Birdwatching: Greater Portland bird numbers show great diversity

A Chipping Sparrow, shown in Freeport in May 2013, was a surprise find during the December 18 Greater Portland Christmas Bird Count. Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press

This column is the last of three, reviewing highlights from the Maine Christmas Bird Counts (CBCs), sponsored by the National Audubon Society. Each count was made on a day between December 14 and January 5 in a circle 15 miles in diameter.

The Greater Portland CBC generally has the highest bird diversity of any count in Maine, and that trend held true again this season, as the December 18 count produced 100 species. The 22 species of waterfowl were an extraordinary number. Persistent puddle ducks helped count species. Seven gadwalls, one wigeon, three pintails and a green-winged teal joined the more abundant mallards and black ducks.

Both scaup species were present: 12 scaup and 7 scaup. Barrow’s tourniquet appeared. Gannets are sometimes seen just offshore in winter along the southwest coast. Five were present this year. Three sandpipers were counted: 280 sanderlings, six dunlins and 78 purple sandpipers on intertidal rocks. The only auks were 20 razorbills and 28 black guillemots.

Notable birds of prey included three snowy owls, a swivel, and two peregrine falcons.

The relatively mild climate along the southwest coast keeps the water open a bit longer than other parts of the state, so waterfowl can linger. This list of birds included 12 great blue herons and eight belted kingfishers. Hardy and persistent land birds included three red-headed vultures, eight harriers, one killdir, one yellow-bellied woodpecker, five northern flickers, three winter wrens, one marsh wren and five hermit thrushes. A Chipping Sparrow, Savannah Sparrow and Swamp Sparrow made a lovely trio of unusual sparrows for this time of year.

Members of the robin family do not typically overwinter in Maine. Four species were pushing their luck this year with two red-winged blackbirds, a common grackle, a brown-headed cowbird and a Baltimore oriole counted. The northern finches were represented by a single purple finch. A wandering western, western tanager, put the icing on the cake.

All birds matter, so we must recognize the abundance of three introduced species. This CBC produced 819 rock pigeons, 910 European starlings and 830 house sparrows. These three species accounted for 20.3% of all individuals in this count.

The York County CBC was held on December 20 and resulted in the counting of 90 species. Sixteen species of waterfowl honored this tally. Three snow geese were a great find as well as three pintails and six green winged teals. Seven gannets were close enough to shore to be spotted. Both species of cormorants were found: 42 great cormorants (our normal winter cormorant) and two evergreen double-crested cormorants.

Seven species of the hawk family were present, including a red-shouldered hawk, seven bald eagles and a rare golden eagle. Three species of owls were present including a scops owl and a snowy owl. The two Dunlins and the 91 Purple Sandpipers are expected winter sandpipers, but not a Wilson’s Snipe. A great sighting! The five species of gulls included a black-headed gull.

Lingering birds included seven turkey vultures, five belted kingfishers, four flickers, three hermit thrushes, a pine warbler, a chirpy sparrow and five meadow sparrows (including one of the Ipswich subspecies that breeds only on Sable Island, Nova Scotia). Four purple finches were the only northern finches present this year.

We will end by heading east to Moose Island-Jonesport where on December 18 CBC produced 58 species. The 22 Harlequin Ducks were the most notable of the 13 waterfowl species present. This part of the state is good for spruce grouse and one has been found as well as a crested grouse. A black-headed gull was a nice find among four more common gull species.

Persistent landbirds were rare. Two Chipping Sparrows and a Red-winged Blackbird were the only ones. The finches present were seven purple finches, six redpolls and 49 goldfinches.

Herb Wilson taught ornithology and other biology courses at Colby College. He welcomes comments and questions from readers to [email protected]

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