Birds go south in the winter. You’re south. Our summertime birds go to the tropics, but many of the arctic birds come here. By polar standards, we’re pretty toasty. For example, our ocean doesn’t freeze.
The arctic summer teems with life. Round-the-clock daylight lasts for only a few months. Freshwater wetlands melt. Sea ice recedes. Extended sunlight kicks the food chain into high gear. Critters need to breed immediately or not at all. Mosquito swarms are legendary, but all other insect life is also abundant. This concentrated food supply has been drawing birds to the high arctic since the ice age. But all too soon, their summer is over and those birds start coming back to their winter home — Maine.
Land birds can show up anywhere, but seabirds are pretty much stuck with the coastline, and not just any coastline. They go where the food is. They go where the shelter is, such as coves, bays and estuaries.
Most waterfowl are no fonder of getting wave-tossed than you are. They may feed in areas of pounding surf, but many seek a little tranquility while digesting. The following locations are among my favorite winter places.
First, the obvious: Acadia National Park is tremendous in winter. There’s usually a reliable concentration of sea ducks from Sand Beach to Otter Point. Seawall in Manset is birdy. All of the MDI harbors are good, each in its own way. Tide matters. Expect Thompson Island and the harbors to be better at high tide.
Every part of the Schoodic peninsula is terrific in winter. When seas are rough, sea ducks are more apt to tuck into Arey Cove or the calm behind Blueberry Hill. On the other hand, harlequin ducks like the pounding surf and are more apt to be found along the exposed point.
Up the coast, Pigeon Hill Bay near Petit Manan contains a lot of scoters, guillemots, and long-tailed ducks. Roque Bluffs is lively along the beach and at the Schoppee Point dock. Little Machias Bay is just south of Cutler and big flocks of sea ducks congregate in this sheltered area. The Lubec Channel is so good that a few scoters stick around all year. Common eiders are always present in big numbers. At high tide, red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks, and buffleheads come closer to shore for easier viewing.
Quoddy Head State Park never fails to amuse, and it is so wind-scoured that deep snow is seldom a problem around the lighthouse. Another sheltered spot is Johnson Bay, the cove opposite Uncle Kippy’s Restaurant on the way into downtown Lubec.
Down the coast, Belfast Harbor is perennially interesting. Historically, it’s been a good place to look for Barrow’s goldeneye and unusual gulls. The breakwater in Rockland offers great views, if you can stand the wind and cold. Indeed, the entire midcoast area is a series of peninsulas and sheltered bays. Sea duck watching from Thomaston to Boothbay Harbor often can be done from a warm car on a chilly day.
But if I have to pick just one spot for winter birding in the region, it would be Reid State Park. The birding is superior for the same reason the beach is sandy. The southeastern exposure protects the beach from prevailing winds. As a bonus, the beach faces the full power of the winter sun.
Multiple species of gull and merganser frequent the Kennebec River in Bath. Brunswick’s Wharton Point in Maquoit Bay shelters a multitude of waterfowl species all winter. The Harraseeket River enters the ocean in a protected cove of South Freeport. Good winter viewing can be had from the town pier and from nearby Winslow Park.
My favorite spots in southern Maine include Dyer Point and Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth. Kettle Cove and Crescent Beach State Park are just around the corner and can be excellent. Pine Point and Scarborough Beach in Scarborough are a “must” for me whenever I’m in the Portland area in winter. The half-moon bays at Biddeford Pool and Wells Beach are fun to scan.
Perhaps my favorite winter spot in the entire state is Marginal Way in Ogunquit. This paved walking path is best walked from Perkins Cove. Almost every wintering sea duck is easily viewable, including a good concentration of harlequin ducks. And, since you’re down this far, continue southward to Sohier Park in York. Seabirds collect around Nubble Lighthouse.
Go birding this winter. Better clip this column and stick it on the refrigerator, lest you forget these tips.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at email@example.com.