I lead a lot of birding trips and tours. All of them go perfectly. The weather always cooperates. I find every bird we’re looking for, and everyone gets great looks.
OK, not really. That’s my fantasy. Reality, however, is harder on me.
Take last Sunday. At 8 a.m., seven members of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon climbed into my van for a whirlwind tour of Mount Desert Island. It was a trip to say goodbye to winter, a last look at wintering sea ducks. The forecast looked acceptable. The day would start cool but would warm to the 50s. We would do OK, as long as there wasn’t a north wind.
The north wind howled as we arrived at Thompson Island, gateway to Acadia National Park. Worse, the tide was low. (I wish there were a way to predict tides.) There wasn’t much water in the channel, and the wind scoured the remaining water free of waterfowl. Sea ducks are accustomed to wind and waves, but it’s not something they relish. Ducks will seek out calmer water, and Thompson Island wasn’t it.
We headed to Hadley’s Point on MDI. The wind was just as punishing there. We managed to see a few common eiders in the distance, nothing more. We climbed back into the van and — “click” — the battery died. Corrosion on a terminal had split the cable connection. We needed a jump start, and we had to leave the engine running for the rest of the day.
I knew our next stop, the Bar Harbor pier, would be equally bracing. We used the van as a windbreak, scanned the harbor and spotted a single black guillemot. Good enough — let’s scram. I also knew that the rest of the day would be spent in harbors and coves, sheltered from the breeze, and our luck might improve.
Thunder Hole proved me right, temporarily. Great Head and Sand Beach blocked most of the wind from torturing us. We spied a flock of 30 purple sandpipers cartwheeling around the prominent offshore ledge known as Old Soaker. A few black guillemots rode the white caps. Looking back in the direction of Sand Beach, I spotted a raft of birds that appeared to be red-necked grebes. Beyond them were tiny white dots that surely were long-tailed ducks.
Otter Cove proved better. Two red-breasted mergansers loafed directly beneath us. They soon were joined by several more. A short distance beyond, four red-necked grebes snoozed on the surface. All were returning to their brilliant summer plumage. In early winter, the red on the back of the neck is practically invisible. On these guys, it was the color of crab apples. We got good views, then headed off to Seal Harbor, where I knew we’d find lots of birds we’d missed so far.
Not today. Another raft of red-breasted mergansers floated next to the beach, but despite its sheltered location, no other ducks were visible. Even the gulls that normally congregate in this spot were absent. They must all be over in Northeast Harbor.
Wrong again. A couple of female buffleheads paddled beyond the town pier, and that was it. This is normally a good harbor to see long-tailed ducks up close. Not today.
The wind was whipping across Somes Sound so much — we didn’t even bother to slow down. The tide was rising, and that promised good birds on the quiet side of the island. I expected good things at Seawall in Manset. I expected purple sandpipers to be roosting in their favorite secret spot. I expected in vain. They were nowhere to be found. However, a nice flock of black scoters ended our day’s scoter jinx. With the sun beating on their famously yellow bills, everyone could see how they got the nickname “butterbill.”
Surf scoters normally haunt Seawall, too, but not today. They’re usually at Bass Harbor Head Light and over by the Swan’s Island Ferry, too, but not today. “Not today” became the day’s catch phrase. We finally got some closer looks at buffleheads in Bass Harbor, and acceptable views of long-tailed ducks in Southwest Harbor.
It might have been the wind. It might have been the short winter and an early migration. Whatever, this was a day marked by great scenery and scant birds. But, then, as we disembarked at Fields Pond Audubon Center at the end of the day, a northern harrier flew right over us — the kind of splendid sighting that makes you go out and do it all again tomorrow.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.