Sunday, January 10, 2010

January 9: Winter Birding Excursion

I finally got a chance today to spread my wings a bit and indulge in a bird outing in southern Maine with my friend Brian. Our target species: the harlequin duck, a bird which would be a lifer for Brian. In my opinion, it's also the most beautiful of the many kinds of duck we can see in Maine--the males are mostly slate blue with a touch of rose, featuring intricate white facial and body markings. They love surf, and spend winters hanging out in small pods on the edge of crashing waves along the southern Maine coast, often quite close to shore. One of the best ways to see them well is to take a chilly walk along the Marginal Way in Ogunquit, but I hoped to find them a little bit closer to home on this jaunt.

But first, a short side trip. We purposefully drove south via Route One through Warren to check out a poultry farm that attracts a fair number of our wintering eagle population. Literally dozens of bald eagles are regularly counted along the St. George River each winter. Many of them hang out at a big poultry farm on Route One to scavenge the farm waste there. Today was no exception. We counted maybe 33 bald eagles in the immediate vicinity of the farm. It looked like those photos you see of the Chilkat Bald Eagle Reserve in Alaska, with an eagle posed on every branch. The eagles were also joined by several ravens and crows, as well as one red-tailed hawk. A dramatic start to our morning, especially as some of the eagles were vocalizing. You never get used to seeing that many eagles all in one place.

First stop for the harlequins was Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth, an outcropping of striated metaphoric rock that looks a bit like petrified wood decorated with colorful tide pools. We scanned flocks of common eiders looking for a king eider that's been hanging out there--someone saw it yesterday, in fact--but no dice. After much scanning while enduring a bone-chilling wind, however, I did manage to find one male harlequin bobbing offshore. We risked life and limb walking on frost-slimed rocks to get a closer look--and Brian got his life bird! At the next stop, Two Lights State Park, we were even more fortunate to find a group of eight harlequins--four males, four females--also close to shore. The ducks entertained us by repeatedly ducking underwater simultaneously, as if on cue. The males engaged in a little posturing, as well, chasing each other and otherwise showing off while the females looked on, probably thinking what females usually do when they witness such antics. (Brian got some distant photos of these birds and others we saw today, which he will post on his Bird Report blog.)

Harlequin ducks photographed in 2003 along the Marginal Way

So, mission accomplished without even having to drive all the way to Ogunquit--a satisfying day in terms of birds, and in the company of a good friend. We even got an added nature-watching bonus when a big, healthy-looking doe crossed the road in front of us near Crescent Beach State Park in Scarborough. Though it's difficult to say exactly who was really observing whom, for she stood in the woods watching us for quite a while as we watched and photographed her from the roadside.

Some things are best shared:
winter ducks bobbing in surf,
eagles perched in pines.

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