As summer begins to fade, I try to hold the good days we had in memory against the coming cold season.
Soon after the long spell of rainy weather we had going into August, a friend and I planned to spend some time at Crescent State Beach in Cape Elizabeth one weekend, with the goal of doing some birding come late afternoon. However, it was so warm and gorgeous, we ended up lounging on the beach and taking dips in the ocean until the evening — enjoying what seemed to be the first real day of summer at that point.
However, I had come prepared: my binoculars and bird book were packed along with my beach towel. Good thing, too, as it turns out we didn’t need to leave the beach at all to get in some quality birding.
As the crowd began to thin out, the birds began to reclaim the beach. First, it was the more daring ringnbilled gulls that began picking through the sand for tidbits dropped by careless sunbathers. An especially enterprising individual picked up an empty brown paper bag and shook it to be sure it was indeed empty; other ring-billeds stalked by our spot, eyeing us speculatively. Herring gulls were also numerous in the area.
At one point I went to the water’s edge, where I spotted a very small shorebird carefully probing the wet sand for a meal. I ran back to get my friend, my binoculars and my bird book. It was clear to both of us that it was a type of plover; studying its plumage patterns, we confirmed it to be a semipalmated plover, which is always a neat find.
We were quickly distracted by a squadron of small gulls flying low over the water, parallel to the beach. Now, I have to admit that I just don’t get that excited about gulls, and I really have to make myself pay attention to them. But we could tell right away these little gulls were different and not something very often seen along Maine’s coast.
Besides being smaller, they were much more agile and graceful on the wing; their plumage was lighter than that of the usual gulls. They had dark wingtips and a very pale gray back; pinkish legs were visible as they flew overhead.
A small group of them landed on the ocean’s surface and began to feed on something apparently teeming within the water column, and we noticed a dark “ear spot” behind the birds’ eyes, as well as a thin, dark bill. These were Bonaparte’s gulls, which breed throughout Canada and Alaska; we only see them in Maine during migration or winter.
However, a few of these gulls have been spotted at different times throughout the years. Most recently, a roosting Bonaparte’s gull was photographed on Pushaw Lake, near Old Town, in early August, and a small group of them were noted off Pine Point in Scarborough in early June, according to the Maine Bird Alert (www.mainebirding.net/rba/).
The birds we were looking at could have been either adult nonbreeding birds or “first winter” birds. We hadn’t gotten to that stage of identification yet; as my friend said, it was a good opportunity “to begin to get to know the Bonaparte’s gulls.”
Not bad for a late summer’s day of beach birding.