Winter birding doesn’t have to be cold or hard. It can be as warm and easy as a drive around Schoodic Point in Acadia National Park. I often lead Maine Audubon trips over there in winter, but until everyone has had their two vaccinations, do-it-yourself trips remain the preferred option for now. Of course, it helps to know what to look for.
First stop: Frazer Point. The picnic area faces northwest, looking back toward Winter Harbor, with an adjacent tidal basin that is shallow and sheltered. Buffleheads, red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks, black guillemots and common loons are usually observable. It’s worth a moment to scout the parking lot, because crossbills and waxwings occasionally visit. I was pleased, and startled, to find a singing northern shrike there earlier this winter.
Less than a mile beyond Frazer Point, there is a pull-off that offers a great view of Mark Island Light across the channel. The channel is a mile wide, and requires binoculars for a good scan, but common eiders and black scoters are generally present in the area. Razorbills sometimes wander into this channel, though seldom close to shore.
West Pond is the next worthy stop, 1.5 miles farther down. There’s parking on the right, opposite a gated road that is open in summer for driving up to Schoodic Head. Common eiders, buffleheads and red-breasted mergansers are sometimes within easy spotting distance. Common loons are usually present, and red-throated loons are possible. This area is also frequented by crossbills.
Anticipation builds as the loop road splits toward Schoodic Point less than a mile farther. Arey Cove is on the left, opposite the Schoodic Education and Research Center in the woods on the right. This deep but narrow cove is sheltered from all but the strongest southerly winds, and sea birds regularly congregate here. Scan for eiders, loons, buffleheads, long-tailed ducks, horned grebes and scoters. Black scoters are most likely, but surf scoters and white-winged scoters also sneak in.
Schoodic Point is awesome any time of year, especially in the colder months. Schoodic Institute tracks winter birds on the peninsula, and has documented 70 species in January over the last five years. By March, the number tends to drop somewhat, as many birds have stopped moving around the Gulf of Maine until migration season returns.
All three scoters are often found here. Black guillemots are present year-round. Common eiders are usually in view. Horned and red-necked grebes are likely. Harlequin ducks have become more regular in recent years. Finding one requires caution, since the harlequins like the rough surf on the edge of the rocks, and that’s an area that humans should avoid. Rogue waves are dangerous, and sometimes fatal.
Gulls hang out on the rocks. Herring, ring-billed and great black-backed gulls are usually prominent, but it’s wise to look for gulls with white wing-tips. Glaucous and Iceland gulls turn up occasionally. Or watch for smaller gulls with inky black wing-tips. Black-legged kittiwakes have a nesting colony north of Campobello, and a few wander along the coast in winter. Don’t be surprised to find purple sandpipers near the waterline. Any flock of peeps flying offshore in winter is likely to be these.
Next stop: Blueberry Hill. Decide how long you want to spend here, then double it. The channel attracts more than its fair share of sea birds, and with a little patience, you might spot something unusual. I’ve sighted thick-billed murres on multiple occasions. Harlequin ducks also drift over this way. The usual scoters, guillemots, grebes, eiders, mergansers and loons are often present. Great cormorants are a near-certainty. They especially like to sit on the distant green buoy near the left side of Schoodic Island, and they frequently fly over the channel.
Schoodic Island is over a half-mile away, making a spotting scope useful here. Snowy owls recur in some winters, and they may appear only as white spots on rocks through binoculars. Flying birds are easier. Northern harriers often winter on the island, and are easily seen when they are hunting. Rough-legged hawks are less frequently seen, but appear annually. Their hovering hunting style is notably different from the harrier’s low cruising style.
Finally, the loop road continues northward until it rounds a bend at Buck Cove. This sheltered cove is extraordinarily good for horned and red-necked grebes. Scoters and eiders are likely. Common golden-eyes often gather here. Red-breasted mergansers hug the shoreline.
From here, the loop exits the park.
Continue home, and celebrate all the birds you saw today.