Saturday, January 6, 2018

The Frostbite Chronicles

These gents nearly freezed on the slippery causeway out to the lighthouse.  They did not have the proper winter gear on for this trek. 
The bitter cold. For so many years I have wanted to bird in it.  Over the years, I've taken you to Wisconsin and other cold places.  It would be this trip to Maine with my friend Kathie where we'd finally feel the sting of birding in historic subzero temps. 

Blue Jays. These are NEVER easy birds to photograph BUT in the winter, out of desperation, they will come to the feeders in the masses and feed!  
It wasn't expected.  It wasn't planned.  It just happened.  During my entire stay in Maine, we endured subzero temps....and then we were hit with a blizzard.  Is it possible to bird in these conditions?  Yes.  But it's serious birding. 

Another tricky bird to photograph, the Tufted Titmouse, finally stays put for a decent shot!
 I wanted cold but I should have been careful for what I wished for!  In my mind, birding in 10-30 degree Fahrenheit temps is comfortable with the proper attire. What I hadn't planned on was the wearing of 4 layers of clothing(t-shirt, sweater, vest, and coat) and two layers of socks!  Kathie prepped our hot drinks in the morning with a wonderful blend of lemon and ginger for a buttery citrus zing that warmed the cockles.   

hen Common Eiders are common in harbors and along the coastal waters
 We timed everything carefully so that we didn't get frostbite.  It was a harsh reality and some of the most educational birding that I've done in a long time. How do the birds do it? And where can birders find birds in these extreme conditions?

Before I get to those questions though, I want to tell you how eerie the weather was.  The supermoon caused severe tidal damage to the coastal towns.  The ocean had steam rising from it which the locals call "Sea Smoke".  I've seen this on Lake Michigan BUT it causes fog.  This was dark matter that just fuzzed above the ocean. It created issues for our scope. 

Sea Smoke is dramatic and's also very rare. Gulls huddle together to stay warm. 

Even poor Coda below had issues using the bathroom outside!  She quickly did her business and rushed back inside the house. 

So back to the questions posed about winter birds. How do they survive?  Well, the waterfowl, like ducks and geese, huddle in masses along the shorelines.  Smaller birds feed early, and often, as the morning warms up.  But they don't feed for long.  They will disappear into the thick vegetation to protect their bodies from the brutal winds. Daylight was limited which gave us a small window to do our work. They need to eat A LOT to keep their bodies warm! Winter berries are very important for birds like waxwings and thrushes. 

We could only endure 20-30 minutes at a time.  These birds are tough! So where should birders focus their energies on these outings?  Bird feeders, landfills, the open waters of rivers and harbors AND at the very rocky tips of the peninsulas where many ocean birds can be seen up close OR in the distance with a scope.   

I marveled at the Mainers.  They are tough people who endure some of the harshest climates in this country.  During our time there, a clammer went missing in the rough waters and people had to be rescued from the dangerous freezing temps.  At one point, during a birding mission on a causeway, we found a woman and her dog stranded in the middle of nowhere.  We took her to a local gas station because she didn't have a cell phone on her.  It was a truly fascinating experience!

I had wanted to see Kathie and Gus who I haven't seen in over a year.  We usually try to meet up somewhere in the country and bird.  It was my turn to visit Maine.  It really is a beautiful state and a must see for people who'd like a true US cultural experience.  The food, the landscape, the wildlife and the people really make Maine a unique experience. 

The Snowy Owl peers above the lobster traps in the center of the island

My last bird for the year was a Snowy Owl at Biddeford Pools.  I should write BITTERford pools.  It was bitter cold!  My fingers almost fell off!  Anyhow, we were on a mission to find new bird species and revisit old ones.  I'll explore those places in my Birding Maine series this month.  Happy New Year everyone!


  1. Chris, I am so glad you had such a good time. I know I did. It is very interesting to see my world and this culture through your eyes. I do hope you will come back and visit me again, but next time when it is warmer. No new yard birds today.

    BTW, they still have not found that clammer, though they did find his gear and his boat.

    1. OMG! I had a blast. Of course, we will come to visit again, but our next assignments are alcids breeding on the islands which means a stay over on an island in June one of these years. There's still a trip up to Nova Scotia. If I ever retire, there's warbler migration to see. There's always so much to explore, but we accomplished what I had hoped to see, the Great Cormorant and Purple Sandpipers. The Kittiwake was a bonus:)

      I am mortified by the clammer's story. He was dumb. He shouldn't have gone out to sea but he did. Imagine discovering your boat as drifted away and you are stranded to the Mother Ocean. There's no escape and that's when you realize there's no coming back. Scary stuff.

  2. Hi Chris. For some reason, this post didn't show up on the side bar on my blog, so I nearly missed it. also, my comment on your last blog post didn't appear either. Have you got something strange going on at your end?

    I'm usually wondering how you manage to cope in your usual temperatures which are much higher than we experience. Now you landed up in a place that is exceedingly cold compared to anything we get (he said with fingers crossed!). I can imagine the shock to your system - you're a brave man!

    Best wishes and Happy New Year to you both - - - Richard

    1. Happy New Year Richard!!!! I think I just haven't gotten to the comments as I moderate them from goofy spam attacks. I hope you don't get those temps! My gods that was cold. So glad to be back here in the milder climate. Everything turned to ice there. The ocean would be great and then a whipping biting wind would hit and we'd just freeze!:) It was night and day for sure.

      Hope you had a wonderful New Year as well! I just read a really good book on Barn Owls called Wesley the Owl. It's about a woman who raises a chick from an abandoned net. I think you would like it very much. I learned a ton of stuff about Barn Owls. Quick read but good:)

  3. Hello, you and Kathie are brave birders to be out there in the cold. You have some great photos, I like the Eiders. Coda is a sweet puppy. I am glad you had a great visit with Kathie. Happy Birding!

    1. Either brave or stupid:) But the important part was that we had fun!

  4. Happy New Year to you Chris! Glad you survived the Deep Freeze and Blizzard. Looking forward to your follow up reports on your wonderful visit with Kathie.

  5. My goodness it looks cold!!!! You have taken great photos though. Happy New Year Chris.

  6. You two are both brave and crazy. So glad you didn't freeze to death. Wonderful to get together, just bad timing. I really want to see Maine, in the summer, after I retire.


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