• Ed Jenkins

Greater Portland CBC: Windy Weather for Finding Feathers

The annual Audubon Christmas Bird Count reached a grand old age of 120 this year, and 13 teams totaling 49 participants gathered to spend Sunday, December 15th, censusing birds in the Greater Portland area. Originally scheduled for Saturday, the count was was pushed back due to driving rain, and while Sunday dawned wet, still and warm, the wind was expected to pick up significantly. Ian Carlsen and myself took part on different teams, focusing on different territories within the area.

EJ: For my first CBC ( I know, I know, I have no excuse!), I joined the crack birding team from the Biodiversity Research Institute consisting of Patrick Keenan, Andrew Gilbert, Evan Adams, Kate Williams and Julia Gulka. Our aim? To count every single last bird in parts of South Portland and inland Cape Elizabeth, the boundaries of which I was never quite certain of. However, my team had done this CBC many times and worked out a productive route which included some well-known hotspots and many habitat types. Some teams were up looking for owls at 4am but we plumped for breakfast bagels, setting out after dawn, all 6 of us crammed in a mini-van.

IC: My team's assigned area was north of Ed's and centered on the large tidal flat of Portland's Back Cove plus a narrow corridor of suburban housing that runs up to the Presumpscot River along I-295. At first glance it seems an unappealing section—our primary duties would consist of counting geese, ducks, gulls, and feeder birds—but the chance for a rare bird is never far off. We lacked the vigor of other owl-hungry teams and so Magill Weber, Pete Darling and myself met at the civilized hour of 7:15am at a nearby supermarket, and carpooled from there.

EJ: First stop, Great Pond, and to our amazement, ~68 tree swallows were feeding low among the reeds, a species only recorded once on this CBC over the past 40 years, and that was a single individual! Presumably due to the very mild weather so far this winter, low numbers of swallows (<10) had been reported throughout December from other areas in Cape Elizabeth, but this many was a huge surprise. Scanning to count the swallows, Andrew picked out a northern shrike perched atop a low alder growing among the reeds, what a great start to the day! Incredibly, this bird proved to be the first of two that we found. Also of note were abundant feeder birds like red-bellied, downy, and hairy woodpeckers, and many flyover American robins and some eastern bluebirds.

The BRI crew counting birds at Spurwink Marsh. © Julia Gulka

IC: An early morning low-tide meant that most of the waterfowl in Back Cove would be elsewhere, but a quick scan of the area revealed a hen gadwall lurking with small numbers of American black ducks and Canada geese scattered throughout the reeds. A scan of nearby Edward Payson Park revealed a green-winged teal foraging with some mallards in a flooded baseball field. Payson Park is quite busy, and somewhat birdless during the daytime hours and I was perhaps even more thrilled to find the teal then the arguably rarer gadwall. These types of sightings used to mystify me as a fledgling birder when I would spend the morning on eBird and then go out and try to find birds at 11:00am to no avail. The efficacy of birding in the crepuscular hours is undoubtable—which is why there's coffee.

Crepuscular bird photography is not as rewarding. I returned for a better lit shot later in the day. © Ian Carlsen

EJ: As we continued to bird our way towards Spurwink Marsh, finding further tree swallows on the way, we started to add some more expected species to our list, all recorded painstakingly by Evan on eBird. American crows, blue jays, white-throated sparrows, American goldfinches, and others were identified by sight or sound, while a few bald eagles and red-tailed hawks passed overhead. By the time we circled back around and reached South Portland the wind had really picked up, making our task of finding birds harder than ever. Anthoine Creek failed to produce the usually-reliable northern pintail and green-winged teal, but scanning the Fore River while sheltering behind buildings produced a few red-breasted mergansers, long-tailed ducks, bufflehead, and common eider, alongside lots of gulls, and we finally picked out a common loon amongst the growing white water. Funnily enough, we became worried we'd miss out on a northern mockingbird but Andrew rustled one up out of some scrub at Thomas Knight Park.

IC: Our next "big spot" was Dragon Fields. Dragon Fields is an old covered landfill that's next to an old cement factory that's now been partly converted to a solar array and a dog park; all edge habitat covered over by various invasive species. Apparently, there used to be a great patch of old white pines next to it but that's given way to a ticky-tack development where everyone buys a bird feeder, fills it once, and plops it in the middle of their yard and forgets it. Compared to Evergreen Cemetery, Scarborough Marsh, or Gilsland Farm it's not necessarily the most ideal birding spot in Greater Portland. In fact it's kind of garbage, but it was good for bumping up our numbers of dark-eyed juncos, northern cardinals, and house finches, maybe a northern mockingbird or two. However, at this point the wind was starting to pick up and all the passerines seemed to be hunkered down, indifferent to our fervent pishing. Only a few of our target species showed and in much lower numbers than last year...

But then we found the chat.

Yeah, that's right, a curiously late yellow-breasted chat just popped it's head out of a thicket long enough for me to get a photo of it. Then it resumed being its chatty self and dove back down into the bushes, never to be seen clearly again. This was a bird that Magill and I had seconds before been joking about "ordering up," having dipped on several previous attempts to chase it. We put the word out on the Maine Birds list-serv —because good people don't wait till compilation to drop a rarity—and felt immediately more positive about the day.

Dragon Fields, I will love you forever... or at least until the chat leaves. © Ian Carlsen.

EJ: At noon our team decreased in strength to three, but we pushed on, working our way through multiple cemeteries (as birders do), adding very few species to our totals due to the savage wind, but feeling lucky to flush a great blue heron from the water's edge at Forest City Cemetery, and finding two wood duck with many mallard and American black duck at Calvary Cemetery. At Hinckley Park we searched in vain for kinglets, but added many more house sparrows, house finches and slate-coloured juncos as it grew near to 5pm and compilation time.

IC: We saw our second bald eagle of the day flying up the Presumpscot River and scattering mallards, buffleheads, common mergansers and ring-billed gulls before it. Then we creeped through middle-class cul-de-sacs looking for busy feeders. A new stop in an unnamed park revealed a path through the woods that gave us some golden-crowned kinglets and a fleeting glimpse at a barred owl. It was nice to find some wild space in the middle of all this development, and it will certainly be added to the route next year.

Our stomachs were growling, so we stopped for a delicious sandwich at the Other Side Deli on Veranda Street. Yes, I know we'd probably see more cool things if we packed a lunch and just stayed out, but Portland has too much good food to pass up a chance to eat out. Life is short. While eating we reflected on the fact that our list for some reason didn't include any European starlings, and extremely common bird for this time of year. Where were they all?

We returned outside to very gusty conditions. Some gull-heavy areas remained, and I will tell you what, I am not the most enthusiastic about standing out in whipping winds to try and pick apart a tightly grouped flock of 200+ ring-billed and herring gulls. Thankfully my teammates were up to the task, lured by the hope of an immature Iceland gull that never turned up.

We dipped again at the last spot of the day, an isolated section of land cut off by the highway and accessible only by highway drop-off or boat. I had found the only ruffed grouse of the count there last year, and hoped for a repeat. But, with dwindling light and limited time to bushwack, Pete Darling and I were unable to turn up more than a flock four of black-capped chickadees. Standing in the woods, waiting for the car to return to pick us up we reflected upon the day and shared some of our experiences birding around the globe. Then I noticed a big flock in the sky, shimmering in the westerly wind.

"Starlings!" Pete exclaimed.

EJ: Back at Gilsland Farm our data was compiled, numbers were tallied, and we enjoyed a welcome beer while swapping stories of the day's exploits. It turned out that all the teams combined had recorded exactly 99 species, including an unprecedented 195 tree swallows, while our team's claims to fame were the only purple finches and wood ducks recorded.

IC: Yeah, but did you find a chat?*

* Christmas Bird Counts are not a competition. Too much competitive energy on a CBC can actually skew an already less than ideal data set. So please be dispassionate, or at least be passionate about counting each and every house sparrow and chickadee.

By Ed Jenkins and Ian Carlsen