Saturday, July 20, 2019

Baxter State Park

What is it with people hanging dead animal heads on walls?  I'm grossed out and fascinated by it all at the same time. 
Over the years, Kathie and I had both spoken about going to Baxter State Park in Maine.  Our plans had changed.  Kathie's husband Gus suffered a stroke and was now in recovery. Our plans to drive from Maine to Wisconsin changed.  I knew they'd change when I had heard the news.  Over the years with my friendship to Kathie, I've also grown to include Gus as a friend.  He's a great guy and I am so thankful that we were able to visit longer.  But I'm not going to get all wishy washy emotional.  Neither of us like that emotion stuff:)  I'm just glad he's ok.  Kathie's got enough emotion for ALL of us:)

With my Dad's heart surgery and Gus's stroke, I knew Kathie would want to stay home.  I told Kathie not to stress because Gus was more important. He's an amazing guy. I just didn't want to intrude on their routine.  But in Gus fashion, he told us to get out of the house and have fun.  So like much of the summer, I "rubber banded" it with Kathie and my family in Wisconsin. We'd make it work and have fun with it all. It was a summer of family and friends which meant we birded close or somewhat close to home so that we could "snap" back if there was an emergency. Plus for everyone involved in both Wisconsin and Maine, we had to drive to appointments!  They're still getting their treatments/therapy!

One of the places, we decided to explore was Baxter State Park.  It was one of our splurges. Kathie's mission was to hit 500 lifebirds this summer.  Mine was to add just a few.  Our first lifer together was this beautiful Black-backed Woodpecker!

Black-backed Woodpecker
This woodpecker can be a hard one for many birders across the country.  But not because they are rare; but because they can be rather elusive and prefer dense forest areas. Kathie spotted this one and I was able to get a quick shot before it flew off. Throughout our time there, we heard many more drumming off in the distance. 

Baxter State Park is gorgeous and free to state residents!  We stayed at the Big Moose Inn which was really an iconic piece of Maine history and close to the park.  One of the things I love about Kathie is her knack for finding excellent restaurants and places to stay.  

There were birders coming through the area and had also stayed at the Inn during our stay.  I heard them in the morning but chose to stay in bed.  After they left, we went to get breakfast.  I could have sat there all day and it was Kathie who said, "Come on Rohrer, we've got birds to find."  I was hesitant because I knew it would be another day fighting blackflies and mosquitoes. My body looked like a war zone after my trek to Maine. Surprisingly though, there were NO ticks in this park. So if we had gotten rid of the blackflies, our journeys out into the park would have been even more perfect.

Philadelphia Vireo
Another bird I had to find was the Philadelphia Vireo.  I'll be honest. I'm not into vireos.  They're cool birds, but I wasn't into digging through every vireo call in the forest.  So many vireos sang and many of them were Red-eyed Vireos.  The calls are almost identical and I couldn't distinguish the two species apart. So when we found this one above, I smiled at the accomplishment and just enjoyed the rest of the scenic drive. 

Did we find a moose?  Yes but the moose was on the interstate!  There were moose sightings in the park, but we never did see one there.  We did find this cool looking Eastern Painted Turtle however!

Blackflies kept up the attack.  And human flesh was exposed.  No amount of spray would keep them off my body.  The spray worked with mosquitoes but not the blackflies.  Even writing about this memory makes me itch and cringe again. 

Black-and-white Warbler
However, with great bugs come great warblers.  So many great warblers. Baxter State Park is quite a magical place.  The habitat was just slightly different enough to have a unique sampling of birds that we couldn't find around Kathie and Gus's home outside of migration. 

Ok. I'll admit that there is one vireo I kinda dig more than the others.  The Blue-headed Vireo below is a looker.  Their slightly slower call, yet very similar Red-eyed Vireo call, makes them a tad easier to find. 

Blue-headed Vireo
And then there were eastern warbler calls galore.  Just when I thought I'd get used to a call, I'd second guess myself.  Is that a Pine Warbler or a Chipping Sparrow calling?

Pine Warbler
Who's making that short and loud vocal burst?

Magnolia Warbler
Oh!  It's a singing male Magnolia Warbler setting up a territory! But didn't they have a different call?  Yes but it wasn't making that one:)

In Arizona, visitors always ask me, "What's that hawk?"  My automated response is "Red-tailed Hawk."  Then they respond, "But that doesn't look like our Red-tailed Hawk back home." 
"It won't.  We have several subspecies here." 
Back to Maine.  I'm in the visitor spot now and I ask Kathie, "What's that warbler call?"
"American Redstart"

There are so many vocalizations for this species.  And I think I've nailed the ID on this bird now just by hearing their various calls a million times.  I had A LOT of practice in both Maine and Wisconsin.  I can officially "talk" to this bird and it's part of my bird vocabulary now. 

male American Redstart
Another bird that I've also memorized and can easily ID is the high slurred wind up zzzzzzeeeeeeet of the Northern Parula.  Easy peasy. 

Northern Parula
In short, Maine was incredible.  There are several more posts that I will write which will include birding codes and connections to the birds.  I discovered some weird things about myself there while birding.  I'll explore that during a trek to Monhegan Island with Magill in our next post. My last lifer from Baxter State Park was the Yellow-bellied Flycatcher which I have also memorized now.  It was fun finding this species but it's a birder's bird.  It's one of them flycatcher jobs, but by finding this species, I completed all of my North American flycatchers. 

In many ways, Maine birding was my "dotting the i's and crossing the t's trek" to complete my flycatcher and vireo lists.  I just need Black-whiskered Vireo now to complete all of my vireos for the US. Kathie and I both loved Baxter State Park.  We only scratched the surface. Stay tuned for more.....

Monday, June 24, 2019

"Maine-iac Birders"

I had arrived at the tail end of migration yet again. The minute I saw Blackpoll Warblers, I knew the game was over. My quest for Bay-breasted and Cape May Warblers would have to wait for another day. 

How does one say gaudy in Maine-ish?
But that didn't stop our grand adventures.  Birding around Maine is as scenic as it gets in the US.  However, the bugs were relentless.  Black flies, mosquitoes and ticks were in full force.  And I thought Wisconsin was bad.  Maine, besides maybe Florida, beats most of the states for crazy bug attacks. Although, I've heard Alaska is a nightmare in summer. They say bird along the coast, but honestly, the coast was just as bad. 

Broad-winged Hawk
Between the odd and fantastical, we discovered many incredible birds together. I loved seeing several bird species better.  Several were on my list of "must see again". 

As Kathie and I both explored beautiful spaces near her home, we observed many birds singing and moving about branches. 

Blackpoll Warblers are one of the last warblers to migrate
Many birds were setting up territories. 

Bobolink males call and set up their territories
And between the constant attack of the blackfly, I was able to get off a couple shots here and there.  It's no wonder why warblers love Maine.  There's plenty of food for them there:)

Then an amazing thing happened!  I was able to get wonderful observations of a bird I had only seen briefly ONCE, the Scarlet Tanager. 

When they are breeding, they are super difficult to observe.  Luckily we hit a fantastic observation window where they were still moving and calling out in the open.  I not only got to see this bird once but MANY times.  We even rescued an injured one!

Purple Finches are wonderfully colored and were in good numbers everywhere we went. 

A finch dipped in raspberry jam, the Purple Finch
Vireos made me cringe.  They all sound similar.  My job was to find a Philadelphia Vireo and separate it from the Red-eyed and Warbling Vireos in the area. 

A pair of Red-eyed Vireos
Some birds are super tricky.  I had some work ahead of me.  Every day we went out and counted birds. 

Even though the migration was coming to an end, there were still a lot of great warblers out there. 

Chestnut-sided Warbler
A Veery popped out into the open. 

The exciting shrill, "Free Beer!", of the Alder Flycatcher made us smile. 

Alder Flycatcher
The picturesque Cedar Waxwings posed often in budding Apple Trees. 

Cedar Waxwings
Baltimore Orioles collected cattail fuzz for their nests. 

female Baltimore Oriole
Gray Catbirds appeared from behind our backs always watching us from the shadows. 

Gray Catbird
Black-throated Blue Warblers were loudly calling inside the forests. 

Black-throated Blue Warbler
And this Ruby-throated Hummingbird fiercely protected his feeder from other hummingbirds. 

Ruby-throated Hummingbird
The electronic warble of the Bobolink was a common sound among the wildflower tinged grasses.

In short.  It was nice revisiting several bird species that I don't get to see often in Arizona.  Once we finished our first sweep of the common birds, we began our journey for the harder ones.  And those stories will be told over the next several weeks. So until next time, use some bug spray:)  This wet and cold summer of the North has arrived. 

Tuesday, June 18, 2019

Machias Seal Island

My dream shot that I have pictured in my head for so many years becomes realized.  The Northern Gannet.
At the beginning of this year, I set some goals for myself.  I really wanted to study Razorbills and several sparrows in better detail.  In the whole scheme of things, this year has had a slower track with some retread, but I'm methodical and had a strong desire to understand habitat, sounds, and observe a particular set of birds I had seen only once in my lifetime. There were some birds I wanted to revisit again even if they weren't lifebirds.  And you'll see why. 

Scheduled almost 5 months in advance, Kathie and I both set out for Machias Seal Island.  While the Hardy Boat tour out to Eastern Egg Island was nice, it didn't provide the observations I had been hoping for with these birds. Plus the waters were rough and our pelagic out to the island was not great for Kathie.  So we crossed our fingers and tried something different. 

A happy Kathie sits next to a journalist
We headed to Machias Seal Island which is like the neutral zone between the Canada and US border.  While the Canadian government maintains the lighthouse, the island is left unmarked by either side and benefits from both governments. It is here on this island that one can find over 6ooo pairs of Atlantic Puffins nesting.  

It was the most perfect pelagic out.  It was overcast at first in Cutler, but once we left the dock, the clouds began to open and the sun came out!  It was a photographer's dream!  To top it off, we experienced smooth sailing the entire way there. 

If the waters are choppy, birders have to stay on board the vessel.  Normally there are about 20 some passengers, but for some reason on our day out to sea, 15 of them cancelled.  When I say it was the most perfect day, I am not exaggerating. 

Common Murre
We arrived to the slippery dock of Machias Seal Island.  All around us we watched Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Common Murres, Arctic Terns and a Northern Gannet fly around us!

While I'm a huge fan of sparrows, grouse, parrots, gulls and several other families of birds, I really really dig ocean birds which include the alcids. 

Only a few decades ago, these islands were barren or mostly barren of any puffins along the north eastern part of Maine.  During the summer of 2014, thousands of puffin chicks died when their normal food source disappeared due to warm waters. However, since then, with lots of conservation work, these birds are thriving and doing well.  

All predators, including rodents and Great Black-backed Gulls, were exterminated from the islands.  Because of this controlled effort, puffins, murres and Arctic terns have also come back in greater numbers. 

I have a confession.  While I love the Atlantic Puffins, I love the Razorbills and Northern Gannets a tad more.  How do I know this?  When I got home, I discovered that I had taken more pics of Razorbills than of the Puffins. 

Because the sun was so cooperative for the photography, I was able to get fantastically detailed pics of a normally difficult ocean bird.  It's all about the eye with this bird.  Often the eye of the Razorbill blends in with the rest of the black.  But thanks to excellent lighting, I was able to get the detail. 

I watched these birds copulate, fly, and socialize.  They didn't mind the Atlantic Puffins moving around their spaces. The two species seem to coexist well together.  Common Murres stuck closer to the ocean and were always seen together. 

Kathie and I had a good laugh as the birds would peek down into our hide and watch us watch them.  We'd hear "tap tap tap" on top of our blind.  I hate to use the word "cute", but it was. 

We were given an hour inside the blind and it was great.  Here I was with my friend out in the middle of the ocean observing these amazing birds.  Life doesn't get much better than that!

Again, I can't stress to you all how much we lucked out.  Often a pelagic can be cancelled due to rough ocean waters.  Just the day before, the trip had been cancelled and the following day after us, the waters had become choppy and birders were denied access onto the island due to the dangers. Reservations book fast and must be done early in the year.  Once you book, you cross your fingers and hope the weather plays nice for your trek.  It's always a gamble. 

Common Tern on nest
As is the case with Maine, weather can change quickly.  On our way off the island, the sun was replaced with overcast skies.  Rain had come back into the forecast.  It's like Mother Nature waited for us to do our work. 

Common Eiders
It was beautiful observing birds without a ton of people around us. 

As we left our world of "Jurassic Park", I just sat back grateful for the experience.  I also was excited for Kathie as she added the Razorbill species to her life list!

These are the days that birders dream about.  Over the next several weeks, we'll do some birding in Maine.  

Until next time.....

PS.  Atlantic Puffins sound like lawn mowers:)

Arctic Tern