Tag Archives: Biddeford

Gray-Cheeked Thrush, Hooded Warbler, and Other April Rarities thanks to this Storm.

While outdoor enthusiasts, those with yardwork to do, Zane at the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, and many others bemoaned the coastal storm that made for inclement weather from Tuesday through Friday morning, birders from the Mid-Atlantic to Nova Scotia were gearing up.

With the large (if not overall strong) area of low pressure riding up the Atlantic seaboard in late April when numerous species are now on the move, “Rarity Fever” symptoms were reported widely. As if recent “Megas” like Vermillion Flycatcher and Fieldfare here in Maine weren’t enough to stoke the fire, friends in Cape May began posting their “wish list” of possibilities. Storms such as these, sometimes called “slingshot” events can deposit birds further north than usual, facilitate the arrival of record-early migrants, and perhaps produce some astounding vagrant.

This far north, I simply had daydreams of southern “overshoots” that occur in most years – but especially following such storm systems – such as Blue Grosbeak, Summer Tanager, and Hooded Warbler. But I also started thinking about things from further afield like Swainson’s Warbler, all sorts of terns, and maybe even something from even further away like a South American Fork-tailed Flycatcher who overshot its goal and then got caught up in the system. Maybe a Magnificent Frigatebird? Or perhaps something else on one of my predictions lists for next birds for Maine, and myself.

While weather isn’t truly the ultimate cause of many vagrants, it certainly facilities their arrival in far-flung places. And weather can certainly impact migrants and displace them slightly further afield than they usually range. And storms like this, moving out of the Bahamas, strengthening in the South Atlantic Bight, and marching up the coast has quite a history of producing some great birding. (I wrote more in depth about some of these factors and causes of vagrancy in Chapter 4 of my first book, How to Be a Better Birder).

Here are the wind maps and surface maps from Tuesday through Thursday.
surface map, 4-25-17
wind map, 4-25-17

surface map, 4-26-17
wind map, 4-26-17

surface map, 4-27-17
wind map, 4-27-17

So, I cleared my schedule, kept an eye on the listserves to our south during the rain on Wednesday, and hit the field on Thursday, starting at Biddeford Pool. A few years ago, one similar (but stronger) storm system yielded a Summer Tanager, Blue Grosbeak, and Hooded Warbler in the neighborhood, and I had similar hopes for this morning.

I got really excited when one of the first birds I saw was a Magnolia Warbler (very early, perhaps by as much as 10-14 days!). Surprisingly, it was the ONLY warbler I saw all morning, and its early arrival is undoubtedly related to the storm. My first House Wrens were right about on schedule, however, and my first Veery was only marginally early.

However, in the same yard on Third Street, and loosely associating with said Veery, was not a bird I expected at all! In fact, I have a rule that I like to instill on my birdwalk participants: if it’s April in Maine and you see a dark-spotted Catharus thrush, it IS a Hermit Thrush. This was the exception to the rule.
L1090495_GCTH1L1090520_GCTH3

There’s no doubt it was either a Gray-cheeked or a Bicknell’s Thrush, but those birds can be very challenging to ID. Generally very secretive in migration, getting good looks – let alone good photos – is often impossible. And neither is expected to be walking around front yards in a neighborhood!

It is also incredibly early, as neither of these species is usually detected in Maine (if at all, especially Gray-cheeked) until the third week of May, and sometimes not until even later. This was beyond early, and certainly suggests its arrival here was at least partially influenced by the storm system.

The overall cool gray appearance without any hints of reddish-brown anywhere (no matter what light angle I viewed it in) immediately suggested Gray-cheeked Thrush, but the date and circumstances warranted careful study. I even posted the photos online, sent them directly to friends, and added them to at least one forum, hoping for additional feedback.
L1090565_GCTH6

However, other than the seemingly “dumpy” shape of the bird, nothing here suggests Bicknell’s Thrush to me. There’s just nothing warm anywhere in this bird’s plumage, and the cheeks are finally streaked gray, not more even washed warmish-brown as in most Bicknell’s. There’s no contrast within the wings, or especially between the uppertail and the rump, either.

Although this bird’s bill is fairly extensively pale, it isn’t as bright yellow as many Bicknell’s – although I can admit to not really being a fan of this fieldmark – and even has a hint of pinkish.

In other words, as several commenters mentioned, this really looks like a “classic” Gray-cheeked Thrush, with perhaps the appearance of a smaller size and more compact shape suggestive of the subspecies minimus that breeds mostly in Newfoundland and Labrador (it’s also the subspecies whose breeding range makes the most geographical sense to appear in Maine in spring). Of course, without measurements or vocalizations, there is still a little tinge of doubt in coming to a conclusive identification.

Now, a Bicknell’s Thrush, wintering somewhere in the northern West Indies or perhaps Cuba, beginning its trek to the mountains of the northeast, could have been entrained or “slingshot” by this storm. In fact, it would make a lot of sense. But Gray-cheeked Thrushes winter mainly in northern South America, and head north through Central America. That route would not seem to be effected by this storm. Perhaps it’s just a coincidence, and the storm was only a proximate cause of its arrival in Biddeford Pool.

Anyway, elsewhere in Maine, a White-eyed Vireo was in Cape Elizabeth (present through Friday) and a Summer Tanager was reported in Southwest Harbor. Early migrants included a Scarlet Tanager in Ogunquit and one found deceased in Cape Elizabeth, along with a few scattered Indigo Buntings as far inland as North Yarmouth.

Meanwhile, to our south, birders in Cape May had a White Ibis (and, even more excitingly, a –our!? – Little Egret, a first state record that may not have anything to do with the storm); a Red Phalarope and a smattering of birds just beyond their normal range, such as Summer Tanager, were in Manhattan, and a Kentucky and Yellow-throated Warbler were on Cape Cod among some of the widespread reports of “early” migrant arrivals.

During the day on Thursday, the low pressure system continued to weaken and dissipate over the Gulf of Maine, with a snotty easterly and drizzly onshore flow continuing. A weak, slow-moving cold front finally cleared things out mid-day on Friday.
surface map, 4-28-17
wind map, 4-28-17

In the dense fog on Bailey Island in Harpswell early Friday morning, I found pockets of migrants (mostly Yellow-rumped Warblers and White-throated Sparrows) but also several surprises, led by 1 male Hooded Warbler and a White-eyed Vireo, both along Elden Point Road – the kind of southern “overshoots” we have come to expect here in Maine from these type of storms.
L1090659_WEVI,BaileyIsland,4-28-17_edited-1

There were quite a few other migrants around, as well. A total of 9 Blue-headed Vireos included a flock of 6 together, and there were scattered other migrants such as Ruby-crowned Kinglets, Hermit Thrushes, and Savannah Sparrows.

An early Yellow Warbler was also present, as were marginally-early (based on the current progress of the season) included 1 Common Yellowthroat and 1 Great-crested Flycatcher, while other personal FOY’s included more on-time Black-and-white Warbler (7) and Ovenbird (1-2). 11 Palm Warblers were my seventh species of warbler on the morning (plus Pine Warblers singing at home).

Elsewhere, another Hooded Warbler was found at Timber Point in Biddeford, and smattering of other early migrants included a Warbling Vireo on the Eastern Promenade (where a goodly number of birds were reported in the fog this morning)

I can only imagine what might have been found if every peninsula and island was covered over the past few days! So, with more birders hitting the field this weekend, and more people home from work to check on their feeders, I wonder what will be found. Maybe a Painted Bunting at a feeder? A Purple Gallinule in a marsh? But you know what I would like the most? A Swallow-tailed Kite over Bradbury Mountain during my hawkwatch workshop as part of the annual Feathers Over Freeport events!

Reference:
Clement, Peter. 2000. Thrushes. Princeton University Press: Princeton, NJ.

Where to Eat Lunch when Birding York County

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Whether it’s here on this blog (especially in trip reports), on our store’s Facebook page in posts recounting a birding outing, or elsewhere, people seem to enjoy hearing about where Jeannette and I eat lunch while out birding. In addition to finding “good birds,” we do enjoying finding new places to eat. It’s part of the adventure, and especially when we are out of town, it helps us to explore and appreciate a place for more than just the birding. And apparently, feedback suggests that you have an interest in hearing about these places. Or does it just say something about what you think of my writing about birds!?

In fact, I have often been asked to write some sort of “eating while birding” book, website, or article. Maybe someday the idea will develop, but for now, I thought I would hash out a little list of my favorite places to eat while birding in Maine. And I thought I would start with York County.

Perhaps if you find this of interest, other counties will follow. If not, well, then I know what my next project won’t be!

Let’s start with a little background about the food choices we make. We don’t eat fast food unless we’re desperate, and we avoid chains as much as possible. We’d rather eat at a local establishment – for all of the reasons from economic impact to healthier food (sometimes) to the simple idea that food should not be the exact same thing anywhere you go. We love “fine dining,” but for lunch, we’d rather have a good meal, have it reasonably quickly, and get back to birding. We’ll relax at dinnertime. We also very much believe that “great food” and “inexpensive” do not have to be mutually exclusive!

We bird York County regularly, and we often spend at least half the day doing it. Therefore, we tend to find lots of places to enjoy lunch. They tend to be clustered, however, around where we go birding, and where we end up around lunchtime during our birding routes. There are lots of places we haven’t tried, such as in Kennebunkport, that we just don’t tend to bird near. In other words, this list is by no means a comprehensive review of the “best” places to eat lunch in the county – it’s just our favorite places to have lunch when we are birding our favorite spots to bird.

With that in mind, I present to you, for your reading pleasure and/or future reference, our favorite places to eat lunch when birding in York County, Maine (listed roughly from south to north, no other particular order).

1) Loco Coco’s Taco, Kittery
36 Walker St
Sun-Tues: 11am to 8am
Wed-Sat: 11am to 9am

If Kittery is our only birding destination of the morning, then there’s no question where we go for lunch. We’ve hit fallouts at Fort Foster so amazing that we spend all morning there alone. Or perhaps we end up studying or photographing shorebirds at nearby Seapoint Beach. It’s also a tradition for dinner as we head back from a whale watch out of Rye, NH or a NH Audubon pelagic.

While the carne asada tacos are the best around, neither of us can resist the chili rellenos burrito. Also, a tamale or two to go is the perfect mid-afternoon snack to fuel the rest of your birding day. And we always get a piece of Tres Leches cake for when we get home!

2) Flo’s Steamed Hot Dogs, Cape Neddick
1359 US Route One
Thurs-Tues: 11am-3pm
Closed Wed.

For people who eat so little processed food, it might come as a surprise to those who know us well to find out that this is our most-frequent lunch destination in York County! In fact, we’re here often enough that Kimmie somehow remembers exactly what we order. Once a month, we spend a day birding from Kittery through Wells, and this is our lunch destination most of the time. It didn’t hurt that on our first visit when we first moved to the state and we were birding the area, we popped into the unassuming, but so-crowded-you-know-it-has-to-be-great little building and found the Travel Channel filming!

There isn’t much on the menu. In fact, it’s just one item: steamed hot dogs. While the House Special and the Loaded are popular, for Jeannette and I, we stay simple: just Flo’s famous relish, nothing else. It just works. And if we’re going to eat hot dogs, it’s once a month, and it’s here! (Note: no bathrooms!)

3) Jamaican Jerk Center, Cape Neddick
1400 US Route One

Once or twice each summer, we skip out on Flo’s and head here for a little Caribbean fix. While we have yet to visit Jamaica, we do love the food and flavors of the region, and this little roadside shack serves it up well. The jerk chicken is great, and we always get a couple of patties for lunch the next day. The place doesn’t look like much, but the food is fantastic!

4) Village Food Market, Ogunquit
230 Main Street
Sun-Thurs: 6:30am to 8pm
Fri-Sat: 6:30 am to 9pm

When we don’t make it as far south as Flo’s while birding the Ogunquit shoreline and productive neighborhoods and thickets, then we head here. It’s also the traditional stop for us during the Southern Maine Christmas Bird Count, our territory of which includes the center of town.

I’m sure there are plenty of good things on the menu, but I never order anything other than the grilled veggie Panini. Lots of veggies, lots of cheese, and just enough grease to make this one of the more gut-busting (in all the good ways!) vegetarian sandwiches around.

5) Congdon’s Family Restaurant and Bakery, Wells
1090 Post Road (US Route One)
Winter – Thurs-Sun: 6am to 3pm.
Summer – Open 7 days.

Most of our birding in the Wells area is done in the winter, and on days that this local institution is closed. But if we’re looking for shorebirds in Webhannet Marsh in the summer, or looking at Least Terns and Piping Plovers at Laudholm Farms in the midst of the breeding season, then Congdon’s for “second breakfast” it is. And donuts to go…which, come to think of it, it’s probably best for our health that it’s not always open. Also, during the warmer months, we often follow up a lunch at Flo’s or the JJC with a little mid-afternoon snack here, just because, well, donuts! And forget the cool, trendy places in Portland, these are the real deal – nothing too fancy, just sweet, tasty, and wicked good!

6) Custom Deluxe, Biddeford
1040 Main St.
Tues-Fri, 11am to 2pm.

This is the newest addition to the list, having opened just last fall. Most of our birding lunch stops are quick and cheap, but when we want something just a little “finer,” then this is where we now go. Don’t be surprised to see me here with a tour group or private guiding client sometime this summer. I’m still desperate for another option for a Sunday lunch in the area, unfortunately!

The first visit a couple of weeks ago culminated in the yeast donut with frozen maple mousse, applesauce, and smoked cheddar that a friend and I split for desert (see photo above). Thank goodness we split it, or we would still be in a food coma. It was fantastic, but I was already sold on the place after devouring the house-made noodles.

7) Saco Island Deli, Saco
110 Main St
Mon-Fri, 8am to 4pm.

There are now so many options in the Saco-Biddeford area, that I don’t get here – my favorite sandwich shop in Maine – nearly as often as I used to. Unfortunately, they are closed on weekends, including Sunday, which for whatever reason, I usually when I find myself birding Biddeford Pool or the Saco Riverwalk (in the fall).

However, during the week, and especially when out with clients, there are few better sandwiches anywhere in Maine. You see, the owner, Mark is from New Jersey. That’s what makes the sandwiches so good. Say what you want about my home state, but we know sandwiches. I have not yet had a sandwich here I didn’t like, but in the summer, I always go Primo Veggie – a massive sandwich layered with razor-thin sliced veggies, piled high – nearly too big to get your mouth around: “Double portion of fresh mozzarella, tomatoes, cucumbers, roasted red peppers, kalamata olives and fresh basil leaves drizzled with balsamic vinaigrette on a rustic roll.” This is no lame, afterthought vegetarian option, this is a beastly vegetable meal. But if you want to be really cool, ask for the off-menu Jersey Joe (and expect to have lunch for the next day) to fully understand just how seriously New Jersey takes its sandwiches.

7a) The Run of the Mill, Saco
100 Main St
Sun-Thurs: 11:30am to 9pm.
Fri-Sat: 11:30am to 10pm.

If I am in the Biddeford area on a weekend (when the Saco Island Deli and Luis’s Arepera is closed), especially when it’s cold, I head over to Run of the Mill. After a frigid bout of seawatching at East Point, nothing is better than a piping hot bowl of their Mac & Cheese. The beer cheese soup is another good option, although for me it depends on which cheeses are used.

8) Luis’s Arepera and Grill, Saco
213 North St.
Mon-Thurs: 11am to 8pm.
Fri: 11am to 9pm.

Like the Saco Island Deli, I long for this place to be open on weekends. However, it’s a short enough run south from Scarborough Marsh, or close enough off of the highway (via I-195 to Industrial Way) that I can swing in while heading north from a hotspot like the Kennebunk Plains. And since Jeannette and I discovered their authentic Venezualean cuisine only this summer, it is now a regular stop on our birding agenda, and is definitely deserved as a destination on its own.

An “arepera” is a place that makes the quintessential Venezualean dish, the “arepa.” Luis’s website describes it as “Similar to both a traditional Gordita and Pupusa, it consists of a thick corn tortilla that is fried until golden brown before being filled with a variety of different ingredients, ranging from tangy shredded chicken to meltingly tender braised beef. “ We usually get the “Pabellon Criollo” (traditional with shredded beef and plantains) or one of the veggie options. But no matter what, we simply have to split a side of fried yucca.

Honorable Mention:
(Dinner) Funky Bow Brewery’s “Growler Night” (Lyman)

It’s funny, there seems to be a pattern developing of heading to the Kennebunk Plains at dusk for Whip-poor-wills on a Friday or Saturday night…which just so happens to be when this off-the-beaten path brewery opens up, fires up the brick oven, and serves pizza to go with their hop-a-licious brews.

So let me know what you think, and definitely let me know if there are places I need to try!

A Warbler (and Sparrow) Big Month. In December. In Maine.

December was unusually warm. In fact, it was record warm. And not just barely… records were shattered. The average temperature for the month was 38F. Not only was that a ridiculous 9 degrees above normal, it smashed the previous record of 24.8F (set in 2001). Surprisingly, despite the everlasting warmth, record daily highs were rare. Christmas Day was an exception, however, when temperatures soared to 62 in Portland, crushing the previous record high of 53, set just last year.

Our first measurable snow of the season didn’t fall until December 29th – the second latest date on record. Those 5-8 inches in southern Maine finally ushered in “real winter” and hopefully set the stage for a return to more normal conditions (although the last few days have once again been 5-10 degrees above normal).

Not surprisingly, such an unseasonable month resulted in some very-unseasonable birding. A variety of “lingering” or perhaps more accurately “pioneering” as Ned Brinkley, editor of North American Birds once dubbed it warblers in particular were making headlines.

So I decided to do a December Warbler Big Month. Because, well, warblers in December! In Maine!

With Tennessee, Yellow (2!), Nashville (2!), Common Yellowthroat, and Wilson’s on December 6th, I was half-way to my newly-set goal of 10 species for the month. The unusually mild fall has allowed more “lingering” birds to survive longer, and normal November hotspots are still hot (literally and figuratively).

Unfortunately, I waited until December 8th to decide to embark on this silly little hunt, so I had some catching up to do. There were some relatively easy ones (Yellow-rumped Warblers overwinter in a few places, along with “known” Blackburnian and Pine Warblers). That meant I just need to find an Orange-crowned Warbler (the second most-regular December warbler after Yellow-rumped) and then one other stray.

So off I went…

Not wanting to take any species for granted, I twitched a Pine Warbler that was reliably coming to a feeder in Brunswick on the 10th. I had to wait all of three minutes for it to arrive on my way back from walking Sasha. If only they were all this easy!
L1040178_PIWA2,JayStormers,Brunswick,12-10-15_edited-1

The next day I was once again at the Saco Yacht Club, looking for the Blackburnian Warbler (which I saw on Nov 30th – one day too early!). Activity didn’t pick up until the fog finally lifted after 10am, but I ran out of time. I did, however, enjoy another visit with the Tennessee, and 1 each of Yellow and Nashville Warblers. 2-3 Ruby-crowned Kinglets were also present, and a Yellow-rumped Warbler dropped in: my 7th species of the month! That and the Western Tanager were the consolation prizes (yes, I did just relegate the tanager to a consolation prize…shame on me… but I “needed” the Blackburnian!).
L1040189_WETA1,SacoRiverwalk,12-11-15_edited-1

I worked hard for an Orange-crowned Warbler in Portland on the 13th to no avail, but I did turn up the continuing Nashville Warbler along the Eastern Promenade (oh look, Portland ravaged vegetation here, too!) and a Gray Catbird on Sheridan St. I also took time to go visit the continuing Ross’s Goose along Stroudwater St in Westbrook – the third I have seen in Maine, and only the 6th or 7th state record.
IMG_6946_ROGO1,StroudwaterSt,Westbrook,12-13-15_edited-1(Phone-scoped image)

Continuing the quest, I had high hopes for the Southern York County Christmas Bird Count on the 14th. With a great territory that almost always turns up a good bird or three, Jeannette, Kristen Lindquist, and I worked the marsh, thickets, neighborhoods, and beach of the “Moody” sector. And we did indeed have a great day, including the 2nd Count Record Clay-colored Sparrow, the 5th Count Records of Baltimore Oriole and Lesser Scaup (21 – also a record high), and 6th Count Record of Dickcissel. But alas, not a single warbler. We didn’t even get a Yellow-rumped – for the first time, as there was virtually no fruit on the bayberry bushes along Ogunquit Beach or anywhere else.

When my friend Evan Obercian found a Yellow-throated Warbler at the Samoset Resort in Rockport on the 13th, my goal was definitely in sight (this was the “additional rarity” I needed), but in the weeks before Christmas, finding time was going to be a challenge. Luckily, a break in my schedule – and the rain – came on Thursday the 17th, so I got an early start and headed east.

I met up with Evan and Kristen and we wandered the grounds of the Samoset for almost two hours. I was not happy to find a stiff onshore breeze when I arrived, and it was increasing over the course of the morning. Then the mist rolled in, and soon, a steadier drizzle. There were not a lot of birds around (other than Canada Geese and Mallards on the golf course), and I was beginning to work on a plan to come back again. And not long thereafter, it called!

We spotted it in an isolated cluster of Scotch Pines, very near where Evan first saw it (and where we walked by 3 times already this morning). We followed it for about 30 minutes as it relocated to another grove before heading over to the hotel building, where it proceeded to forage in the sheltered porches of the four story building! Presumably gleaning insects from old webs in the corners and around furniture, clearly this bird had figured out a novel way of finding sustenance – especially on such a snotty day.

It was my 8th warbler of the month.
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I was back to the Saco Yacht Club with Luke Seitz the next morning, once again hoping for the Blackburnian. We worked the hillside and surrounding habitats hard, and absolutely cleaned up! The quick glimpse of a fly-by Western Tanager was more frustrating that satisfying, but we had great looks at the continuing Tennessee, Yellow, 2 Nashville, Common Yellowthroat, 2 Ruby-crowned Kinglets, and then, finally, the Blackburnian! My 9th warbler of the month!

Luke’s quote sums it up: “Let’s take a moment to appreciate what we are seeing and hearing around us right now. What. The. (Expletive deleted)!”

I had a little more time, so I made a quick trip down to Biddeford Pool. Working the neighborhood and thickets, I found a small group of Yellow-rumped Warblers (4-5), a nice addition to the day list. Besides, up until now, I had only seen one all month!

I was in the midst of plotting “Operation Orange-crowned” when I wandered over to look at a chattering Ruby-crowned Kinglet. A loud chip note caught my attention, and I looked up to see this Prairie Warbler – my 10th species of warbler for the month (and 7th of the day)!
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But did you really think I would stop at 10?

Hunting for Orange-crowns in Portland and South Portland on the 21st, I turned up a Baltimore Oriole on Sheridan Street (likely the same individual that Jeannette and I found here on 11/23), and along West Commercial Street (in what’s left of the vegetation here!), I had a Swamp Sparrow, and a Field Sparrow – my 8th sparrow of the month.
L1040314_FISP,WCommercialSt,Portland,12-21-15_edited-1

Hmmm…do I need to go for 10 sparrows, too?

Obviously!

So I went to Scarborough Marsh the next day, and quickly picked up a Savannah Sparrow along the Eastern Road Trail for #9.

Jeannette and I, post-holiday madness, continued the search on the 28th, combing the coast from Kittery through Wells. While nothing new was added, we did find three different Swamp Sparrows (two at Fort Foster, 1 in York Beach), and most excitingly, we relocated the Clay-colored Sparrow that we found on the CBC – a mere one block away. Once again, however, I managed only some quick phone-binned photos.
CCSP,Wells,12-28-15

A Northern Flicker and 5 Yellow-rumped Warblers were at Wells’ Community Park, while other highlights included 14 Sanderlings with Purple Sandpipers along Marginal Way in Ogunquit.

But before I knew it, it was December 31st. I still had yet to see an Orange-crowned Warbler (inconceivable!) for the month, and I was stuck at 9 species of sparrow. Therefore, Phil McCormack and I had a mission when we set out in the morning. We worked thickets and fields in Cape Elizabeth, with stops at various nooks and crannies in South Portland and Portland.

While we did not relocate the Lark Sparrow along Fessenden Road (it’s been a week since I have seen a report), we did have a Merlin there, and a couple of Yellow-rumped Warblers at Crescent Beach State Park. Luke had an Orange-crowned Warbler at Camp Ketcha back on the 20th, but it was rather devoid of birds today.

Throughout the day, pockets of Song and American Tree Sparrows were indicative of recent movements and concentration following the snow and ice, but we were not prepared for the concentration of sparrows at a particularly fruitful patch. In fact, it was astounding!

75+ American Tree and 50+ Song Sparrows flew out of the field, joined by 10 or so White-throated Sparrows and 20 or more Dark-eyed Juncos. A continuing female Brown-headed Cowbird was there, along with at least 80 American Goldfinches and 30 or so House Finches. A Carolina Wren sang from the woods, and two Swamp Sparrows and a female Common Yellowthroat were in the marsh…I knew my 10th species of sparrow was here somewhere!
L1040338_mixed_sparrows,Alewives,CapeE,12-31-15

After a teasing brief, distant but highly suggestive look, I finally found it – a Chipping Sparrow! My 10th species of sparrow in December!
L1040361_CHSP,Alewives,CapeE,12-31-15

Shortly thereafter, a Savannah Sparrow (my second of the month) appeared – not just our 7th species of the day, but the 7th species in this one spot! Amazing! And now I had a 7 species of sparrow day and 10 species for the month to match my 7 species of warbler day and 10 species for the month! (The Double 7/10 Split?)

But of course, I still wanted an Orange-crowned Warbler, so we kept birding (well, after a long, celebratory lunch of course), and I tried a few more OC spots in Portland after Phil departed. I still can’t believe I saw 10 species of warbler in Maine in December, and none of them were Orange-crowned, but it seems a fitting finish to the month, and the year, was the continuing Baltimore Oriole and Gray Catbird sitting in the same tree in the Sheridan St lot!
BAORandGRCA,SheridanSt,Portland,12-31-15_edited-2

Meanwhile, some other highlights over the course of the month, of the non-warbler or sparrow variety, including more seasonal species, such as two Snowy Owls on a Saturday Morning Birdwalk on the 12th, my first Iceland Gull of the season (finally) in Old Port on the 15th, a Snowy Owl at Biddeford Pool on the 18th, Harlequin Ducks, Purple Sandpipers, and a growing legion of wintering waterbirds.

Other signs of the unseasonably warm month included a lingering Double-crested Cormorant in Portland Harbor on 12/15, a few more lingering dabblers and Great Blue Herons than usual, but surprisingly, I didn’t see a Hermit Thrush all month – had they all moved on or would some now show up as the snow and ice pushes them to coastal migrant traps? But the most unexpected of them all was the Little Blue Heron that was found in the tiny Jordan Park Marsh in Ocean Park. I stopped by to visit it on the 22nd, about two weeks into its unseasonable stay.
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Unfortunately, as much fun as this month has been – and as nice as it has been to not yet wear my parka – it’s impossible for me to ignore what this all means: the climate HAS changed. While no one month – warm or cold – is “climate change,” it is impossible for any rational person to not realize that our weather has become more and more unpredictable, less and less “normal,” and prone to more and more wild swings in seasonal and within-season variability. No, a hot day doesn’t mean Global Warming, nor does a snowstorm mean there’s not (Please James Inhoffe, please go away and shut the hell up). But the trends are real, very apparent, and very much here. Now. And they are most definitely affecting birds and bird migration.

That being said, I would not use these warblers as an example of this. Instead, I think the fact that here in December and they are still ALIVE, is however, a perfect example of just how ridiculously warm our weather has been! The mechanisms that delivered these birds to the Saco Riverwalk and elsewhere are likely varied. Perhaps the deformed, crossed-bill of the Tennessee Warbler impedes its ability to efficiently forage and put on the necessary weight for its next leg of migration. Perhaps the extensive southerly winds that have ushered in this warm air also facilitated the arrival of a 180-degree misoriented migrant Yellow-throated Warbler, and I would propose, the Prairie Warbler as well (I think the rare-but-regular late fall Prairies are actually birds from our south) that were “messed up” and flew the wrong way. But it is also possible that some of these warblers are “reverse migrants” that started to go south and then turned around, but I doubt it – facultative migrants like swallows and blackbirds do it, but I don’t know of any known proof that long-distance Neotropical migrants pull it off (on purpose, anyway).

These mechanisms occur every year, and rare warblers are found at places like the Saco Riverwalk every fall. However, they’re usually found in October and November and either move on (or, more likely perish) by now. So I think what’s remarkable is not that all of these warblers are here, but that they are still ALIVE well into December – and that is most definitely due to the mild winter so far. There have still been insects to be found, there’s plenty of fruit left to consume, and fewer calories have been spent to keep up internal body temperatures, meaning there are fewer calories that need to be consumed.

Migration in long-distance, obligate migrants is not triggered by temperatures, but trigged by physiological changes directed by hormones responding to the changing length of the day. In the fall, southbound migration is triggered in part by a response to changes in fat loading to fuel these epic journeys. At some point, the controls are switched away from building the fat reserves that are necessary for migration. I don’t know at what point in the season “pioneering” warblers lose the ability (perhaps, even the “desire”) to migrate. My guess is that even if you pumped these birds full of fat, at this point, they won’t be going anywhere – this is now their winter territory, for better, or for most likely, worse.

So what does this mean besides some amazing early winter birding? Good question. Conventional wisdom says these birds are all “evolutionary dead ends” that will soon be eliminated from the gene pool (it has to get cold sometime, right? If they’re not picked off by a Sharp-shinned Hawk or all of the damn outdoor cats that hunt there). However, with the effects of Global Climate Change clearly upon us, and not reversing anytime soon (if ever), perhaps these “pioneers” are the wave of the future. Maybe someday, warblers will successfully overwinter in Maine, and return to their breeding grounds to pass on those genes.

Maybe. Afterall, without vagrancy, we would not have Hawaiian honeycreepers or Darwin’s finches; distant islands would be sans all landbirds. Perhaps phenomena like “reverse migration” and this pioneering thing will allow the next wave of adaption to a changing climate. Of course, never before in the history of life on earth, has this change occurred so rapidly, and we have little evidence suggesting long-distant migrants can adapt this quickly – it’s going to take more than a few individuals of 10 species of warblers.

Sparrows, however, aren’t obligate long-distance migrants that are “programmed” to leave at a prescribed time. Instead, they are more flexible in their movements, and being seed-eaters, they aren’t reliant on warm-weather dependent insects. As long as seeds are available, and with the complete dearth of snow, they most certainly have been, those that linger can do just fine. White-throated, American Tree, Song, and Dark-eyed Juncos are all regular parts of our winter avifauna in southern Maine, lingering or “pioneering” Swamp Sparrows are regular here and there, and every now and then a Lark Sparrow (a “drift migrant/vagrant” from the Midwest) or Field Sparrow spends the winter in the state. Field and Clay-colored are also rare-but-regular in late fall/early winter, so once again, the presence of 10 species of sparrows is also not in and of itself caused by the record temperatures, but it is most definitely another sign of how mild – and especially snow-free – it has been.

But this is all a blog for another time…this blog was supposed to be about warblers (and sparrows!). In Maine. In December. And that’s amazing. Or, as Luke said, “What. The. (Expletive deleted).”

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.
entrainment

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!”

Biddeford Pool Snowy Owl and Weather Discussion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Shorebird Pseudo-Big Day

Luke Seitz and I embarked on a semi-serious “Shorebird Big Day” on Wednesday.  I say “semi-serious” because we didn’t exactly try too hard to build our list…at least not after our first stop.  Instead, we spent more time watching shorebirds, studying, and photographing them.  We still, however, tallied 14 species of shorebirds, but instead of heading inland to pick up Killdeer, Spotted Sandpiper, Solitary Sandpiper, and Upland Sandpiper, we just splashed in the water and studied dowitchers at Hill’s Beach.  It wasn’t a bad way to spend a gorgeous summer day.

We began in the morning at high tide by scouring Scarborough Marsh from the Eastern Road Trail.  If we were to have a chance at 20 species of shorebirds on the day, we would need to add a rarity or two from the pannes.  Unfortunately, high water levels from all of the recent rain minimized habitat, and shorebirds were not as plentiful as we would have preferred.  We did, however, see 2 or 3 Stilt Sandpipers, a decent bird in the summer.  Other than Greater Yellowlegs, with about 55 individuals, numbers were relatively low: 75 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 40 Short-billed Dowitchers, 25+ Least Sandpipers, 8 Lesser Yellowlegs, 3 Black-bellied Plovers, 2 Semipalmated Plovers, and 1 Willet.

Making up for the low shorebird totals, however, were the high wading bird totals: 85 Snowy Egrets, 60 Great Egrets, 40 Glossy Ibis, 39 Little Blue Herons, and 9 Great Blue Herons.  In addition to teasing out one of the continuing White-faced Ibises and spotting the continuing full Tricolored Heron, we also saw BOTH of the presumed Tricolored Heron x Snowy Egret hybrids.  Yup, there are two of these beasties out there!

The first is the bird that has been present all summer, with a ghostly cast to an otherwise Tricolored-like pattern.  Pure white is confined to the belly, the throat, and a thin line in the foreneck.
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However, recently, a second bird has appeared, which is very reminiscent of the first, but has some splotchy areas of white, including mostly white wingtips.  I believe I saw this bird on July 18th when I was out with a client and sans camera; I remember commenting (and my field notes confirm) that I didn’t remember so much white in the wing
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TRHExSNEG- B2splotchy,ScarMarsh,7-31-13_edited-1

Meanwhile, it was nice to see that at least one of the White-faced Ibises continue, although at this stage of molt, it was impossible to age.  It was also not very close.  Here’s Luke’s best shot (mine were not passable at all).
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After spending more time with waders and a little time of sparrows, such as this Nelson’s Sparrow…
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…we attempted to regain our shorebird focus over at Pine Point, as the tide was rolling out.  The mudflats had plenty of birds, including a few birds that would be important for a Shorebird Big Day, such as the pair – now, featuring two fledglings! – of American Oystercatchers (the only breeding pair in the state!).  We also had four Whimbrel, along with 296 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 124 Semipalmated Plovers, 25 Willets, 25 Short-billed Dowitchers, 19 Black-bellied Plovers, 3 Ruddy Turnstones, and 2 each of Lesser and Greater Yellowlegs.

But with a morning total of a mere 11 species of shorebirds, we elected for a leisurely lunch at Saco Island Deli instead of heading inland to work on our shorebird list – it is really too early in the season for a true Shorebird Big Day, but I am not sure if I have ever hit 20 in July, and since this was a day we both had a chance to get out all day together, we figured it was at least worth considering.  Anyway, on the incoming tide, we visited Hill’s Beach, where once again, we elected to forego shorebird listing for shorebird “quality” time, and therefore just spent close to three hours playing in the sand.

While the two Red Knots…
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…4 Piping Plovers (a pair fledged two young here for the first time in recent memory), and 8 Sanderlings brought our count to 14 species on the day, we became distracted by photographing terns and studying dowitchers.  While our goodly count of 155 Semipalmated Plovers were augmented by about 65 Semipalmated Sandpipers, 8 Black-bellied Plovers, 4 Ruddy Turnstones, and 1 Least Sandpiper, it was the 120 or so Short-billed Dowitchers that kept our attention.

We were looking for individuals of the interior subspecies hendersonii, as I did on Sunday with Phil. (See blog and photos here:

https://mebirdingfieldnotes.wordpress.com/2013/07/28/biddeford-in-shorebird-season/).  We had what was possibly the same bright bird as Sunday (see above) fly-by, it was the paler birds that had us intrigued.
Luke on Hills, 7-31-13_edited-2

We thought the combination of a bright orange chest, and a fair amount of orange between the legs and on the undertail coverts, compared with the paler face and lightly, but distinctly spotted flanks and side (especially the side of the breast) of this bird made it look “good.”
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But we were pondering how extensive of color a hendersonii “needs” to have, as most of the individuals of the expected Eastern subspecies griseus, also were showing at least a touch of peachy-orange color in the undertail, etc.
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Here are some typical, and typically variable, griseus for comparison.
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In the end, we simply said, “who knows!?”  and went back to photographing other fun stuff, such as this Bonaparte’s Gull…
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And this juvenile Roseate Tern…which was actually one of my targets to photograph today.
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Ok, so we really quit on the Big Day attempt by about 10:33 in the morning, but 14 species of shorebirds included Stilt Sandpiper, American Oystercatcher, and two hendersonii Short-billed Dowitcher, along with two Tricolored Heron x Snowy Egret hybrids, White-faced Ibis, Tricolored Heron, a mid-summer marsh Merlin (these birds have simply got to be breeding in coastal Cumberland County!), it was hardly a bad day of birding.  In fact, it was actually a spectacular day!