It may be too late in the season to see a willet at the Bay of Fundy but I will try.
Today I’m beginning an intensive three days of watching shorebirds – and I mean watching. My plan is to follow them no matter what they do: feeding, walking, flying, flocking, calling. I won’t have an expert with me but I hope that by the end of three days I’ll be better at identifying them by their general look and behavior — and that’s bound to help.
One such bird that I’ve almost mastered is the willet. Many’s the time I’ve carefully stalked these plain, long-legged, long-billed birds as they feed at the shore. I try hard not to spook them while I figure out their field marks.
I’ve been known to watch them with their wings closed for as much as half an hour. Then I’m saved when a predator flies over. The willets open their wings to escape and Wow! No doubt about them! Look at that distinctive wing pattern!
I should learn from this that some birds can only be identified when they fly.
Theoretically I could learn to recognize willets by their voices but that requires more time than I have this week, and it’s unlikely I’ll ever hear their territorial song in September. It’s the sound that gave them their name: “Pill-will-willet.”
(photo by Steve Gosser)
When we watch peregrine falcons nesting on camera in urban settings or visit them at bridges we often forget that they nest in wild places.
Here’s a wild place where peregrines nest every year: Champlain Mountain at Acadia National Park.
Champlain is a 1,058-foot granite mountain that overlooks Frenchman’s Bay. The side shown here is the “easy” slope but I can tell you from climbing it that even this side is steep. It’s a staircase to heaven.
The other side, where the peregrines nest, is a sheer cliff with a trail too steep for anyone afraid of heights. (I am!) That trail is called The Precipice and it’s closed during nesting season.
Cliff nests, though in beautiful settings, are generally not as successful as those on tall buildings. In the past decade there have been as many as four peregrine nests at Acadia but all four failed one spring due to bad weather.
This year there were only two nests, one at the Precipice, the other at Beech Cliffs. Beech fledged four young in June but for weeks it looked like the Precipice nest would fail. The pair picked a likely nest site but abandoned it when they should have been incubating.
The Precipice peregrines remained on territory but continued to puzzle everyone until late June when observers heard a nestling begging. In July this pair fledged one young female. And now the trail is again open for climbing.
For photos of Acadia’s peregrines (including two pictures of Ranger Lora Haller, formerly of Pittsburgh), click here.
(photo of Champlain Mountain by Moses Martin)
One of the most memorable bird moments of my life happened on Bubble Pond.
It was 20 years ago at Acadia National Park. My husband and I had hiked up Cadillac Mountain and were returning on the carriage path when we paused to look at the pond through a gap in the trees. There, only a few yards away from us, was a female common merganser. Alone.
I was very excited to see her, but in those days I could not identify ducks without my field guide and it was in the car. I told my husband, “This could take a while” and rushed back to the car to get it. He understood and waited near the parking lot, reading a book.
Back at the pond the merganser was still there, dipping her face in the water to watch for fish. Sometimes she raised her head and looked at me unafraid. I figured out her name but I didn’t want to leave.
It was very quiet, only the sound of small waves lapping at the shore. The sun sparkled on the water. The merganser swam near me. Peace.
(photo by Kippy Spilker from Shutterstock)
Last evening before Tropical Storm Earl reached Maine, I checked on what the birds were doing:
- Surf was high at the outer islands by late afternoon so rafts of common eiders came into the sheltered coves of Mt Desert. I’ve never seen so many so close.
- Another ocean bird came in too. By dusk, northern gannets were hunting fish within sight of shore.
- An hour after sunset the air was calm and almost foggy when I heard large numbers of Swainson’s thrushes migrating in the dark, heading west along the coast. It seemed to me they were flying toward the bad weather. I wished them luck.
The wind and rain did not begin until 4:00am. At dawn the crows & osprey were up and out as usual. Maybe the birds are better informed than the Weather Channel.
UPDATE, 11:00am: No wind, and now no rain. Earl was more hype than storm.
The sky was red-pink at sunrise this morning.
After five days of absolutely clear, hot weather the clouds are here in advance of Hurricane Earl. By the time Earl gets here he’ll be downgraded to a tropical storm. The wind out there in the Gulf of Maine will be 50-65 knots (57-74 mph) with waves 18-28 feet.
(p.s. Here on land it will rain from midnight Fri to noon Sat with wind gusting to 50 mph. Not bad.)
Today in coastal Maine we have a Heat Advisory and a Tropical Storm Warning. Heat today will feel like 100 degrees and then tomorrow, wind, waves and rain. So far all is calm.
We’re on Day Three of four days in a row of incredibly hot weather for Maine. At this time of year the normal high we’re used to is 75. Today it will be 90 and the air quality will be bad because the air is moving up from PA, NYC, and the east coast. It’s too hot to hike.
Some of you asked if Hurricane Earl will affect us. Yes, but my husband and I are looking forward to the rain & cooler temperatures. We might regret that attitude at dawn on Saturday when Earl will have been here for 6 hours, but for now Earl is welcome to arrive ASAP!
When you enter Maine on I-95 you are greeted with this motto: The Way Life Should Be.
I agree. That’s why I come here.
Life should always be On Vacation, surrounded by beautiful scenery.
Bring on the birds!
(photo of sunrise at Acadia National Park by Moses Martin)
If you watch birds in Pennsylvania a glance at this one suggests it’s a red-tailed or rough-legged hawk.
Nope. It’s an upland buzzard (Buteo hemilasius), native to Central Asia.
Todd Katzner is on a field expedition in Mongolia and emailed me this picture yesterday, a sample of the stunning raptors he’s seeing there.
A lot of my scientist friends do field work in the summer, something I’ve never done. To get a sense of what their trips are like I’ve been reading Tingay & Katzner’s The Eagle Watchers.
Ghostly New Guinea harpy eagles, wary and comical Steller’s sea eagles.
The birds they see on field expeditions are out of this world.
(photo by Dr. Todd Katzner of the National Aviary)
The cool thing about going to Maine is that I get to see birds I would never see at home. This northern gannet is a perfect example. There’s no way this huge sea bird with a six and a half foot wingspan would be found taking a nose dive in the Monongahela River. He needs deep saltwater for his livelihood.
I’ve seen northern gannets from the shores of Virginia and Florida in the winter but they’re far away and look like tiny arrowheads. To get a closeup like this and to see a host of birds who never come near shore, I have to travel far off the coast on a pelagic tour.
Maine Audubon has an annual pelagic tour in October that goes 40 miles off the coast of Bar Harbor, but I’ll be in Pittsburgh then. What to do? A Maine birder gave me a tip: You can see pelagic birds on the Whale Watch. The goals of these two boat trips are different but the whale watch looks for whales up to 20 miles offshore and pelagic birds are often in the vicinity of whales because both are looking for food-filled patches of ocean. He also said that if you can pick any day to make the trip, go when the wind is light - otherwise the wave action hides the loafing birds.
So I went on the whale watch Wednesday morning when the waves were less than a foot high. The weather was great and I met another birder, Andy Block, who leads birding tours to Costa Rica for Tico Tours. For a landlubber like me sea birds are often confusing so I was really glad Andy was there to tell me what they were:
I do enjoy these trips! And now you see why I was thinking about waves this week.
p.s. I nearly forgot to mention we did see a whale – one finback – plus harbor seals and harbor porpoises.
(photo by Kim Steininger. Click on the photo to read Kim’s blog describing how she captured it.)