Tag Archives: rarities

FIELDFARE in Newcastle (and a rare April case of Rarity Fever!)

Last week was an incredible week in Maine birding. First up was the state’s first Vermillion Flycatcher that appeared on Hog Island on Monday the 17th. While it was #15 on my list of “Next New Birds for Maine,” HOW it was discovered defied imagination: it was seen by on observer watching the Hog Island Osprey Cam, as the black-and-scarlet little bird sallied for insects from the platform. Simply incredible.

Then on Wednesday, a long overdue(#10 on my predictions list) Fieldfare was discovered in Sheepscot Village in Newcastle. No, it wasn’t within a flock of thousands of wandering American Robins of the subspecies/clinal extreme from Newfoundland, it was in a front yard with a handful of “normal” robins. And Jeff Cherry saw it on his way to work.

I have been very busy of late with the new book, spring business at the store, the peak of the flight at the Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch, the obligatory spring yardwork, and all of those usual things in life, plus – and most importantly and distractingly – our dog’s failing health. With Jeannette running the Boston Marathon on Monday, chasing the Vermillion fly wasn’t in the cards for me. Neither was skipping out on the 7,000 seed delivery on Wednesday morning when the Fieldfare was found.

But when the bird was reported again at 2:30pm, I dropped what I was doing and raced up to Newcastle. I spent a couple of hours unsuccessfully looking for the bird. A Vesper Sparrow was a small consolation prize.

Now, I don’t chase very often, but a first state record within an hour’s drive is usually fair game. And I really like Fieldfares. And I’ve wanted to see one in Maine (or anywhere else in North America) for a long time. I’ve daydreamed about finding one as I searched through wintering robin flocks in orchards or migrants passing Sandy Point in late fall or Bradbury Mountain in the spring.

While it was not seen on Thursday, but I made a dumb decision of heading inland to look for a possible waterbird fallout. There was no such waterbird fallout. My first of year Ruddy Ducks at Sabattus Pond and a singing Louisiana Waterthrush at the Papermill Trail in Lisbon were the highlights. Not a Fieldfare.

My book release party was Thursday night, and I was down in Salem, Massachussetts for a book signing and presentation to the Essex County Ornithological Club on Friday night.  The Fieldfare was refound on Friday afternoon.

During a wet and dreary – but fairly productive, actually – birdwalk on Saturday morning, the Fieldfare was reported again, and it continued to be reported for regular intervals throughout the day. And as the cold and rainy day tempered business in the afternoon, Jeannette says “you should probably go” despite having plans to chase it with friends on Sunday.

So I went. And after a mere fifteen minutes, it popped out into the open. FIELDFARE!

In addition to being my 375th species in Maine (although it just fell out of the top 25 of my personal next birds in Maine), it was a new “ABA-area” bird for me. This was a good one.  I spent an hour watching it for a few minutes at a time, as it hopped between a copse of dense scrub and young trees and a mowed field, foraging with a small group of American Robins for a few minutes before disappearing again into the brush.

After about an hour, a total of 24 American Robins flew up from various corners of the fields and into the tops of some nearby Red Maples, where it lingered for about 5-10 minutes before flying off towards the center of town.
IMG_2822_FIEL1,4-22-17

Drizzle, fog, and distance precluded very good photos, but I did Facebook Live the sighting for about 30 seconds…just because.
 
Of course, I was semi-responsible as I headed back to work, while a few other folks relocated the bird much closer to the road in the village. Oh well, I still had Sunday morning.

Terez Fraser, John Lorenc, Erin Walter and I drove east and met up with Paul Doiron and Kristen Lindquist, and about 50 other fellow birders. It was not being seen, so people were beginning to split up and check other areas, besides the fields across the pond from 611 Sheepscot Road, where the bird was most often seen (including by me in the previous day).  So the 6 of us began to mosey down a promising side road, and as we strolled back to the corner, we saw the crowds were on the move.

It was seen in roughly the same spot (other side of the island of trees between the fields on the other side of the pond), but most people had scattered by now, so only a lucky few saw it (and apparently saw it pretty well). Unfortunately, it had disappeared into the larger island of trees by the time we got to the edge of the pond.

So we waited. And waited. And then waited some more. At least it was nice out.
Fieldfare_twitchers,4-23-17_edited-1

Then a couple of hours later, it was spotted in the leaf litter within the dense, young woods. It was glimpsed by many, frustratingly missed by others, and seen well by no one over the course of about 45 minutes.

Unfortunately, I had to force my carpool to depart (although we were all very much ready for lunch by then) to head back to the store for a meeting, which was frustrating to me as I had to pull my friends (only 2/3rds of which had unsatisfying glimpses) away from the stakeout. I was also the genius who suggested we walk first and caused us to miss that initial, decent observation. Well at least we had a great lunch at the Montsweag Roadhouse!  (And yeah, I did see it decently at one point, but not like I wanted).

But such is birding life.

More frustrating to me is the selfish birder who decided to walk down through the woods, opposite the group of more than 50 patient people, pishing (which thrushes don’t respond to, by the way) as he went. At one point, when the bird was coming out in the open, people could see this dumbass through their scopes, and he clearly flushed the bird back into the deeper depths…where it was not, as of at least 3:00pm that day, seen again.

While one might be able to argue he pushed the bird into our view, it seemed tough to argue that he didn’t directly ruin the opportunity for it to come out into an open edge for all to see, including those who had driven in from several states away. Of course, we all know who it was, and we all know how selfish some birders can be. And frankly, if there was one prick in the state of Maine who would act this way, it would be that guy. Thanks, buddy.

Anyway, we had a beer at Montsweag and that made me feel a little better.

Moving on…

So in the course of about a week, there was a Scissor-tailed Flycatcher in East Machias (also on Monday morning), a Vermillion Flycatcher in Bremen, and a friggin’ Fieldfare in Newcastle. I feel a bit hamstrung right now to hit the field as hard as I like to find out what else might be out there. Perhaps I’ll find the next one tomorrow…

Epic Twitch of Mid-Coast Megas, 1/30/17

Fully caught up on work and life from our recent vacation, Jeannette and I spent Monday and Tuesday birding hard!  On Monday, we did our monthly “South-coastal Tour” from Kittery through Wells, enjoying a total of 49 Harlequin Ducks, two unseasonable American Pipits at Seapoint Beach, a hen Northern Pintail in the Moody Marsh, and finding a rare Pacific Loon off of The Cliff House (distantly phone-scoped here within an armada of Common Loons).

I16388218_1538684886161460_2799068214130599250_n

But on Tuesday, it was time to get caught up with some of this winter’s rarities. And so far this year, the Mid-Coast is where it’s at!

We began at Owl’s Head Harbor, arriving at 9:25. In about 10 minutes, we found the recently-discovered 2nd-cycle Mew Gull at the second lobster impoundment. Undoubtedly the same bird that spent last winter here, it was exciting to see it has returned, and with a more mature plumage. We watched it for about 20 minutes, as it regularly took flight, foraged in the cove, checked out the pens, and loafed with other gulls. Eventually, we watched it as it flew out into the bay, rounding the corner to the east and out of view. It steadfastly refused to fly into good lighting, however.
img_3149-edited-editedimg_3174-edited-edited

A lingering Belted Kingfisher was present as well, but surprisingly, not a single Iceland Gull was around.

We then went over to Owl’s Head State Park, where a little seawatching produced a couple of Black-legged Kittiwakes and Razorbills, but to our surprise, the Mew Gull as well!  It was feeding quite a bit off the lighthouse, out at a tideline.

Next up was a search for two Pink-footed Geese that have been around since December.  We didn’t find them in the playing fields they usually frequent, so we began a search of Rockland Harbor. The Mechanic Street Boat Launch yielded a Northern Shrike and lots of Mallards, but no geese.

We worked our way around the harbor, expecting to eventually find them in the greens of the Samoset Resort. Instead, we spotted them on the green of a sunny lawn in a small backyard off of Samoset Road. However, we were viewing them through a scope from a considerable distance, out across the large cove, from our vantage point in the parking lot at the end of Fales Street in downtown. They were not close.

So we raced over to Samoset Road, and got really lucky, finding them – along with a group of merely 15 or so Canada Geese – between a couple of houses.
img_3199-edited-edited

After lunch, we worked our way towards Camden, checking a handful of waterfowl sites, but finding nothing of note. But a pair of Buffleheads off of Mechanic St in Camden were particularly photogenic.
img_3207-edited-editedimg_3222-edited-edited

We then arrived at 4 Central Street, the home that has been hosting a Bullock’s Oriole – merely Maine’s 2nd ever – since the early winter. Jeannette had not looked for it yet, so a visit seemed overdue. We arrived at 2:09, and after waiting a mere 7 minutes (many observers have waited multiple hours), it arrived, landing in a tall tree behind the house, catching some late afternoon rays.

It dropped to the feeder, and instead of its usual brief visit, it spent well over 5 minutes gorging itself on mealworms and grapes.
img_3263-edited-editedimg_3297-edited-edited

Mew Gull, Pink-footed Geese, and Bullock’s Oriole: an incredible January hat-trick of Mid-coast Megas!

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.
west-commercial-st

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.
mercy-pond

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.
2015-12015-22015-32015-4

Continued slashing of what’s left of the native vegetation continues.  On 9/9, I noticed yet more hacked swaths like this.
2016-22016-3

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.
2016
knotweed

And makes it easier for Asiatic Bittersweet to take over everything else.
bittersweet-2bittersweet

Meanwhile, valuable native plants like this Gray-Stemmed Dogwood is hacked to hell.
gray-stemmed-dogwood

And it’s great at accelerating erosion.
bare-ground

The “Mid-Slope” Trail, which is often the most productive in late fall, has been destroyed…
mid-slope

…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.
non-meadow

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.

Western Grebe at Simpson’s Point (4/17/16)

A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about what a hotspot of Simpson’s Point in Brunswick currently is. I also predicted that it was about due for another rarity. And recently, with increasing numbers of migrant ducks, my Rarity Fever was further stoked.

Last Thursday, I counted an amazing 2600 Black Scoters – a really ridiculous count for interior Casco Bay. After enjoying a growing number of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers among other migrants (first of year Swamp Sparrows, etc) at Florida Lake this am, I took advantage of the finally-calm conditions to visit them again, and perhaps do a little sorting through the masses.

Those scoters were still present this morning, and the goodly number of Horned Grebes (20+ each day) continued. Horned Grebes molting into breeding plumage can look a lot like vagrant Eared Grebes, especially as the blond tufts are still growing in. I was scanning a small raft of Horned Grebes, thinking about finding the second Eared Grebe record for here.

That’s when I found…a Western Grebe! Not only was this a significant rarity, it was actually a “State Bird” for me (the first time I have seen the bird in the state). A long overdue one that was becoming a nemesis of sorts, it was #6 on my latest predictions list for my next 25 species to see in Maine. And of course, it is always sweeter and more rewarding for me to find it for myself.

It was not close, but the distinctive shape and profile was unmistakable. The relatively short body riding low on the water – like all grebes – looked disproportionally small as that long and skinny neck was craned up. The long bill and fairly large head (relative to the width of the neck) further added to the bird’s distinctive profile.

Upon closer look, the two-toned black-and-white neck and face was obvious. There’s little doubt as to this bird was a member of the genus Aechmophorus – Western and Clark’s Grebe. Luckily, as the active bird moved a smidge closer, I was able to scrutinize several features that ruled out Clark’s. For one, the black hindneck was evenly wide, not narrow and thin, and not pinching toward the top. Although it was too far to see the details of the face, it definitely did not look “white-faced” and I certainly could not see the eye (On Clark’s, the eye stands out in the white face in breeding plumage, on Western, the eye is harder to see as it is enshrouded by dusky black). The bill also looked yellow, but not as bright “banana yellow” or even orange-y like Clark’s.

But it was far, and perhaps a hybrid could not fully be ruled out. However, with one record of Clark’s for Maine (and all of New England) and with at least a dozen or so records of Western for Maine alone, there’s a fair “percentage play.”

Anyway, like many birds at Simpson’s Point, it was off to the east, and the light was not great in the mid-morning. After diving several times, it began to preen, and then loafed for a bit before tucking in its sinuous neck and falling asleep (had I scanned while it was asleep, I probably would have never picked it up!). In between, I managed to rattle off a bunch of phone-scoped “documentation” shots. Well, for what they are worth…

And here’s another lousy photo, from 4/21. However, it was in better light, so the bill color is a little more evident. However, the overexposure of the distant phone-scoped photo makes the face look much more whiter than it really is.
WEGR1,SimpsonsPoint,4-21-16_edited-1

The 2016 Maine State List (and my own) Predictions Blog.

The second record (and perhaps the first verified one) for Maine of Black-throated Sparrow was found in Winter Harbor on New Year’s Day, and continues through today, January 6th. I was tempted to chase it yesterday, but instead I am left to hope it sticks around until the end of next week when I return from a short business trip. Fingers crossed!

Before it arrived, I had begun to put together my annual list of the next 25 species to be found in Maine. I then follow that up with my own State List predictions, and no, Black-throated Sparrow was not on that list!

I know, I know, you’ve been awaiting this with baited breath for this. So without any further ado, let’s get started with the annual Maine State Birds Predictions List.

First, a quick recap of 2015.

Only one species was added to the state’s all-time birdlist, a Surfbird, which was discovered at Biddeford Pool in March. It was not a species on anyone’s radar, and it was most definitely not on my Predictions List for 2015!

But I did make several changes to my Next 25 Species for Maine list, and moved things around a bit. So here are the NEW prognostications:
1)Neotropical Cormorant – The new #1! With populations expanding in the Midwest and observations of vagrants increasing around the East, this one is only a matter of time now!
2) Graylag Goose
3) California Gull
4) Roseate Spoonbill
5) Spotted Towhee
6) Ross’s Gull
7) Hammond’s Flycatcher
8) Bermuda Petrel – see notes in last year’s blog entry at the link above.
9) Black-chinned Hummingbird
10) Fieldfare
11) Audubon’s Shearwater – on “hypothetical” list, but I think the record is good.
12) Little Stint
13) Anna’s Hummingbird
14) “Western” Flycatcher (Pacific-slope/Cordilleran) – Hope it calls! After a spate of reports in the Fall of 2015, this is another western bird increasingly being detected well outside of range.
15) Vermillion Flycatcher – Ditto.
16) Common Ground-Dove – A virtual irruption of this bird this fall, including one as close to Massachusetts had me thinking we would have added this in 2015. Maybe one is still out there awaiting discovery.
17) Allen’s Hummingbird
18) Redwing
19) Western Wood-Pewee
20) Spotted Redshank
21) Gray Flycatcher
22) Black-tailed Godwit
23) Brown-chested Martin
24) Black-tailed Gull
25) Common Scoter

As for me, I added three birds to my personal Maine State List in 2015:
A) Gyrfalcon – Wells, 1/17/15 (Ranked #5). This is one I wanted for a while! It was seen sporadically between Wells Harbor and Salisbury, Massachusetts for about a month. If first showed up while we were away at a trade show, but luckily, I caught up with it shortly after our return. I saw it on the 17th, and managed some photos  (my blog entry also includes more background about the sighting), but on April 5th, Jeannette got the better shots!
IMG_0332_edited-2

B) I also caught up with the aforementioned Surfbird on March 22nd (Definitely not on my list!) and Jeannette got these photos when we visited it again two days later.
IMG_0505_edited-2

C) Clapper Rail – Scarborough Marsh, 9/22. I had it as an “Honorable Mention,” a list that I also keep to work off of to come up with each year’s respective Top 25.
IMG_6223_CLRA1,JonesCreek,9-22-15

I missed a Franklin’s Gull on Sebasticook Lake in November, as it appeared just before I took a trip, and departed shortly after my return. There was also a one-day wonder on Stratton Island in Scarborough in June. With an unprecedented incursion of Franklin’s Gulls into the East this fall (the Sebasticook Lake bird clearly preceded the events that brought record numbers to New Jersey and several birds to Massachusetts and New Hampshire), I thought this would be my fall – and I definitely worked for one! But alas.

My two trips off of Bar Harbor this year did not yield a Great Skua (but a September trip did give me my 3rd South Polar Skua in the state!), and once again my summer went by without a trip up north for American Three-toed Woodpecker.

Therefore, I predict that my next 25 species in Maine will be:
1) American Three-toed Woodpecker
1A) Black-throated Sparrow! OK, I know this does not count as a prediction, but still…
2) Great Skua
3) Eurasian Collared-Dove
4) Graylag Goose
5) Say’s Phoebe
6) Western Grebe
7) American White Pelican
8) Neotropic Cormorant
9) Fork-tailed Flycatcher
10) Slaty-backed Gull
11) Tundra Swan
12) Franklin’s Gull
13) Sabine’s Gull
14) Black-bellied Whistling-Duck
15) California Gull
16) Yellow Rail
17) Boreal Owl
18) Calliope Hummingbird
19) Cerulean Warbler
20) White Ibis
21) Gull-billed Tern
22) Hammond’s Flycatcher
23) Loggerhead Shrike
24) Ivory Gull
25) Ross’s Gull

Well, there ya have it! We’ll check back next year to see how I did!

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.
L1040215_YTWA3,Samoset,Rockport,12-17-15_edited-1L1040251_YTWA1,Samoset,Rockport,12-17-15_edited-1

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)!
L1040305_PRAW,BiddPool,12-18-15_edited-1

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.
L1040320_LBHE1,OOB,12-22-15_edited-1

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).”

Not Your Usual December Highlights!

While this fall’s rarity season got off to a fairly slow start at the end of October, things have really heated up lately. In fact, it’s been a really outstanding couple of weeks.  And in the past few days, I have enjoyed some really great birding.

The mild temperatures have certainly played a role – while the southerly and southwesterly winds that have ushered in much of the unseasonably warm air may still be facilitating the arrival of some vagrants, at the very least the mild temperatures and benign weather are allowing vagrants and unseasonable “lingering” migrants to survive long enough to be found! And, the lovely weather is certainly keeping more birders out in the field. I have certainly been taking full advantage of this beautiful weather.

On Sunday, Ed Hess and I visited the Saco Riverwalk. While this is always a hotspot at this season, it is really extraordinary this year. After 8 species of warblers were seen there in November, the mild weather has allowed at least 5 species to continue – almost unprecedented for December. Ed and I saw the Tennessee Warbler, a really remarkable December record…
L1040092_TEWA,SacoRiverWalk, 12-6-15_edited-1

…both of the two continuing Yellow Warblers (the photos are of one of the two individuals), which is another exceptional species for the date…
L1040022_YWAR,SacoRiverWalk,12-6-15_edited-1

…the Nashville Warbler (and confirmed the continued presence of a second Nashville!)…
NAWA by Ed_edited-1

…the Common Yellowthroat (more expected for the season)…
L1040098_COYE1,SacoRiverWalk,12-5-15_edited-1

…and we saw one of the two Ruby-crowned Kinglets still present (much more regular in December than any warbler).
L1040116_RCKI,SacoYachtClub,12-6-15-edited

And although we didn’t see it, the most amazing of them all, a Blackburnian Warbler is still present. (Jeannette and I saw and photographed it earlier in the week, 11/30).
IMG_3040_edited-2

Ed and I then headed to Cape Elizabeth, where we photographed the continuing Grasshopper Sparrow at Dyer Point, and odd bird to see juxtaposed with Harlequin Ducks (18) and Purple Sandpipers (6)…
L1040136_GHSP2,DyerPt,12-6-15_edited-1L1040151_GHSP3,DyerPoint,12-6-15_edited-1L1040163_GHSP1,DyerPoint,12-6-15

…And we twitched a Wilson’s Warbler found earlier in the day nearby, just so we could say we saw five species of warblers in a day in December!  It cannot, however, be said that we “photographed” five species:
WIWA,CapeElizabethm12-6-15

The Grasshopper Sparrow was also our fifth species of sparrow on the day (Song, American Tree, White-throated, and Dark-eyed Junco) – I doubt I’ve had five species of warbler and 5 species of sparrows in the same day in December in Maine before.

Of course, that only somewhat consoled us about missing the vagrant Western Tanager that was found at the Riverwalk later in the afternoon. Damn.

On Monday, I headed over to Reid State Park in Georgetown with Kristen Lindquist. It was a rather quiet day here, but it’s always one of my favorite places to take a walk, especially on such (another) gorgeous morning.  43 Red-necked Grebes, a Northern Harrier, a flyover Red Crossbill (my first of the season), oh yeah, and another rarity: “Oregon” Junco.

While some might dismiss it as “merely a subspecies,” the westernmost subspecies of the Dark-eyed Junco is truly a rarity in the Northeast, and this was the first definitive “Oregon” Junco that I have seen in Maine (although I have never chased one at a feeder, where they are usually seen). It was in a small flock of “Slate-colored” Juncos and an American Tree Sparrow in the scrubby central ridge in the middle of the Griffith’s Head parking lot.

The flock flushed from short grass at the edge as we rounded the corner, and as it briefly alighted in a shrub, I was shocked to see a black-hooded junco. Closer inspection as we followed it for about 20 minutes yielded all of the pertinent field marks for a “textbook” Oregon, nicely eliminating the intermediate “hybrid swarm” – or whatever it is – that we sometimes refer to as “Cassiar’s” Junco.

Note the complete, black (not dark gray) hood, lacking contrast in the supraloral area. Also, the hood is cleanly demarcated on the back of the head, contrasting crisply with the reddish-brown back. The flanks and sides are particularly pale salmon-buff, which is not atypical for adult males (although many are much brighter). At the lower margin of the hood, note the smooth, rounded margin across the chest and up to the “shoulder.”
IMG_6908_ORJU4,meIMG_6909_edited-1IMG_6910_ORJU1,K_edited-1IMG_6912_edited-1,K.Lindquist

Afterwards, Kristen and I birded around Bath – no white-winged gulls or Barrow’s Goldeneyes yet, no doubt related to the mild temperatures as well, but we did spot one of the Snowy Owls at Brunswick Landing – unlike warblers, a slightly more expected highlight for early December in Maine.

While Jeannette and I didn’t turn up any rarities – or much of anything else for that matter! – birding Harpswell Neck this morning, I very much look forward to what the coming weeks will produce, especially when it finally turns cold!