Wing Watchers

Binoculars are up, and the count is on from the Schoodic Peninsula. With guides who know where to look, we're watching for birdlife-in the sky and on the sea.

Everyone fans out across the ledge at Schoodic Point, staying within earshot of one another. Waves are splashing with great whooshes into rock crevices.

“If the herring gulls all fly up at once, look for an eagle,” Bob Duchesne calls out.

He’s one of two seasoned Maine birders leading a vanload of eco-minded travelers on a four-day excursion downeast, the Winged Migration tour. I’ve just caught up with the group as it gathers on the sun-warmed granite. The wide ledges of Schoodic Point are at the very tip of the Schoodic Peninsula, across Winter Harbor from Mount Desert Island. The massive rock formations are in hues of pink, orange, and gray that are splattered in many places with the white stains of bird droppings. It’s probably a good sign for this outing, I think.

The group members are already fixing their gazes on the choppy ocean water, the distant Schoodic Island, and the bright sky above. Each person has a pair of binoculars at the ready. This bird pursuit began with the participants arriving by car or air to meet in Bangor and then driving here, just in time for the late-summer southern migration of birds (and people).

We don’t see eagles at the moment. (At the tour’s start, Duchesne predicts to the group that we will see at least a dozen bald eagles during the trip.) The names of other specific types of birds are soon called out when people spot them—over there a black guillemot (akin to the puffin, with vermillion-red feet), and then a great cormorant diving into the surf. Northern harriers are flying low near Schoodic Island, and the common eider ducks are likely fishing for blue mussels, according to Seth Benz, the other bird expert who coordinates this tour.

First Lobster, 54th Bird

The group is basing its birdwatching from the Schoodic Institute in Acadia National Park during the days that we join them. As we watch that sunny afternoon from Schoodic Point, and then from the Blueberry Hill Overlook (also in Acadia on the Schoodic Peninsula), group members and the guides identify as many floating or flying birds as they can by sight, and sometimes by the sound of their calls or songs. Some birds’ identities are confirmed through comparisons with illustrations in birders’ field guides. And I notice that people are jotting numbers and checkmarks down on paper checklists. Like a scorecard, a bird tally is being kept.

At dinnertime, while the group is seated on a patio at the Schoodic Institute for trays of steaming lobster and corn on the cob, Benz announces the numbers and types of birds seen so far, including hundreds of sandpipers, a few hawks, and several warbler songbirds. By the end of the group’s first day, the collective total is 54 species of birds.

This is good news for the five couples who are participating. They’re traveling together as staff and members of a community nature center in Troy, Ohio. “We’re here for the opportunity to see seabirds and other species of birds and animals that aren’t found in the Midwest,” Becky Crow of the Brukner Nature Center explains.

Birds aren’t the only draw, though. Not everyone in the group is an avid birdwatcher, says Deb Oexmann, executive director of the center, and most had never visited Maine. So the tour is an interesting way to explore the state’s coastline. At dinner, several people say it’s their first experience eating a steamed lobster. For Oexmann, this is a return trip. After college she hiked the Appalachian Trail with a Mount Katahdin start.

Two-Man Tour

In the morning we’ll begin birding again. Ferrying the group in a 15-person van, Duchesne and Benz make sure the travelers see as much wildlife as possible. At each stop, they stand before the group and give an introduction to the scenery and birds, and they set up a powerful viewing scope on a tripod when there are distant views of interest to be had—like those northern harriers gliding buoyantly over Schoodic Island.

Duchesne has the deep and mellow voice of a disc jockey. He has, in fact, worked as a radio host for decades. Now he’s a Maine state legislator (representing House district 121) and a birding columnist for the Bangor Daily News. He also devised the Maine Birding Trail, a listing and guide to specific places where there’s a good chance to see birds.

Benz adds his own scholarly and scientific knowledge to the mix. He previously worked for Project Puffin and as assistant curator of the Hawk Mountain Sanctuary in Pennsylvania, and he’s now the director of the Bird Ecology Program, a field station for bird study at the Schoodic Institute at Acadia National Park.

Together, the two men offer the birding tour several times each year. I’m catching up
with them during the fall migration, when Maine is a birding hotspot. Millions of birds move through the state each spring (heading north) and then again in late summer and
fall (southbound). It’s part of the fascinating natural phenomenon of migration, when birds of all sizes, including hawks and seabirds from Canada and beyond, pass by en masse—some flying thousands of miles in each direction.

Chasing Tides

Plovers. Greater and lesser yellowlegs. Sandpipers. We see birds in every direction when we arrive at Pinkham Bay in Steuben. The high tide is withdrawing, exposing wide mudflats. Winged creatures are flying high overhead and low over the water; birds are darting about in the mud, heads down and feeding feverishly.

Duchesne looks through the viewing scope. “There are hundreds, if not thousands, of shorebirds on that other side.”

It’s an impressive natural scene. Birds are flying together, moving in sweeping masses
of energy. Large oyster shells are scattered about. I spy a lone deer on a muddy bank across the water. And we all watch as an osprey that has been hovering overhead suddenly drops in a targeted splash into the water to catch a fish in his talons—a fish so big that the raptor flies low to carry it away.

Duchesne recognizes our excitement, but he says it’s always bittersweet to see the largest flocks of birds today, “because you think about how many more there would have been years ago.”

Benz notes that shorebirds are of particular concern, and that studies show that several Atlantic Flyway shorebird species have experienced declines between 50 percent and 90 percent within the last three decades; and 38 shorebird species spend some portion of their annual life cycle in Maine. Two of those species, the piping plover and the red knot, are listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

While we spend the rest of the afternoon paying attention to the mixed flocks of shorebirds feeding and flying across the flats, I wonder about what’s ahead for bird populations as the world faces climate and environmental changes. Observing and understanding wildlife feels even more important.

Whale Morning, Hawkish Afternoon

The next day we’re all up before daylight to grab breakfast before heading over to meet a boat with the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co. The idea is to see whales and, hopefully, some migrating seabirds, too.

Everyone is wearing multiple layers of jackets and sweaters, but it turns out to be one of those ultra-calm days on the water. The sun is warming, and the blue of the water is almost the same hue as the sky—the horizon is practically seamless.

The boat tracks out of the harbor, toward the lighthouse and Mount Desert Rock research station that’s about 25 nautical miles south of the College of the Atlantic. We see only glimpses of birdlife at first. Duchesne and Benz begin to point out dozens of birds, including sanderling-like red-necked phalaropes and larger great shearwaters; the black and white shearwaters live offshore and range north to Greenland and Iceland.

The guides keep their binoculars up and tell us they were hoping for more sightings of rare birds. But I’m not let down. It’s always amazing to me that birds and animals can live far away from land. I’m fascinated. Besides, it’s a gorgeous day, and other marine life keeps popping up in the open water. We see gray seals with bulky, horse-like heads; pods of playful white dolphins that jump from the water in perfectly rounded arcs as they swim; and two humpback whales floating next to each other like enormous logs. When the whales roll into motion and begin to swim, their fins and tails remind me of wings; their movements in the water are as graceful as birds. Suddenly, a chickadee-sized bird flits across the deck of the boat—how and why is it so far offshore? The passengers point and the boat’s crew identify the interloper as a red- breasted nuthatch. Then the pair of whales splashes and dives. Their tails rise, dripping above the sea’s surface. It’s an unforgettable snapshot of the large and small wonders of nature.

Back on land that afternoon, we take a picnic lunch to the top of Cadillac Mountain. A ranger from Acadia National Park is staffing a fall hawk watch nearby. We sit to watch the hawks and herring gulls lifted on the thermals, the wind currents rising up from the ocean. The sun is bright and there are only thin wisps of clouds in the peaceful afternoon sky. “That’s definitely a sharpie,” I hear someone say. The raptor with a rapid wingbeat must be a sharp-shinned hawk.

Final Countdown

Crow writes to me later and describes one of her favorite moments of the trip. On the return drive from Lubec, she says, the group stopped at a cove near Cutler for one of the last chances to add a new bird species to their lists. Birds weren’t the show there, though. Instead, they came upon what must have been hundreds of harbor seals. Mist was hanging over the relatively calm water, and the seals’ heads were all positioned in the same way, just above the water, she recalls. “It was surreal. I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”

Another highlight of the trip for Crow was that her husband added 33 species to his life list while in Maine. Everyone in the Ohio group, she says, gained a new appreciation for birds. Her musings remind me of that first night when we were all sitting around cracking into lobster claws. We’d been birdwatching all day, yet some in the group talked of going out again, this time on a moonlit walk to listen and look for owls before bedtime—they might be able to add one more bird to the checklist.

Beyond personal goals, the sightings add to science. Bird counts from the Maine tours are folded into data and work gathered by the Schoodic Bird Ecology Lab, according to Benz. More broadly, he says, the information “helps to document bird presence, abundance, and distribution throughout the region.”

So while it’s fun just to be outside and to be a better observer of the sights, sounds, and variety of birdlife, this downeast trip reinforced for me that it can also be important to share what you’ve discovered. To that end, the group did eventually see a bald eagle, as Duchesne had predicted—more than 20 eagles were spied during the trip. That was cause for a little celebrating in the van. And in this patient sport of birdwatching, I’ve learned, the counts really do count.