Seabirds cooperate on coastal trek

Posted Nov. 19, 2010, at 8:34 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

Short trips to good birding spots in the area yielded some great results recently.

The tour began with a visit to Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth one overcast day. Rain seemed imminent, and a chill wind blew in off the ocean. However, the threatening gray nimbostratus clouds were shot through with valleys of light—not exactly clear sky, but areas of higher, diffuse cover, making it seem as if the sun would break through at any moment. This created an amazing landscape of color and contrast over the ocean.

Beneath the slate gray clouds, the sea appeared correspondingly dark — even black and forbidding in places. The lighter areas of cloud cover threw a sheen of bright pewter across long swathes of sea, making it appear as if the water itself was glowing.

Closer to shore, as the sea rushed toward rocky ledges, the waves swelled and revealed a jade so deep and vibrant it hardly seemed real. The color gradually faded into a succession of darker shades of gray in the backwash behind the breakers. Here, amidst the foam of churning seawater, common eider ducks nonchalantly floated and dove for food, sometimes diving right through the waves as they began to break. I could only imagine the maelstrom of currents, sand, pebbles and bubbles there beneath the surface. How the birds were able to catch anything is beyond me.

Yet, I saw one individual come up with what appeared to be a small crab struggling in its beak. A watchful herring gull, cruising along at cliff height, noticed this as well and rushed down toward the duck to appropriate its kill. The eider dove again at the last minute, taking its food with it, depriving the would-be thief of an easy meal.

I watched the eider ducks for awhile, admiring their ease in the rough water, and imagined them swimming underwater with powerful strokes of feet and wings. Most of them were female, although there were a few immature males present, as evidenced by their mottled brown and white feathers. Males don’t acquire their typical black and white plumage until three years of age.

My next stop at Crescent Beach held a veritable bonanza of seabirds. The ubiquitous common eiders were present, of course, but a pleasant surprise was a handful of bufflehead ducks. These small, compact ducks breed near inland ponds and lakes of Canada and Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Upper Midwest. I was intrigued to read they are small enough to nest in unused nest cavities of northern flickers, which are medium-sized woodpeckers.

A certain number of bufflehead ducks winter along the Atlantic coast; they are always a treat for me to see during this time of year.

Several common loons were present, their large, dark bodies making them easy to identify. I was puzzled to see a few individuals in a crouching position on the water, with their heads and necks lowered and stretched out in front of them. Consulting a bird behavior guide at home, I learned this is a type of aggressive posturing done by males, although the book said it is usually accompanied by vocalizations.

My eye was drawn away from the loons by an elusive form that by comparison was very slight. Its gray and white coloring made it hard to distinguish against the dull gray of the water, but its shape and size left no doubt that I was looking at a grebe. Getting a closer look, I noticed the distinct dark gray upper body, a blackish cap on its head, a white cheek and mostly white neck. I also noted it was small — not much larger (although certainly much slimmer), than a bufflehead. It was a horned grebe.

Horned grebes are winter visitors here as well, migrating from their breeding grounds in western Canada and Alaska to points along both eastern and western coasts of North America, as well as inland in the southeastern United States.

I observed the grebes for awhile and noticed a trait that stood out as endearing to me. All of them — I counted six — were in pairs. Members of a pair seemed to be closely synchronized with each other; when one dove for food, the other closely followed suit, and each surfaced again within a second or two of the other. The spacing between the two of them never seemed to extend beyond a few feet.

As I headed for home, I reflected on the gifts the day had given me: the beautiful seascape, the vitality of its seabirds, and the display of fidelity I had seen.

It was a great birding day.

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