Imagine that you are a duck. You can bob on top of storm-tossed waves, fly through gales and dive fathoms deep in search of food. But do you really want to?

The entire Maine coast is great for winter birding, precisely because sea ducks don’t want to do those things. Most of them nest in the far north, often in freshwater. In winter, they’re here because they can’t be there. It’s frozen. Most of Maine is frozen, too. But the ocean isn’t, so they become seasonal sea ducks.

Common eiders nest in Maine, but many more come down from Canada in winter. Common loons and common goldeneyes nest on Maine lakes, and most head to the coast when the lakes freeze. Red-breasted mergansers nest across Canada, some as close as Grand Manan, New Brunswick. A lot of them winter with us.

Three scoter species nest along the edge of the Arctic tundra. Most of the year, these ducks are ocean birds. But black, surf and white-winged scoters all nest in freshwater marshes that are too shallow for the big Canadian fish that would eat their babies.

When they migrate here in late autumn, they are more likely to settle into sheltered coves, bays and harbors, rather than open ocean. Most of what they eat is on the ocean floor, so shallow water is important. To be sure, I’ve also seen them far from land. But I see many more tucked in close to shore.

Buffleheads and long-tailed ducks also nest primarily in freshwater across northern Canada. Both snatch their food from the ocean floor. The similarity ends there. Buffleheads are shallow divers, and don’t linger underwater. Long-tailed ducks are deep divers, staying submerged longer.

Hence, buffleheads are often very close to shore in sheltered areas — even in tidal rivers. Long-tailed ducks generally gather farther offshore. But not always. They go wherever they darn well please, including right up to the pier you’re standing on.

Grebes are aquatic diving birds. Unlike web-footed ducks, they have lobed toes to power their swimming. Maine’s two winter visitors — horned grebes and red-necked grebes — both nest in freshwater way up north.

By now, you’re beginning to see a pattern. Most of the saltwater birds we see along the Maine coast in winter are freshwater birds in summer. It’s no wonder that they like to tuck into the sheltered nooks and crannies of our rugged coastline, making them easier for us to see.

Want to see them? In past columns, I’ve extolled the virtues of duck-finding along the southern Maine coast, the Down East coast, and along the shores of Acadia National Park. I can be taken to task for ignoring the midcoast. Let’s correct that now, with several hot spots in Knox and Waldo Counties.

I usually hit Owls Head State Park to start the day. The view from the lighthouse is spectacular, but the beach below the lighthouse is better for birding. The access road is just beyond the parking lot.

The entire length of Rockland Harbor can be entertaining, starting with the parks and piers on the south end of downtown. Waterfowl often get impressively close to shore, especially since they are accustomed to seeing people and don’t get too nervous. Lots of gulls accumulate in town, drawn by the food they find near people. I customarily sort through them, looking for unusual gulls.

The Rockland Breakwater protects the harbor, stretching nearly a mile to a lighthouse at its entrance. The access is near the Samoset Resort. It is spectacular for birding. However, it is also exposed to ice and wind, so pick a relatively warm day to visit.

Rockport and Camden harbors can be entertaining, but I usually skip by them in order to explore Belfast Harbor. A lot of birds tuck in close to shore there and the Belfast Harbor Walk — with its restored pedestrian bridge — is hard to beat.

I never miss a chance to bird the Sears Island causeway in Searsport. It’s got everything a seabird could ask for: shelter, shallow water and strong tides that stir up food supplies.

I try to circle Cape Jellison in Stockton Springs at least once each winter, leaving plenty of time to enjoy Fort Point State Park. The history, the lighthouse and the views make a visit worthwhile, even if the birds aren’t cooperating.

To recap, winter birding in Maine is awesome. The birds make it easy. Many good places are right next to your heated car. It beats staying home.


Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

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.