A Buck for Two Hearts Mondate

Our journey today found us along the coast of Maine once again despite the small craft warning. It’s just wind, we figured, though we did make sure to bring along extra layers, hats, and gloves.

Biddeford Pool was our overall destination, but really the tide was out and wind so strong by the pool, that we decided to check out a few other locations in the area.

We actually drove by the pathway to the next location twice before a small sign caught our attention. To reach Maine Audubon’s East Point Sanctuary one must follow the narrow path.

Being a bird sanctuary, we weren’t surprised to be greeted by one–but really, an American Robin? We chuckled at the offering.

And then moved on to admire the view–the rocky coast of Maine.

And upon the rocks, bursts of sunshine in the form of lichen.

And in the water, waves crashing over the rocks.

Likely, it was waves of a similar or even more forceful nature that dislodged a couple of lobster pots and dropped them upon the pathway. At least, we wanted to believe their presence was of a natural cause.

The sanctuary is located at the mouth of the Saco River, and we realized we’d never actually viewed it from this vantage point before.

Nor were we familiar with Wood Island lighthouse, which was built in 1806 and manned until 1986 to guide mariners into Winter Harbor and the Saco River.

Nearby, a bell cast in England in 1872 that tolled for at the lighthouse for many years as part of the navigation system, was on display in a park.

But our eyes cued in to what was more in our range and we began to notice the birds on the rocks, in the water and air.

And suddenly, like magic, for perhaps that’s what binoculars do, my guy became a birder-in-the-making. Oh, don’t tell him because I know he’ll deny it. But he did notice subtle details of the diving ducks.

The Common Eiders were the most abundant in our view.

The breeding males stood out with their white and black featheration. (Is that a word?) It was the sloping forehead and beak of this diving duck that caught my guy’s notice.

For me, it was the greenish sides of the neck that I found most intriguing.

And then there was the she–rather drab in contrast to her he, but also featuring that sloping forehead and some black barring among the brown feathers.

In today’s wind, her feathers were aflutter, but I’m sure her he found the sight all the more alluring.

Swimming beside or among the Eiders were several White-winged Scoters, whose name stymied us for the white on the wings was barely visible as they swam. Note also the comma-shaped patch by its eye, known as a Viking horn.

It wasn’t quite as easy to move about for those who took to the air and most often it seemed like the gulls flew backwards in the wind.

Occasionally, they landed on the rocks below us so we could take a closer look.

The majority that we spied today were Herring Gulls, their suits of white and gray adorned by those black and white wingtips. (I really wanted this to be a Yellow-legged Gull, but what I want and reality don’t always match.)

At last we reached the turn-around point where we stood for a bit and admired the view.

And then we followed the pathway back along the edge–of the land and the sea.

It was as we headed out that we saw a wooly bear caterpillar and knew winter must be near. Based on the Farmer’s Almanac: “According to folklore, if the caterpillar’s orange band is narrow, the winter will be snowy; conversely, a wide band means a mild winter. And fuzzier-than-normal woolly bear caterpillars are said to mean that winter will be very cold.”

Wait, it’s spring. Here’s the scoop: The larva emerged from the egg last fall and overwintered in its caterpillar form, when it literally froze solid. To do that, first its heart stopped beating and then its guts, blood and entire body froze by producing a cryoprotectant in its tissues. And yes, despite today’s cold wind, it is spring and this one had thawed.

As we left, the Robins were there to say goodbye and we did wonder if the Wooly Bear would be on the menu.

In the meantime, however, a worm met its unexpected demise.

We had one more place to explore before heading northwest–to Fortune Rocks Beach, which was just down the road from the sanctuary and on the other side of the road from Biddeford Pool.

Maybe we should have noted the lack of people as a foreshadowing of the wind’s strength.

And certainly, the backspray of each wave should have spoken to us.

But . . . we ignored all the clues and tramped on. As usual, I followed my guy’s tracks. Can you interpret them? What’s that little loop-de-loop all about in the midst?

The further we walked, the more intense the wind became and eventually we felt as if we were walking in a sandstorm on a desert–a rather frozen desert.

And so we headed toward the shore in hopes that the retention walls and houses would block the brisker than brisk gusts. Truth be told, they nearly knocked us off our feet.

The beauty of walking closer to the shore–a few pieces of seaglass like this one that found its way into my pocket.

And then I found a fifty cent piece–tails up.

Right after that, I spied a heart-shaped stone, and that also ended up you know where.

And then . . . and then, my guy found a fifty cent piece, his heads up.

And he found a heart as well, which I also snatched.

So, a few birds, a caterpillar and a worm, lots of wind, Biddeford Pool, sand and waves on the fly, Fortune Rocks, and $.50 + $.50 = $1.00. I’ll give you a buck for a couple of hearts on this Mondate.

Happy April Fools Day!

Happy Bird-day Bird Count

Established in 1900 by an officer of the Audubon Society, the intention of the Christmas Bird Count (CBC) is to monitor the status and distribution of bird populations.

Our local count, known as the Sweden Circle CBC, typically takes place two days after Christmas, unless, of course it snows. Within several weeks prior to the event, organizer Jean Preis rallies volunteers and assigns sections within the circle to leaders and their assistant birders.

I had the good fortune to lead the southeastern section and so at 8am I headed off to begin searching for birds along the road, at backyard or front yard feeders, and just about anywhere within the assigned section. For the first 45 minutes I was alone as planned, and kept blaming my limited sightings on that fact, as well as the brisk morning temperature.

Other than the temp in the teens, I couldn’t say the weather was at fault for it wasn’t all that windy and there was nary a cloud in the sky.

By 9am, I was joined by the rest of my team, Maine Master Naturalist student Juli, and her oldest children, who are naturalists in their own right, Caleb and Ellie.

Juli took over the challenging task of driving, all the while searching for movement. Caleb, Ellie, and I had a much easier task–we just needed to search high and low and if we spotted something, to let Juli know in as gentle a manner as possible so we wouldn’t cause her to jam on the breaks.

At Plummer’s Landing on Long Lake, we got out of the vehicle, as would be our custom for the rest of the day. Down to the ice we walked, our eyes scanning the surrounding scene as we listened. The only sounds we heard–the wailing of the ice. If you’ve never heard that, it’s almost as good as birding! As for birds near the lake . . . not a one.

But there was a beautiful red maple tree by the landing that made for a perfect teaching moment–the clock face that helps birders locate a bird someone spies. I pointed to 12:00 at the top, then 3:00 to the right side, 6:00 at the bottom, and 9:00 to the left. Instantly, the kids caught on and for the rest of the day they were able to direct us–that is, when we did spy a bird.

Ever so slowly, we made our way along main roads and back roads and noticed few birds. In a way, I wasn’t surprised for my feeders have had only a few regular visitors this year. And when I’m in the woods, or even on the edge of a field, I’ve seldom seen or heard a bird since November when the snow fell. Before that, juncos were extremely common sights no matter where or how I traveled. Where have they gone?

Despite the lower than usual numbers, I was sure we would see something by the old Central Maine Power dam not far from the Stevens Brook Outlet. But . . . all we heard was the roar of the water.

And all we saw . . .

was water racing toward the lake and . . .

the dancing legs of icicle formations. That was OK because we enjoyed admiring them. Still, we wanted birds to count. To that point, our tally included a few chickadees and a couple of tufted titmice.

Onward we moved, toward the outlet of Stevens Brook into Long Lake where we were certain the open water would provide us with something worth reporting.

All was quite quiet, however, and we didn’t see any waterfowl to note. But then . . . the biggest find of our day let itself be known.

High up in a white pine above the opposite bank of the outlet, a bald eagle sat in wait. We practically danced in the icy parking lot–and knew that no matter what else we might see, we were golden with this discovery.

Eventually, we pulled ourselves away from the eagle, and continued on while looking left and right, up and down. At last, a front yard feeder yielded some more chickadees, a white breasted nuthatch and a hairy woodpecker. Things were picking up. Sorta.

And then as Juli drove down one back road, we spotted five crows in an unplowed driveway. They flew off when we paused, so we continued on down the road. Returning a few minutes later, we again spied the five crows in the same spot. And Caleb, who as a youth hunter has learned the ways of the woods from his dad, knew that where the crows were gathered there must be a carcass. He asked his mom to stop the vehicle while he crossed the road to check the area. Bingo! He encouraged us to join him. Just off the clearing he’d discovered a deer carcass. We weren’t certain how it had come to perish, or why its head was missing, though we had some thoughts on both, but we did notice that many had come to dine. If we’d been more into our tracking mode than our birding mode, we might have been able to write the first two chapters about the manner of death and loss of the head, but we had a different mission on this day.

Another body of water called our names. Last year, I’d seen robins and various other birds in a wetland associated with Woods Pond, so we jumped out at the town beach and stood still to listen and watch. Nada. The ice on the pond, however, was enticing. And though they didn’t have skates, Ellie and Caleb found the conditions to be much to their liking.

Even the clipboard with the field tally didn’t pose a problem as they slid to and fro across the frozen wonder.

Eventually we moved on and added a couple more chickadees to the list. And then we saw one who was not on the list and though he is native to this land, he’s not typically seen here in winter. So we filled out the Rare Bird Form for the Great Horned Owl Plastica species.

One of our final stops as a group was on what we fondly refer to as the Dump Road. At a swampy area, we thought for sure we’d have some luck. And we did. In the form of beaver works.

Peering across the road in search of birds near the open water, we noticed more beaver works.

And our luck turned to awe as we admired a beech tree that still stood despite its hourglass shape. Why hadn’t it fallen?

The lodge looked well maintained and we rejoiced to think that it was located close to town and yet we’d never spied it before. Because of the CBC, we’d been given the opportunity to get to know our town just a wee bit more intimately.

After the beaver lodge sighting, Juli and her kids headed home, and so did I . . . for a quick lunch break. And then I journeyed down several more roads, adding a few more dashes to the tally. I found more chickadees, a few more white-breasted nuthatches, and some mourning doves.

Toward the end of the day, I decided to return to the dam, but still . . . stillness in the bird world despite all the sound and movement.

And ice-encrusted needles that looked so featherlike.

By 4pm the CBC had drawn to a close and our offerings seemed so skimpy. I was almost embarrassed to turn in the form, only to discover that most of the other birders in the Sweden Circle had had a similar experience. The Denmark and Fryeburg sections had the most sightings to report, but all in all, the numbers were down significantly. A few of us gathered around Jean’s table to compute the final numbers and wonder why they were so low. Too cold in November? When the snow and cold snap occurred early, did the birds fly elsewhere? Was there not enough food this season? One among us has spent the last few weeks joining the CBC in various locations around Maine, and he said that our experience was not unique.

Despite that, Juli, Caleb, Ellie, and I finished up the day smiling because we had seen an eagle. And today was Juli’s birthday–so it was certainly a wonder-filled present for her on this year’s Christmas Bird Count. Happy Bird-day, Juli!

Book of November: Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England

All month I’ve been thinking about which book to recommend and then a recent purchase came to the forefront. Finally. It’s a good thing given that this is the last day of November. 

Here’s the scoop: I was scanning book titles at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Bookstore and happened upon Kaufman’s Field Guide to Nature of New England. Since I already had National Audubon Society Field Guide to New England on my bookshelf, I wasn’t sure I needed Kaufman’s guide. But my friend Karen Herold highly recommended it and said she preferred it to the other book. I’m am hear to state that I wholeheartedly agree. 

Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England was written by husband/wife team Kenn Kaufman and Kimberly Kaufman. Both are naturalists extraordinaire, he being the author of other field guides (which I don’t yet own) and she the executive director of the Black Swamp Bird Observatory in Ohio. 

The Kaufmans have color coded each section of the 7.75 X 4.75-inch book, making for easy reference. And though it’s a wee bit heavy (no heavier than the other book), it fits easily into the small pack I carry for explorations of the natural world. Of course, David Brown’s Trackards, accompany it. 

Speaking of tracks, the Kaufmans do offer a few identifying features of such, but they also recommend two other sources: the Peterson Guide to Animal Tracks and Paul Rezendes’ Tracks and the Art of Seeing.  I highly recommend both as well,

plus Dorcas Miller’s Track Finder,

which just happens to include me in the acknowledgements. But . . . 

my go-to guide in the field remains David Brown’s Trackards

Back to the Kaufman guide: I wish I’d had it with me this past summer when I encountered sulphur butterflies puddling on a dirt road in the western Maine town of Fryeburg. First off, the section on butterflies and moths begins with an explanation of their life cycles and the differences between the two, including an illustration of their antennae. 

In addition, a feature I really like is the view of the upper and underside of the wings since . . . 

 some butterflies “keep their wings tightly closed above their backs when at rest, 

showing their bright undersides mainly in flight,” state the Kaufmans on page 302. 

I could have fluctuated between Clouded Sulphur and Pink-edged Sulphur in my determination, but the description on page 302 reminded me that the latter prefers bogs and blueberry barrens and I was standing in the midst of a farm where milkweed, other wildflowers and hay grew. The other thing that supported my attempt at ID was that though my butterflies did have  pink-edged wings, the dots matched those of the Clouded in the book. 

And since it is now winter, the guide will be handy to pull out when showing others what a critter looks like–especially if we have the joy of spying one. 

Occasionally that happens, such as on one occasion last winter when a few of us saw this mink. Please forgive the fuzziness–a result of my excitement. 

And had I purchased the book sooner, I could have pulled it out as two friends and I watched an otter frolic in early summer. 

But . . . now I have it and it is the perfect addition to my pack, whether for solo hikes or with others when we question what we’re seeing. 

I think one of the things that I really appreciate about this book is the voice of the authors, which echoes my own thoughts. (And their sweet dedications to each other on page 4.)

In the introduction, Kenn writes, “Once a person goes outdoors with senses attuned to nature, the sheer diversity of living things is both delightful and maddening, both reassuring and overwhelming.” Just this morning, Alanna Doughty, education director of Lakes Environmental Association, and I exchanged an email conversation about the very same thought and gave thanks that we still have so much to learn. 

Kaufman continues, “If we try to look at everything in nature, we find so many things that we never get past the edge of the parking lot.” I chuckled when I read that because my peeps and I have said the same thing, whether I’m tramping with the docents of the Greater Lovell Land Trust or a group of Maine Master Naturalists

Does the book cover every single species to be discovered in New England? That would be impossible–or at least too heavy to tote along on a tramp. “Our intent has been to cover those things that people are most likely to notice, so we have exercised a bias toward the most conspicuous plants and animals.” With that in mind, my suggestion: purchase Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England and throw it into your pack. Then purchase any other guide books and refer to them when you get home. 

Book of November: Kaufman Field Guide to Nature of New England by Kenn Kaufman & Kimberly Kaufman, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2012.

Loon-atic loon antics

I wasn’t sure what to expect this morning when I drove to an undisclosed body of water for a boat trip to see an eagle chick in a nest. The reality was that though I’ve seen many eagles and twice had to cover my head with my hands for fear I was about to be dive bombed, only to discover the bird quickly grabbed a fish not far from my location, I’ve never seen an eagle nest.

l1-pontoon boat

And so, I was graciously met at a camp road and escorted to the dock, where we boarded a pontoon boat for the expedition.

l2-common loon

Within minutes of leaving shore, we spied several common loons and paused to watch them swim . . .

l3-preening loon

and preen. Feathers are important to loons and all other birds, for they provide protection from weather, including rain and sun. Aerodynamics also come into play, for the feathers give the body a smooth contour and help reduce drag in the air. To preen, the loon grasps a feather with its bill and works on it from base to tip, getting rid of oil, dirt, and parasites. The bird then repositions the feathers, straightening out the barbs on either side of the shaft–thus providing a smooth, weatherproof coat. To aid in the weatherproofing, the bird collects oil from a gland on top of the base of its tail and spreads it over the smooth feathers.

l4-eagle nest

At last we pulled away, my hostess (M) and host (S) eager to show me the eagle nest and a young fledgling. With apt directions, they pointed out the tree and told me where to focus the binoculars and then my camera. I was pretty sure I found the spot.

l6-eagle nest

But alas, a few minutes later they realized they were pointing to the wrong tree. A trip refund was surely in order, but . . . they regrouped, scanned the tree tops again and found the actual nest. Though it was difficult to tell from our location below and because they may have been hunkered down, we didn’t think we saw any birds, but we maybe we did. It apparently wasn’t feeding time and mom and pop were nowhere to be seen.  M  and S were disappointed, but I wasn’t. My first eagle nest! And maybe some babes, but even if not . . . my first eagle nest!

l7-crazy loon

Suddenly, splashes of water caught our attention and we turned in our seats to focus on the action closer to the boat.

l8-crazy loon

A loon undulated in the water in a most frantic fashion, moving back and forth in about a ten-foot space.

l9-crazy loon

Whatever was it doing? We panicked. What should we do?

l10-crazy loon

Each time it pulled its head up, we noticed its beak was wide open. Was there a fishing hook stuck in its mouth? S pulled out his cell phone. Who should he call? Kappy Sprenger, a local wildlife rehabilitator? Or the Maine Warden service?

l11-crazy loon

Again and again, it thrashed on top of the water and our concern rose with each movement.

l12-crazy loon

We each developed our own scenario, none of them ending with a positive outcome.

l13-loon family

Meanwhile, another adult approached with two youngsters in tow.

l15-good in mouth

The second adult found a smidgen of food to dapple in the water and offer to the chicks.

l16-plant or fish?

Fish are the primary food source for loons and they’ll catch whatever species they can. But . . . they also feed on crayfish, aquatic insects, and sometimes vegetation.  What we saw being offered was indecipherable.

l17-bigger fish

Meanwhile, the thrasher came up with a big catch. Had it been going after a fish all that time. Was it not the victim, but rather the predator? Indeed. But why was its mouth always wide open and not closed like a spear? Was it chomping on the fish? How could that be? Loons can’t break up their food the way mammals do, for they have no teeth.


Whatever the answers to our questions, the outcome, or rather, income was obvious and the loon quickly consumed its prey.

l19-down the throat

Do you see the intake making its way down the bird’s throat? Swallowed whole, the fish would be ground up in the loon’s gizzard, a muscular structure that is part of the a bird’s stomach.

l21-taking cover

At the same time, the other adult felt the need for a shower, while a curious chick peered below a wing. To shower, a loon rises up and splashes.

l22-shaking off the water

A vigorous body shake follows–it’s all part of their maintenance routine. The splashing and shaking help to settle their feathers back into the proper place, whether for beauty during mating season, or weatherproofing the rest of the year.


And then it was time to peer into the water again, ever in search of the next meal.


We learned something new today, M, S, and I: That what we might interpret as loon-atic behavior may actually be otherwise. Perhaps the lesson was meant more for the chicks than us, but we were suddenly wiser.

Thank you, M & S, for sharing your special place with me. And here’s to tomorrow’s 2018 Maine Audubon Loon Count. I suspect I won’t see any loons in the area I’m assigned to, and if I do, it will certainly not compete with today’s crazy loon antics.

Looney Tunes

I was like a kid anticipating Christmas this morning when I grabbed my life jacket and headed out the door for the Maine Audubon Loon Count. While sipping coffee on the porch earlier, I’d heard a couple of hoots come from the middle basin. The hoot is the call a loon uses when it wants to announce its presence or locate others.

This is my first year participating in the event, which occurs annually on the third Saturday of July. It was misty when I slipped the kayak into the water, but I decided to bring my camera along just in case. The count traditionally begins at 7am, when about 900 volunteers across the state gather data about the status of Gavia immer, the common loon.

As I approached the causeway to begin my tour of the western side of the upper basin, I heard a quiet motorboat behind me. My fellow counter, P.B., and I chatted briefly and then decided to meet about a mile and a half to the north and compare notes.

The breeze was with me making for an easy paddle as I scanned the water, looking for that iconic bird that resembles no other on our Maine waters. I saw four ducks. And four fishermen.

P.B. and I met up as planned and had the same results. No loons this morning, though during the week we’d both seen a pair and a single loon diving.

For those of us who are looney about loons, we had great hope for the nesting couple on the upper basin this year. Last year, for the first time in a long time, they successfully hatched two chicks and raised one. We learned from another observer (S.F.), who has been a long-time Audubon counter, that the second chick somehow managed to make its way through the middle basin to the lower basin and joined another family raising one chick. An amazing feat to be sure.


These are last year’s chicks–about two days old.

This year, one chick hatched on July fourth, was seen by some (not me) for a couple of days and has not been spotted since. And the second egg apparently half-hatched.

What happened to the first chick and why did the second die? We don’t know. We do know that boats were harassing the young family. But we also know that turtles and eagles and other predators exist on the lake. And it was Independence weekend. Could fireworks have had anything to do with the loss of the second chick? The loons were certainly not impressed with the noise that night as was evidenced by their tremolo alarm calls.

moose pond

Back to this morning. The clouds thickened as I paddled home.

rain drops

It was a gentle sprinkle at first.


Then the wind picked up and it rained a bit harder. But . . . I could hear a loon, so I paddled frantically while scanning through water drops. Eyeglass windshield wipers would be a great invention.

Not a loon in sight. I did enjoy breakfast with a few of the hearty volunteers (thanks S. & H.) and learned that one couple saw at least five loons and one still sitting on a nest that traditionally produces chicks at a later date. May be something to that–but how do you tell loons they’d be better waiting a week or two to nest.

As I went through my photos from last summer, I found a few that I thought worth including.


loon 2


loon 4

loon 5

loon 6

loon 7

Four hours after the official count, it’s no longer raining and a loon has been fishing about a hundred yards from our dock.

Maine Audubon offers the following tips to protect the loons. Education is the key.

~Obey no-wake law within 200 feet of shore
~Use lead-free tackle; alternatives are made of steel, tin and bismuth
~Dispose of fishing line so it does not get tangled in a loons’ feet or bill
~If you live on a lake, use phosphorus-free fertilizer and plant shrubs as a buffer along the shoreline to reduce run-off
~If you see a loon on a nest, keep your distance and watch with binoculars
~Keep garbage out of reach of loon egg predators, like skunks and raccoons

Two more glimpses from last year before I sign off.

loon up close

red eye

These were taken as my guy and I kayaked and the loon suddenly surfaced beside us.

Always a thrill to see them and hear their looney tunes.