Winter Ducks

text and photos by Brian Willson

If you like stepping into insulated pants, pulling on several layers of warm shirts, zipping up a down-filled jacket, wrapping a scarf around your face, and hiking along ice-caked crags overlooking the roiling ocean—well, winter birding might be right up your alley.

Most of us, when we think of winter birds, imagine those bright-eyed little passerines that pick sunflower seeds out of our backyard feeders. Cardinals, goldfinches, chickadees, titmice, maybe a downy woodpecker or two. But it turns out the frigid season in northern New England also offers some of the rarest—and most interesting—birds we might see all year.

For me, it all starts with the Audubon Society’s annual Christmas Count. As it happens, that event here in the Midcoast area usually happens a few days before the solstice. But that’s all right, because our wintering birds tend to have already arrived by then. Last month, on 18 December, I joined the usual Christmas Counters soon after dawn at the Rockland Breakwater. Considering the low temperature, the ocean breeze, and the general nature of evaporative cooling, this sort of excursion appeals to outdoor masochists like me.

The rules of the Christmas Count are easy: count every bird you see and make a list. And each year for the past several, thanks to the proximity of a nice, long breakwater, our little team has managed to list species like long-tailed duck, common eider, red-breasted merganser, and common goldeneye—all (except perhaps the eider) little known and underappreciated by the local human population. I believe the long-tailed duck is my favorite, being exceptionally handsome and considering the alluring little three-note call they make. An upswept major chord. It always sounds to me like the beginning of a symphony.

Nearly always making our breakwater list are purple sandpipers, a fairly nondescript shorebird that nests far up in the Arctic tundra but vacations in winter in our sultry southern climes. Away from the water, we see non-breeding like common redpoll (a small gregarious finch) and Bohemian waxwing (much like cedar waxwings, but more wayward). Usually a common raven or two. Also bald eagles and red-tailed hawks. And as winter deepens, you’re liable to see owls on your late-afternoon hikes—like the barred owl I spotted at Beech Hill the other day.

But the way I see it, anyway—at the shore is where you want to be.

Certain gull species, for instance, come down from the frozen north to hang around our harbors and lobster pounds. Iceland gulls, for instance, or black-headed gulls. But it’s the winter ducks that I’m most fond of.

If you happen to find yourself on the treacherous rocks of Two Lights State Park, say, and have binoculars handy, you’re liable to spot among the rafts of eiders in the crashing surf a harlequin duck or two. I personally think this relatively rare species quite handsome, with its spotty, patchy plumage.

Or if you decide to take a walk along the footbridge in Belfast Harbor, scan the collection of ducks that are sure to be swimming there—chances are you’ll see some Barrow’s goldeneyes, the males sporting their telltale white-crescent face markings. I saw a few there last winter and will be checking again this year.

But back to the Christmas Count. Perhaps the most thrilling moment for me last month happened when we checked the shores of Chickawaukie Lake—which occurs in our territory—to count the many mallards that are sure to be hanging around the little outfall. Among them, to our surprise, appeared a solitary female American wigeon.

Backyard feeders are nice, and all, but if you enjoy walking Maine’s shores in winter, consider bringing along a pair of binoculars.