Rara Avis

by Brian Willson

Many people wouldn’t even have noticed the big black bird circling slowly in the cloudless blue sky over Beech Hill in Rockport a couple weeks ago. Some certainly would’ve seen the bird—it was good-sized, and flying low above the summit—but then misidentified it as an eagle. A few would’ve recognized it as a vulture. Fewer still would’ve been able to identify the species and understand what a big deal it was to see.

Fewer still—but the number is growing.

I’m in the last category and, happily for me, happened to be walking the summit trail just as the big bird appeared. Plus, I got a photo.

The bird was a black vulture. Somewhat smaller than the common turkey vulture, with a darker head and a different under-wing pattern, the black vulture has only recently begun to move northward into Maine. My Beech Hill sighting was the third ever in Knox County.

Wildlife watching, of course, holds a major niche in the Maine tourism industry. Moose, bear, puffin, whale—people who visit the state tend to end up in harbors, on lakes, on rivers, on trails. You have your backyard birdwatchers, folks who fill birdfeeders (and support the large birdseed industry). You have your casual birders who can identify maybe 40 or 50 species. And then you have your hard-core birders—those who spend a lot of money on binoculars and cameras with telephoto lenses and trips to remote birding locations. For many of these, Maine happens to be one such locale.

Last winter, three pink-footed geese showed up amid a large flock of Canada geese in North Yarmouth. Pink-footed geese breed far north of here and typically winter in Europe. These three were out of their territory, off their beaten path. It was a Maine first, and word spread quickly. Plus, the geese stuck around long enough for avid birders everywhere to plan trips especially to see them, photograph them, and add them to their “life lists.” (All hard-core birders have life lists—as well as home lists, work lists, trip lists, place-based lists. I have a Beech Hill list, for instance.) Three wayward pink-footed geese brought many thousands of dollars in out-of-state spending to Maine.

And whipped up a flurry of in-state spending, as well. A 2006 U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service survey reveals that nearly 40 percent of Maine residents participate somehow in the activity of birding—among U.S. states, second only to Montana.

But that’s just residents. It’s also a top birding destination, bringing in more than $1 billion dollars annually, according to the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. It doesn’t hurt that a birding family tends to be older and have a far higher income than the average American—presumably much of it disposable.

A billion. That’s one kind of number. Far more important to serious birders is the number of entries on their life lists. These are the folks who’ll take a boat trip especially to add a puffin or razorbill or shearwater. Or who will stop by Scarborough Marsh to add one of the 242 birds sighted there so far. Or plan a whole vacation around the Maine Birding Trail, a unique compendium of ecotourism. From anywhere in the state, it seems, a rare bird is no more than an hour or two away.

Even from afar you can follow exotic Maine species by, say, visiting MaineBirding.net —the definitive online community for birding in Maine, with an active email list and rare bird alert—or the web cams set up at eagle or peregrine falcon nests by the Biodiversity Research Institute. Or you can sign up for one of dozens of birding tours to perhaps the state’s most miraculous avian destination: Monhegan.

Monhegan Plantation is an island about ten miles offshore. Long known as an artist colony and populated year-round by a few score of lobster fishermen, craftspeople, and shopkeepers, the island is hopping with birders during spring and fall migration. The island seems perfectly situated as a migratory stopping-off point. And as it tends to attract crazy “vagrants”—wayward species—so does it attract hard-core birders from all over the world.

I first visited Monhegan during migration last fall and was amazed to see multiple clusters of older folks with field glasses and spotting scopes and expensive cameras on tripods all pointed in the same direction at, say, a single Say’s phoebe (a California species that has nonetheless appeared, as by magic, on Monhegan three times in recent memory). As I ate pizza for lunch beside an inn one day, five peregrine falcons flew over. And on a return trip this Memorial Day weekend, a solitary western kingbird had somehow ended up in a flock of northward-bound eastern kingbirds that paid the island a visit. Monhegan is a sort of mecca for birders in Maine.

Demographers agree that birding is growing like crazy. Who knows exactly why? I just know that when I see a teenage acquaintance’s incredible bird photos or his unbelievably lifelike bird watercolors or note (with envy) how many more birds he has on his life list than I have on mine—well, let’s just say I wish I’d started my life list a lot earlier.

Since I live nearby, I hike Beech Hill (managed by Coastal Mountains Land Trust) every morning. And thanks to a solitary black vulture that soared over the other day, the number of bird species on my Beech Hill List now stands at 98.

That’s distractingly close to 100.

Photographs by Brian Willson (in order top to bottom: Black vulture at Beech Hill (Rockport), Birding Monhegan during fall migration, Western and eastern kingbirds (Monhegan Island), Savannah sparrow at Beech Hill.