• Ian Carlsen

Throwback Report: 2016-2017 Matinicus Isle CBC

After all the excitement of winter birding up in Shirley Mills, I found myself reflecting on one of my more adventurous winter birding experiences: flying out to the remote island of Matinicus in steep winds and sub-zero temperatures to count birds for the Matinicus Isle CBC. I wrote down some notes from my experience but lacked a place publish them. They've languished in my hard drive ever since gathering electric dust. So I've polished them up, and included a few salt-spattered photos and videos of the trip for your enjoyment. Perhaps they'll inspire someone else to take a flight out next year to help Jeff and his team.

Before we begin: Leading the count was Jeff Wells, with Rob O'Connell and myself joining. As a young, excited and somewhat uneducated birder I did not realize how fortunate I was to be spending a day alongside both of these men. Jeff is the Senior Scientist at the Boreal Songbird Initiative, VP of Boreal Conservation for the National Audubon Society, and the author of several books including my favorite gift book for new Maine birders. Rob is a fantastic birder, and a longtime contributor to the Maine Birds listserv, and probably a few other things I don't know about yet.

So this post is for them, and for all experienced birders that make space for newbies to tag along...

Jeff Wells and Rob O’Connell and myself hopped on a Cessna 207 to Matinicus Isle to participate in annual Christmas Bird Count (CBC). Flight out, approx. twenty minutes in very rough winds. Gusts up to 45 knots. Flight was breathtaking, if a bit white-knuckle. Dozens of gold and green islands stood out vividly against the green sea in the early light. Eight foot swells scattered like torn lace over Penobscot Bay.

Our first bird of the count was a Bald Eagle, seen from above, as we neared the island.

Despite Matinicus’ reputation as an island of outlaws, most people we met on the island were friendly. One eighty-year-old man we met was surprised to see more footprints than his own down the island's muddy main road.

We saw only a handful of people throughout the whole day. Each person seemed to know in advance who we were and what we were up to. Newcomers like ourselves likely offer a temporary respite from the solitude and monotony of a long winter. I like to imagine word of our visit spreading around the island, with folks ringing up their neighbors, eager to offer an inconsequential bit of gossip. But the binoculars around our necks were probably a good giveaway, too.

One woman was less than pleased at our presence. Opening her front door and yelling at us to stay away from her property. Letting out her massive, but thoroughly uninteresteddog.

Birding conditions were less than favorable. Strong winds kept most passerines down and out of sight. With persistence, and some excellent pishing from my companions, we were able to work some birds out, including Black-capped Chickadees, a few Golden-crowned Kinglets, and one Yellow-rumped Warbler. American Crows were numerous, but difficult to determine exact count, as they seemed to enjoy using the wind to whirl in great circles over different areas of the island.

Seas were very choppy, making it difficult to spot smaller ducks and alcids. Again, patience was an ally. It was exciting to see Common Eiders and Black Guillemots using the troughs of the big waves to dive down for food churned up by the rough sea. Luminous white flashes danced at the very edge of my binoculars reach. I could only mark them as birds by their general motion. Jeff and Rob picked these flashes up in their scopes and named them: Black-legged Kittiwakes. A life bird for me!

I hunkered down against the wind and sat with the kittiwakes in my binoculars for a few minutes, but they did not come any closer. Any birder will tell you that you want each life bird to be special, and to be a good, clear ID. I wouldn't have counted them on my life list, but Jeff and Rob had clearly pointed them out. So there they were, and there I was. What did the kittiwakes care for my inability to distinguish them? Flashes of distant white would have to do.

Chastened by elusiveness, I tried to make myself useful by scanning the nearby water for bobbing scoters. Closer in than the kittiwakes, and more easily observed, were several Northern Gannets wheeling like ancient pterosaurs above the surf.

Gulls were notably absent except on farthest rocks and very high flyovers. Islanders are rumored to shoot them for sport, and we pondered how long it might take for gulls to learn to avoid the island. A small flock of Mallards spotted flying over the harbor, was an unusual find this far out to sea, especially in winter.

Some movement on Tenpound Island—a treeless scrap of rock and grass just off Matinicus' southern shore—caught our attention. With scopes trained on the island we were able to pick out a sheltering flock of European Starlings. This invasive species was introduced to North America by Shakespeare enthusiasts in the late 19th century. Now starlings are well known on any urban CBC and counting them is often a tedious chore. But, like the Mallards, seeing them so far out to sea was something of a worrisome surprise.

Islands are seemingly magical exceptions to any rules when it comes to birds.

While walking back, Jeff offered the following observation: Remote islands like Matinicus are known as "migrant traps," stopover points for birds migrating over the sea, or blown on strong winds from The Western Palearctic. These small bits of land concentrate a huge diversity of bird species that are often rarely seen together on the mainland. Nearby Monhegan Island is one of the best birding locations in the state. Vagrants, and rare birds are frequently reported there year-round. Matinicus is just as ideally situated, but reports from the island are almost non-existent.

Why? Income, potentially. Monhegan has a more prosperous demographic than Matinicus, which is inhabited mostly by hard-working fishing and lobstering families. Birdseed is expensive, and running to the local feed store involves a long boat ride or an expensive flight. Therefore birds that land on the island don't have established feeders. It's possible that the people of this island have more pressing matters to deal with, boats to maintain, bills to pay, and so the unique visitors to this island go unnoticed, unmentioned.

Unfortunately, there weren't many people out that day to ask about this.

Jeff and Rob are remarkable birders with top equipment. Good numbers on the count were a result of their work, with a few quick catches by myself. My best spot was a lone Northern Flicker working the tops of a few spruce trees for insects.

If there were any real rarities on the island they remained tucked deep within the trees, undetected.

Submitted a full count of all observed species on eBird.

Start time: 8:54AM End time: 3:15PM

Weather: Sunny with scattered clouds. Winds 16 mph (WSW), gusts up to 28 mph. High 34 °F. Frozen sea foam blown up by high winds was an interesting non-avian encounter. Globs of the stuff floated through the air on the windward side of the island. Surreal puffs of white clinging to the trees like giant milkweed seeds.

We walked approx. 8 miles. Despite the lack of feeling in my extremities as I boarded the plane home it was a thoroughly enjoyable day.

And here's footage I took of our plane landing on the bumpy, sloped dirt road that serves as a airport on Matinicus. Google Maps lists it as "Small Airport" and they aren't kidding.

By Ian Carlsen