It’s the doldrums. It’s that time of year when summer birds have flooded out and winter birds have trickled in. For hardcore birders, excitement comes from the rare birds that accidentally wander into Maine this time of year.
These include a barnacle goose in Rockland and a pink-footed goose in Limestone. Both probably came from their native territories somewhere between Greenland and Europe. A cackling goose was also sighted in Limestone, having strayed off its typical migration route along the Mississippi Flyway.
An ash-throated flycatcher has been drawing crowds in Biddeford Pool all week. It’s not the first time this western bird has strayed across the Mississippi River all the way to Maine, but the list of previous occurrences is wicked short.
Since not much is otherwise happening, it’s a good time to reach into the mailbag and answer some frequently asked questions about birding tools and resources.
What are the best binoculars? Easy one. There is no best. Every pair has its advantages and disadvantages, no matter how expensive. I’ll save this one for another time.
What is the best field guide? There are many good ones, and I think I own most of them. They seem to accumulate over the years. If there is a consensus in the birding world, it’s probably “The Sibley Guide to Birds.” It’s too big to carry in the field, but there are pocket-sized eastern and western versions. Better yet, there is a Sibley app that downloads the entire book onto a smartphone. I rarely buy apps, especially for 20 bucks, but this one has been worth every penny.
Is there an app for identifying bird songs? Yes, but most have been disappointing. Fortunately, one app has risen to the top. “Merlin” is a free download from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It contains tools for helping to identify birds by sight and sound. It’s not perfect, but it’s remarkably good.
Although I have Merlin on my smartphone, I rarely use it. Birding by ear is my lone superpower, and I don’t need help. However, as superpowers go, birding by ear is not as useful as invisibility or superstrength. I barely have enough muscle to open a pickle jar.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology has transformed birding in America. It has provided so many useful tools that it has empowered even the most novice birders to become citizen scientists. Among these is “eBird,” the online database that allows users to store and keep track of their sightings almost effortlessly. Not only does it automatically organize sightings for individual users, it also compiles the entries of all users into a map of the birding world. It constantly updates our understanding of the abundance and distribution of every bird species.
The Cornell Lab also runs the best birding website: allaboutbirds.org. If I want to know anything about a bird, that’s the first place I look. In fact, if you search the name of any bird, the site is usually the first website to pop up. Cornell also promotes annual programs for people who love birds. Project Feederwatch, bird cams, youth programs and online adult courses are among the most popular.
What’s the best place to find birding sites in Maine? Easy one: mainebirdingtrail.com. The website details hundreds of locations in Maine, plus information on birding festivals, tours, puffin trips and birding resources. I feel comfortable recommending it, because I know the author very, very well.
Is there a social media platform focused on Maine birds? OK, nobody actually asks me that, but they should. MAINE Birds is a private, request-to-join Facebook group with an astounding 32,700 members. Participants share sightings and photos statewide.
Where are the best in-person birding opportunities? Maine Audubon is the obvious choice. It’s a statewide organization with seven local chapters, all providing programs and field trips close to home. Maineaudubon.org explains everything. Also try pvc.maineaudubon.org for the Penobscot Valley Chapter in the Bangor area, and downeastaudubon.org for Downeast Audubon in the Hancock County region.
What is the best thing to put in bird feeders? Black-oil sunflower seeds. It’s universally appreciated by almost all birds. Nyjer and suet are also valued by many birds. Of course, the most important thing to do is clean and disinfect feeders regularly. I routinely make it one of my seasonal chores.
Are there times when you shouldn’t feed birds? Yes, when you have bears prowling the neighborhood. Otherwise, you may be suddenly in the market for new feeders.
Is there a good weekly birding column in the newspaper? Shucks, I’m out of time.