GOOD BIRDING

Birders are not obsessive … Hey, look! A tufted puffin!

Posted June 20, 2014, at 7:10 a.m.
A tufted puffin, essentially unheard of in the Atlantic, showed up on Machias Seal Island on June 17, 2014 and was photographed by the lighthouse keeper.
Photo by Ralph Eldridge
A tufted puffin, essentially unheard of in the Atlantic, showed up on Machias Seal Island on June 17, 2014 and was photographed by the lighthouse keeper.

I birded with Greg Miller the other day. If you don’t recognize the name, you might be familiar with the movie, The Big Year. The 2011 film starred Steve Martin, Owen Wilson, and Jack Black, and was based on the real-life competition between three men who were each trying to set the North American record for most birds seen in one year. Greg Miller was one of those men, played in the movie by Jack Black. Miller was a consultant for the film production.

Miller was in town for the Acadia Birding Festival at the beginning of the month. He had a day free afterward to join me on a tour up into the Maine forest. I was grateful for the help, since I had a full group of 17 people following me around.

I should tell you that it can be intimidating to bird with a famous multimedia celebrity. Fortunately, after a few minutes of birding with me, he got over his shyness and the day went great. During lulls, he related stories about the making of the movie, such as the time when gray jays landed on the picnic table and allowed themselves to be hand fed by the film crew. In disbelief, crew members asked Greg, “Are these birds trained?” That’s a fair question on a movie set.

Miller also related the tale of his first meeting with the producers. They explained that they were not making a movie about birders. It was a film about obsessive-compulsive behavior. Apparently the producers believed that it was not normal for people to spend an entire year chasing birds across the North American continent, jumping onto planes at a moment’s notice whenever a Mexican bird strayed north of the Rio Grande.

Most birders are not nuts. A few might be; you know who you are. But most birders are so ordinary, they’re invisible. More than 300 birders attended the Acadia Birding Festival, but they blended right in among the normal people and few islanders noticed. Can you imagine the front page headlines if 300 Shriners dropped into town? In the Cobscook Bay area during Memorial Day Weekend, the Downeast Spring Birding Festival had its best attendance ever — over a hundred birders dumping their bucks into the local economy, recognizable only by their binoculars and the faint smell of DEET.

The U.S. Forest Service says that birding is the fastest-growing outdoor activity in America. We are an unseen army, and we have only ourselves to blame for our invisibility. Open any birding magazine and you’ll see many photos of birds. You won’t see many photos of people. Even in our own magazines, birders are invisible. Open up a sporting magazine and you will see photos of happy anglers casting a fly and posing with their fish.

I’m guilty. This column is called Good Birding, yet every week it is accompanied by a photo of a bird and never a photo of anyone actually birding. In May, hundreds of people participated in Maine Audubon bird walks, both in Bangor and throughout the state. I should have snapped a picture.

Someday, we may shake off our invisibility. We could be a force to be reckoned with, if we weren’t so easily distracted by the appearance of a cool new bird.

This just in! A tufted puffin has been spotted at Machias Seal Island off the Down East coast! What a cool new bird!

There are three species of puffins in North America. Ours are Atlantic puffins. Horned and tufted puffins are exclusively Pacific coast birds. All puffins spend their lives at sea, except when nesting on their seabird islands. All create nests by excavating deep burrows in the crevices between rocks. They share the ability to carry multiple fish in their colorful bills.

Tufted puffins nest along the coast of Alaska and British Columbia. There is no way that a tufted puffin could fly across the continent, nor arrive in Maine via the Panama Canal. It is unlikely that it reached our shore by swimming around the world. About the only way a tufted puffin gets here from Alaska is for ice at the top of North America to recede, opening up the Northwest Passage. The yellow-billed loon is another northwestern breeder that showed up in Maine waters for the very first time in 2010.

Most birders are concerned about climate change, but we remain invisible. I look forward to the day I see a bumper sticker that says “I bird and I vote.”

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 duchesne@midmaine.com.

 

 

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