We’re off to a flying start, literally. The birds are flying into Maine, undaunted by our early winter.
Every year is weird in its own way. This autumn saw a profusion of dark-eyed juncos roaming the roadsides. People all over the state were commenting on the sheer quantity. Folks also reported a larger-than-normal number of fox sparrows lingering in backyards during migration. Both are breeders in northern Maine and Canada. It must have been a boom year for sparrows across the north.
Three weeks ago, I relayed a finch forecast to you. Canadian biologists noted a dearth of finch food up in their woods and predicted that this would be a big year for Canadian breeders coming down to our woods. The ink wasn’t even dry on these pages before I started receiving reports from around the state that evening grosbeaks were popping up in many places. A few people reported common redpolls. Then, as I walked up the driveway to get the newspaper earlier this week, I was delighted to hear a pine grosbeak calling from the neighbor’s yard.
People have reported snowy owls. Multiple owls were seen at Portland Jetport, and individuals sighted in Biddeford Pool, Brunswick, Etna, and even atop Cadillac Mountain and out on Machias Seal Island. People have reported plenty of other winter birds, such as snow buntings and Bohemian waxwings.
I know what you’re thinking. Who are all these people doing this reporting, and how does Bob Duchesne have time to take all these reports?
You’re right to ask, especially since I regularly confess to being lazy. I am referring to reports that are posted to a Google Groups Listserv run by Maine Audubon. Members post their unusual sightings, and it is immediately shared with all other members. You can elect to receive each message or opt to receive a daily summary. To join, go to http://groups.google.com/group/maine-birds. If you are computer-challenged and have trouble signing up, just find a 12-year-old to help you.
Equally valuable, eBird is a national database run by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. You can report your own sightings and receive a selection of reports from others via email. It can be customized so you receive only the reports you want. For instance, I have my account set up to receive rare bird alerts and any sightings of a bird I have never before seen in Maine.
Naturally, Facebook has gotten into the act. Facebook.com/groups/MAINEBirds/ has more than 19,000 members, who post photos, stories and questions about their backyard sightings in Maine.
It’s a barrage of information available on my laptop, and I don’t even have to put on pants to retrieve it. Armed with this data, I can go check it out for myself. I know where to look. I wrote the book. It would be inappropriate for me to use this column to suggest that “The Official Guide to the Maine Birding Trail” would make a great stocking stuffer, so I won’t, even though it’s on sale in bookstores everywhere and through online sellers such as Amazon.
For instance, I know that if there is a pine grosbeak in my yard, there are probably dozens on the University of Maine campus in Orono. For decades, that has been the best place to look. Pine grosbeaks love to eat the fruit from all those berry trees and crabapples on campus, especially in the Littlefield Ornamentals Garden. Bohemian waxwings do it, too.
For a finch search close to home, I likely would take a Sunday morning drive out the Stud Mill Road east of Milford, beyond Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge. Finches often flock together. It might be hard to spot one redpoll through the windshield, but it is not so difficult to notice 30 in a treetop. Besides, finches eat seeds, and all of the birds are likely to gather on a dirt road first thing in the morning, where they can ingest gravel to aid digestion. The best part about driving a logging road in winter: no dust.
I am overdue for a visit to the Down East blueberry barrens. The fields are still mostly devoid of ice, and there ought to be snow buntings foraging about, perhaps in company with horned larks and maybe a Lapland longspur. Or they might be in hay fields closer to home.
Winter birding in Maine is awesome. It just helps to know where to look and what to expect. It might take a little online research, but remember, you can do that without pants.
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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