Winter birding in Maine is fun. For the eight years I’ve been writing this column, I’ve advised readers to get out there and try it. Mostly, readers have ignored me. Maybe I am misjudging the appeal.
An experiment was in order. I needed to take some inexperienced nature lovers to the ocean and expose them to winter birds. But where would I find my guinea pigs?
The answer was staring me in the face. The staff of the newspaper that prints this column is self-admittedly clueless about birds. But eager. Natalie Williams is on the receiving end of birding videos I provide to the BDN website. I offered to take her and all interested staff members to Acadia for a day. She took me up on it, and last Sunday, six of us packed into two Subaru Crosstreks and headed toward Bar Harbor.
As we pulled out of the BDN parking lot, I asked Natalie what she expected of the day. She didn’t know.
So here’s what to expect. Most of the action involves sea ducks that summer way up north and come to Maine for the winter. They can be near shore or far out, often depending on the tide. Binoculars are a necessity, though sometimes the birds are quite close. There’s roughly a dozen such ducks, and it doesn’t take long to learn the differences so that they can be readily identified at a distance.
Hadley Point is only 4 miles beyond Thompson Island, the entry to Mount Desert Island. It overlooks a large swath of Mount Desert Narrows, where many sea ducks enjoy the relative shelter from ocean swells. It didn’t take long to spot a flotilla of common loons and a plethora of common goldeneyes. Better still, a small flock of white-winged scoters swam just beyond the point. There are three scoter species in Maine, and the white-winged scoters can be the hardest to find. Yet there they were, easy. A few surf scoters were in the distance, too, but no black scoters. Some common eiders and a tight flock of greater scaup were far off, but visible in my spotting scope. A good stop.
However, the low tide was against us, and Bar Harbor was a little boring. There were several flocks of cute buffleheads, a handful of common eiders and the group’s first look at red-breasted mergansers. It turns out, the mergansers were the hit of the day. Males and females have punk haircuts. Their raggedy crests were on display everywhere we went. For mergansers, it’s already courtship season. They were showing off.
We picked up black scoters just beyond Sand Beach, and got close views of horned grebes near Thunder Hole. The grebes were also popular. They’re kind of small, squat and adorable. A number of great cormorants were hanging around Old Soaker, the big ledge offshore. Often, they can be seen loafing on that ledge, but a young bald eagle was perched in their favorite spot, which likely sent them to the water.
Northeast Harbor was quiet, save for good numbers of distant buffleheads. A bald eagle soared lazily on the horizon, far enough away that the local crows left it alone. Usually the crows gang up on the eagles here, trying to convince them to leave before crow nesting season.
Southwest Harbor was also, frankly, a little boring. There were so many loons that you could walk across their backs to the far shore. But the tide was low, and the usual buffleheads, mergansers and long-tailed ducks were standoffish. We did enjoy a couple of mallards doing a head-bobbing courtship display.
Seawall in Manset was livelier. A black guillemot, several black scoters and a flock of long-tailed ducks drifted close to shore. The best show was put on by a pair of male red-breasted mergansers wooing a lone female. Over and over, they threw their heads back and stretched their necks upright in comical unison.
We headed for Bass Harbor Head Light, screeching to a stop when four white-winged crossbills alighted in a spruce next to us. After the lighthouse and the harbor, we drove home, tired.
As we pulled into the BDN parking lot, I asked Natalie if the trip was what she expected. It wasn’t. She expected tiring walks and possible frostbite. True, that’s also an option. But winter birding doesn’t have to be any more difficult than taking a scenic drive along the ocean, pausing just long enough to see what’s out there. And there’s a lot out there.
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.
Watch: Reid State Park winter birding