook yesterday, I have been sharing it all over the place. It is just so well done, so adorable, and quite educational. So, as I head offshore next week for my annual “Birding by Schooner” tour aboard the Lewis R. French, I leave you with this awesome video that simply needs to go viral. Enjoy.

“Chebeague Island School – Mrs Hoidal’s Kindergarten – 2nd Grade students made a movie about the birds they studied the last month. They have had so much fun and have learned so much and today shared with their parents this video and the birds and nests they made along with their research for the movie.”

Not Seeing a Tufted Puffin at Machias Seal Island…but not really caring!

I don’t chase birds too often. But every now and then, I do get the urge. When a Tufted Puffin was spotted on Machias Seal Island, off of Cutler, on June 17th, I knew that this was one that I was going to chase: it’s one of my favorite birds in the world, and this was only the 3rd of 4th record for the entire Atlantic Ocean.

Since then, it has been seen only sporadically; nothing consistent. It can go a week between observations. Machias Seal is not exactly convenient for a quick check. The Bold Coast Charter Company – now the only access in Maine to the island – is booked solid this time of year. We had to charter. I needed enough people to not spend a fortune. The weather had to cooperate. I went to Colorado. So yeah, this was going to be a challenge.

But Captain Andy Patterson was game, so I put thing together. After the first two attempts were called off due to weather (including the passage of Tropical Storm Arthur), 14 of us joined Andy on Sunday afternoon.  And conditions were glorious.

I have never seen it so glass-calm out here! The lighting was great, and there were boatloads of birds on the water. We spent over three hours around the island, slowly cruising through and around rafts of loafing alcids. We scanned each and every rock of the island, twice. We checked out every bird commuting to and from the island.

In the end, I believe that we looked at every single Atlantic Puffin, Common Murre, and Razorbill at least three times. Not that the Tufted was a challenging ID, but everyone was being extra careful. But alas, finally we had to throw in the towel and motor back to Cutler.

Rarely have I seen so many smiles on a “dip” (when you miss a bird you are “chasing.”). But of all of the chases I have been on, few could compare to the enjoyment of a gentle boat ride in calm seas out to a remote offshore island with thousands upon thousands of breeding seabirds. So yeah, there are worse places to have not been seeing a specific rare bird. In fact, if all chases were like this, I might chase more.


Everyone on Little River Island paused to take a look at us, too.



Northern Gannet on Gull Rock, a recent occurrence.


Harbor Seals.



Common Murre departing.


Like I was saying, there were a lot of birds on the water!




1st-summer Atlantic Puffin.




It’s been 18 years since I have been to Colorado, and over 10 years as part of Jeannette’s family. Yet I had not made the pilgrimage to her aunt and uncle’s ranch in Ridgway. In other words, I was overdue for a trip to this wonderful, and bird-wise, exceptionally diverse state.

We arrived in Denver late on the 8th of July, and somewhat early the next morning began our birding at Genessee Mountain Park. It was a very birdy location, and I enjoyed a host of birds that I have not seen in a good while, including Cordilleran Flycatcher, Plumbeous Vireo, Green-tailed Towhee, Lesser Goldfinch, and so much more. Like just about everywhere we went in the state, Broad-tailed Hummingbirds were talkative: their chirpy-buzzes created by their namesake tail feathers whipping through the air. Animated Black-billed Magpies worked the picnic areas, and Western Wood-Pewees called here and there.
Genessee Park, 7-9-14_edited-1(Don’t forget to click on the images for a full-sized photo).

GTTOGreen-tailed Towhee

Reynold’s Park was next on the agenda, rapidly growing our trip list with the likes of MacGillivray’s Warblers and Townsend’s Solitaire. But as we departed for our drive out of town, I was left still not believing that Williamson’s Sapsuckers actually exist.

This was primarily a friends and family trip, but of course there would be plenty of birding involved. While there were plenty of birds we hoped to see, the primary target species was the Gunnison Sage-Grouse. An overdue candidate for the Endangered Species List, this range-restricted and declining bird was a priority for us. But we were here in mid-summer, not when the males are “booming” conspicuously on the lek in the early spring. We knew we had our work cut out for us, and didn’t truly expect to find this needle in the sagebrush haystack.
Gold Basin Road, Gunnison, 7-10-14

After over two hours of walking up and down roads along and off Gold Basin Road (just south of Gunnison) first thing in the morning, we resigned ourselves to the expected failure, but enjoyed the multitudes of Brewer’s Sparrows and Sage Thrashers. Then, about 100 yards from the car, a big, brown chicken erupts from the side of the road. Gunnison Sage-Grouse! A female, and only about 15 feet away!



We watched her mosey up a small hillside (did she have chicks hiding nearby?), and so we retreated to some rocks and waited. She didn’t return to the grassy road edge, so we walked around a small rocky mound to get a better look. And that’s when we flushed another one!

We really couldn’t believe our luck as we returned to the car, our mission complete and our spirits high. We also both were happy that we wouldn’t be tempted to try again on the way back to Denver at the end of the trip.

At a more relaxed state now, we birded around the Curecanti National Recreation Area, adding a nice array of waterbirds to our trip list, including a single California Gull, and unexpected over-summering hen Common Goldeneye, and about 25 Western Grebes. One pair of grebes was displaying, head bobbing and posturing to each other. Eventually, they rose to their feet and ran across the water, wings tucked in, necks bent, crests raised, and in perfect unison. I have always wanted to see Western Grebes display.
Curecanti National Rec Area, 7-10-15

Even though it was after noon, and the temperatures had risen well into the 80’s, we decided to give Grace’s Warbler – another potential lifer for me – a shot. Jeannette and had done some excellent research for the trip, and as soon as we stepped out of the car at an unassuming road junction, we heard the male singing! We walked into the open woods here and after a little pishing, the female popped out a mere 15-20 feet away! Then, the male resumed singing and continued to do so until we had fully soaked in his beauty and committed the song to memory (or, at least, attempted to).
GRWAThe cooperative female.


Pronghorn Antelope as we drove back to the highway!

It was hot, but Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park was not to be missed. I for one had not known much about the place, and I was stunned by how impressive it was. Black-throated Gray Warblers worked the brush, White-throated Swifts chattered overhead, and the glorious song of the Canyon Wren echoed from the cliffs below. But it was the scenery more than stole the show here.

Black Canyon1,7-10-14

Black Canyon3,7-10-14

We arrived at Deedee and Peter’s Ridgway Ranch in time for dinner, and in need of a good night’s sleep. Come morning, we were greeted by Broad-tailed, Rufous, and Black-chinned Hummingbirds at the feeder, Western Meadowlarks in the fields, and Western Kingbirds around the house.
Hummers 2Black-chinned Hummingbird

Hummers 3Rufous Hummingbird

Hummers1Broad-tailed Hummingbirds

Family ranch,7-11-14 And this view!

We visited Ouray for lunch, and then hit Box Canyon Falls. How have I not heard of this place? Although I had seen Black Swifts before, I had never imagined there was a place to see them like this – there was one nest about 15 feet off of the staircase! At least three nests (out of about 12 known here) were very easily visible, and looking into these nests was a remarkable experience.
J-Mo at Box Canyon,7-11-14


COFL - Box Canyon
Not to mention what might have been the world’s most confiding Cordilleran Flycatcher.

Birding up Camp Bird Road, we encountered lots of singing White-crowned Sparrows and Swainson’s Thrushes, a few Gray Jays, and runners taking part in a grueling ultra-marathon.
Camp Bird Road, 7-11-14

On the 12th, we got an earlier start and ventured north into Colorado National Monument. While the park itself was the primary motivation for this outing, the chance at my lifer Gray Vireo only added to the anticipation. And with two birds well seen at our first stop (the Devil’s Kitchen picnic area), we were free to take in the scenery, and enjoy the likes of Ash-throated Flycatchers, Black-throated Sparrows (a favorite of both of us), cute Juniper Titmice, and comical Gambell’s Quail. Oh, and the scenery was simply breathtaking.



lizard - Colorado N.M. Does anyone know what kind of lizard this is?

Making a big loop, we climbed into Grand Mesa National Forest where Jeannette caught the birding bug while working on a field biology project with Boreal Owls. Wilson’s Warblers, Lincoln Sparrows, and an Olive-sided Flycatcher were added to the triplist, but I was more interested in hearing Jeannette reminisce. No Boreal Owls, however.
Grand Mesa,7-12-14

Half-way through our trip on Sunday the 13th, we were content with our birding successes (well, expect Williamson’s Sapsucker, but that doesn’t exist) so we planned a relaxing day in Telluride. Or so we thought.

We went out for a big breakfast before heading southwest, steadily climbing into the mountains. A hike to work off breakfast was in order, so we headed up the Bear Creek Trail from downtown Telluride. Cordilleran Flycatchers were impressively vocal and conspicuous in town and the trail, which also held lots of Warbling Vireos, Pine Siskins, and “Gray-headed” Juncos.

But our less-bird-centric day would take a turn just over a half-mile up the trail. Jeannette and I stopped dead in our tracks as we heard the enchanting song of a “Winter Wren” emanating from the gully. But Winter Wrens aren’t supposed to be here. Plus, it doesn’t sound right – the song is a higher-pitched, buzzier, and more mechanical than what we are used to. Pacific Wren!? Well, that’s not supposed to be here either. We listened longer, and I made a recording of this complex song using my iPhone. We briefly sighted the bird on the top of a spruce on the other side of the stream. It looked dark, and lacking the pale-throated contrast of a Winter Wren, but the lighting was poor, and the look was distant and short.

We checked the range map on the Sibley app. Hmm…neither Pacific nor Winter Wrens are supposed to be here. And it sure has heck sounded to us like a Pacific Wren. I had limited cell signal, so I shot a text to our friend David LaPuma, who was currently in the state as an instructor at the American Birding Association’s Camp Colorado. I asked him about the status of Pacific Wren in Colorado in the summer, and he simply replied “Unheard of.”

But by the time we received that exhilarating and intriguing response, the bird had ceased singing, and we had continued along on our hike. The scenery was beautiful, the songs of Swainson’s and Hermit Thrushes were emanating from the woods, and a close encounter with a foraging pair of Evening Grosbeaks was enjoyable. But we were distracted.
Bear Creek Trail, Telluride,7-13-14

We were going to email some birders in Colorado to determine just how “good” this “good bird” was once we got back into town, but just to be sure, we decided to try for better documentation and very specific directions so that others could re-find it should they so desire. The bird was once again belting out its vocals at the same spot, so we took careful field notes, made some more recordings, and this time I was able to take this “documentation” shot by holding my phone up to my binoculars.


After listening to the bird for over 20 minutes, observing it as long as we could, and discussing the song as compared to our knowledge of the variation in Winter Wren (a species we are very familiar with from a wide part of its range) – unlike Pacific Wren, which neither of us have heard in some time. In fact, the last time either of us heard one, it didn’t have the name of Pacific Wren (it was a group of subspecies under the moniker “Winter Wren’)! But we were convinced.

When Tony Leukering replied with “…no summer records and less than five overall…” for Pacific Wren, we realized the magnitude of this “Mega.” We sent him, and others, including Ted Floyd, our notes, the voice recordings, and the lousy photo for what it was worth.

The next morning, two local birders re-found the bird, and managed to get “crippling” photos of it. Not only that, but they watched it building a nest! The close-up photos showed the rich buff color of the throat and upper chest that we expect on a Pacific Wren, although these two species are notoriously challenging to separate. Preliminary analysis of the song – including by those very familiar with the two species – seemed to confirm our identification (but since we’re still learning how to separate these two “new” species, we know there is always the chance our judgment could be overturned; the song was going to be analyzed with a spectrograph for example).

We were elated! Finding a mega-rarity on vacation is outstanding, especially on a day when birding wasn’t a priority. But isn’t that always the case? The unexpected love to show up when they are least expected, aka when you don’t have your real camera.

But we still had 2 1/2 days of vacation remaining. Could we top the wren? Probably not, but we did enjoy more good birding. Presumably set off by the onset of the monsoon season, most places we visited were full of birds – and unlike July in the Northeast – full of birdsong. This included the family ranch, where a morning stroll added Virginia’s Warbler to the triplist and a Calliope Hummingbird arrived at the feeder (yay, 4-hummingbird species at a feeder!). Two flycatching Lewis’s Woodpeckers were a pleasant surprise over the downtown Ridgway as we began our journey back to Denver.

We had one last target bird, and as soon as we got out of the car just outside of Montrose, we heard Jeannette’s lifer Sagebrush Sparrow singing. And then saw four. Score!

The rest of the day was spent traversing the countryside to get back to Denver. Beautiful scenery was to be had at almost every bend of the road.
driving to Denver,7-14-14

driving to Denver2,7-14-14

Arriving at my friends’ place in Denver – a dear friend since college – we settled down into a couple of relaxing days of catching up, being tourists, and enjoying way too much food, and a little beer.

Of course, Jeannette and I would go through withdrawal if we didn’t pick up our binoculars once a day, so while Jess pushed the stroller (for her son, not us, for the record) and guided us through Washington Park, Jeannette and I padded our trip – and my state – list with Black-crowned Night-Heron, Snowy Egret, Blue Jay, and Chimney Swifts (yup, back in the “East” now!). An afternoon in downtown Denver included a walk around Confluence Park – hmm, I think this would be my “patch” if I lived locally; it looked very intriguing for migration I thought
Confluence Park, Denver, 7-15-14

We had the morning of the 16th to bird before departing for home, so we headed over to another urban park, Belmar Park in Lakewood. Cooper’s Hawk was new for our trip list, but a low-soaring Swainson’s Hawk was the highlight. A brief stop at nearby Sanctuary Park – it looked like it had some birds from the road – trumped Belmar Park. “The pond of fuzziness” including chicks and young juveniles of a surprising array of birds: Mallards, American Coots, Pied-billed Grebes, and Redheads. The latter three, along with a single hen Northern Pintail, were all state birds for me.
PBGR with kids Pied-billed Grebe with chicks.

REDH Redhead juveniles.

Sanctuary Park,Lakewood,7-16-14 It’s a fuzzy romper room!

But alas, eventually it was time to go home. We said goodbye to Jess, and little Stone, but had some more time with Adam as we carpooled to the airport. We encountered an impressive 120 species on this rather-casual trip, and my state list grew by leaps and bounds. On our way to the airport, Western Kingbirds lined the roadways, and we said goodbye to the birds of the Mountain West as we took off and returned to our favorite state of them all.

Post-Arthur Beach Birding and Catch-Up

I know I haven’t been blogging much this summer, but I hope you know that doesn’t mean I haven’t been birding. Quite the contrary, actually! My June was as busy with tours and private guiding as it could have been, and with some other projects going on, much of my birding was rather purposeful. Of course, there was some wholly-recreational birding mixed in as well from time to time. Despite my irregular blogging, I did my best to keep folks up to date with my birding adventures and discoveries, mostly with near-daily posts to our store’s Facebook Page. (Remember, you need not be “on Facebook” to browse the posts of a business page.)

It was a busy month. But that’s not a complaint. And now, Jeannette and I are off to Colorado for a bona-fide vacation, to visit friends, family, and yes, do some birding. But first, I had Sunday morning to find some birds. My third attempt to organize a charter to see the Tufted Puffin that has been seen irregularly at Machias Seal Island (3rd or 4th record for the entire Atlantic Ocean!) was thwarted by residual high seas and localized damage from the passage of Tropical Storm Arthur. While Arthur took away my chance to see a Tufted Puffin in Maine waters, I was hoping it would produce some rarities of its own.

In a tropical system, birds are sometimes entrained in the eye, while others are pushed out ahead of the storm. This displacement usually occurs in the strong northeastern quadrant of the storm, and birds escape the eye when it hits land. With the storm passing to the east of Maine, I did not expect to see any vagrants on Friday. However, when the storm reached land in southern Nova Scotia on Saturday morning, birders there were in prime position for rarities. And sure enough: lots of Black Skimmers, several Gull-billed, Royal Terns, and Forster’s Terns…all rarities from points further south. (You can peruse the reports from the province, here).

These birds, commonly displaced by tropical systems, were likely picked up by the storm as it passed over North Carolina’s Outer Banks on Thursday. Here’s the cumulative wind map as of 11:00am on Friday, with the storm’s center already off of the Delmarva Peninsula.

As the storm hit Nova Scotia, birds finally had a chance to escape its grips. But notice the winds for Maine – they were already strong out of the northwest, on the backside of the storm (note the light winds of the disintegrating eye over the northern Bay of Fundy).
current winds,7-5-14

So Nova Scotia birders were having a lot of fun…and I was not seeing a Tufted Puffin. So instead, I decided to comb the beaches to look for some of these terns that perhaps are already returning south. While most of these birds likely made a bee-line straight across the Gulf of Maine on their return journey, some birds might conceivably follow the coast.

After birding Eastern Road at high tide (34 Least Sandpipers and 20 Short-billed Dowitchers – fall migration is definitely underway!), Lois Gerke and I headed to Pine Point Beach, where we spent a little more than an hour watching from the jetty. As the tide went out, exposing the sandbar and flats, Common, Least, and a few Roseate Terns were feeding, roosting, and loafing with at least a hundred Bonaparte’s Gulls. But alas, there was nothing unusual among them.

I then checked the mudflats from the co-op (more Short-billed Dowitchers, a few more Roseate Terns, and a lot of feeding Common Terns) before I spent the remainder of low tide at Hill’s Beach in Biddeford. At least 8 Roseate Terns, 75+ Bonaparte’s Gulls, 17 Short-billed Dowitchers, and my first Whimbrel of the year joined the regulars, but alas, no rare terns.

It appears I had the right idea, but just the wrong timing. Later in the afternoon, a Royal Tern was found at Hill’s Beach. And then, this morning, two Black Skimmers were roosting at Stratton Island. There are still quite a few waifs being seen in Nova Scotia, so it is conceivable that the coming days could see some reports of returning rarities here in Maine. Unfortunately, this morning, I had time only for a quick stroll at Capisic Pond Park. No rare terns there, but I did see my first Monarch butterfly of the season – which, the way things are going for this species, is even more exciting.

Meanwhile, indirectly storm-related were the 6 Glossy Ibis that were a little bit of a surprise on my Saturday Morning Birdwalk along Highland Road in Brunswick. The heavy rain nicely saturated the soil, and gulls and these ibis had moved inland to take advantage of the bounty.

In other birding news, a pair of Evening Grosbeaks has been frequenting our Pownal feeders – which are particularly exciting considering the dearth of them this year…in fact, these are the only ones that I have seen all year long. And, even more unexpectedly, three Eastern Bluebirds have hatched right here at the store!

Arthur gave us a momentary glimmer of rarity fever, and “fall’ shorebird migration is definitely underway. But July is for breeding birds – from terns to “sharp-tailed” sparrows to bluebirds and warblers. In other words, there’s no such thing as the “summer birding doldrums!”