Alone she rests on the tip of an ice floe, hitching a ride south on the slow-moving Penobscot River. At first glance, she is just another herring gull, the state’s most common sea gull. A longer, closer study of her all-white feathers elicits excited activity from the humans along the shore.
They press binoculars to their eyes, adjust telescopes resting on tripods, then consult dogeared copies of “Peterson’s Field Guide to Birds of North America.” They huddle and confer.
She is an Icelandic gull, they all agree, a bit far south from her arctic homeland. Probably an immature bird on a juvenile jaunt. She is definitely rare for these river waters. So rare that one bird-watcher notes the date and place above the gull’s likeness in her guide.
Again, “binos” are raised. Eyes squint at “scopes.” The birders stand still and silent in the parking lot behind a Brewer business as the Icelandic gull wanders up the ice. She stops as if to introduce herself to groups of the more common creatures gathered on the floe. The earthbound Homo sapiens all agree, this bird is THE find of the day.
On Saturday amateur ornithologists in Bangor, Brewer, Hampden, Orrington, Holden, Dedham and Bucksport watched their feeders or observed the fields, ponds, rivers, streams, city centers, parking lots and skies for the annual Christmas bird count compiled by the National Audubon Society.
Judy Markowsky, director of Maine Audubon’s Fields Pond Nature Center, led a group of eight avid birders around South Brewer on a search for the rare, as well as common, birds that winter inland in Maine. In December she led a similar count in the Orono-Old Town area.
Audubon has been holding the Christmas count since the turn of the century. The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon has been participating since 1968, according to Markowsky. The state is divided into 18 to 20 circles, each with a radius of 15 miles.
Volunteers, like those who accompanied Markowsky, observe and count birds in their assigned areas on a designated day, then report to the area compiler, who in turn reports results to the national organization. Each year the results of counts in every circle area in the United States are published by the society.
“Christmas bird count results are used by ornithologists as a database to track winter bird distribution and abundance,” Markowsky explains as the group gathers at the Fields Pond Center in Orrington before heading out in her van. “Last year on this count 45 species were reported. We’ll probably see more than that today because it’s so warm (about 45 degrees). We counted 49 species on the Orono count. That’s a good indication that there are more species in the area this year.
“The pine grosbeaks and bohemian waxwings are abundant this year,” she says. “They are fruit eaters, who usually live in Canada. I think something must have happened to their food supply in their usual habitat for there to be so many here. Most winters, we’re lucky to see a handful of pine grosbeaks.”
After scanning fields along Wiswell Road and a quick visit to the Brewer dump, Markowsky stops the van on a circular, residential street atop a hill. As the birders, equipped with binoculars and “Peterson’s Field Guides,” climb out of the van, a gray-haired head pokes out of a nearby front door to determine the group’s intentions. When told they are looking for birds, she too, turns her face skyward.
The gnarled branches of crabapple trees atop this hill are filled with pine grosbeaks, silently devouring the remnant of last fall’s bumper crop. Starlings flit in and out of neatly trimmed bushes on the edge of residents’ lawns. Off in the distance, a few blue jays scan the horizon, and a lone downy woodpecker perches and picks at the bark of a dead tree.
Suddenly, all the birds, every species and subspecies, take off in flurried flight. The bird-watchers snap to attention, their binoculars pointing in the direction opposite the fleeing avians. The senses of the humans sharpen as they watch and wait.
“Look for a hawk,” Markowsky commands as she points toward the river. “There he comes. See the flecking on his back and long, squared-off tail? He has a flat glide and short, broad, rounded wings. That makes him a sharp-shinned hawk.”
Most of the birds have regrouped in a distant tree. But two pine grosbeaks stand guard in two pine trees directly in front of the human flock. Markowsky explains that they are the lookouts and will warn the others when and if the raptor takes flight again.
“Hawks like to hide in the center of trees and watch as flocks fly past,” she says. “If they see one bird that is flying differently, more slowly, or looks weaker than the rest, he will pick that one out and swoop down on it.”
Next the group heads toward the shores of the Penobscot River, parking behind businesses along the shore. At one location, Markowsky surreptitiously leads the group down a path past “No Trespassing” signs. Her attempts earlier in the week to reach the owners were not successful, she reports, but most landowners don’t mind bird-watchers.
Eyes trained on the Hampden shoreline opposite them spot an exciting find — a bald eagle. Up the river he flies, gracefully gliding in front of the group as if performing for his audience.
“Now, wasn’t it worth a little trespassing to see a bald eagle?” Markowsky asks as the group heads north along Brewer’s South Main Street. At the final stop before returning to the center to meet with compiler Jerry Smith of Orrington, the group spots the unusual Icelandic gull.
Karen Ireland of Belfast had been scouring the skies above the town’s bay for the snow-white bird, but had never seen one. She noted the sighting in her field guide.
“I don’t always write down what I see in my book,” she says. “But what I see is unusual — like the Icelandic — I write down when and where I saw the bird next to its depiction. It helps me to recall my memory of the bird later.
“I find birds to be beautiful, graceful animals,” she says. “They think and do things much differently than we do. That’s fascinating to me. And I enjoy being outdoors.”
Ireland has been an avid bird-watcher for 12 years, but had never in a Christmas count. There is no count conducted in the Belfast area, but Markowsky is encouraging her to organize one.
Richard and Betty Baird have lived in Bangor for 10 years. Trained as a plant ecologist, Richard Baird proved to have the sharpest eyes in the group and was designated official scorekeeper. He says his experience with “ocular reconnaissance of plants” is helpful in spotting and counting birds.
“The highlight of the day for me was the hawk,” he reports. “The sharp-shin is hard to identify, but Judy [Markowsky] really helped pin it down. That will help me identify it again. It was really exciting to see.”
Smith says that not only did the volunteers identify a record number of species this count, but more eyes, 60 pairs in all, were watching this year as well. He still compiles his statistics by hand, gathering information over the phone before mailing his final report in mid-January to the society’s headquarters in New York.
“Our most unusual sighting was a Baltimore oriole at a feeder in Winterport,” he says. “They are summer residents and insect and fruit eaters, but rarely winter in the continental United States. By September, they are usually gone. Two red-winged blackbirds and yellow-rump warblers also were reported, and they’re neo-tropical migrants who usually only come here to breed.”
When such species are sighted so far from their natural habitat, compilers must justify the sighting by sending a written description of the species, along with their reports. The final report for the entire national count will be published in the fall.
“I’ve been compiling this count for five years,” says Smith. “It’s the most exciting year so far. It has been an eruptive winter for species like the pine grosbeaks and the bohemian waxwings. We have a record number of 58 species and total number of approximately 7,100 birds sighted.”
Smith says that bird-watching has gained popularity over the past 20 years because it does not take a lot of physical energy, and home feeders allow shut-ins to enjoy feathered friends.
“There’s also no age limit to bird-watching,” he says. “My grandmother is 98 and she has a hummingbird feeder on her window at her retirement home. She can’t see real well now, but she can see her hummingbirds just fine.”