As we stepped out of my car for the first stop of the day — Hadley Point on Mount Desert Island — we were met with a hit of icy February wind coming off the ocean. I shoved my breakfast into my mouth and piled on more layers, and we started to look at little specks of sea birds in the distance.
I soon realized my 70-200 mm camera lens wasn’t cutting it, and a 70-300 mm wasn’t going to be much better. Luckily, BDN bird columnist and resident bird expert Bob Duchesne was there to guide us, and he brought along his trusty scope complete with a tripod.
I’ve been a fan of Bob’s column, Good Birding, since I started my job at the BDN almost two years ago. I quickly learned that when his stories would come through my desk for editing, I was guaranteed a pleasant, sassy and informative read. I had never been birding in my life, but before I knew it, I was a Bob Duchesne super fan.
So when he offered to take some of us winter birding this month, I enthusiastically jumped on the offer, even though I wasn’t sure what it would entail. As a city girl who grew up in Southern California, I have a great appreciation for animals and the outdoors, though my experience with them has been limited.
All I knew was we would meet in Bangor and drive down to Mount Desert Island, we would be gone from 8 a.m to 5 p.m., and we would see some birds. That was enough for me — as well as three of my colleagues (plus a brave spouse) — to commit an entire Sunday to winter birding.
Little did I know, this would become the highlight of my month.
My first wrong assumption was that we would be hiking all day. Instead, we drove from destination to destination, eager to see who was waiting for us in the ocean and in the treetops. Sure, we were climbing on rocks and strolling down trails to get the best views, but it was really about hitting the bird hot spots, and not so much about a winter stroll.
Another thing I got wrong was the pace of the day. I had no idea how we would fill seven hours of birding. But boy did it fly by. Broken up by moments of reprieve in the warm car, we hit up all of Bob’s favorite lookouts on MDI to try to spot the best winter birds around.
We started the day with the beautiful white-winged scoters, who are black and white with a bright orange beak.
I absolutely loved the red-breasted mergansers spotted off the coast of Bar Harbor, who, as Bob puts it, have punk haircuts. The horned grebes were also a hit. We found them, with their gray plumage and long necks, to be quite cute. And the black guillemots, cousins of the beloved Atlantic puffins, were a fun one to spot as they transition to their summer feathers.
Another highlight? Spotting Maine’s state bird, the chickadee.
And it wasn’t just about birds. We saw the expected squirrels and chipmunks scurrying across the forest floor. But we were shocked to see a brave mink running along the shore and past humans with no apparent fear.
As we learned tidbits such as why gulls have black tips on their wings (the melanin in the wings makes them sturdier to handle the waves), we kept an eye out for my favorite winter bird: purple sandpipers.
Watch: How to spot purple sandpipers along the coast of Maine
I fell in love with the round shorebirds who brave the crashing tides when Bob introduced me to them in a video last year. The birds, which are the color of wet granite, hang out in the jagged edges of the shore.
Despite peering over countless rocky edges, we did not spot the adorable gray shorebirds I love so much. Bob put in his best effort to get me a purple sandpiper spotting, but I guess it just means I need to go on another winter birding adventure before the weather warms and the sandpipers depart.
The thing about birding is it’s so much more than watching adorable winged creatures. From our mink sighting to checking out Bass Harbor Head Light, which Bob dubbed the most photographed lighthouse in the state, we were the recipients of a spectacular Acadia National Park tour.
So if you haven’t read or watched Bob’s content, I highly suggest binge watching and reading it now. Before you know it, you’ll be a bird fan yourself. Now I just need to get my own set of binoculars.