Writer Mark LaFlamme, left, learns a thing or two about birding from Zane Baker and Doug Boyd at the top of Bradbury Mountain in Pownal recently. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

Whatever it was that flew across the windy skies over Bradbury Mountain, it was just a flicker of brown at the very outer reaches of my periphery. It was there one second, gone the next. To the untrained eye, it might have been nothing at all.

“Osprey,” said Doug Boyd, my guide on this excursion.

“Osprey,” agreed Zane Baker, who sets up on top of Bradbury Mountain six days a week to count birds flying in from the south.

Doubt these guys? Not on your life. These are men for whom watching, identifying and studying birds isn’t just a hobby, it’s a way of life. For Baker, hired by Freeport Wild Bird Supply for the annual hawk watch, it’s a profession, and he dutifully entered that vague, fast-flying osprey into his daily bird inventory.

A few minutes after the osprey came and went, Boyd spotted a pair of high-flying birds through his binoculars. Baker, adjusting his own scope to focus in on the same section of sky, pulled the birds into view in bare seconds.

“There,” he said. “Take a look.”

I took a look and, what do you know? Perhaps a mile away, a pair of birds negotiated the wind currents with such elegance and ease, it was downright majestic. For nearly 15 seconds, I gazed in awe at them. So magnificent. So dignified.

“Eagles?” I asked the experts at my side.

“Nope,” said Boyd. “Turkey vultures.”

Zane Baker looks in the sky for birds over Bradbury Mountain in Pownal on a recent morning. Baker is the official bird counter for the Bradbury Mountain Raptor Research project. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

And like that, I had a new favorite bird. Turkey vultures, fairly new to this area, may be ungainly creatures best known for munching on roadkill, but I’ve come to love them.

Beauty, my friends, is in the eye of the beholder.

A gull by any other name will still steal your sandwich

On the ride back from Bradbury Mountain, Boyd pointed out several birds along the Androscoggin River. A Canadian goose here, a mallard over there and couple winged beauties whose names I have since forgotten.

I was new to this birding game, but I had already beheld an osprey and a pair of glorious turkey vultures. I figured I was ready to start identifying birds on my own.

“Hey, look,” I said, pointing to a plump white bird squatting in a parking lot. “A seagull.”

Boyd was most sympathetic when he explained to me that there are really no such things as “seagulls,” taxonomically speaking. There are various species of gull, he said, but none that are classified as “seagulls,” which is merely a layperson’s name for those birds best known for stealing your fries at Old Orchard Beach.

And so I had learned yet another fact about birds. And as I would come to understand, bird-watching is all about learning. It’s a pastime that can never be mastered, as anyone with decades of experience will tell you. Most birders can recall the precise moment – and often the exact bird – that started their journeys of learning and launched them headlong into the world of bird-watching.

For Dan Marquis, it began 30 years ago when he became curious about the birds gathering around his feeder.

“I went out back with a pair of binoculars and a bird book,” says Marquis, of Lewiston. “I saw a warbler I’d never seen before and I was actually able to identify it myself. That excited me.”

The bird in question? A yellow-throated warbler.

“That’s the bird that got me into it,” Marquis says. “I thought, if I can see a bird as colorful as this one in basically my own backyard, what else must be out there if I actually go out and look for them?”

Warblers hooked Judith Ann Marden, as well, during a trip to Monhegan Island in the year 2000

“I walked out and it was May so there were apple trees everywhere,” Marden recalls. “There were a bunch of people with binoculars and they were all staring up into the tree at these little yellow birds – all kinds of tiny, beautiful, jewel-like warblers all flitting about. It was just so exciting to see them all. That was the moment. I thought, this is really fun. I love this.”

Sam Boss, 32, had no choice but to get interested in birds – as a toddler, his bird-watching parents insisted.

Doug Boyd, left, and Zane Baker look out over the open sky at the top of Bradbury Mountain in Pownal for birds. Next to them is the scoreboard for the Bradbury Mountain Raptor Research Project bird count, maintained by Baker, who watches for birds eight hours a day, six days a week, for two months in the spring. He has a substitute count for him one day a week. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

“They’d put me in a car seat and take me along for the ride,” Boss says. “At first I wasn’t all that into it, but over time I began to appreciate that they could identify so many different species by sight.”

Dr. Dana Little, 64, has been all over the world on bird-watching excursions, but his passion for it was born out of a simple childhood gift.

“My grandfather gave me a pair of opera glasses when I was 6 years old,” Little says. “I got one of those Golden Guides to birds and I’ve been bird-watching ever since.”

Making a list, checking it twice

On a cold afternoon in early April, I headed over to the University of Southern Maine’s Lewiston campus for one of the Stanton Bird Club’s monthly meetings. It was a downright frigid Monday and I didn’t expect that many would have turned out for a talk on “The Impact of Drought on New England Trees,” but there they were, a room full of birders with notebooks in hand.

Dozens came for the meeting, and I was told that’s not unusual. Stanton has 300 or so members, and by and large these are not casual bird-watchers. They keep meticulous lists of the birds they’ve seen, fastidiously tracking dates and times and locations.

They study bird characteristics down to the finest detail and familiarize themselves with sounds, songs and mating rituals. Many of the club members have been all over the world on bird-watching trips.

Boyd is one of those. In fact, he just recently returned from a trip to Texas where he clapped eyes on a number of whooping cranes. That’s no easy feat, considering the cranes were near extinction with only 50 of the birds estimated to exist. And once he beheld the whooping cranes in their natural habitat, Boyd added that experience to his notes.

“I’m what they call a ‘lister’ in birding,” Boyd says. “I’ve got a list of the birds when they appear in my backyard, I’ve got a list of birds when they appear in New England during migration coming and going. I have an international list that I’ve made over the years.”

Like most birders, Boyd says he looks for birds no matter where he is, whether he’s in some exotic country on the other side of the world, or hanging out on Bradbury Mountain with a clueless news reporter.

And like most birders, Boyd says the passion for birds isn’t one that has an expiration date. There’s always more to learn and more to see.

“There’s a giant heron down in Central America that I’ve missed several times,” he says. “I’d really like to see it.”

His favorite bird? Spoiler: It’s not the turkey vulture.

“If I have to name a favorite,” Boyd says, “because of about 20 trips on the Allagash I’d say it’s the common loon, which has the great voice and a whole lot of other things.”

Jeri Maurer, president of the Stanton Bird Club, has been birding most of her life. To Maurer, it isn’t always about what a bird looks like or what song it sings. It’s about their habits, about migration and what birds can teach us.

“Their behavior is fascinating to me,” she says. “The fact that so many of them travel these thousands of miles. How do these little things that weigh so little negotiate as far as they do? I’m not one to keep lists, I’m more about looking at behavior and thinking about how fascinating and how beautiful these birds are.”

Dr. Little hears that. With so many Southern and Midwestern birds suddenly appearing in New England over recent years – cardinals, Carolina wrens, red-belly woodpeckers, black vultures and the like – it’s hard not to believe that birds have something to tell us about the world.

“Over the years, I’ve watched as things change,” Little says. “I know global warming is real because of what’s happened with the birds. New species appear that are considered Southern species. Some of the Northern species have actually left. It’s a way of understanding the environment.”

But don’t go believing that it’s all scientific for the local bird fans. Just about all of them will admit to a more personal, and even spiritual, connection to birds.

Little, for instance, is comforted by the woodcock, which recently arrived back in his neighborhood after riding out the winter in warmer places.

“I just stepped out the door a couple nights ago and I heard it calling,” Little says. “They have a whole courting call and display and song. It’s part of the ritual of spring. We have snow coming down outside right now, but if I go out there tonight, I will hear it. I’m reassured that spring is here.”

Ask Marden why the chickadee is her favorite bird and she’ll tell you a story about a bitter cold morning during the Ice Storm of 1998.

“All night long I listened to the branches falling outside. It just sounded like hell out there,” Marden says. “Like a war zone. I got up in the morning and it was really, really quiet. You get that feeling that everyone is dead except you. I walked outside and all of a sudden, a couple chickadees came along. They flew into my feeders and I started hearing them and I thought, oh good. Something else is still alive out here.”

Doug Boyd, left, and Zane Baker talk about birds at the top of Bradbury Mountain in Pownal on a recent morning. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

Maurer has a special fondness for sandhill cranes, which typically stay on a Midwestern flight plan, after the birds began appearing in her neighbor’s field in Leeds in 2003.

“To watch them dance,” Maurer says, “it’s really quite amazing.”

The cranes weren’t her first bird loves, however. That happened decades earlier when she set eyes on a long-tailed beauty with a descriptive name.

“I’d say it was when my husband and I were first married and taking a road trip camping for the summer between undergraduate school and graduate school – we were in Texas, June 11, 1971 to be exact – and this incredible bird came winging past where we were eating at our campsite. It had the longest tail we had ever seen. We happened to have a field guide to birds and identified it as a scissor-tailed flycatcher. Since that time whenever we are on road trips we always make a point to check out national wildlife refugees because of all the birds you can see there.”

Baker, 34, of North Yarmouth, wasn’t always the official bird watcher atop Bradbury Mountain. Before that, he was just a guy who stopped in at Freeport Wild Bird Supply in 2012 and got curious about birds. He was curious enough to go on a couple of bird walks, but it was a trip to Bradbury during peak migration season that really hooked him good. In was up on that windy mountain where Baker beheld a sky full of birds coming up from the south all at once.

“All headed north directly over the mountain,” he recalls. “It was like a highway of falcons, hawks, eagles. I just thought it was awe-inspiring. I fell in love with it.”

When Derek and Jeannette Lovitch, owners of the Freeport store, offered Baker a chance to spend eight hours a day, six days a week, counting birds atop Bradbury Mountain for the Spring Hawkwatch, “I jumped at it,” Baker says. “I couldn’t pass it up. I really enjoy it up here.”

Of course, some days are better than others on the mountain. The day I went up, the wind was fierce, and other than those two distant vultures and that one blurry osprey, there were no birds at all to be seen. Just a few days earlier, according to Baker’s notes, it was practically a carnival of birds out there.

“Local eagles were all over the place the whole day, chasing and diving upon one another,” according to the notes. “A couple harmonizing chickadees were interrupted to sound the alarm as a male kestrel popped up unannounced, disappearing back down below the summit when faced with the challenging winds.”

That’s the thing about bird-watching: It requires a good deal of patience. Some days you get the carnival, other days, all you get is wet and cold.

“Sometime we see nothing and sometime we see lots of stuff,” says Marden. “Sometimes it’s raining and cold. Sometimes an eagle will swoop by, but you can’t count on it. You never know what you’re going to see.”

The Stanton Bird Club, meanwhile, is also focusing on the next generation of bird-watchers. In its Junior Nationalists program, the club seeks to teach elementary school aged kids through a variety of nature-related activities, including field trips to the club’s Thorncrag Bird Sanctuary in Lewiston, where nature is abundant.

Boss, the Community Engaged Learning coordinator at Bates College, works with the bird club on that end of things. He knows it pays to teach children about nature at that age because he’s witnessed the enthusiasm of his own children.

“We take them to Thorncrag all the time,” Boss says. “They really enjoy it. They’re curious and you can just see how much they want to learn. It’s nice to have a place where you can do that right in town.”

Of course, with the digital age upon us, one doesn’t have to crouch in the wet bushes for eight hours to spot the most intriguing birds the area has to offer. Birds are well represented on the World Wide Web, as well, particularly in online clubs like the Maine Birds page on Facebook, which boasts more than 22,000 members.

If the birds aren’t flitting right outside the window to entertain you, have a gander at that Facebook page and you’ll at least get to see what your neighbors are seeing.

Here’s an immature red-tailed hawk practically posing for pictures in Winthrop. Here’s a fit-for-framing close-up of a song sparrow in Scarborough, and an American woodcock lounging in somebody’s yard in Albion.

Some people post photos of birds they need help identifying and some post pictures and videos of birds doing zany things – like the dark-eyed junco that appears to be dancing on the snow and the unidentified bird plucking fur from a sleeping dog.

Many of the members of the Maine Birds group are also members of the Stanton Bird Club. These are people who just can’t get enough of birds. And as I talked with more and more of them, I began to understand their passion for birds. The enthusiasm is infectious and it’s enviable – how many hobbies are there that can be enjoyed pretty much anywhere on earth and at any time of year?

Am I ready to take to fly beak-first into the thrilling world of serious birding? I probably would, if not for the sad fact that most birders do the bulk of their watching in the early morning hours, which is when the creatures tend to be at their most active.

Have you ever seen me in the morning? I’m reminded of my new friend the turkey vulture.

“The turkey vulture is awkward on the ground with an ungainly, hopping walk,” according to Wikipedia. “It requires a great deal of effort to take flight, flapping its wings while pushing off the ground and hopping with its feet.”

That’s me in the morning, all right. In fact, now that I think of it, maybe I’ll find myself a nice owl or other night bird and get acquainted.

Doug Boyd looks out over the area surrounding Bradbury Mountain in Pownal for birds. Sun Journal photo by Andree Kehn

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