New year, new start for bird seeking

Posted Dec. 17, 2010, at 7:13 p.m.
Last modified Jan. 29, 2011, at 12:27 p.m.

As bird-watchers go, I tend to be more laid-back than some. When I first took up the hobby more than 10 years ago, I was quite passionate and more involved in the birding community than I have been of late.

Work, other responsibilities and competing interests have often vied for my attention, and birding often took a back seat. I still enjoy watching birds, writing about them and engaging in the challenge of finding and identifying them, but the spark I had in the beginning has been missing.

Lately I’ve been thinking I need to step back into it again, find that interest and spark I had, and further my knowledge and skills. It’s sort of a pre-New Year’s resolution, helped along by a flash of inspiration I got from attending an event at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Audubon Center recently.

The “Naturalist’s Forum: A Big Year in Maine” was presented by “young birder extraordinaire” Luke Seitz. A “big year,” as it is known among birders, is an informal competition — either with other birders or with oneself — to see how many different bird species one can find and identify within a year, within a state or within a general geographical area.

In previous years, Seitz had been able to find nearly 300 birds. His goal this year was to reach this number; at the time of his presentation, he’d exceeded it by 10. As Maine’s checklist includes only 331 species of birds commonly found in the state, this is no mean feat.

Seitz stressed, though, that numbers weren’t the most important; learning how birds are distributed throughout the various habitats in Maine, as well as their seasonal patterns of movement, was of great value as well. In addition, there was the bonus of getting to explore the state as few people have, while also learning what unusual weather patterns and events might push rare or unusual birds into the state, as well as produce “out of season” birds during certain times of the year.

Going month by month, Seitz highlighted the birds he’d seen and included amusing anecdotes about certain tough finds, complementing them with his own photographic slide show.

In February, for example, he finally found his “nemesis” — a black-backed woodpecker — after trying for the bird “about 4 million times.” And in April, he and a friend were Down East staring at a male spruce grouse, which was “ridiculously tame and totally oblivious — he was four feet from our faces.”

As would be expected, the month of May produced the highest tally of birds as returning migrants poured into the state. A coveted rare find for him was a male hooded warbler — normally found no farther north than the southern Great Lakes region —right in Hinckley Park in South Portland. The bird had overshot its normal range because of strong south winds.

June saw him working as a naturalist aboard the Odyssey Whale Watch out of Portland, logging pelagic species such as Corey’s shearwater and great shearwater. He also had graduated from high school and gotten his driver’s license earlier in the month, and was thrilled he’d now be able to cover more distance in his feather quest. However, he was disheartened to learn that “gas money adds up very quickly.”

Not all of his finds, however, were the result of distant commutes. As is the case with many a diligent but frustrated birder, more than a few birds he’d searched for failed to turn up in any of his travels. Instead, on two occasions he’d happened to look out his windows at home and there they were — an olive-sided flycatcher perched on a dead snag in August, and a yellow-billed cuckoo in September.

Also in the month of September, there was the time he found four black skimmers in a parking lot on Commercial Street in Portland, thanks to a tip from a friend and Hurricane Earl. Normally found no farther north than Massachusetts, the birds had been pushed beyond their range by the storm. Seitz got some excellent photographs of the birds “skimming” the puddles in the parking lot.

October was definitely a month to remember for Seitz. On his last trip of the season aboard the Odyssey, he was the first one to spot and identify a yellow-billed loon, which breeds in the high western Arctic and winters in the Pacific Northwest. Luke’s sighting is the first known record of this bird for all of New England.

As if that find wasn’t enough, he also logged a gray kingbird in Ogunquit, which is a first record for this bird in Maine.

Needless to say, Seitz wowed the crowd at the Gilsland Farm center that night. An older woman commented to me that it was “an inspiration for all of us as to what we could do if we could start all over again.”

The beauty of this hobby — this passion — is that we can all “start over again,” in some form or fashion, and I intend to do just that.

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