Monthly Archives: March 2017

Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide (Coming soon!)

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I am most pleased to finally announce that my next book “Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide” will be out shortly. I’ve been working on it for over three years now, but of course, all of my birding in Maine for the past 13 years has gone into the development of its concept and content. I sincerely hope you will be pleased with the final product, as I believe it will be an essential asset for birding in the great state of Maine.

With nearly 450 species of birds recorded, Maine offers an abundance of birding opportunities for people of all levels of interest and experience, from those looking beyond their backyards for the first time to knowledgeable visitors looking to plug a hole in their list of sightings. The state’s wealth of undeveloped land and its extensive coastline, countless islands, and varied habitat combine to host an impressive diversity of birds at all times of year. Birders travel to Maine from near and far to seek hard-to-find species, from the only Atlantic Puffins breeding in the United States on offshore islands to Bicknell’s Thrushes high in the mountains.

This book fills an important niche for the birdwatching community by offering comprehensive entries detailing the best locations for finding birds throughout the state for enthusiasts of all levels of skill and interest. It contains descriptions of 201 birding sites in Maine, with explicit directions on how to get there, for all sixteen of the state’s counties (several as large as other New England states!). Each chapter features a county map, my brief overview, numerous specific site guides, and a list of rarities. The book also contains a detailed and useful species accounts guide for finding the most sought-after birds.

Using a county-by-county approach, with chapters by Seth Benz, John Berry, Kirk Betts, Ron Joseph, Kristen Lindquist, Rich MacDonald, Dan Nickerson, Luke Seitz, Allison and Jeff Wells, and Herb Wilson, Derek tapped the knowledge of local experts to offer the most comprehensive and authoritative birdfinding guide the state has seen. And I guarantee there will be many sites completely new to you!

The Official Release Party will be at Blue in Portland (650 Congress St) from 5-7pm on Thursday, April 20th. This will be the first time the book will be available, anywhere.

We’ll also be offering a presentation, full of photos of Maine’s birds and birding places, on Saturday, April 29th at the Freeport Public Library at 7:00pm. This too is a free event, open to the public, and part of the annual “Feathers Over Freeport: A Birdwatching Weekend” events.

For more information about the Blue event, click here.

And for Feathers Over Freeport, click here.

We’re currently taking pre-orders online via our eStore.

Other free events around the state are being scheduled. You can check them out via Facebook on the page of “Birding Books by Derek J. Lovitch.”

Book release Blue

Birds on Tap: Gulls and Growlers!

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With windchills around -15F, even the gulls looked cold today. And there’s no way to sugar-coat it: it was brutally cold. The coldest temperatures in over a month – and one of the coldest days this entire winter – greeted the start of the first edition of the “Gulls and Growlers” tour in our “Birds on Tap – Roadtrip!” series with our partners, The Maine Brew Bus.

Donning plenty of layers, we hit the road and headed north to an unusual destination – well, only unusual if you’re not really, really into serious birding: the Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta. And the swirl of birds that greeted us quickly explained why we were here on this bitter day.

1,000-1,500 Herring Gulls (with a few Great Black-backed Gulls sprinkled in) would rise up in a swirling cloud every time one of the 8-10 Bald Eagles made a close pass. Add to that 500 or so American Crows and a few hundred European Starlings, and you have a lot of biomass! We learned a little about aging of eagles as birds passed overhead and perched in the towering pines behind us. We sorted through the masses of gulls for any unusual species, and the sight of so many birds in one place allowed for us to forget about the cold – at least for a moment.
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My original plan was to spend 1 to 1 ½ hours here, watching and photographing eagles and studying gulls, hoping to tease out a rarity or at least foster an appreciation for just how approachable gull identification really is. But I’m also at least somewhat rational – well, unless I had spotted a rare gull! – so we knew when to say when and boarded the bus for a short ride to one of the local gull roosts.

At least 300 gulls were present, with dozens arriving every few seconds, so it would have been the perfect opportunity to carefully sort through them. Unfortunately, the 20+ mph wind was directly in our face. We soon moved on.

After a quick coffee/hot chocolate/bathroom stop – perhaps the most welcome stop of the day! – we shifted gears a bit and focused on the Kennebec River. Starting at Mill Park on the north side of Augusta’s downtown, we made several stops as we traveled south to Gardiner (often using the bus as a windbreak!).
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In doing so, we spotted at least 4 more Bald Eagles, and a tallied 132 Common Mergansers. In fact, the mergansers stole the show today, with several rafts actively displaying and some birds fishing in close proximity, diving into the strong current and surfacing between chunks of ice. It was a good count for this time of year, but we enjoyed uncommonly good views of many of the birds.
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We checked through a few small groups of gulls – mostly Herring and Ring-billed as expected – and even though we were freezing, we were reassured that spring is right around the corner thanks to the Turkey Vulture that was weeble-wobbling its way through the gusty winds over Gardiner.

Mike, our driver and beer guide for the day, took over as we traveled between our last few birding stops, offering an abbreviated history of alcohol in Maine, and for a dark period, lack there of. Maine was at the forefront of the Prohibition movement, but now, we are back at the forefront of local, innovative, and cutting edge production of beer, cider, spirits, and much more.

Our first stop in the beverage half of today’s tour was Lost Orchard Brewing/Crooked Halo Cidery where David Boucher and his father, Nick are doing some really “crazy” things with hard cider. By using all sorts of different yeasts and adding lots of creative ingredients, David is working to make “a traditional style untraditional” with his self-admitted “mad science.” And speaking of untraditional, their repurposing of an old church as their tasting room – complete with a bar on the alter, which Nick constructed from the wood of old pews – made for a very unique place to visit. They even offered to turn the organ on for us!
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Closed to the public in winter, they opened their doors just for us, and treated us to some special drinks. In fact, we were the first members of the public to sample their new Exodus, a McIntosh apple cider fermented with farmhouse yeasts and Brettanomyces, which made for a well-balanced cider that was just tart, sweet, and dry enough.

Genesis was drier, “more like an apple wine,” and Hellfire – a strawberry-jalapeno-infusion – played with our taste buds with sweet strawberry up front and a jalapeno burn on the back end. Sour Sister used sour cherries and four strains of souring yeasts, and then David dipped into their private reserve to tantalize us with Dante’s Inferno. Aged in cinnamon whiskey barrels loaded with cinnamon sticks, this is my new favorite cider – and one of the favorite drinks of the day for the group. Our only complaint was that they didn’t have anything bottled for sale at the moment; I know I would have left with a case of Dante’s Inferno!
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Heading south, our second stop was the brand-new Flight Deck Brewing in Brunswick. This was another special treat for the tour as they opened a mere two weeks ago, and we were the first tour group to visit. And we immediately saw first hand how well it has been received by the community, as the place was packed – as it has been since the day they opened; over 5,000 people were served in their first week alone!

Another really cool renovated building, Jared and Nate’s burgeoning brewery is housed in the former indoor small arms range of the Brunswick Naval Air Station. The path is paved with cement blocks cut from the walls to install windows, and they have an entirely electric, seven-barrel brewhouse run on 100% renewable energy from the old base’s micro-grid powered by solar and biomass.

Head brewer Jared described the process and their brewing philosophy, while Nate joined us to describe their unique system, location, and goals for the new business. Meanwhile, we sipped a few of their delicious beers. We started out the Pilot’s Porridge Oatmeal Stout, a “session stout” that was light in body compared to many stouts, and fairly low in alcohol, it still had the flavors we know and love in stouts.
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Our next beer was 44th Parallel IPA, a traditional and straightforward IPA, and one that will no doubt be a standby for locals. But for me personally, both were overshadowed by the Irish Breakfast. A pale ale base with a day-long steeping of Irish breakfast tea made for a unique and fun beer. The tea definitely stood out, but its bitterness and herbaceous-ness was balanced by a sweet, malty backbone. I’m getting into some of these tea-beers, and I think this is a solid effort (they were already out of their Hibiscus Tea beer that was my favorite on a recent “scouting mission” here).
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Winds were still howling, and temperatures- believe it or not – were dropping again, so we decided to forgo a search for Snowy Owls (none had been reported recently here, or we would have definitely cowboyed up!) and head home. While learning that Portland (well to the south of our sojourn today) reached a mere 17 degrees above zero, setting a new all-time record-low high temperature for the date didn’t make us feel any warmer, it certainly proved we earned our afternoon beverages!

While I can’t control the weather, or the birds, I do love the Birds on Tap – Roadtrips! because I know the beverages will always be there for us! And I believe this was a great itinerary that I look forward to leading again next year…hopefully with a few more degrees on the thermometer (and a little less wind!).

I have a feeling it will be warmer on the next eight Roadtrips we have in 2017, starting with the annual favorite, “Spring Ducks and Draughts” on Sunday, April 2nd. Oh, and by the way, as of today, there are only two spaces available! I hope to see you aboard one of our unique and exclusive trips, all of which are listed on our website.
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Intriguing Apparent Hybrid Gull at Niagara Falls.

Jeannette and I took our annual pre-Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch (starts on Wednesday!) roadtrip this year to Buffalo and Niagara Falls.  We went to Buffalo on a pilgrimage to visit the Anchor Bar – the birthplace of the Buffalo Wing. And we spent the rest of the time in the gull-watching Mecca of Niagara Falls.

On our first day at Niagara, wind gusts over 60mph were ripping over the falls (the local airport recorded a gust of 72 mph!) and birding was brutal at best, but essentially impossible (at least for a vacation). We spent a couple of hours in Niagara Falls State Park, but although it looked pretty that day, it was a day to go to the Anchor Bar! We also checked out the Olmstead-designed Delaware Park while in the big city.
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The next day (Thursday, 3/9) it was quite a bit colder, but the winds were “only” 15-25mph. It was far from pleasant, but it was most definitely bird-able! And the birding was very good!
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Despite the relatively late date for the peak of “winter” gulling here (despite what it felt like), we sorted through the many thousands of gulls (predominately Herring and Ring-billed, with a small number of Great Black-backed) and conservatively estimated at least 31 Iceland Gulls, 23 Lesser Black-backed Gulls, and 8 Glaucous Gulls in and around Goat Island alone.
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Third-cycle “Kumlien’s Iceland Gull

And then there was this one:
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I identified it as a possible or “putative” Laughing Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid on account of several features:
– near-complete blackish hood with smudgy white around the eye.
– mantle was 1-2 shades darker than the surrounding Ring-billed Gulls.
– overall size and structure was comparable to Ring-billed Gulls, and didn’t bring one of the smaller hooded gulls to mind.
– large white apical spots on the outer primaries.
– dark orange bill with a blackish band, slightly smaller and thinner than nearby Ring-bills.
– yellow-orange legs

And frankly, it looked a lot like photos I have seen of this presumed pairing, such as this one from Amar Ayyash in Chicago.

Jeannette photographed it and we moved on. We never felt a need to flush it, and the bird clearly was not going to raise its wings on its own for us! But feeling the identification was solid, we enjoyed it, left it alone, and went on our way (perhaps we were simply being ultra-conservative about disturbance after the Great Gray Owl debacles this winter!)

A few minutes later, we ran into another birder, and alerted him to our find. He saw it, got some photos, came back to chat, and then went back to the bird. We continued to bird our way around the island.

I knew I needed to take a look at the photos on the computer, and do some homework. A couple of things really bothered me.  But before I had a chance to study the photos and re-evaluate my initial ID, chatter broke out on the area’s birding listserve. Chris Kundl was the birder we met, and he went back and spent some quality time with the bird, extensively photographing the wing pattern, which we – unforgivably!- did not. He, and several other local birders, then identified it as a (rarer) Black-headed Gull x Ring-billed Gull hybrid, based on the extensive white in the wingtips and the white leading edge to the wing. (His photos are here)

Kevin McGowan posted a link to a basic-plumaged individual of this presumed combination, and it definitely looks similar.

However, as Shai Mitra then pointed out on the listserve, a few things are a bit off for that combination. “(T)o me, this bird looks so unlike a Black-headed Gull that I remain puzzled. Specifically, it looks large, thick-necked, large-headed, broad-winged, and heavy-billed. Black-headed Gull is only half the mass of a Ring-billed Gull and very differently shaped, whereas this bird looks quite similar to Ring-billed Gull in overall size and structure. It is of course possible for hybrids to tilt toward one parent or the other in various ways, as opposed to showing intermediacy, but note that the Sullivan County bird from 2002 showed much more intermediacy in these very features (e.g., more obvious influence of Black-headed Gull in terms of size and shape). Looking more closely at the plumage, I also note that the hood seems to lack any of the brownish tones usually evident in Black-headed Gull, and that the mantle appears subtly darker than those of Ring-billed Gulls (Black-headed Gull is notably pale-mantled).”

The size, structure, shape, blackish (not brownish) hood, and darker mantle was what led me to the call of Laughing x Ring-billed. But how else does one explain that white leading edge to the wing? And the extensive white on the outer primaries? A hybrid Bonaparte’s Gull would explain that (and the black tone of the hood), but that’s even smaller and daintier gull than Black-headed.

So what does this mean? Simply: I don’t know. My initial ID does not explain the wing pattern, and that really bothers me.  So what is this? It looks like I have some more homework to do – and I will be sending this blog around to gather additional insight. I also want to look up when the various hooded gulls acquire their alternate plumage, as this seems incredibly early for a hooded gull to be hooded. Keeping in mind that not all hybrids are perfectly intermediate, that backcrosses occur, and that it’s hard to “prove” parentage, I think this bird is worthy of a little more debate.

Of course, we looked at everything else during our visit, including a couple of Harlequin Ducks off Goat Island, and goodly numbers of a wide variety of ducks (especially Common Goldeneyes, Red-breasted Mergansers, and Buffleheads) at a number of locations. And later, we finally caught up with a “as good as they get” Thayer’s Gull – a spiffy adult at Devil’s Hole State Park (after passing on labeling a couple as such at Goat Island earlier in the day).
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The Niagara River Gorge and the Whirlpool from Whirlpool State Park.

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Redheads

Unfortunately, it was already time to head home on Friday, so after another walk around Niagara Falls State Park, we began the trek eastward, birding Iroquois National Wildlife Refuge. Unfortunately, the winds were very strong once again and our time was limited, but we thoroughly enjoyed the hundreds of Tundra Swans (it’s been a while since we’ve seen any!), good numbers of many ducks especially Ring-necked, and sorted through many thousands of Canada Geese at the refuge and nearby cornfields (13 Cackling Geese in Gypsum Pond were our only non-Canadas, unfortunately) before beginning the long drive home (made much longer by snow squalls and that darn Norlun trough that set up over southern Maine!).

Our time was far too limited, as always, but it’s time to get ready to count some hawks!  And at least we still have this gull to mull over.
Falls from Goat Island