Reid State Park is so appealing, I never go there. Well, I never go there in summer. I avoid crowds. But in winter, I’ll head to the beach in Georgetown every chance I get. Last Saturday, my wife and I led a trip to Reid for the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon. Winter birding is terrific along the beach.
The sand slopes steeply into the water, so it is a good spot to see diving waterfowl close to shore. The southern exposure means it is often shielded from a north wind and five degrees warmer than the rest of the coast. What’s not to like?
Upon arrival, we were promptly blessed with good birding. The rising tide was rushing into the lagoon behind the beach. Wherever there is a tidal surge, expect a feeding frenzy because the tide carries concentrated food with it. At least a dozen red-breasted mergansers were in the rip, gorging on the movable feast. Red-breasted mergansers aren’t shy, but they aren’t cooperative either. Typically, when a shutterbug spies one and tries to get closer to the water’s edge for a good shot, they calmly swim away. Dang. But these birds completely ignored us, even though we were standing mere feet away — a photographer’s dream.
It wasn’t just the food that grabbed their attention. They were romantically interested in each other. It’s time for mergansers to start hooking up, even though they breed farther north. The males were fawning over the females, sometimes pursuing them, sometimes craning their necks and occasionally uttering a squeaky hiccup that I’ve never heard before. I hope that noise appeals to the ladies, because to me it sounded like the cracking voice of a teen hitting puberty.
At the north end of the beach, Griffith Head provides a high point from which to scan the ocean and inventory the seabirds within view. From that one spot, we tallied common eider, common goldeneye, common loon, long-tailed duck, horned grebe, red-necked grebe, red-breasted merganser, surf scoter, white-winged scoter and great cormorant. Satisfied with this appetizer, we headed down the beach.
A single savannah sparrow surprised us when it landed on the edge of the dune grass and then came out to forage on the beach. A few sparrows winter over, and this one probably did. We also noted a couple of song sparrows on Todd’s Point at the far end of the beach. From this vantage point, we had a better view of red-necked grebes. I usually find a big raft of them at this spot, and I’d estimate the flock to be about 50 individuals snoozing at high tide.
With favorable weather and tide, the group voted unanimously to eat lunch in the van while driving south to Brunswick. Our next target: a Eurasian wigeon. This Old World duck is the equivalent of our American wigeon. They are the same in size and habit, but the male’s head is a creamy russet red instead of green. They are rare but regular visitors to the United States. Earlier in the week, this individual was discovered at Wharton Point in Maquoit Bay (site No. 19 on the official Maine Birding Trail).
If we were to find it, it would be a life bird for most of the group and a first for me in Maine.
And there it was. After diligent searching, we located it on the far shore, too distant for binoculars but easy pickings for the three spotting scopes we had in the crowd. We were pleased to find him, but dismayed that he chose to keep company with the American black ducks and wigeons in the distance rather than on the near shore where he normally roosts. What could make this view even more disappointing? A pair of bald eagles came soaring into view and circled toward the flock. We knew what would happen next. The ducks took off and flew around the bend, out of sight. We amused ourselves for a few more minutes by watching a rough-winged swallow cavort about the shoreline. The bird was more than a month early! In reality, this sighting so early in the year was more unusual than the wigeon.
Having enjoyed the day’s birding banquet, it was now time for dessert. We had just enough daylight left to try for a snowy owl that was known to be haunting a certain spot in central Maine. And there it was. It was sitting exactly where it was supposed to be. Life is good.
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 email@example.com.