• Ed Jenkins

Boreal Birding: Hard work pays off

Agreeing that we might be getting soft from birding along the mild coast throughout the winter, Doug Hitchcox, Ian Carlsen, Nick Lund, Michael Tucker and I headed up to rural Piscataquis County last week for some winter atlasing. Doug wrote up a great summary here, but we wanted to share a little more about our trip, primarily the amazing photos taken by Doug and Nick.

After purchasing supplies and successfully navigating partially plowed roads, we reached our destination, a small hunting cabin that would act as our base of operations. This spot had been chosen because four Maine Bird Atlas blocks converged nearby, allowing us an opportunity to spend three hours birding in each, the requisite time to be counted as 'complete' for the early winter period (Dec 14th - Jan 31st). The area will need to be visited again in the late period, Feb 1st - March 15th.

The area is stunning; mixed forest blends into swathes of conifers that cloak the foothills of snow-covered mountains off in the distance. An extensive bog system was deep under snow, and animal tracks led this way and that through the white.

On the first morning, as we stood outside strapping snowshoes to our packs and adding layers to our layers, the single high-pitched note of a golden-crowned kinglet announced the arrival of a small mixed flock of kinglets, black-capped chickadees, red-breasted nuthatches and, to our surprise, a group of inquisitive Canada jays (until recently known as grey jays). These social birds hopped through the low branches, gliding from tree to tree, continually communicating among themselves as they went.

The most familiar sound on the day however, was the song of the white-winged crossbill, pouring from males perched on the very tops of conifer trees like ornaments on Christmas trees. Typically nomadic and hard to find, these pink and green finches were everywhere, in fact it was rare to not have their bubbling song in earshot, even though we covered over 10 miles through various habitats. We recorded over 40 in a single day, including males performing song flights right overhead.

Not only are these cone-devoted wanderers beautiful and unusual to find but incredibly tame, a trait shared by many boreal species, and we had many close views allowing for photos like those below (male above, female type below).

Another sought-after boreal species is the well named boreal chickadee and we found two groups throughout the day, usually first located by their nasally calls, and often mixed in with their more familiar relatives.

The highlight of the day was found by Nick who heard the gentle tapping of a bill against wood in a thicket of spruce. We had already found sign of black-backed woodpecker activity but failed to locate any birds so this confiding female was a real treat. We watched the bird for ten minutes before it flew off, seemingly unaware of our presence.

This photo of Nick's shows a subtle iridescent bluish sheen on the back feathers, a detail I'd never noticed before.

Other birds found during our day of slogging through knee-high snow included surprising numbers of purple finches, as well as American goldfinches, blue jays, and ruffed grouse. All in all we recorded 15 species across four blocks, and more importantly, increased our knowledge of bird diversity and abundance in rural Maine.

Boreal birding is hard work and diversity is low but it's always worth it. Don't let the cold keep you from going looking for birds in winter!

By Ed Jenkins