boundary between Maine and Canada is one of the longest
undefended borders in the world. Every year, avian species take
advantage of it by invading the state from the north. These
intruders plunder our rich ocean waters. They strip our winter
trees of lingering fruit and they devour the sunflower seeds
from our feeders. And we love it.
There are three styles of
birding in winter.
Feeder-watching: Blue Jays,
chickadees, nuthatches, and woodpeckers are constant visitors to
any array of feeders. In southern or urban Maine, a Northern
Cardinal or Tufted Titmouse is a regular treat. These are joined
by native nomads, such as Evening Grosbeaks and Pine Siskins,
and by sub arctic breeders like Tree Sparrows and Common
Redpolls. In recent years, Hoary Redpolls have been popping up
amidst the Commons. Even our closest friends wander widely in
search of food. The Black-capped Chickadee at the feeder in
January may not be the same one that nested behind the house in
July. All this feeding and moving around attracts the attention
of predators. A few Cooperís and Sharp-shinned Hawks have
learned how to survive Maine winters by taking advantage of
feeder birds. Northern Shrikes will also send the flock
scrambling once in a while.
Irruptions: Maine is subject
to visits by northern species, though every winter is different.
Frugivores (fruit-eaters) are often abundant in these invasions.
In recent years, flocks of Bohemian (and Cedar) Waxwings have
numbered over a thousand. Much of the time, a large flock seen
in the distance consists of either waxwings or starlings. Food
scarcity in Canada can also drive flocks of Pine Grosbeaks into
Maine. Both waxwings and grosbeaks enjoy orchards, particularly
crab apples. Both are regularly found in ornamental gardens. The
University of Maine in Orono is a prominent example. Waxwings
are also drawn to the orange berries of mountain ash trees and
the ornamental plantings found in cities and around highway
Seed-eaters also irrupt. A
few Red and White-winged Crossbills are present in all winters,
but every 3-4 years they are driven southward by cone crop
scarcity in Canada. Although they are adapted primarily to
spruce cones, these birds can forage quite far south in the
state, subsisting on pinecones and sometimes even coming to
feeders. Boreal areas are prone to crossbills in winter. Coastal
regions from Acadia National Park north to the border can be
good places to look, but their foraging range stretches into
southern Maine. They can be common just north of Bangor, around
Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge and out the Stud Mill
Road north of the refuge in Milford. Any of the mountainous
regions around Bethel, Rangeley, Kingfield, Greenville, and
Millinocket are promising in irruption years.
Hawks and owls irrupt,
especially when the population of lemmings crashes in the north.
Snowy, Great Gray, and Northern Hawk-owls that stray south will
settle into a feeding territory that suits them. They can be
quite reliable in these locations, once birders discover them
and spread the word. However, they are never numerous and thus
they excite even the most blasť Maine expert. Rough-legged hawks
also wander south and can be found hovering over open fields and
estuaries in winter. Even Red-tailed Hawks attract attention in
winter, due to their preference for perching beside highways.
The open median strip makes an attractive site for
Ocean birding: Maine enjoys
abundant seabirds in winter. Throw in some Purple Sandpipers on
the rocks and Sanderlings on the beach, and the day is pregnant
with possibilities. Although the entire coastline is full of
birds, there are two topological features that define some of
the best places to visit: rocky capes and half-moon bays.
Rocky capes extend into the ocean. These are
the places where Harlequin Ducks, Common (and rare King) Eiders,
and wandering alcids are more likely to be encountered. They are
good vantage points for passing Northern Gannets and Great
Cormorants. Pacific Loons stray to such points on rare
occasions. The list of good sites from south to north includes:
Fort Foster in Kittery, Nubble Light at Sohier Park in York, The
Cliff House in Wells, Marginal Way in Ogunquit, Biddeford Pool,
and Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth. Major land extensions into the
sea in the Mid-coast area are noteworthy at Ocean Point in
Boothbay and Pemaquid Point.
Half-moon bays and sheltered harbors are more
apt to contain any of the scoter species. Grebes and Long-tailed
Ducks appreciate the respite from surf. Buffleheads and Common
Goldeneyes particularly favor the calmer waters that escape the
prevailing breeze. Wells Beach in Wells, Fortunes Rocks Beach
next to Biddeford Pool, Old Orchard and Scarborough Beaches,
Crescent Beach and Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth, Eastern
Promenade in Portland, and Sandy Point Beach in Yarmouth are
good spots to check in winter. Popham Beach State Park in
Phippsburg and Reid State Park in Georgetown are two of the best
sites in Maine year round. Maquoit Bay in Brunswick, Belfast
Harbor, and the coves on both sides of Sears Island in Searsport
Acadia National Park on
Mount Desert Island is full of capes, bays, and sheltered
harbors. Although Schoodic Point, across Frenchmanís Bay, is a
major cape, the coves on each side of the point are particularly
promising for scoters, goldeneyes, and loons. The capes and
coves of downeast Washington County are mostly off the beaten
track. Little Machias Bay in Cutler fills with sea ducks in
November and the area around Quoddy Head State Park in
Lubec is outstanding.
Gulls are everywhere. Check
all flocks in winter for Iceland and Glaucous Gulls. Lesser
Black-backed Gulls are rare but annual visitors. Black-headed
Gulls are possible in a few spots, especially Rockland Harbor.
Lastly, stay vigilant
for Snow Buntings, Horned Larks, Lapland Longspurs, and American
Pipits, especially early in winter. Their preference for open
areas means they show up around beaches and dunes in the off
season, and also blueberry barrens and hay fields.