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Some people brought their prized Nikon Premier LXL binoculars; while some were caught looking through their borrowed binoculars the wrong way. But they all gathered at Bradbury Mountain State Park for the same reason: to enjoy the outdoors during one of the first warm weekends this year, to bask in the sun and especially, to see the birds.
Starting Saturday morning, groups led by birding experts scanned the budding trees and blue skies for returning raptors and nesting chickadees for the first “Feathers over Freeport” weekend-long birdwatching festival, sponsored by Freeport Wild Bird Supply and the Maine Conservation Bureau of Parks and Lands.
The festival revolved around the annual Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, which has monitored the migration of hawks and other raptors and the return of nesting osprey at Wolfe’s Neck Woods for the past four years.
“Four thousand birds pass by one spot in Maine each spring,” said David Lovitch, owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply and event organizer. “We didn’t know that until we got up here and started watching.”
With the sun at its highest on Saturday, Lovitch faced a crowd of about 25 birdwatchers gathered on the flat granite summit of Bradbury Mountain, 485 feet above sea level and just 0.2 miles up a woodland trail from the parking lot. He mimicked the different flight patterns of raptors, unabashedly waving and contorting his arms.
“These shapes are all a part of it. It’s a lot easier than looking for all of these minute details,” he said, adding that usually, the farther the bird is from where he’s standing, the easier it is for him to identify.
Buteos migrate by thermals (warm air rising from the ground), he said. Their broad wings and tails are perfect for gliding in air currents. Falcons, on the other hand, with their narrow, long wings and tail, are built for speed.
The hawkwatch records 14 regular species that pass over the mountain each spring, in addition to three rare species, one of them being the golden eagle.
“It’s a great way to get out on a hillside for a few hours,” Lovitch said. “When you first go up, just worry about looking at birds [not trying to identify them].”
Lovitch’s hawk watch introductory class was about learning to spot a bird and narrowing it down to a family — accipiter, falcon, buteo, eagle or vulture — based on the shape of its tail and wings.
Turkey vultures are the easiest to spot. With their large wings, they rock in flight. The Cooper’s hawk slaps the air with its stiff wings. And the sharp-shinned hawk seems to “flutter.”
Lovitch knows the sharp-shinned hawk’s head doesn’t project beyond its wings in flight, so when it gets a glimpse of a group of birdwatchers, it dips its wing down to get a better look. The Cooper’s hawk, which has a larger head, simply turns its head to look, keeping its wings even. Of course, the different movements are learned through much practice, hours of sitting alert at a high elevation and counting birds through binoculars.
Lovitch went to his first hawkwatch when he was 10 years old, and ever since, he has been hooked on birds. In his book “How to be a Better Birder,” in the process of being published, he writes about watching nocturnal bird migration using the meteorology radar. (For meterologists, birds detected by the radar are referred to as “ground clutter.”)
“Hawkwatchers learn to talk, eat lunch, check the weather and watch the sky — all at the same time — but they’re bad at eye contact,” Lovitch said, laughing, and added that he is always looking out the window at his feed store when he’s talking to a customer.
This year, Bradbury Mountain Hawkwatch is making an effort to introduce more people to birding, particularly families and children.
Saturday was the first time Andrea Lani of Whitefield and her three sons — Milo, 9, Emmet, 5, and Zephyr, 5 — had been to a hawkwatch, though she makes a point of bringing them to similar outdoor activities.
“We’ve never been to this park. It’s a perfect hike for 5-year-olds. We’re excited to see the live birds,” said Lani, referring to the live bird presentation on Maine birds of prey scheduled for later that afternoon and led by The Center for Wildlife, an animal rescue rehabilitation center in Cape Neddick.
“We saw an American kestrel go overhead and a lot of turkey vultures,” said Milo as he shared binoculars with his brother Zephyr. Emmet sat on the sun-warmed rock drawing pictures of hawks with colored pencils on a sketchpad.
“I think that it’s important for kids to have a connection with nature and understanding of life and have a reverence for the Earth while growing up,” Lani said. “Plus, you throw them outside and they burn off some energy.”
Though the steady sun created decent thermals for the birds to ride, the wind blowing light northwest wasn’t ideal for hawkwatching. It wasn’t giving the birds an incentive to fly over Bradbury Mountain, so most of the hawks were hugging the coast. A southeast wind usually carries them closer.
Heads tilted back as a gull passed overhead. It was a “commuter” headed inland to Turner to feed on the waste of chicken farms, Lovitch said.
This year’s official hawk counter, Andy Northrup, remained silent during Lovitch’s talk, his eyes trained on the scope, patrolling the sky. He’s on the summit six days a week from March 15 to May 12. Lovitch and his wife, Jeannette, cover his day off. While the group headed back down the mountain to continue the schedule of events, Andy would remain on the summit until 5 p.m.
Those who wanted a break from the loon lectures, birdwalks and bird song recognition workshops could slip away to hike the network of easy to moderate, color-coded trails that weave through the park’s 800-plus acres of forested land.
For information on Wolfe’s Neck Woods State Park, call 865-4465; on Bradbury Mountain State Park, call 688-4712 or visit bradburymountain.com; on Maine state parks and historic sites, www.parksandlands.com; and on the Bradbury Mountain Spring Hawkwatch, call 865-6000 or visit www.freeportwildbirdsupply.com/hawkwatch.asp.