It’s 6 a.m. The sun won’t rise for another half hour here at Schoodic Point. It’s 40 degrees, with a frosty north wind. I’m dressed for the arctic. Why? Uh, for science. Yeah, that’s it, for science.
You may have heard that 2.9 billion birds disappeared from North America during the past 40 years. How do I know? I counted them. Well, not just me. People have been counting birds for more than a century. There are breeding bird surveys in the spring and Christmas bird counts in the winter. There are specialty surveys to assess species at risk. And Maine has just finished its second year of a five-year bird atlas project, covering all corners of the state.
Then there are the counts that happen at choke points along migration routes. The Acadia Hawk Watch on Cadillac Mountain is a prime example. Geographically speaking, Maine is an avian speed bump. Many land birds are reluctant to fly over the ocean, so those that wander eastward bump into a wall at the Atlantic and follow the coastline down. Conversely, many seabirds are reluctant to fly over land — so those that wander westward bump into that same wall and follow it south. The coast of Maine is a lively place this time of year. I’m standing here in Acadia National Park at one of the liveliest.
This is SeaWatch 2019. Every year, naturalists under the auspices of Schoodic Institute post themselves at the far corner of the parking lot at Schoodic Point and tally up the migrating seabirds. Schoodic Peninsula sticks so far into the ocean that most seabirds have to go around it. A few, including double-crested cormorants and common loons, are content to fly over it, taking the shortcut. This spot is so busy that naturalists counted 104,646 seabirds passing by last year.
On Oct. 17, 2018, an absolutely astounding flight took place. The counters tallied 29,147 birds in one day. The flood of birds was so intense, it was like watching depressed Miami Dolphins fans streaming out of their football stadium at halftime.
Most of the sea ducks were scoters. There are three species in Maine. The spotters counted 5,920 black scoters, 883 surf scoters, 328 white-winged scoters and 20,230 scoters too distant to positively ID. To that total, they added 401 northern gannets, 328 common eiders, 154 double-crested cormorants, 41 common loons and 23 red-breasted mergansers. Plus, amid all that excitement, there were the usual gulls and assorted birds that always hang around Schoodic Point. You may not see that kind of quantity during your visit, but you’ll witness the variety.
This year’s SeaWatch runs every morning until 11 a.m. through November. You’re invited to just show up. But be warned. A thousand birds may pass by, but many will be distant. Good binoculars are essential, and a spotting scope is handy. This activity is for hardcore birders.
How do you know if you’re hardcore? If watching a cardinal at your feeder is the limit of your birding ambitions, this may not be for you. But if you’ve ever said, “Yeah, it was a lousy morning. The birds were few, distant and uncooperative, and I can’t wait to try again tomorrow,” you’re in the hardcore club.
Most of the SeaWatch birding happens early, from sunrise to midmorning. After that, the birds settle down, and the spectacle abates. Watch the forecast and pick a fogless morning with acceptable winds. Identification gets difficult in a gale. Birds disappear among the white caps.
Today is my third SeaWatch morning. The first was foggy and hopeless. Southerly winds at dawn on the second morning were negligible, prompting some of the birds to fly conveniently close to shore, at least until the breeze stiffened at 8:30 a.m. The third day featured strong winds from the north, pushing the birds farther offshore. But we observed a big gathering of northern gannets putting on a show, plunge-diving into a school of fish nearby. Every day is different, but there are no bad days at Schoodic Point.
Naturally, the SeaWatch counters tally only those birds heading south, going left to right across the horizon. Many birds are bound for the southern states and some to the tropics. Some won’t get any farther than Ogunquit. Most of these birds nested in Canada, and all of them need to go someplace where the ocean doesn’t freeze.
I know it looks like I’m standing here having lots of fun. But believe me, I’m doing it for science.
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.