As winter settles into Aroostook County, thousands of birds from more than 35 species have been taking advantage of ample food and not-so-cold weather, including a few curious birds that haven’t been seen here in January before.
The Aroostook Birders’ annual Christmas bird counts, a part of the Audubon’s nation citizen science project, produced good turnout to help understand a curious winter, according to Bill Sheehan, the club’s president and a water specialist at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection.
Field observations by nine volunteers in Caribou and Limestone on Dec. 19 found 3,400 individual birds from 33 species, including the first ring-necked pheasant ever seen in the annual bird count, the first great horned owl and the first glaucous gull, an Arctic bird that salvages food from landfills, among other places.
“It was a weird year for gulls,” Sheehan said at the club’s monthly meeting. “It was so warm in the fall, the gulls stuck around.” More than 200 herring gulls were seen that day, along with 10 Iceland gulls and a number of waterfowl — mallards and American black ducks.
In Presque Isle, during the New Year’s Day count, 23 observers saw 5,500 individual birds. It was colder than the Caribou field day, but there was still a fair number of water fowl and wild turkeys, which hopefully are growing in population, Sheehan said.
Eighteen American robins and more than 200 Bohemian waxwings also were seen, the robins a little far north from their winter range and the waxwings visitors from the far north, in what is for them the south.
“This winter is just crazy with fruit,” Sheehan said. “There’s a lot of apples, crab apples and mountain ash berries.”
Probably thousands of Bohemian waxwings came through Presque Isle, “mowing through the fruit,” including the ash berries, Sheehan said. (Grosbeaks, too, have been visiting the area, though one was found with an odd tumor-like growth on its head that also had yellow feathers.)
Snowy owls also are out and about, including on the Route 10 corridor in Easton and Flat Mountain Road in St. Agatha. Unlike other owls, they hunt and are active day and night. Paul Cyr and others have taken photos of them this winter. Elsewhere, various owls have been seen as well. At a woodchip mill in Portage, workers found a small, saw-whet owl coming in at night and catching mice.
At Sheehan’s bird feeder there was still a cold-hardy brown thrasher in mid-January that had been visiting for almost three months. “This bird normally should be in Georgia or further south,” Sheehan said. “The bird has lots of fluffy feathers around its legs and when it snows the snow cakes all around. But it goes up in the trees, pecks it all off and comes back to the feeder.”
Another member of Aroostook Birders with suet at a feeder has been observing what may be the first ever warbler in northern Maine in January, an insect-eating bird living around Cross Lake. An American coot was staying there until around Christmas, too.
The Aroostook Birders’ club meeting in January also was an occasion for checking out the large ornithology collection at the University of Maine at Presque Isle.
The collection, housed in various spots on campus, is really two collections, according to UMPI biologist Jason Johnston, who has a federal wildlife salvage permit and has a freezer full of birds that he uses to teach students the craft of bird preservation.
Many of specimens are the recent work of Johnston, students and others — some matching the birds true appearance and others the result of learning experiences. The older ones, such as a mounted cooper’s hawk, go back to the 1870s and came from the collection of Nathan Clifford Brown, a Portland-area naturalist who lived until 1941.
Preserving the birds for museums or further study is a difficult craft Johnston has taught as a part of ornithology. One student worked for nearly 12 hours on a specimen — removing its organs and other body parts that could decompose, then putting it back together — but it still ended up as only a rough depiction of the living creation. (Johnston said the grades were not based on the aesthetics of the finished product, so that effort still got an A.) Another student, who was clearly grossed out by the process, nonetheless “did a really good job” on an evening grossbeak, Johnston said.
The Aroostook Birders club welcomes photos of birds found hither and yon in The County via Facebook or email, Sheehan said. The group’s next meeting will include a potluck and photo contest, at 7 p.m. on Feb. 10 at the Maine Department of Environmental Protection building, where Sheehan will be serving three kinds of chilli and showcasing the best bird photos of the last year.