OTISFIELD — There are close to 300 bird species found in Maine and Atticus Soehren of Otisfield hopes to eventually document every one. At 18 years he is an avid birder and photographer, working on what hobbyists call the “life list.”

An indigo bunting, member of the grosbeak family. Courtesy Atticus Soehren

“I’m always trying to add to my list,” the Oxford Hills Comprehensive High School senior explained in a recent Zoom interview. “I’d like to get my Maine list to 250 and then 300. You’d have to bird quite a bit to get there.

“Right now my total list might be about 300, in all locations across the country, but it’s nowhere near where I want to be. The west coast has a totally different population than the east coast, and down south too. If I do get to travel, hopefully college will take me to new places so I can add to that list.”

Soehren has been interested in birds for as long as he can remember. He was introduced to birding at a very young age, a pastime that both his father and grandfather pursued. His first memories of identifying birds were a pair of cardinals and an indigo blue bunting through the window of his kindergarten class.

“My grandparents live in MN and when we visit during the summers, we drive around in their golf cart, doing what we call the ‘big hour’,” Soehren said. “They live out in the country where there are lots of dirt roads around them. We go out and find as many species as we can in just an hour.”

It is mostly Soehren and his father Mark who do the big hour, although his grandfather and brother sometimes go along. They search around ponds and fields, identifying as many species as possible.

“We got to know the spots where the different birds would be at and the goal was to find as many as possible,” he said. “It depends on the day, what you see. Not every bird is in the same spot everyday so it’s always an adventure as to what you’ll find.”

He began photographing them about four years ago at an Audubon sanctuary in South Carolina during a family trip. He borrowed his father’s camera to take pictures of the birds he was seeing, which sparked a new interest in photography.

Soehren’s favorite time of year to bird is during spring migration and breeding. His favorite birds to watch are warblers.

“The best time is definitely late May and early June,” he said. “That’s when warblers, a family of songbirds, are either migrating through Maine or arriving to breed. They’ll be in the tree tops traveling along and they all have distinct songs.

“The challenge is locating those, identifying the songs and identifying which species are around. For me, I’m always trying to find species I’ve never seen and add to that life list.”

When Soehren is out with his camera the best time to capture images is when the light is soft. The best time for watching and documenting is generally morning.

“If you’re looking for smaller species and songbirds you’ll want to be out in the morning,” he said. “For a hawk watch or seabirds you can see them any time of day from a mountain post or along the coast. For pictures, it’s the golden hour, the hour before sunrise and then the hour before sunset. That’s when you get the nicest light.

“It also depends on time of year. During spring and fall migration, they are sort of different coming through Maine. Species that breed in Canada will fly through May and early June and on their way back through on the fall. The [same birds] will look different because they won’t be in their breeding plumage and they’ll be quieter. It’s harder to find their exact locations. They won’t be calling for mates and such.”

Soehren utilizes Cornell University’s database, e-Bird, to both search for birds and document species that he has identified. e-Bird is the largest citizens’ science project in the world, open for anyone with an interest to open their own birding account. Cornell uses the database for research, but people everywhere have built it over time, tracking birds they see and inputting information like location, the species seen, times of sightings and quantities.

Soehren adds data to e-Bird of what he sees in his own yard and uses it to find hot spots where other birders have documented seeing them.

“There are designated, popular spots within the community where birders will go to find a species,” he said. “Or if a species is rare but is known to breed certain places. You can view others’ list and see where they saw at one day at one spot. You can get alerts about species you’re looking for so you can go to those locations.”

Maine’s birding community is collaborative but individual. There are annual events sponsored by the Maine Audubon Society in Falmouth, L.L. Bean in Freeport and there is also a festival at Acadia National Park, all of which were doomed last year by COVID-19. There is also a youth birding group that, pre-pandemic, led several outings a year.

Most of the time Soehren goes out on his own, although other birders are sometimes about – following the same alerts that he does.

“It’s sort of my getaway from other people,” he said. “I can bird around my yard quite a bit because we have both field and forest. If I’m looking for warblers in spring I’ll go to Evergreen Cemetery and Capisic Pond in Portland. I also go to Biddeford Pool quite a bit, some of the southern beaches for seabirds.”

Not all birders are photographers and not all photographers are birders. If Soehren is looking to identify specific birds when he goes out, he brings his camera but the purpose is for information, not art.

Atticus Soehren of Otisfield captured this osprey while on a family vacation in Florida. Courtesy Atticus Soehren

“If I’m out looking for new species, it’s not so much for photography but to identify and document species. If see something I’m not familiar with I’ll take a picture so I can compare to others to figure out what bird it is,” he said. “If I’m out looking to take pictures, I’ll go to specific, known locations and it’s me trying to find a good perch with a clean background and good lighting. I’m either at a place waiting for the birds to come to me or I am following them trying to get a specific species on camera.”

Soehren says he is always working on his photography skills, which are primarily self-taught. His father helped him get started with guidance on focus. He spent time watching You Tube videos and viewing other photography on Instagram. Now he posts his own photography online on Instagram, at https://www.instagram.com/atticusimagery/?hl=en.

“I’m nowhere near perfect, there is still tons of room to improve,” he said. “You can change up tactics and there is no right or wrong. I’m still working toward getting the type of pictures that I strive for. I go out to take what I can get, which is different than those who are doing it for a living.

“It depends on the day, on just getting lucky sometimes.”

Sometimes he will see something totally unexpected. A couple of years ago a great black hawk, a raptor usually only seen in South America was spotted in Biddeford. A month later birders spotted it again, this time in Portland. Soehren saw a picture of it on a Facebook group page and went to find it too.

“News spread quickly and people came from all over New England because it was pretty rare,” he said. “I got out of school early and went to see it before basketball practice it was so rare.”

Last year Soehren’s outings were limited by the pandemic and kept him close to home. He hopes he’ll be able to venture further north this spring during the next migration. This time of year birding is largely limited to non-migratory birds like woodpeckers and nuthatches, or watching ocean ducks.

He does not have a specific favorite bird but favors different species of warblers during their spring migration. He also enjoys watching northern cardinals.

“Warblers are so colorful and have specific songs to track,” he said. “There is so much variety within that family that there are always new warblers to find. I like the little birds. Birds of prey are sweet but there are limited numbers of larger birds. I prefer getting the variety.”

For others curious about birding, patience is the best skill to start with.

“All you really need are binoculars,” Soehren said. “And I always have e-Bird up on my phone to track what I’ve seen. That’s really it. For binoculars, you’re looking at magnification, 8×42 is the general rule of thumb. It goes by size and light that it lets in, your field of view and how close and detailed it is.”

“My binoculars have 10×42 magnification because I wanted a bit of extra zoom. But with extra detail it becomes harder to find your target. You just have to find your own happy medium.”

That patience is extra important when photographing birds, as is a good camera.

“It’s hard to get detailed, sharp shots,” he said. “The key is to wait for them to come to you. A good place to start is by feeding them in your yard. You also have to watch out for bird strikes, just put decals or screens to let them know there is something there. But at home is a good way to start learning the local species that are around.”

“Some photographers can go out for 12 hours and not get one good shot or they can go out and get a few thousand that they like. It’s understanding the bird’s behavior and getting to a spot where you get a good image.”

Atticus Soehren played quarterback at OHCHS. Also pictured at left, his coach and father Mark Soehren. Courtesy Brewster Burns

Soehren plans to build a career that will allow him to continue with birding. He has not settled on which college he will attend in the fall but his field of study will combine ecology with evolutionary biology. COVID-19 wreaked havoc with his senior year’s football season; he hopes to continue playing next year as a walk-on player.

“Birds are my main passion,” he said. “There is no specific ornithology major at any college. They are part of broader study. You can’t make money just looking at birds, unless it’s as a tour guide in South America or maybe working for the Audubon Society.

“I plan to study climate change and [specialize in] its effects on bird populations, habitats and behaviors. And eventually work in the academic field.”

For the short term he will juggle the spring migration with his final season of track and OHCHS graduation plans. Before long, the warblers will return to Maine.

“The seasonality and variables are what make birding fun,” he said. “It depends on time of year, the place, the species. You have all these different complexities within the hobby. Those are the most challenging part of birding, and the challenges aren’t a negative thing. You get it all at the right time and you get things you’ve never seen before for a good photo. They are enjoyable challenges.”

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