May 13, 2020
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Maine bird expert braves polar vortex to compete in World Series of Birding

It was a dark and stormy night. And that was the best part of the day.

May 9 was International Migratory Bird Day. It was also the date of Maine Audubon’s entry into the World Series of Birding. And it was the date of a major polar vortex that dumped springtime snow all over Maine’s daffodils — something I could not have foreseen when I agreed to be part of a team that would compete in the most intense birding competition in America.

I realize that some people would scoff at the idea that birding can be competitive. Fortunately, those people don’t read this column. Yes, birding can be very competitive. The task of finding more birds in a finite area over a finite time demands skill, patience and preparation. And luck.

Maine Audubon asked me to join its elite squad of four southern Maine birders because I live in eastern Maine. Under the new COVID-19 rules, team members could not bird together, nor venture farther than 10 miles from their individual homes. To have any chance, the team needed a ringer from the greater Bangor region. I accepted, little knowing that May 9 would be the worst birding day of the decade.

Team Maine Audubon was already at a disadvantage. Maine is the arrival destination for many spring migrants, but their departure can be from anywhere in the Western Hemisphere. Some of our returning summer birds winter no farther away than Connecticut. Some winter as far away as Argentina. It takes some birds longer than others to get here. May 9 is just too early to identify big numbers of species in Maine. But, that was the day assigned by New Jersey Audubon, the sponsor of the competition, so we were committed. Besides, Maine has an abundance of wildlife. Our team would do well, unless it rained.

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The rain started at 12:42 a.m. I had just left the cornfield wetlands next to the University of Maine in Orono, having heard a sora, swamp sparrow and American woodcock calling in the darkness. As I arrived in Milford to try for owls, the sky opened up. I spent the next three hours walking the County Road, searching for owls in the rain. The effort produced just one barred owl. Nevertheless, I knew my chances would improve unless the rain turned to snow.

The rain turned to snow at 3:25 a.m. A surprising number of birds make noise at night, but not on this night. After four hours, I had heard only six species.

[For more Good Birding, click here]

Typically the dawn chorus starts before dawn. At 4 a.m. the robins, white-throated sparrows and hermit thrushes started singing. Ruffed grouse began drumming. Meanwhile, one whip-poor-will sounded off just long enough to be counted. At daybreak, the warblers began to chime in. As I trudged through the snow, I chalked up five species in quick succession. Despite the slow start, I should do OK, unless the wind came up.

The wind came up at 6 a.m. Gusts reached 50 mph. In the hour between 6 and 7 a.m., I would normally expect to find up to 40 species. I got four. When conditions are that bad, birds hunker down and conserve energy. They’re reluctant to fly. There’s no point in singing, since they can’t be heard. Only one creature was senseless enough to be out in the snowy windstorm, and that was me. It was time to give up and head into town.

Bangor City Forest offered a little shelter from the wind. I picked up a couple of species there. Essex Woods was completely exposed to the elements, but I spied a few birds that had no place to hide. A great horned owl nest in Mt. Hope Cemetery lifted my count to 50 species by noon. I managed only 15 more species over the next eight hours, for a total of 65. On any other day, that would be a disappointing total. But in the middle of a polar vortex, I’ll take it.

My teammates did better. The southern Maine contingent took advantage of ocean vistas, coastal marshes and open plains. Team Maine Audubon finished the day with 139 species. More importantly, Maine Audubon exceeded its fundraising goals, partly because many patrons couldn’t believe we’d go out on a day that bad.

Most importantly, the team wanted to prove to the world that Maine has incredible birding. We found 139 birds, under the worst possible conditions, before many species had even returned to the state: case closed.

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 duchesne@midmaine.com.

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