Wandering species brighten up birders’ days

Posted Oct. 19, 2012, at 4:36 p.m.
Northern wheatears are arctic breeders you wouldn't normally expect to see in Maine. One showed up in Kennebunk last week, however.
Bob Duchesne | Courtesy of Linda Powell
Northern wheatears are arctic breeders you wouldn't normally expect to see in Maine. One showed up in Kennebunk last week, however.

I went 537 days without seeing a new bird species. That’s a losing streak of Red Sox proportions. Fortunately, this is the time of year to find unusual wanderers. Birds migrate. Sometimes, they get lost while doing it. Or maybe they aren’t lost. Maybe they are empty nesters nearing retirement and just wish to see more of the world.

Last week, a northern wheatear settled onto the pebble beach at the outlet of the Mousam River in Kennebunk. Acting on a tip, I located the bird and added it to my life list — that’s the list of bird species I’ve seen in my lifetime.

The point of this column is not that I saw a cool bird and you didn’t, although that’s true. The point is that birds sometimes wander off course and show up in the oddest places this time of year. It’s a great time to pay attention to what’s in your own backyard.

Northern wheatears are arctic breeders, mostly in Europe and Asia. There are small populations across Greenland, northeastern Canada and Alaska.

It’s an odd bird — slightly smaller than a bluebird. Because it forages close to the ground, it was originally thought to be a member of the thrush family. It is now more generally believed to be related to Old World flycatchers. It has long legs for its size and likes to perch up on rocks and stumps from which it can spot its prey. It catches low-flying insects by running, jumping and fluttering.

Their migration pattern is even odder than their feeding behavior.

Regardless of where they nest, they all winter in the sub-Saharan desert. It appears that wheatears are the only small songbirds in North America that migrate to Africa.

These globetrotters must cross either Asia or the Atlantic to do it, giving them one of the largest ranges of any songbird in the world. It’s clear that wheatears were once exclusively confined to the Eurasian continent and when they spread to North America, they retained the instinct to winter in Africa.

The English name has nothing to do with either wheat or ears. It actually refers to the prominent white rump on the bird. The name is a corrupted version of an old slang term that is best not printed in respectable newspapers. The northern wheatear is protected in Russia and most European countries, where expansion of agriculture has degraded some of its breeding territory. It nests so far north on this continent that habitat loss has not yet been a problem.

Wheatear wanderlust provides a few rare opportunities for birders in the lower 48 states. But the point of this column is that many birds wander at this time of year.

In the same week that the wheatear appeared in Kennebunk, a Bell’s vireo was discovered on Monhegan and another was found in Dresden. This is a bird of the central and southwestern U.S. and extends its breeding range into Mexico. In other words: not Maine. The state isn’t even on its migration route.

The black skimmer is a bizarre looking bird that behaves somewhat like a tern, but the lower portion of its bill is longer than the upper. It feeds by skimming along the surface of the water, dipping its lower bill into the ocean and scooping up dinner. It rarely gets north of Cape Cod, but there’s been at least one youngster sitting on the mudflats in Scarborough for over a week.

Besides the wanderers that pop up by surprise, many subarctic breeders are migrating through Maine at this time of year. I’ve found the white-crowned sparrows to be particularly abundant. They appear similar to our local white-throated sparrows, but nest across the northern limits of the temperate zone in Canada. They winter in the south and central United States. Juveniles haven’t developed the white crown yet, and they can confuse people when they show up under bird feeders. They must have enjoyed a great nesting season because I’ve seen loads of them.

American pipits are passing through. Horned larks should be showing up any minute now. A few Lapland longspurs may be mixed in among them. Some of these species can linger well into winter, particularly along coastal beaches. They also like to forage in agricultural fields, especially those recently spread with manure.

I appreciate the willingness of rare birds to visit Maine. In theory, I could visit them on their home territories. I’m not on a fixed income. Mine is still broken.

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 duchesne@midmaine.com.

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