Where to Find Great Winter Birding? Interview with Maine Audubon’s Doug Hitchcox

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We are in the middle of a Maine winter now (despite the general lack of snow this year), which means winter birding is in full swing! Doug Hitchcox, the Staff Naturalist at Maine Audubon, shared some interesting tips and tricks for those of us venturing out in cold weather to find a few feathered friends.

1. EZ: What is your favorite part of winter birding?

DH: There are a few things that I really like about winter birding. First, you have to admire any species that is going to survive Maine’s winters. The Black-capped Chickadee is a species that is easy to overlook because of its abundance, but that tiny bird, which weighs a little more than two pennies, is surviving some incredibly harsh conditions thanks to remarkable adaptations.

Their abilities are like superpowers: they can increase their memory by growing their hippocampus, and they can control their body temperature and go into a regulated hypothermia to save energy overnight. They are amazing!

Beyond the common birds the winter brings us some really beautiful species, especially ducks and other waterfowl. Harlequin Ducks – which are possibly one of the most beautiful ducks in the world – spend the winter off the coast of Maine. Winter also helps queue birders into cycles, especially those from irruptive species like finches and some owls. Some years we can be treated to huge flights of Common Redpolls or White-winged Crossbills, while during others we hardly see a single bird of those species. Some years a Snowy Owl or two is around, and then an event like the 2013-14 irruption of Snowy Owls happens and it is hard to go anywhere along the coast without seeing one.
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2. EZ: What are some winter bird species that call Gilsland Farm home?

DH: Gilsland Farm has a fair number of winter birds thanks to the diversity of habitats across its 65 acres. The Presumpscot River flows past Gilsland and into Casco Bay barely a mile from us, so the tidal water stays predominantly ice-free throughout the winter. That lack of ice allows a good diversity of dabbling and diving ducks, including Bufflehead, Red-breasted Mergansers, and occasionally uncommon species like Gadwall or Northern Pintail, to join the large Mallard and American Black Duck flock.

Among the expected songbirds, Gilsland is a good place to see less common winter species like Eastern Bluebirds; a group of eight has been reliable so far this winter. In addition, the majority of Northern Flickers migrate south, but we find one or two throughout the winter, typically feeding on fruit-bearing trees. The sanctuary has also became famous with some photographers for the Red-tailed Hawks that can be found around the environmental center. These large hawks seem more tolerant than most, possibly habituated to all the visiting school groups.

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3. EZ: What are some other great winter birding spots in Maine?

DH: Winter birding spots in Maine are numerous – the whole coast has something to offer. As mentioned earlier, the waterfowl are a highlight of winter birding and you can find some beautiful ducks almost anywhere there is open water.

Reid State Park is a personal favorite. Visitors pass through tall spruces, which are good for finches or kinglets, across a marsh (look for Horned Larks or Snow Buntings), and then access the coast where one of the largest concentrations of Red-necked Grebes in Maine can be seen. Acadia has great birding year-round but the lack of crowds make it especially appealing in the winter; Schoodic Peninsula is especially worth the extra driving. I might be biased, but Maine Audubon’s East Point Sanctuary at Biddeford Pool is phenomenal in the winter. You can almost expect to see Snowy Owls there, which makes any outing special. Other highlights include Northern Shrikes, Rough-legged Hawks, and the northern-most wintering population of Ruddy Turnstones, a small shorebird that can be found with the heartier Purple Sandpipers.

Where are some of your favorite winter birding spots? Let us know in the comments!
Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.