The World Series of Birding took place last Saturday.
As explained in a previous column, Maine Audubon formed a team to compete in this premier birding event, where experts from eastern states vie to see who can find the most species of birds in one day. My wife Sandi and I were recruited to be the northern Maine specialists, joining four Audubon experts in southern Maine.
The competition was invented by New Jersey Audubon 38 years ago. It was confined to that state until a pandemic forced a revision of the rules last year. Teams may now stay within the borders of their own states. Unfortunately, the designated day — the second Saturday of May — is timed for when migration peaks in New Jersey.
Maine migration peaks two weeks later, putting Team Maine Audubon at a big disadvantage.
The team did well anyway, sighting 161 species and grabbing a fourth place finish — just one bird ahead of a Pennsylvania team, but six birds short of third place.
More importantly, I learned a few things from the day.
I learned that if you want to hear rails, go to the “cornfields” on the University of Maine campus in early May. The wetlands in the back of the fields off Route 2 in Orono contain many secretive marsh birds. We arrived shortly after midnight, and there were more sora and Virginia rails calling than there are clowns at a Shriners convention.
If you want to hear owls, try the roads around Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford. By 3 a.m. we had succeeded in hearing barred, great horned, and northern saw-whet owls calling. You can even prompt them to call, if you don’t mind looking really silly. The rules prohibit any electronic devices, but you can try your own best vocal imitation.
My barred owl impression is pretty poor, and Sandi’s is pathetic. Still, we got several owls to reply. I tried a great horned owl impression.
“Lower pitch,” my wife kept telling me. “I can’t go any lower!” I kept telling her.
But we got one anyway. For the saw-whet owl, we borrowed a neighbor’s toy flute and tried tooting the owl’s call. It kinda worked, but the flute was prone to squeaks and sour notes, like you might hear if you squeezed a chipmunk. An owl responded anyway, perhaps out of sympathy.
I learned that if you’re behind schedule and always rushing to your next destination, it doesn’t matter how much healthy food you packed in the cooler. It’s faster to grab a slice of convenience store pizza.
I learned that if the wind is howling so hard in Lubec that it’s threatening to topple your spotting scope, you can duck behind the lighthouse at Quoddy Head State Park, and still scan at least half of the Grand Manan Channel for seabirds.
I learned that climate change is real. Maine has two chickadee species. Boreal chickadees are brown-capped, and are confined to the northern forests of spruce and fir. Thirty years ago, I found them on Vinalhaven. Since then, I’ve watched them disappear along the coast as the climate warmed. I had favorite hot spots in Stonington, Jonesboro, Roque Bluffs, Amherst, Edmunds and Topsfield, but they’re all gone now. Boreal chickadees have lingered in Lubec, but we had no luck finding one when we needed it most.
Likewise, Canada jays are northern forest birds. They are boisterous and easy to find, except in May when they’re nesting. Suddenly, they’re shy. We worked hard all day, with no luck. Sandi finally got the attention of one when she did her best dog-barking imitation. She had been claiming all day that dogs attract the attention of moose, owls and jays. I was immensely skeptical until it apparently worked. Granted, she does a dog imitation that is eerily accurate and hideously obnoxious.
Perhaps the jay was looking to steal a few kibbles and bits.
I learned that it was a short winter. Harlequin ducks often linger in a few spots along the Down East coast until Memorial Day weekend. This year, they departed already. None were spotted by our teammates in the usual southern Maine places either. Likewise, horned grebes are plentiful on the winter ocean, but they left early this year.
Lastly, I learned that there’s no use listening for marsh birds after dusk. The peepers are louder than jet engines. Better to do it before dawn, when the peepers are just as cold and tired as you are.