Birding helps ease midwinter blues

Posted Jan. 22, 2010, at 7:24 p.m.

I’ve always found this time of year to be the hardest to get through. Although we are on the other side of the winter solstice and days are slowly getting longer, they are still not long enough. I’ve not quite kept up with local bird sightings, as was my New Year’s resolution, and I find myself in a bit of a slump.

My bird sightings have been confined to what I happen to see while walking along the beach. There are the requisite wintering loons, red-breasted mergansers, American black ducks, mallards and common eiders, as well as ring-billed, herring and black-backed gulls. My favorite of the commoners, though, are the long-tailed ducks. They are beautiful and elegant-looking birds, certainly eye-catching. But what often drew my attention to them are their comical voices.

I had failed to notice the birds far out on the water on several occasions, and it was their odd calls floating in toward land that clued me in to their presence. I can only describe their vocalizations as low mutterings that sound like a cross between a cow and a crow. They keep this up constantly, as if the group of them is having a discussion of great importance.

Less common birds of greater note included two horned grebes diving for food among the rocks near Fisherman’s Point. They seemed tiny in comparison to the sea ducks, their black and white winter plumage stark against the gray of the ocean. It was comical to watch them initiate a dive, as they’d spring completely out of the water — as a porpoise would — before slicing cleanly beneath the surface. They hardly made a ripple.

Horned grebes breed throughout much of middle and western Canada and Alaska, and winter along both the east and west coasts of the United States and the Canadian Maritimes. They also winter inland on lakes and ponds in the southern United States.

Another uncommon visitor was a small, plump, brant goose. These birds breed in the Arctic throughout the Northern Hemisphere. According to the “Birds of North America,” species account, part of their wintering range includes the East Coast from Massachusetts to North Carolina. However, apparently birds do not read spe-cies accounts or range maps; this is not the first time they’ve been seen in Maine. Although most sightings have occurred in southern and midcoast Maine, one brant was reported on Lake Josephine in Easton last June.

My sister and I had a comical experience with brant geese a few years ago during a trip to New Jersey.

We had gone to visit one of our old childhood haunts — Liberty State Park in Jersey City — and came upon a huge flock of them foraging through the short grass near a memorial statue. As we crept closer so I could try for a decent photo, they steadily moved away from us, always keeping a set distance. So, we changed our tac-tics: Instead of moving toward them, we began walking alongside them. The birds no longer moved away, but instead walked right along with us — as if we were all along for a walk in the park.

I was able to get some photos but, alas, none were of publishable quality. I’m sure the scene was hilarious, had anyone been watching nearby. I remember this every time I see one of these little geese now, and I smiled as I watched the small group of them foraging near the tide line along the beach in South Portland.

It was a good way to counter winter’s blues.

bdnsports@bangordailynews.net

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