Thin bands of altostratus clouds were turning pink and gold in the eastern sky as the sun began to rise on the cold morning of Dec. 18 — the day of National Audubon’s 111th Christmas Bird Count in Greater Portland.
We had started our count at the Falmouth Town Landing. The tide was near high, but a quick glance with the naked eye at the surrounding waters did not immediately yield the numbers and kinds of birds we had hoped for. I began scanning the sea with binoculars as my fellow participants set up their spotting scopes.
Within a few seconds the blue-gold sea yielded a satisfying diversity of birds: small, chunky buffleheads, elegant long-tailed ducks, a few loons and a few common eiders. Mallards were present in full force, and small flocks of Canada geese began appearing. A couple of distant red-breasted female mergansers materialized, their identity confirmed after close scrutiny and note-comparing. The distance, and the mergansers’ proximity to a loon, made them seem smaller than they actually are. Even at that distance, though, the telltale white wing patch and overall coloration revealed their true identity.
Before long, however, the reality of standing still in barely 20 degree Fahrenheit temperatures began to make itself felt. Removing mittens and gloves to record the birds on our checklists caused fingers to burn, stiffen, and become numb with the cold; and then of course there was that annoying full-body shivering. At this point I had begun thinking to myself, “Just why did I decide to do this?”
It has been years since my last Christmas Bird Count. But I had resolved to get serious again about birding, and this was a great way to jump in with both feet (or so I had thought). Plus, it was a great way to contribute to the conservation of our wild birds by participating in a citizen science project that has been running for more than 100 years.
It was easier to remind myself of this fact after we’d returned to the car and turned up the heater full blast. By the time we’d reached our next birding spot at Handy Boat, we’d pretty much warmed up, although the outside temperature stubbornly refused to do so.
At this spot we saw more of the same birds, especially Canada geese. We watched as a small flock of them flew in our direction and landed on the water at a distance. Glassing them to be sure we had an accurate count to add to our list, I noticed one bird in the group was distinctly smaller than the rest. It was chunkier in appearance with a shorter neck — and an orange-tinted bill.
This was definitely no Canada goose, and the three of us flew into a quiet frenzy trying to identify the bird. Changing vantage points in an effort to view the bird in the best possible light and keep it in our sights, we feverishly consulted our bird identification books. After a call to Eric Hynes, staff naturalist at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, and another trip back down to the Falmouth Town Landing — toward which the flock had headed — we realized we’d lost the bird. It was simply nowhere to be found.
Disappointed, we called Hynes to let him know. He’d been with a group in another count location in Falmouth, but he’d been ready to come to us to confirm the bird’s identity. However, in an incredible stroke of luck, the bird had reappeared in his location, and he was able to confirm that it was what we thought: a greater white-fronted goose.
This was a pretty big deal, as Maine is far outside this bird’s normal range. It breeds in high Arctic Canada and Alaska and winters along the West Coast, a few of the Gulf States, and Central America. Although it has been spotted in Maine before, this was the first one recorded by a Portland Christmas Bird Count.
After the high of that discovery, it was easy to ignore the cold as we continued throughout the day. Eventually the temperatures did warm up to just above freezing; this, combined with a bright sun in a clear sky and no wind, made conditions pleasurable. It was one of the highlights remarked upon once all the participants had gathered back at Gilsland Farm at dusk: It was a beautiful day to be out looking for birds.