Whenever I do a birdathon, there are two things I can count on: fun and rain. My birdathon team is called The Cardinal Sins. Over its 15 years, several members have come and gone, but my wife and I have remained true to the annual adventure.
A birdathon is an attempt to find as many different species as possible in one day. For southern Maine, the ideal time is when local species have arrived and northern species are migrating through. Around Bangor and in northern Maine, it tends to occur when all breeders are singing on territory. It is possible to top 130 species when the weather is dry, temperatures are moderate, and winds are light. I am, of course, describing conditions that never occur during my birdathons. Due to busy schedules, our team has to pick a date well in advance. Whatever that day is, it will rain. Rain is so inevitable that even the Old Farmer’s Almanac checks our schedule before making a forecast for that day.
It was misting when The Cardinal Sins assembled at 2 a.m. on Wednesday, June 4. We charged off into the dankness in search of night birds, and landed our first within 20 minutes — a saw-whet owl. An ovenbird and barred owl were quick to follow. By 3 a.m., we were at a whopping three species. Mosquito bites exceeded birds by a margin of 10-to-1. Nocturnal birds such as American woodcock and Wilson’s snipe let us down. No great horned owl came to entertain us. We had barely started and we were already losing ground.
At some point, the sun cleared the horizon, completely obscured by clouds and rain. Yet, new hope rose with the sun. The daylight birds began behaving quite nicely. We snagged a very difficult Cape May warbler, followed immediately by a black-billed cuckoo. A brown thrasher braved the drizzle from a treetop. We missed a dependable Lincoln’s sparrow and a reliable indigo bunting, but we snapped up tough-to-find birds such as eastern towhee and bay-breasted warbler. We were not doing well, but we were not doing poorly, and there were many ocean birds awaiting our run to the coast that would run up our total quickly, despite the rain. Only one thing could possibly go wrong.
We expected to gaze upon the ocean at Schoodic Point and chalk up three species of scoter, red-breasted mergansers, and maybe a red-throated loon. We did manage to tally some black scoters, but there was no chance of sighting anything distant, and the chance of finding a lingering harlequin duck or purple sandpiper vanished in the fog. Usually we might add a half dozen species to the birdathon list while circling Schoodic. But after investing ninety precious minutes, we added none.
Still, there was hope. Many of these same birds can be found in Pigeon Hill Bay near Petit Manan, even lingering long-tailed ducks. Certain shorebirds can be found in the vicinity, too. Only one thing could possibly go wrong.
Here, too, the ocean was impenetrable. A black-bellied plover at the boat landing was our only addition. We were now on a dismal pace, and would need to do well in Bangor in order to salvage a respectable score. After all the rain throughout the day, surely we would not have to confront a … deluge.
We sprinted into Bangor City Forest just long enough to grab a northern waterthrush in the torrent, then headed for Essex Woods. The rain slackened upon our arrival and we actually did very well as nightfall began to encroach on our daylight. Warbling vireos sang. Woodpeckers popped up. A green heron flew by. Ducks, swallows, and rails were checked off.
Stories of success are inspirational, but stories of failure are far more entertaining. Every birdathon is noted for the rare and unusual birds that pop up during the day and make it onto the list. However, it is the big misses that really get remembered. Unbelievably, we missed ring-billed gull. Yes, ring-billed gull — the one that gathers by the dozens on the grass at the Bangor Mall and haunts every fast food restaurant.
We missed it.
We missed many common birds. By 9 p.m., we were soaking wet and hopelessly stuck at 118 species — nine fewer than our winning total from the previous year. We made one last try for American bittern at a nearby marsh and conceded defeat.
One thing you can say about this team, though: We fought to the bittern end.
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.