2016 Fall Rarity Season Redux Part II

Well, it’s finally cold out! And snowy. Yeah, winter is here, and with it, I expect some hot birding!

After a fairly slow start to the Rarity Season, as I recounted in my last blog, November continued to be slow. A Cattle Egret continued in Pittson through 11/22, and the long-staying Marbled Godwit surprisingly (and rather incredibly) continued through at least 12/4.  Meanwhile, the usual smattering of otherwise “late” rare-but-regular birds were spotted here and there like Yellow-breasted Chats and Dickcissels.

Once it finally got a little colder, a little snow and ice fell (especially to our north and west), and natural food sources became harder to find, excitement finally began to pick up a little. With warm coastal microclimates and pockets of seasonally abundant food finally starting to concentrate birds, a few goodies began to turn up -just not as many as there should have been. In fact, it was not a very good second half of November, as far as second halves of November usually go.

As usual, I combed my favorite haunts, with several visits to my favorite late fall/early winter hot (pun intended) spots, including the Saco Riverwalk, patches in Cape Elizabeth and Harpswell, etc. In doing so, I found quite a few late/lingering/pioneering/stuck birds such as a Common Yellowthroat and a Winter Wren at Kettle Cove on 11/27; a male Wilson’s Warbler and 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets in the remaining un-clear-cut woods at the western end of the Eastern Promenade in Portland on 11/27; a Wood Duck at Old Town House Park in North Yarmouth on 12/1; 2 Northern Flickers and a Double-crested Cormorant along the Saco Riverwalk on 12/2; an incredible Saturday Morning Birdwalk on 12/3 that yielded Red-shouldered Hawk, Black-bellied Plovers, a hen American Wigeon, along with Ruddy Turnstones and Purple Sandpipers; a female Wilson’s Warbler on Bailey Island on 12/4; plus a Hermit Thrush in our Pownal yard on 12/5; as well as the usual smattering of Swamp Sparrows and a few Chipping Sparrows here and there.

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Rather unexpected considering the date, location, and especially the insanely confiding behavior, this Red Knot was at Wharton Point in Brunswick on 12/1 as I spent the morning guiding for a client from Maine interested in learning the local winter hotspots.

Shockingly, however, despite combing the coast from Kittery through Wells all day on 11/28, Jeannette and I didn’t turn up a single thing out of the ordinary – it might have just still been too warm to concentrate birds in Maine’s “banana belt.” With temperatures in the mid to upper 40’s for several days at the end of November into early December, our wait for real cold weather continued.

Same was true as I thoroughly birded the greater Biddeford Pool area from the Saco Riverwalk through Timber Point on December 2nd with good friends Barbara Carlson and Paul Lehman visiting from California. We enjoyed some good birding, led by this Pacific Loon we found of East Point, but nothing unseasonably “lingering.”
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This heavily-cropped phone-scoped photo shows the rounded head, dark back and hindneck, small straight bill, and even the narrow chinstrap (not always present or visible) of the Pacific Loon. It was also much smaller than nearby Common Loons, as well as darker and with a different profile from the Red-throated Loons also present.

Paul and Barbara had been birding their way from New Jersey, and the same refrain was heard everywhere: “it’s slow.” The coastal thickets, migrant traps, and other seasonable hotspots are just not what they usually are this time of year. Although there are a smattering of rarities here and there, it’s just not that “good” right now overall. At the very least, I know we’re not alone here in Maine!

Trying things further afield, Evan Obercian, Jeannette, and I scoured the Belfast area on the 6th. Unfortunately, the only bird of note we turned up was a single Ruby-crowned Kinglet in East Belfast.
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However, well-stocked feeding stations have became a bit of a hotspot, as they often do at this time of year. “Feeder Rarity Season” began with a one-evening wonder Harris’s Sparrow in Central Maine on November 18th. Four days later, a Bullock’s Oriole showed up at a feeder in Camden and stayed through at least 12/3. Luke Seitz and I drove up to successfully twitch it on Black(bib) Friday – my 374th species in Maine!
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Two Dickcissels continue at a feeder in Clinton, but a female Black-throated Blue Warbler coming into a feeder in Portland was perhaps the most unexpected of all.

Other recent, more-seasonal highlights for me included a Northern Shoveler amongst 13 species of waterfowl at Sanford Lagoons on 11/22; 24 American Coots at Chickawaukie Pond in Rockland/Rockport on 11/25; a Rough-legged Hawk over Richmond Island from Kettle Cove on 11/27; a continuing American Coot at Fortune’s Rocks Beach on 12/2; and the “Blue” Snow Goose continues in the Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields through last week. Jeannette and I also had a great visit to Sabattus Pond before the snow began to fall on 12/5, tallying an excellent late-season total of 16 species of waterfowl despite the pond being about half covered with a thin layer of ice. A rare-inland female Long-tailed Duck, 3 Gadwall, 1 drake American Wigeon, a pair of Northern Pintails, 21 Green-winged Teal, 1 Ring-necked Duck, and 73 remaining Ruddy Ducks were among the highlights.

Finches continue to trickle in and through, with scattered Evening Grosbeaks and Red Crossbills over the past couple of weeks. And some more birds of the season included all the fun stuff like Harlequin Ducks and Purple Sandpipers along the coast, Snow Buntings scattered about, etc.

So, although we lament what the season has yet to bring – for example, I’ve only had twospecies of warblers (Yellow-rumped and Wilson’s) so far this December compared to the insane total of 10 that I accumulated in December of 2015 – there really is never a “bad” season of birding here in Maine! It’s just that our expectations are elevated at this time of year.

But now it’s cold. And snowy. That should finally push birds to the coastal microclimates and migrant traps. And in less than 2 weeks, Christmas Bird Counts get underway, believe it or not, and hopefully a return to more seasonably cold weather will turn up the heat on the birding season!

2016 Rarity Season Part I

In my last blog, I predicted some great birding was in store for us here in Maine. Our entry into “Rarity Season” coupled with an active weather pattern was undoubtedly going to make for some exciting birding in the near future. It certainly started off with a bang!

Immediately following the Nor’Easter that drenched us on Friday, October 28th…
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…a Sabine’s Gull was discovered on Sabattus Pond.
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This gorgeous gull was my 373rd species in Maine, and while I knew I was going to see one sooner than later, I expected to finally get one in Maine waters during my Washington County Weekend tour (we were close!), and not well inland on a small lake!

Whether blown inland by the strong winds or “grounded” as it cross-cut over land, this pelagic is not what one expects while scanning the ducks at Sabattus.  An early 1st Winter Iceland Gull (later, two), and a rare-inland sweep of all three species of scoters (9 Surf, 4 Black, and 1 White-winged) were all related to the weather as well.
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Similarly, an adult Black-legged Kittiwake out of place in a pond at Fortune’s Rocks Beach on Sunday was likely storm-related. Although regular to downright common offshore, this is not a bird we usually see onshore in southern Maine.
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One can only imagine what else was on the 2,600+ lakes in the state of Maine during and immediately after the storm! Jeannette and I did check a few spots around Sebago Lake on Halloween, but it was surely too long after the storm, and the only birds of some note we turned up were single Dunlin and Black-bellied Plover (fairly rare inland, especially this late) at Raymond Town Beach.

I bird hard this time of year, doing my best to finish projects and keep my schedule as clear as possible to afford as much time in the field during these fruitful weeks. While I skipped birding in Portland, I did cover a lot of ground, and searched for odd birds in odd places, as well as focusing on the seasonal “migrant trap” hotspots.

In doing so, I found a few good birds, including this Lark Sparrow (always a treat away from Monhegan) at Pott’s Point in Harpswell on 11/10:
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As for wayward vagrants seen around the state by others, there were quite a few from the south: a Blue Grosbeak in Portland on 10/31, a couple more Yellow-breasted Chats were found here and there, and most surprisingly, a Blue-winged Warbler in Saxl Park in Bangor on November 7th – this early migrant simply has to be a reverse-migrant or 180-degree misoriented migrant from points south; right? And the headlines, from the southwest, as a Cave Swallow reported from Cape Elizabeth on the 12th.

From the west (and/or mid-west) came a Clay-colored Sparrow at Two Lights State Park on 11/6 and a few scattered Dickcissels around the state (but where are the Western Kingbirds this year?). A Cattle Egret in South Thomaston on 11/6 and another in Pittston on the 13th could have come from either direction.

But it’s not just rarities that make this time of year so much fun. There are all of the regular migrants that are still “lingering.” Some of the late birds that I have seen in the past weeks included a Red-eyed Vireo along the Saco Riverwalk and 1 Semipalmated Sandpiper at Biddeford Pool Beach on 10/30, a Red-eyed Vireo at Sandy Point on 11/1, a Pine Warbler and a late-ish Winter Wren on Bailey Island in Harpswell on 11/4, a slightly tardy Yellow-bellied Sapsucker with Jeannette at Beaver Park in Lisbon on 11/8, a Turkey Vulture over Falmouth on 11/11, two Winter Wrens on Peak’s Island on 11/14, and a smattering of Hermit Thrushes.

Other birders also reported the usual slew of truant migrants, such as a smattering of Baltimore Orioles, a couple of Scarlet Tanagers, and a decent variety of late warblers here and there. There’s still a Marbled Godwit, 4 American Oystercatchers, and 2 Red Knots at Hill’s Beach in Biddeford Pool; I enjoyed them on the 30th, but they continued to be reported through at least 11/2 with the godwit still being reported as of 11/12!  A few Long-billed Dowitchers were reported, with the one at Sabattus Pond on 11/5 being at the most unexpected location.

The winner, however, is the immature female Ruby-throated Hummingbird that appeared at a feeder on Cousin’s Island in Yarmouth on November 10th! I viewed it the next morning and it continues through today, the 14th. Although the photos taken by the homeowner looked good for “just” a Ruby-throat, I hoped I was missing something from the still images. Any lingering questions/hopes I had were dashed however.

That being said, it’s still a great record. Through our store we have been promoting keeping up hummingbird feeders into November for over a decade, and our database of observations after early October is growing. When I first got a call yesterday, I was sure this was going to be “a good one.” It was Nov 10th after all!

Amazingly, this is the same house that hosted a Selasphorus hummingbird last fall! In other words, it sure does pay to keep those feeders out, even if it’s “just” a Ruby-throat!
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Other, more seasonal, highlights for me over these two weeks included the following. Jeannette and I had 100 Horned Larks along Mayall Road in Gray/New Gloucester on 10/31; 18 Snow Buntings and 13 Horned Larks flew over Bailey Island on 11/4; a Lapland Longspur with 6 Horned Larks were at Stover’s Point Preserve in Harpswell on 11/10; two Ruddy Turnstones were at Winslow Park in Freeport on 11/12 with the Saturday Morning Birdwalk group – one of only two or three places in the state we regularly see them during the winter.

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This Barred Owl on Bailey Island on 11/4 was a treat. Any day with an owl is a good day!

Meanwhile, the new arrivals – including many species that will be spending the winter with us – continue to arrive, my “first of seasons” this week included 2 Common Goldeneyes at Sabattus Pond on the 29th, 2 “Ipswich” Savannah Sparrows at Timber Point in Biddeford on 10/30…
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…lots of Horned Grebes arriving all over, 2 Harlequin Ducks at East Point in Biddeford Pool and 3 Purple Sandpipers at Hill’s Beach on 10/30.

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There were also plenty of Dunlin and Sanderlings around this week, such as this one Dunlin nestled amongst the Sanderlings on Biddeford Pool Beach on the 30th.

Waterfowl migration is in full effect, and not just at Sabattus Pond (although that is certainly one of the top spots in the state). Scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, Red-breasted Mergansers are all piling in, and dabblers are also on the go, such as the single drake Northern Pintail and American Wigeon at Great Pond in Biddeford on 10/30. Common Mergansers are also now arriving; I saw my first migrants at Sebago Lake on 10/31.

Jeannette and I visited Sabattus on a gorgeous, warm day on the 8th, with glass-calm conditions allowing for careful combing through the masses: 649 Ruddy Ducks, 510 Mallards, 176 Lesser and 119 Greater Scaup, 104 American Black Ducks, 73 Buffleheads, 69 Hooded Mergansers, 40 Common Mergansers, 13 Northern Pintails,11 Common Goldeneye, 8 Green-winged Teal, 5 White-winged and 1 Surf Scoter, 4 American Wigeons, 4 Common Loons, and a very-rare-inland Red-necked Grebe.

On 11/13, I returned with a Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! tour with our partners at the Maine Brew Bus. Although I didn’t count everything as carefully as I do when on my own, “Fall Ducks and Draughts” did record 600+ Ruddy Ducks, 3 Gadwalls, AND 2 White-winged Scoters amongst the 14 species of waterfowl present.

The “Greater Yarmouth Goose Fields” have been slow this year so far, likely also due to the mild weather and lack of early snowfalls to our north. In fact, the only “good” goose so far has been a “Blue” Snow Goose that showed up during the week of October 17th continuing through at least 11/11.  Canada Geese numbers remain rather low however; I have still not surpassed even 600 total birds this season.

There’s still some passerine migration a’happening, as well. For example, my last two days at Sandy Point for the season yielded 221 birds on 10/31 (led by 123 American Robins and 18 American Crows) and 131 on 11/1 (led by 59 Dark-eyed Juncos and 44 American Robins). Common Grackles and a smattering of Red-winged Blackbirds are still heading south, although their numbers are greatly reduced over the past week.

Sparrows also continue to move through, with lots of Dark-eyed Juncos and White-throated Sparrows on the move, and my first American Tree Sparrow arriving at the Yarmouth Town Landing on 11/5 during our Saturday Morning Birdwalk, followed by more as the weeks progressed. A White-crowned Sparrow at Biddeford Pool on 10/30 was getting late, but there are still scattered Chipping Sparrows here and there as usual, including one still here at the store’s feeders.
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This junco on our back porch on November 6th appears to be of the inter-mountain subspecies/hybrid swarm often labeled as “cistmontanus.”  It’s definitely not a pure “Oregon” Dark-eyed Junco, and the curved hood with buff of the sides traveling up to below the fold of the wing, however, suggest that this is not a pure “Slate-colored” Junco either.

And speaking of feeder birds, a recent spate of Evening Grosbeak reports (I have heard or seen several 1’s and 2’s recently, but 6 were at Old Town House Park on 11/3), along with an uptick in Purple Finches and Pine Siskins are suggestive of a decent winter around here for at least some of the finches. I also had a few single Red Crossbills fly over in a handful of locations recently. And the first Northern Shrike reports have started trickling in.

But overall, we’re off to a fairly slow start to the November Rarity Season. My guess is the lack of cold fronts early in the fall ushered fewer birds east (e.g. Western Kingbird) but also it remains fairly mild. I’m just not sure birds have begun concentrating yet in places that birders find them (like coastal migrant traps, city parks, etc). But as temperatures continue to drop, this might change. Afterall, after a very slow November last year (also very mild), December was simply incredible.

As the shorter days get colder (maybe), I would expect more birds to begin turning up, especially at feeders and along the immediate coast. The coming weeks always produce something remarkable.

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A blast of cold, Canadian air finally arrived this past weekend, as evidenced by the wind map of 11/11.

However, it might be hard to top the incredible and unprecedented White Wagtail that showed up in Rye, New Hampshire on 11/2 through early the next. You know I’ll be trying though!

Cat Wars Book “Review”

Cat Wars: The Devastating Consequences of a Cuddly Killer by Peter P. Marra and Chris Santella

Every now and then I find a book that I really want to bring attention to. This is one of those books.

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My plan was to do a book review here, but as I read through it, engrossed by its pages and the sound, scientific, and reasonable arguments being made – even though yes, it’s most definitely preaching to the choir here – I struggled to find a way to synthesize this into a standard book review. There’s just too much stuff that’s too important.

This book needs to be read from cover to cover, by anyone and everyone who cares about birds…and yes, truly cares about cats as well. So I failed, really, at a comprehensive analysis. I am left to simply urge – no, implore you – to read this book, from cover to cover. It gives a history of the cultural ties between humans and cats, and the problems that have arisen from cat domestication.

One particular passage really stuck out to me though:
“A majority of ecologists, ornithologists, and millions of bird aficionados see outdoor cats, whether owned or unowned, as killing machines. Many biologists are convinced that predation by this invasive species is indeed contributing to the catastrophic downward spiral of many bird and mammal populations. The tens of thousands of well-meaning people who nurture unowned cats, and the millions of domestic-cat owners who let their cats outdoors, all value these animals as sentient beings. They view them as part of the landscape, as much an element of the natural order as trees and clouds. Some in the cat advocacy world say, “We are a nation of animal lovers. We are not a nation of cat people or bird people.” Yet there is a conflict between cat advocates and bird advocates – a war, quite literally to the death in the animals’ case, whether or not the cat lovers or bird lovers will admit it.”

So yeah, did I mention I think you need to read this book?

(Plenty of copies are now in stock here at Freeport Wild Bird Supply)

Protect Monhegan!

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Today, I wanted to update you on some developments regarding the fight against the misguided and misplaced wind turbines off Monhegan Island.

I’ve written about the issue here on several occasions. I encourage you to check out these posts, and the links contained within, for some background if you need it:

1) Our Letter in Opposition of the Monhegan Wind Project & Press Coverage of the Story.  December 12, 2013.

2) Yup, We’re Still Against Industrial Wind Development near Monhegan Island. December 21, 2015.

3)  Taking Action to Save the Birds of Monhegan Island. July 6, 2016.

The latest news come from the new group “Protect Monhegan,” formed by a group of island residents to fight the placement of the project. In order to keep this in their own words – and not mine – I will simply offer their recent press release below. It includes more background as well as contact information.

In the meantime, I urge you to stay abreast of the ongoing struggle. I’ll do my best to inform via this blog and our store’s Facebook page, but please “like” and follow the new Protect Monhegan Facebook page. That’s your best source for up to date information.

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For immediate release

November 1, 2016

Contact: Travis Dow
(207) 594-2527
tgdow@hotmail.com

MONHEGAN RESIDENTS SAY WIND TURBINES ARE TOO CLOSE TO ISLAND

New group calls on Maine Aqua Ventus partners to re-locate the project.

MONHEGAN, Maine – A group of residents from Monhegan Island are calling on the partners in the Maine Aqua Ventus offshore wind project to move their massive turbines further away from the island, saying the proposed project will do “irreparable harm” to their community 10 miles off the Maine coast.

In a letter sent last month to the project partners, Travis Dow of the newly formed group, Protect Monhegan, said: “Monhegan is Maine’s most iconic offshore island and a place of major historical significance and natural beauty. The location of massive wind turbines less than three miles from Monhegan’s shores threatens the beauty and tranquility that has made Monhegan such a special place for so many for generations.”

The letter was sent to the leaders of the Aqua Ventus partnership: Emera, Inc., Cianbro Corporation, and the University of Maine and its Advanced Structures & Composites Center. Dow, a Monhegan resident, town official, and small businessperson, said that he has yet to receive a response.
According to Dow, what began several years ago as a proposal for a 1/8 scale wind turbine to be located off Monhegan for only two five-month periods, has now become a full-scale wind energy project, with two massive wind turbines (approximately 600 feet tall) to be located just two and a-half miles off Monhegan for the next 20 years or more.

Dow said Monhegan residents were not aware of the implications of the legislation that allowed this project to go forward on a fast track. There are no height restrictions in the legislation, and UMaine spoke only of an 85’ model being in the test site. Dow also said that the community was not represented in the negotiation of the subsequent term sheet between the Maine Public Utilities Commission and the Aqua Ventus partners, which was signed prior to Monhegan hiring a lawyer.

“The whole process has been littered with misinformation and closed door meetings,” Dow said.

The Protect Monhegan letter reminds the AquaVentus project partners of Monhegan’s history, noting that it was used as a fishing camp by Native Americans, was visited by European explorers even before the Plymouth Colony was established and has been home to generations of fishing families. Monhegan also has been an inspiration to many of America’s foremost artists, and is visited by thousands of tourists and summer residents each year.

“Monhegan’s special character can never be replaced, but your wind turbines can – and must – be moved out of the island’s sightlines,” the letter states. “Simply put, Monhegan is no place to experiment with wind turbines or to establish a commercial wind farm, any more than it would be to place these massive turbines this close to Acadia National Park or Mt. Katahdin. Surely there must be other locations in the vast Gulf of Maine that would serve your purposes without forever marring Monhegan’s unrivalled 360-degree view of the ocean and incredible night skies,”

Dow also noted the importance of Monhegan from an ecological standpoint. The island is arguably the most important landfall in Maine for migrating birds along the North Atlantic Flyway. Monhegan was designated a National Natural Landmark by the National Park Service in 1966, and the waters around Monhegan were designated a Lobster Conservation Area by the State of Maine in 1997.

Members of Protect Monhegan support the further exploration and development of offshore wind, but their letter makes it clear that they are adamant in their belief that putting wind turbines so close to Monhegan will do “irreparable harm to our beloved island.”

Protect Monhegan (facebook.com/ProtectMonhegan) is made up of island year-round residents, summer residents and friends of Monhegan. The group has been formed to fight the proposed location of the Maine Aqua Ventus wind turbines and to create a thoughtful, comprehensive, realistic vision for the island for the next 50 to 100 years.

In addition to Dow, who serves as president, other officers are Candis Cousins, vice president, Paul Hitchcox, treasurer, and Kathie Iannicelli, secretary. Protect Monhegan can be found online at facebook.com/ProtectMonhegan and can be reached by email at protectmonhegan@gmail.com or by phone at 207-691-1399.

# # #

NOTE: Travis Dow can be interviewed by Skype from Monhegan. Please contact him at (207) 594-2527 to arrange a Skype video conference or an interview on the mainland.

Additional media contact:

Ted O’Meara | Corporate Communications & Public Affairs

207-653-2392

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Rarity Season is Upon Us!

I do like a good storm system. Especially as Rarity Season is now upon us! So besides our desperately-needed rain, I was anxious for this weekend’s weathah in the hopes it will set up some action for my favorite time in the birding year.

The winds turned east on Thursday (10/20), and strengthening easterly winds, scattered showers, and developing fog minimized the migration overnight into Friday morning. It was hard to tell from the radar is there was some limited, low movement, which would be indicative of the sparrows that move this time of year. Florida Lake Park was slow in the morning, though, and nothing new was under our feeders at home or at the store, however.

During the day on Friday, a shortwave moved out of the Ohio Valley, and overrunning precipitation fell during the day. By dark, however, that low was deepening and strengthening, and overnight, it tapped tropical moisture, leading to torrential rains, isolated thunderstorm, and by far our best soaker in at least 6 months: 3-6 inches of rain fell over the area! Southeasterly winds turned back to the east before going calm with thickening fog by morning.
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Fog and a little drizzle on Saturday morning was all that our Saturday Morning Birdwalk had to contend with on our outing to Wolfe’s Neck Farm; it does seem like there are more Laughing Gulls around later this year than I can ever remember (just the warm weather or are these related to Hurricane Mathew?).

The low slowly moved into the Canada, with an onshore flow (I had hoped for more southwesterlies) throughout the day. On the backside of the system, winds shifted to the west overnight while more rain and showers continued from the afternoon through the first half of the night. Winds were howling west by the morning, and the air definitely felt seasonable for a change.
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With the storm system pulling away to the north…
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…and the temperatures falling (and even some snowfall was seen in the mountains!) it’s time to really go birding!
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On Sunday, Phil McCormack and I headed over Peak’s Island, a place I really want to spend more time searching in the fall. Afterall, it’s a mere 15-minute ferry ride, there are a variety of interesting habitats, and the maritime climate tempers the onset of the seasons a little more. In other words, it looks good for rarities! (And you know I need to seek them somewhere other than Portland now!)

And with my Rarity Fever stoked, a productive morning of scouring the southern 1/3rd of the island yielded the seasonal rare-but-regular stuff that makes one keep coming back: A Clay-colored Sparrow, a Yellow-breasted Chat, and an Orange-crowned Warbler (my second of the season). Add to that single Nashville and Palm Warblers among a total of 6 species of warblers, a fly-by flock of 57 Brant, 8 lingering Red-winged Blackbirds, a good Northern Gannet flight, a Merlin, and recently arrived Red-necked Grebe and 9 Red-breasted Mergansers and you can see why I will be birding here more and more (my once a fall needs to become at least 3-4 visits each season, me thinks).
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Not the best photo of a Clay-colored Sparrow (can you find it?) that I have taken!

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There wasn’t any migration visible on the radar overnight, but there were southwesterly winds – the direction that can help facilitate the arrival of vagrants to the Northeast. But with winds once again rapidly increasing during the day on Monday, the detection of birds was limited. However, Jeannette and I enjoyed a visit to a particularly productive patch of private property in Cape Elizabeth, where a Blue Grosbeak and a Clay-colored Sparrow that I found last week continued. Dark-eyed Juncos increased to 100+ and White-throated Sparrows were up to 50. Other sparrows had decreased, as expected, but there were still 75 or so Song Sparrows, 6 Chipping, and 2 White-crowned, along with about ten each of Swamp and Savannah. Singleton Indigo Bunting and Common Yellowthroats were both getting late.

With the low pressure system still spinning over the Maritimes, and another shortwave disturbance rotating through, winds remained gusty through the night. Despite the preferred northwest wind (slowly becoming west through the night) there were just not a lot of migrants willing to deal with the winds and likely resultant turbulence overnight. And the winds were gusty and increasing by dawn once again.

I was in Harpswell for the morning, leading a birdwalk for the Curtis Library as part of their fall reading series. Mitchell Field, a true hotspot at this time of year, was our destination, but it was anything but hot from a temperature perspective! However, there were a bunch of Yellow-rumped Warblers and a few flocks of migrant Common Grackles easily eclipsed 1,000 – a sign that it wasn’t just the birders who were thinking that it’s finally starting to feel like winter is approachintg! Migrant Turkey Vultures (10), Sharp-shinned Hawks (4), and a trickle of Northern Flickers were also winging it south.

Despite the wind, I poked around a couple of other spots on the peninsula since I was down there, with Stover’s Point yielding a 3 Horned Larks, a “Yellow” Palm Warbler, and 9 Black-bellied Plovers among others. But it was windy!
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Winds died down a little overnight, finally, and with it, some birds took to the air. For the first time in seven days, there was at least a moderate flight underway. Here’s the 10pm radar image for example, which shows a strong flight underway:
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But by 1:00am, the flight was already rather light, suggestive of the short-distance migrants of the season making a little bit of progress, but for the most part, more birds departing than arriving:
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And therefore, Sandy Point wasn’t as great as I had hoped for on Wednesday morning. However, I still enjoyed a respectable morning flight for this time of year. A total of 444 individuals of 22 species were led by 262 American Robins and 82 Common Grackles, but also included my first Fox Sparrow of fall, my 3rd Orange-crowned Warbler of the season (and only the 6th Sandy Point record), and this very tardy (or perhaps, “reverse” or 180-misoriented) migrant Prairie Warbler.
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Strong northwest to northerly winds continued through the day, but they are finally expected to lighten up overnight. The current forecast looks good for a big flight tonight, and, if the winds stay more northwest – or at least north – than northeast by morning, I might get a “big one” at Sandy Point.
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I sure hope so, as I haven’t had a lot of great mornings there this year, between all of my time on Monhegan, our recent quick trip to Cape May, and the overall lack of cold fronts this entire fall. The good news is that it seems to be changing now, and at the very least, a more active weather pattern should not only bring some more rainfall, but some good winds for producing good birding. While weather doesn’t necessarily cause vagrancy of fall migrants, winds certainly facilitate their arrival in far-off places.

Hopefully, the onset of cooler weather and more north and northwesterly winds will usher them to the coast and concentrate them in those seasonal hotspots that I will be hitting hard in the coming weeks. Also, this series of strong low pressure systems could in fact displace some birds, or at least get birds that are still on the move a littler further northeast (I am of course, drastically over-simplifying the mechanisms of vagrancy here). At the very least, the little bit of snow to our north and west, colder nights, and the end of our growing season – and resultant greatly diminished numbers of insects and other food sources – should help those patches that get better when the weather turns towards winter.

You know I’ll be out looking! So stay tuned to our store’s Facebook feed and other resources, all of which are available at our website, for the latest news. And go birding! Rarity Season is upon us!

I am so over birding in Portland.

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

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

But I give up.

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

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

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

Do you see a theme yet?

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

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

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

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

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

But such places are becoming impossible to find in Portland.

The once-productive trees and scrub along the Commercial Street Extension is mostly gone – developed or simply clear-cut to hell. Replacing a fairly healthy canopy is little more than regenerating knotweed, bittersweet, and buckthorn.
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Many small lots have been developed, and several years ago, the trees and brush throughout the Fore River Parkway Trail was clear cut. Not much for birds left there anymore.

Mercy Pond remains a miniscule oasis – although the edge is far to narrow to hold songbirds for very long.
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Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem likely much of this will remain if hospital expansion plans go through. Which seems incredible to me, as this little pond regularly hosts (are they even breeding?) State Endangered Black-crowned Night-Herons!

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

Unfortunately, mismanagement and misguided “maintenance” continues to greatly degrade it. Native plants are significantly reduced, and invasive plants have taken over and continue to proliferate. Despite the efforts of the Friends of the Eastern Promenade (who I have worked closely with over the years), it always seems that for every step forward, there’s three or more taken back. In fact, it’s about as bad as ever now, following yet more devastating clearing in late fall of 2015.
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Continued slashing of what’s left of the native vegetation continues.  On 9/9, I noticed yet more hacked swaths like this.
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Unfortunately, this is so incredibly counter-productive on multiple levels, as all it does is allow dense and ornithologically-useless invasive plants, especially Japanese Knotweed to proliferate even more.
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And makes it easier for Asiatic Bittersweet to take over everything else.
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Meanwhile, valuable native plants like this Gray-Stemmed Dogwood is hacked to hell.
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And it’s great at accelerating erosion.
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The “Mid-Slope” Trail, which is often the most productive in late fall, has been destroyed…
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…And the weedy slopes full of goldenrods, late-blooming primrose, and other great birdfood was mowed too early this year. Sparrows will be wanting for sustenance, and those late-lingering warblers – especially Orange-crowned – will be hard pressed to find food and cover. Additionally, it seems that it was mowed in perfect time to destroy any chance Monarchs would have had to breed successfully there this year. This is particularly unnecessary and unjustified mismanagement.
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Based on the overall size of the greenspace and it’s placement along the shoreline at the northern terminus of the peninsula, there’s little doubt there will still be some birds along the Prom this fall, and perhaps even a rarity or two. But as for regular migrants and vagrants that are seeking shelter and sustenance, there will be little reason to stay very long.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Birds on Tap – Roadtrip: Migrants and Malts, 10/9/2016

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The forecast called for light showers ending in the early morning, and the sun coming out. With rain developing overnight with the passage of a cold front, dreams of a fallout danced in our head as we headed south on the Maine Turnpike on Sunday for our latest installment of the “Birds on Tap (sm)– Roadtrip!” series.

Fort Foster in Kittery was our destination, and there are few other places I’d rather be in Maine if a fallout was going to occur. But had the winds shifted early enough? Did birds take to the air before the rain arrived? Would the rain stop in time for sun to shine on the hottest corners of the park?

With anticipation – and quite a bit of apprehension because most of us were dressed for a few brief light showers – we stepped off the bus at the entrance to Fort Foster in a light, but steady rain. I was watching a plume of moisture offshore; moisture that was being sucked up from Hurricane Matthew.  It was supposed to remain offshore.

It didn’t.

It kept raining. And then it rained some more. We got soaked to the bone, and suffice to say, there was no fallout. (And for the record, the “showers ending in the early morning” continued to fall, moderate at times, through about 11pm that night!).
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But luckily it was fairly warm, we were mostly in shelter from the wind, and we found a few good pockets of birds.  Our first bird of the day was a low and close Blackpoll Warbler along the entrance road, which stoked the fallout hopes briefly. But other than a couple of pockets of White-throated Sparrows, the woods were rather slow.

We spent some time with plant ecology, and talked about the importance of the shrub-scrub habitat in the park. We played in the wrack line on the beach to observe Springtails and Seaweed Flies.  A large male Gray Seal on offshore rocks dwarfed the Harbor Seals around it.  A Great Cormorant posed for us to compare it to the plethora of Double-crested Cormorants nearby, and Common Eiders and a couple of Common Loons, joined by 8 newly-arrived Surf Scoters, plied the waters.
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A couple of cooperative Least Sandpipers were on the beach, while a single mixed-species foraging flock that contained a truant Wilson’s Warbler, a Blue-headed Vireo, and a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers amongst a band of Black-capped Chickadees hinted at the migrant potential of the place, as did a low and close late American Redstart a little earlier.
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Four Semipalmated Sandpipers were studied at exceptionally close range at nearby Seapoint Beach, which also hosted 6 Semipalmated Plovers. Unfortunately, Legion Pond only contained a handful of Mallards today.

These were all new locations for everyone on the tour, so the value of exploring new areas (to return to on a sunny day!) was recognized, even if the birding was on the lackluster side of things. As was the weather.

So with our rather damp birding time coming to a close, Don Littlefield took over and delivered us to Kittery’s Tributary Brewing Company.

After working at several breweries throughout his career, New England brewing legend Tod Mott – the creator of the Harpoon IPA that is often credited with beginning the American IPA revolution – and his wife, Galen, opened their own brewery in September of 2014. With a focus on “traditional, well-balanced, full-bodied beers” and locally-sourced ingredients, Tributary has rapidly become a favorite tasting room destination for many aficionados.
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And it just happened to be down the road from Fort Foster – which, when it’s not pouring rain – is one of Maine’s premier birding destinations and therefore was a natural fit for a Birds on Tap (sm) – Roadtrip! destination.  One half of the Ian and Ian tag-team duo of brewers, Ian Goering, came into work early to open the doors to welcome us out of the elements.
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We began our tasting with an American Mild brewed with an experimental hops that offered an essence of strawberry. Downplaying malts in order to showcase the hops, it was a little bitter by design, with a less sweet finish.

Next up was the Oktoberfest – which turned out to be the favorite beer of the day for many –a fuller bodied lager, heavier in malts, yet with a crisp finish.
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As we sipped it, Ian gave us a tour of their ultra-clean and efficient brew house.

Next up was their Blueberry Ale which – unlike many blueberry beers that add artificial flavors or blueberry syrup – added real blueberries into the kettle to allow the sugars of the fruit to be fermented by the brewing yeasts. The result was a decidedly un-sweet pale ale that had just the essence of blueberries.

Last but not least, we enjoyed a taste of their smoky and very chocolate-y – while still being nice and hoppy – Black IPA.
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New fans of Tributary. Well, and/or just cold and needing another layer?

We were able to dry out further as Don filled us in on some of Maine’s brewing facts and history as we headed up the road to Hidden Cove Brewing Company in Wells.

Formerly a restaurant with a small house brewery, the building has been creatively re-purposed into a growing brewing operation.  A “tale of two breweries,” as Don put it, with “traditional offerings alongside more creative barrel-aged” options, Hidden Cove offers a wide array of options in their tasting room.
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Today, we sampled five diverse offerings, beginning with their Patroon IPA – their best selling, flagship beer which was rich in juicy hops.

Next up was the Compadre Pale Ale, “the sidekick to the flagship IPA and is a classic West Coast IPA that utilizes a single hop, Belma.”  The tropical fruit flavors really came through for me, with a very crisp and clean finish.

Rich with the flavor of Meyer Lemon peel, the refreshing Summer Ale brought us back to warmer days. Bitter (remember, that is not always meant as a negative when tasting beer!) and yet quite bready from the yeast, the hop-forward Belgian IPA was the last planned sample.
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However, Don wanted to show off the creative brews that are coming out of their aging barrels, so we were treated to a sample of the very complex Mo-Lay, a sour pumpkin with chili, chocolate (mole), and finished in bourbon barrels with Brettanomyces and Lactobacillus. Like a lot of complicated beers, some people loved it, some didn’t, but everyone enjoyed the opportunity to see what people are doing with beer these days.

Afterall, part of the goal of the Birds on Tap (sm) – Roadtrip! series is to introduce folks to new breweries and new birding sites, new beers and new birds, and broaden horizons and open eyes wider to each!

Speaking of, our next Birds on Tap – Roadtrip! tour is coming up. On November 13th, join us for our second annual “Fall Ducks and Draughts” when we venture north to the waterfowl hotspot of Sabattus Pond, followed by stops at Baxter Brewing and Maine Beer Company!

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