I’m tempted to give a birding year in review, but 2020 is a year best seen in the rearview mirror.
For instance, I utterly failed to achieve two of my New Year’s resolutions from a year ago. This was going to be the year I finally tracked down my No. 1 target, a boreal owl. In the West, the range of this tiny owl stretches all the way down the Rockies. But in the East, its home is confined to the thick forests of Canada. That’s where I was planning to go to find one, but Canada wouldn’t let me in. Sad. Fifty years ago, Americans went to the moon. Now we can’t even go to Canada.
By the time 2019 ended, I had seen 327 bird species in Maine during my lifetime. I resolved to find three more in 2020, boosting my state life list to 330. I failed, but came close. On Sept. 19, I spotted a little gull near the town pier in Eastport. Little gulls are Eurasian birds, though there are a few small colonies on Hudson Bay in northern Canada. Occasionally, a little gull shows up in Head Harbor Passage between the U.S. and Canada, and I’ve seen several, but this was the first I’d seen on the Maine side of the channel.
In early December, a mega-rarity showed up in Ogunquit, where a rock wren has been hanging around for a month in Perkins Cove. It’s only the second ever seen in Maine. Rock wrens are western birds of rocky, arid regions. They can be found in alpine and desert areas. I’ve seen them before, in the Chihuahuan desert of Texas and the foothills of Colorado. They rarely get east of the Mississippi. But this one did, and I added him to my Maine list on Dec. 22. He’s presumed to be a male because he clearly didn’t stop to ask for directions.
Boy, that sums up 2020. Birds are free to travel wherever they wish, and I’m not. For much of the year, all I did was hang around the house and hoard toilet paper.
Still, there was an unexpected benefit to this homebound isolation. I spent a lot of time getting to know my neighbors; that is, my backyard wildlife. Even the squirrels entertained me. Apparently, I amuse the chipmunks, annoy the red squirrels and alarm the gray squirrels. I read recently that when red squirrels get really mad at you, it’s because you’ve unwittingly come close to their winter stockpile of food. If so, there’s one red squirrel just beyond the driveway who must have a whole refrigerator buried over there.
I’ve had more time to watch my bird feeders. I’ve been fascinated by the fluctuations, trying to understand why the feeders are busier in some weeks than others. There appears to be an endless string of variables. How much natural food is around? How much food are the birds stashing away for winter? When are they done stashing? What’s migrating through at the moment? How much snow is covering the natural food supply? How cold is it? How windy? What time of day? I fear that the search for meaning in these questions involves math, and I haven’t solved a quadratic equation since high school.
My current source of fascination is watching the local birds working the neighborhood. I can go for hours without seeing a bird at the feeder. Suddenly, there’s a whole flock in the backyard. I guessed at three possibilities. One, they’re just sitting quietly, digesting the last meal before returning to the feeder. Or, two, they’re moving around randomly, sometimes searching out natural food, sometimes hitting the feeder. Or, three, they’ve got an actual system.
I’m beginning to believe it’s the third possibility. They seem to be making the rounds in a systematic fashion. I’ve watched mixed flocks of chickadees, nuthatches and woodpeckers moving from yard to yard in a grand circle, returning to my feeders at regular intervals. If I get really bored, I may follow them for a while to examine their routine.
Speaking of routine, each winter, red-tailed hawks come out of the woods and adopt sections of Interstate 95. The hawks enjoy unobstructed views down long strips of mowed shoulders where rodents forage for grass seeds. It’s an all-you-can-eat buffet. On a drive from Portland to Bangor this week, I counted 15 hawks along the highway, just sitting and watching for a meal. It was a breath of normality in an abnormal year.
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.