I would like to introduce myself as the new birding columnist for the Bangor Daily News. Unfortunately, there’s no time for introductions right now. There are just too many good birds out there waiting to be seen and not a moment to lose. For the time being, suffice it to say that I am the president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, creator of the Maine Birding Trail and author of the trail guidebook of the same name. The rest will just have to wait.
The reason for the urgency is that there is a peculiar seasonality to birding in Maine. The songbirds are gone. Our bird feeders are relatively quiet and will remain that way until snow covers the abundant food supply that birds enjoy in the woods at this time of year. But waterfowl that breed in the subarctic are moving southward. Ocean ducks have already begun flooding our coastline. Fortunately, these Canadian-breeding species will stay all winter and I’ll be talking more about them next month. This is the time of year when freshwater ducks and geese flock in big numbers, just before the lakes freeze over. They’ll be leaving soon.
The numbers of Canada geese invading Aroostook County in October and November can be staggering. Collins Pond in downtown Caribou is often overrun with a thousand birds. Other municipal ponds in the County, such as those in Mars Hill and Washburn, get sizable flocks. Many of the geese forage on leftover grain from neighboring farms and then gather downtown, where they can’t be hunted. Clever, these birds. Rare geese can sometimes be found among them. The cackling goose looks like a small Canada goose. It was considered to be a subspecies until 2004, when it was elevated to full species status. Its diminutive size and short stubby bill distinguishes it from its larger cousin, but it can still be hard to pick out of a flock. They breed above Hudson Bay and across the northern edge of Alaska. Most migrate through the central U.S., so only a few appear in Maine.
Another western goose that shows up in these flocks sporadically is the greater white-fronted goose. Several have been seen this year around Limestone and at Thornhurst Farm in Yarmouth. The latter location is well known for attracting unusual geese within the large flocks of Canada geese that gather there this time of year. The rarest of rarities is the barnacle goose, which breeds in Greenland, Norway and Russia. Though the Greenland birds typically winter in Ireland, one wanders into Maine every so often. For almost two weeks in October, diligent birders were treated to good looks at a barnacle goose in Caribou and Limestone. We’re starting to discover that some of the Canada geese we see in Maine each autumn are actually from a race that breeds in Greenland, and it appears that they sometimes bring their friends with them.
Meanwhile, shallow lakes attract large flocks of ducks this time of year. Ruddy Ducks frequently congregate in Sebasticook Lake in Newport, habitually near the town landing on High Street. Greater and lesser scaup can also join the flocks. Sabattus Lake near Lewiston is renowned for getting impressive flocks of waterfowl. The American coot rarely breeds in Maine and is not often seen in summer. But this time of year, big flocks can surprise you, as they have this week on Sebasticook Lake, Maquoit Bay in Brunswick, and Chickawaukee Lake in Rockland. Some of those flocks have numbered over 200.
It’s particularly interesting to peek into our rivers during this season. Common goldeneyes — a familiar Maine breeder — have started to move onto the Penobscot River in Bangor. Its more unusual cousin, the Barrow’s goldeneye, breeds in northern Quebec. Some winter in Maine, where it is a state threatened species that is off-limits to hunting. A few of them pop into the Penobscot River for the winter and are just now moving into view in Bangor. Look near Eastern Maine Medical Center and upriver past the old Bangor dam. Also check around the Great Works dam between Old Town and Bradley. Sometimes they venture right downtown to the Joshua Chamberlain Bridge and beyond. To distinguish them from their cousins, note the steep forehead, the darker flanks and the crescent moon on the cheek. It differs from the round dot that is found on the cheeks of common goldeneyes.
OK. Go find some ducks. Time’s a-wasting.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.