Monday, October 12, 2009
Whimbrels in northern Maine
Back in late August, I had a really good day in the field.
I birded a route from Woodland and Caribou east to Limestone and then south through Fort Fairfield and Easton. The morning started off unremarkably and I was tallying most of the expected commoner birds and a few of the less common migrants here and there. Regardless of the apparent mediocrity in bird assortment, I was enjoying the morning and was taking my time and in no rush. As it turned out, I ended up at Christina Reservoir fairly late in the morning and even though I really didn't think there would be much to see, I decided to stop in anyway.
Surprisingly enough, there seemed to be quite a bit of bird activity at the reservoir. The first to draw my attention was some large rafts of ducks in the middle of the pond: about 430 Ringed-necked Ducks and well over 200 American Wigeon. It was an impressive group, and once I got a good look at them with my spotting scope, the number of molting wigeon in the raft was a bit of a surprise. A few molting Common Goldeneyes were also in the mix.
Once I turned my attention away from the ducks and started to scan other parts of the lake, I came across a gorgeous breeding plumaged Red-necked Grebe tucked up in one corner. These grebes are quite rare but not unexpected in late summer as migration begins. Still it was a good find amongst all the Pied-billed Grebes that breed here.
3 young White-winged Scoters were my next find. They were asleep in the middle of the pond but slivers of white showing on the sides of their black velvet plumage revealed thier idenities. Early arrivals, too. Another good discovery.
Some midsized, dark birds bouyantly flying over the far side of the pond turned into Black Terns under my scope's high magnification. I hadn't seen one of these in northern Maine since the previous year...finding 3 was quite a coup! The birds were in partial winter plumage and had quite a bit of white on them. I was really cranking now!
If all this wasn't enough, there was a pretty good shorebird show going on here. The low water meant lots of bare mud along the shore and quite few sandpipers were working the waters edge. Small groups of these were cycling back and forth across the mud. Kept aloft, no doubt by a circling Merlin. Amongst them were Least, Spotted and a few Semipalmated Sandpipers, numbers of Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs and a bunch of Semipalmated Plovers and Killdeer.
I already thought this was banner shorebird day for this inland location when 7 large brown shorebirds flying over the east end of pond caught my eye. My binoculars revealed long downcurved bills and bold dark stripes on the head. Whimbrels!
Though there are a few records of this big shorebird in northern Maine (including Christiana Reservoir), I had never seen this species here. To find seven was thrilling to say the least. I watched the birds for 15 munutes as they landed on the dead wood piled on along the shore. The birds preened a bit then tucked in their heads and settled in for nap.
I underlined the date in my notebook...August 23rd 2009. I was going to remember this day!
In first week of October, I received an email from Linda Alverson. She had forwarded me a couple pictures of an unusual bird she'd gotten from a local resident. In her message, Linda identified the bird as a Whimbrel and the images proved her out.
The bird had been photographed in a horse paddock in my hometown of Woodland by Jessica Belanger . On spotting the big brown shorebird, she had recognized it as unusual and spent 10 minutes sneaking up on the bird and snapping the great photos you see here. The dark brown eye and crown stripes and the long bill are clearly visible.
Recalling the Christina Reservoir Whimbrels, I thought this was a great coincidence that this rare species was found in twice in northern Maine this fall! Most amazing was the date the bird was photographed...23 August! The same date I had seen the 7 over in Fort Fairfield.
Clearly there was some weather and migratory phenomena that brought these rare birds down in central Aroostook county on the same day. Good stuff.
Whimbrel migration in Maine
In mid August, Charlie Duncan sent out a message about a satellite transmitter equipped Whimbrel that had just embarked on a marathon movement that took it over Maine then out over open ocean. The bird had, at that point, been flying for 4 days straight and had covered well over 1000 miles! The bird was marked as part of a collaborative effort by the Center
for Conservation Biology at the College of William and Mary - Virginia
Commonwealth University and the Virginia Chapter of the Nature Conservancy to discover migratory routes that connect breeding and winter areas and to identify en route migratory staging areas . Amazing stuff
The link for a website that shows the paths of migratory Whimbrels that are tagged with satellite transmitters is well worth a look: