Shorebirds are among the first to conclude their breeding seasons and skedaddle from the northern latitudes. Along the mudflats of the coast, short-billed dowitchers have been leading the charge, and the southbound number of semipalmated sandpipers has begun to build. The size of their flocks will peak in mid-August, then slowly diminish through September.
In Bangor, evidence of migration can be found by strolling around Essex Woods marsh next to the Interstate. Several solitary sandpipers have congregated around the walking path for the last week, joined by a least sandpiper. Both are species that nest in the subarctic and are now headed south.
However, while these shorebirds may be entertaining, birders have been easily distracted by a sora family that has popped out of seclusion and has been foraging in the open along the edges of the cattails near the sandpipers. Like all rails, soras prefer to stay hidden in the reeds. It’s hard enough to see the yellow-colored adults. It’s especially rare to see the black-colored chicks. Four little puffballs have been following their parents around for the last week, seemingly unconcerned by the binoculars and cameras trained on them.
We’re in that awkward phase in the birders’ calendar. Most songbirds have stopped singing while they concentrate on raising their families. There’s a lot of chitter chatter in the woods, signaling the presence of youngsters demanding to be fed and parents keeping the family together. It can be difficult to sort out the noises and get binoculars on the instigators as they flit about the forest. It can also be difficult to identify the young even when they are in the open. Adult chipping sparrows have rusty caps and plain white breasts, but the young have streaky breasts and lack the cap. Family groups are all over the edges of forests, parks and campuses right now.
Golden-crowned kinglets have been especially amusing. I’ve seen the adolescents chasing daddy around for the last couple of weeks just about everywhere I go. These kinglets usually raise two broods per summer. As soon as the first fledglings are off the nest, daddy takes over chick-raising duties while mommy starts a second brood. Because most don’t migrate, this strategy helps the kinglets sustain a population through Maine’s brutal winters. All this baby-rearing means a lot of chatter in the woods. When you track down a sighting, you’re likely to notice the babies’ waggling wings, begging to be fed. Many warblers are doing it, too.
Now, switching subjects, you’re probably wondering if my latest puffin cruise spotted the red-billed tropicbird on Seal Island that was the subject of a column two weeks ago: No, we didn’t. True to form, the tropicbird was at sea or roosting out of sight. Nonetheless, we saw a lot of puffins and razorbills. On our last circle of the island, the ocean was positively carpeted with puffins. That alone would have made for a great trip. But wait, there’s more.
My first rule on any birding excursion is “be wrong, fast.” I’d rather people call out a first impression and get the rest of the group on a bird rather than wait to be sure and be too late for others to see it. We can always fix the identification later. And so it was that I saw a flock of birds on the water ahead of the boat, grouped up like shearwaters often do. As we drew nearer, I could make out a darkish cap and a whitish collar. As official spotter, I yelled to the rest of the boat, “Great shearwaters ahead!”
As the birds took flight, they gained elevation quickly and circled the boat, unlike shearwaters. Shearwaters would have taken off low across the water and flown away to the side. I was still in the cabin, blocked from seeing the birds above, but it was quickly apparent to all the birders at the stern that I had been very wrong, very fast. The elongated central tail feathers quickly revealed the truth. They were parasitic jaegers! We had come across seven of them loafing on the water. As their name implies, they often sustain themselves by harassing gulls, terns and shearwaters and stealing their food. These bullies also breed in the subarctic and were heading south now that summer is over.
The Isle au Ferry is planning one more puffin trip on Sunday, Aug. 3. For information, visit www.isleauhaut.com. Prepare for surprises and be wrong fast.