It was still pitch dark and drizzling as our 15-passenger van, loaded with 14 passengers, pulled away from Fields Pond Audubon Center. My wife, Sandi, was at the wheel. I was sharing the rear seat with two friends, both named Bruce. Sandi is the president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, I’m vice president, and this was a chapter field trip to Down East Maine on Oct. 28.
Our destination was a chain of islands located between Jonesport and Machias, across Englishman Bay from Roque Bluffs State Park. We were joined by ornithologist Norm Famous, who has been performing sea duck surveys in these waters for decades. A lot of waterfowl winter in the sheltered bays and island coves, and Maine Audubon has offered this trip many times over the years. It remains popular, since it can be a good chance to see loons, scoters, grebes, mergansers, eiders, and guillemots up close.
The day started well. As we awaited departure from Schoppee Point, we could see many ducks in the distance. Surf scoters were the most numerous, as they would be all day — more than 200 seen during the trip. A few horned grebes were visible through the binoculars. The breeding plumage of a summer grebe is spectacular. Like many sea ducks, they become quite drab in winter — small grayish birds with white cheeks, bobbing on the waves.
The boat had barely left the dock when a red-throated loon popped up on the port side. This diver is smaller and slimmer than the common loon. It breeds across the Arctic, and small numbers winter along the Maine coast. We spotted five on the day. Shortly after the loon surfaced, we spied a red-necked grebe on the starboard side. It was good timing, because it gave some of the new birders a chance to recognize that it was smaller than the red-throated loon, but larger than the horned grebe. It lacks red in its winter plumage, but the longer neck and bill easily distinguish it from the horned grebe.
As we motored past the islands, small flocks of common eiders, long-tailed ducks and surf scoters parted to let the boat through. We noted a few white-winged scoters and a few black guillemots along the way. Common loons were always within sight — probably more than 50 seen during the day. A lot of our freshwater loons don’t migrate far. They just head for salt water in the colder months.
Bald eagle sightings were plentiful — I’m guessing we saw more than a dozen. Three merlin sightings were noteworthy, because most of these small falcons have migrated south for the winter. We saw three northern harriers in different spots, or maybe just the same hawk following us, since it was a brown female on each occasion.
After cruising around the coves for a few hours, we docked on a private island and enjoyed the hospitality of the year-round caretakers. We had previously obtained permission from the owners to visit the homestead and hike the island trails. By this point, the sun had emerged and the picnic table looked inviting. Fortunately, we were nearly done with lunch by the time the horses discovered us. On an island, there is not always a need for fences, and these particular horses apparently have some experience at meal-sharing. The largest draft horse was the most insistent, muscling up to the table and gulping down apple cores and leftovers with little discrimination. Even my soiled napkin went down the hatch, much to my surprise.
This trip was typical of Audubon excursions, with a good mix of new birders eager to learn and experts ready to help. If I did the math correctly, there were five experts, five intermediate birders, three new enthusiasts and two who were on board to enjoy birds, scenery, and camaraderie in equal proportions. Nonmembers are always welcome at Maine Audubon events and activities, but it’s hard to know the schedule in advance without joining. A trip to Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden or a visit to maineaudubon.org can correct that deficiency.
If this trip sounded interesting to you, you should know that we’re planning more winter events, including an ocean walk in Ogunquit to see many of the same sea birds. This time, it’ll be from the steady comfort of dry land. We paraphrase our winter birding motto from the Bible (Matthew 22:14): “Many are cold, but few are frozen.”
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.