Birding in southern Maine in winter is for wimps. Fortunately, I’m a wimp.
There are lots of good places to go birding on both ends of the state, but I’ll wager that the Down East coast is harder. The rockbound shoreline of eastern Maine is more exposed to cold and wind. Surf pounds seawalls. Meanwhile, the sandy beaches of southern Maine are inviting. There are seaside parks and convenient viewing areas. It’s pretty easy birding.
It was warm last weekend, and it was my wife Sandi’s birthday. I suggested we celebrate by tabulating southern Maine sea ducks. I know, I’m a hopeless romantic.
We started the day at the southernmost tip of Maine, in Kittery’s Fort Foster. Through the first half of the 20th century, guns were placed there to protect Portsmouth Naval Shipyard. Today, it’s a park, though the casements, ammunition bunkers, and a 6-story observation tower are still present. Trails lead around the edge, giving great views up the Piscataqua River and out into the channel towards the Isles of Shoals.
Upon our arrival, Sandi was first to notice a flock of 16 surf scoters just beyond the pier. As we wandered the shoreline, we added 11 buffleheads, eight common eiders, six common loons, six red-breasted mergansers, five great cormorants, and one white-winged scoter. Frankly, it was an underwhelming tally, so we headed north.
Sohier Park in York is home to one of the most photographed lighthouses in Maine: The Nubble. In winter, the sea ducks in this spot can be overwhelming, as they were last Sunday. Faced with such abundance, Sandi made the command decision that it was my turn to do the counting.
Scanning the huge swath of ocean, I counted 187 black scoters, 54 common eiders, 14 long-tailed ducks, 12 white-winged scoters, seven harlequin ducks, three red-breasted mergansers, and one red-necked grebe. There were more in the distance, but I didn’t bother.
The park is heavily visited by lighthouse lovers and photographers, and apparently the birds have gotten accustomed to people, because I was astounded to watch some of the scoters and mergansers swim right up to children along the water’s edge. A winter stop at The Nubble is always rewarding. Always.
I was nervous about the next stop. The Cliff House in York is a luxury hotel and spa that sits atop Bald Head. It has just gone through a major renovation, and is now open in the winter for the first time. The owners have always welcomed birders in the past, while the inn was closed. We wondered if things had changed, so we went up to the front desk and asked. I was surprised to find that the staff was enthusiastic about visitors, and we were welcome to walk anywhere.
The Cliff House is more than an inn, it’s a destination, and they are rightfully proud of it
Birder etiquette is vitally important when birding on private land, and in this case, we were careful to park only where appropriate, avoid bothering guests, walk carefully on ice, and obey warning signs and roped off areas. We were rewarded with 137 black scoters, 71 common eiders, 28 white-winged scoters, 12 harlequin ducks, five long-tailed ducks, five razorbills, five common loons, four horned grebes, four red-breasted mergansers, and four surf scoters.
Marginal Way in Ogunquit tops my list of fantastic southern Maine places to bird in winter. The mile-long paved path winds along the ocean’s edge, with many park benches in strategic locations. We always start on the south end of the trail in Perkins Cove. Once again, black scoters dominated the bird count. We tallied 121 while walking only halfway. There were 72 common eiders, 50 long-tailed ducks, 31 harlequin ducks, seven surf scoters, three common loons, two white-winged scoters, two red-breasted mergansers, and one bufflehead.
The weather deteriorated by the time we reached Wells Beach and Wells Harbor. The beach can have a good variety of gulls and even wintering shorebirds. The offshore ledges shelter sea ducks, great cormorants, and purple sandpipers.
Wells Harbor is a sanctuary for birds that don’t really enjoy being tossed on the ocean surf just outside the breakwater. It’s normal to find common eiders and loons in abundance next to the parking lot. Red-breasted mergansers and common goldeneyes often crowd the harbor. They’re all right next to you.
The truth is, birding southern Maine in winter is wicked easy. Now I need to return to Schoodic Point just so I can reacquaint myself with frostbite.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
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