Sea gulls, eagles, crows and starlings wheeled through the sky over the snowy hills of Hatch Hill Landfill in Augusta recently, searching for scraps of food in heaps of newly dumped trash.
As instructed at the gate, Derek Lovitch, co-owner of Freeport Wild Bird Supply, parked by the landfill’s metal pile, then stepped out of his car to retrieve a spotting scope from the trunk.
“We have a good chance at seeing Iceland and glaucous [gulls] today,” Lovitch said. “Those are winter specialties.”
Both species breed in the Arctic, he explained, and are spotted in Maine only in the winter. Even then, they’re difficult to find. They have white wing tips, which can be used to differentiate them from other Maine gull species, which all have dark-tipped wings. But to the untrained eye, picking these rare northern gulls out of a crowd is nearly impossible.
“See how bright and gleaming white it is?” Lovitch said as he located a glaucous gull and followed it with his scope as it soared in the midst of dozens of herring gulls.
Meanwhile, about 30 bald eagles milled about the landfill, some soaring overhead while others perched on fences, pine trees and mounds of snow. Most people would be wowed at the sight, but Lovitch, a lifelong birder and birding guide, had seen it all before. And he’d been to the landfill many times, having recently profiled it in the 2017 book “Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide,” which he edited and wrote with 11 other birders he handpicked throughout the state.
“A lot of other guides wouldn’t [include] a landfill because there are a lot of rules and there’s bureaucracy, there are people who need to say this is OK,” said Lovitch. “There are very specific rules here.”
But that didn’t deter Lovitch. Instead, he worked closely with landfill management and the city of Augusta to gather the information he needed to write an entry about Hatch Hill Landfill that readers could use to bird responsibly on the property and be welcomed back.
“I wanted birders to be able to see this,” he said. “It’s a really cool spot in the winter, and it’s also arguably one of the best spots in the state to photograph eagles.”
The landfill is one of 201 properties profiled in “Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide,” published by the University Press of New England. The 478-page guidebook includes color photos and maps, as well as a helpful index and a graph showing the movements of the many bird species that can be found in Maine.
Lovitch edited the book’s content to ensure it was all cohesive and correct, and he wrote the location profiles for York and Cumberland counties. For the other counties, the authors were Kirk Betts, Dan Nickerson, John Berry, Allison Childs Wells, Jeffrey Wells, Herb Wilson, Kristen Lindquist, Seth Benz, Rich MacDonald, Ron Joseph and Luke Seitz.
“I wanted to involve people who knew more than I did,” Lovitch said, pointing out that the book still took about three years to pull together.
That included people like Lindquist of Camden, who wrote the Knox County chapter as well as a few entries for Waldo County.
“I just picked places I knew were good areas to go birding because I live here and I go there,” said Lindquist. “I revisited every place to refresh my memory, lay of the land, what kinds of birds are there and what kind of habitats.”
A lifelong birder, Lindquist guides walks for the annual Acadia Birding Festival and has led many bird walks for local land trusts and other nonprofit outdoor organizations. She also has conducted bird surveys on conserved lands in Knox County, such as Beech Hill Preserve in Rockport, one of the properties she selected to highlight in the book.
Dan Nickerson of Freeport wrote the chapter on Androscoggin County because for the past seven years he’s been conducting bird surveys on the Androscoggin River as a volunteer for a University of Maine research project on the effect dam removals have on local wildlife. During that time, he has ferreted out quite a few birding spots in the area.
“I think that’s an advantage of this guide,” Nickerson said. “Different people who live and bird in these places regularly [wrote it]. Derek was good at finding people who know these places best.”
“At one point [Androscoggin County] was the least-birded county in the state,” he added. “I like a challenge, so I thought we should be able to bring it up from the bottom.”
Last year, the year of the book’s release, Lovitch set out to test its usefulness. To do that, he embarked on a “Big Year,” which in the birding community means a year in which a birder endeavors to spot as many species as possible. His goal was to spot 300 different bird species in 12 months, with one caveat: He would count birds he spotted only at sites profiled in the guidebook.
“It was kind of my ground truth,” he said.
Finding that many birds in such a short amount of time was a challenging task for a business owner, but he tried to take at least two days off a week to visit locations in the guidebook and seek out specific birds.
“We have 280 to 300 regularly occurring birds in Maine,” Lovitch said. “But species like saltmarsh sparrows on the coast and Bicknell’s thrush in the mountains, those all take very specific effort to see. You have to go to very specific places.”
By the end of 2017, he’d exceeded his goal, recording 305 species. On eBird, one of the most popular birding websites and mobile apps, only one person exceeded him in finding more species of birds in Maine that year.
There are certain birds that eluded Lovitch, including the great gray owl that visited Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Alton last winter, and a brown pelican reported by birders in June, loafing about on the pilings at the Prouts Neck Yacht Club in Scarborough. He also couldn’t manage to find a thick-billed murre last year, though he spotted one just recently while giving a birding tour.
“I just can’t drop everything and chase every rarity,” he said, explaining that often he’d be in the middle of giving a tour when a rare bird was reported by Maine birding circles online. He just couldn’t get to them all in time.
Nevertheless, he managed to track down quite a few of Maine’s hard-to-find birds, including the Bicknell’s thrush, which can be found only in the state’s western mountains, and the American three-toed woodpecker, which he traveled into the paperlands west of Baxter State Park to find. That particular bird cost him a flat tire and countless bug bites, but was well worth it, he said.
“I do think it proved the value of the book in its comprehensiveness,” Lovitch said, “to myself, and to readers.”
For each of the 201 birding locations profiled in the guide, there are detailed driving directions as well as specific instructions on what to do once you get there. That’s what sets the birding guide apart from many others, Lovitch said: the amount of actual guiding it provides at each spot.
“It’s not just about where to bird, it’s about how to bird,” he said.
“Birdwatching in Maine: A Sight Guide,” which retails at $29.95 in paperback, is for sale at Freeport Wild Bird Supply and through local and online booksellers, including the book’s publisher, University Press of New England. It’s also available as an ebook through Amazon.com and other big online booksellers.
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