Kristina MacCormick of Portland, second from left, looks for birds on a weekly bird-watching walk at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. MacCormick says she has been birding for many years, but still appreciates the weekly bird-watching walks. “It’s constant learning new things. We pick up little bits and pieces,” she said. “Ah-ha! I didn’t know that before!”Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

Ever seen a Hudsonian godwit?

It’s a migratory bird named after Hudson Bay in Canada where it was first identified.

A rare sight in Maine, but one has been spotted in Portland’s back cove in the past few weeks, according to Doug Hitchcox, the staff naturalist at Maine Audubon.

“These birds are usually hard to see in Maine, typically far off on mud flats, but this young bird roosts on the rocks near the busy parking lot and doesn’t seem to care about the hustle and bustle of the city around it,” Hitchcox said in a recent interview.

The bird’s name derives from its distinctive cry of “god-wiiit!”

This is the kind of thing you learn on birding hikes led by Hitchcox every Thursday, all year long, at Gilsland Farm, Maine Audubon’s headquarters in Falmouth.


Audrey Stack of Falmouth is a regular on these hikes. She likes the fact that birds, like humans, can see color whereas most animals depend on smell.

Birders look across a meadow Thursday during a bird-watching walk at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

And she likes the thrill of seeing and hearing birds and the challenge of “spying on them,” she said. “The mystery is intriguing.”

She has learned from Hitchcox “what they’re doing and saying,” Stack said. “I appreciate knowing about their life secrets, what they are saying and where they are going next.”

Hitchcox can “spy a bird way, way up in the sky and tell you that’s a blue jay or a woodpecker, or those are red-winged blackbirds. He knows at a glimpse.”

He can identify birds from the slightest sound, she said, “even chirps that might sound the same to everyone else. He tends to know why they’re doing something, what they’re trying to communicate.”

For example, she said, you can tell the threat a chickadee feels by the number of “dees” in its defense call.


Chelsea O’Connor of Portland has gone on most of the Audubon hikes held since April.

“I was hooked right from the start,” she said. “I love being outside and seeing things I wouldn’t normally see.”

She’s learned birdcalls, feeding and nesting habits, and lifecycles of birds and their families, she said.

“(Hitchcox) is awesome,” O’Connor said. “He gives us facts about what certain birds like to eat, their foraging and nesting and mating habits.”

She said Hitchcox can decipher many birdcalls all at once and offers facts that are easy to absorb.

“I feel like a little kid learning new facts,” she said. “There’s just never a dull moment, learning so much about native plants and how they affect birds.”


She said one important takeaway has been that birdfeeders are not always the best thing for birds.

“If so many people have birdseed and birdhouses, a lot of birds get used to that food source and then have babies who learn that easy food source instead of going to native plants,” O’Connor said.

She said people shouldn’t be worried about the scarcity of birds at feeders this season.

“That’s what it’s supposed to be like. It would be alarming if a lot of birds were coming to feeders desperate for food.”


Hitchcox wrote in a blog titled “Where Are the Birds?” that migration is a major reason for the decline of birds at feeders in the fall.


“Another major reason you are seeing fewer birds at feeders is because there is better food almost everywhere right now,” he wrote in September. “Lots of plants, especially wildflowers, are going to seed or forming fruit right now and birds are going to be targeting those high-quality food sources.”

He suggested a better way to keep birds in your backyard would be to provide them with native plants.

Since that blog was written, “with the temperatures decreasing, fewer insects are available on the landscape and that will encourage birds to return to feeders,” he said. Even fruiting plants are becoming scarce.

“It’s always important to remember birds would rather be foraging on natural food, but they’ll come back to feeders for an easy meal when the time comes,” Hitchcox said.

He said lots of birds migrate in the fall, making it one of the more fun times to be out birding. Birdcast detected 11 million birds passing over Maine on the evening of Sept. 20, he said. The website tracks nocturnal bird migration in real time.

In all, Maine has 290 species of birds, according to the state’s official count, and many can be found throughout the state, while some occur only in portions of the state. Hitchcox said most songbirds have already passed through, “especially the long-distance travelers like warblers, but sparrows are showing up in huge numbers right now.”


Waterfowl such as ducks and geese are starting to peak as things freeze up to our north and those birds come south looking for food and open water, he said.

Spring and fall migrations are great times for birding because you can see a lot of diversity in a single day, he said.

Doug Hitchcox, right, Maine Audubon’s staff naturalist, peers skyward recently at the start of a weekly bird-watching walk at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

But every season has something special to offer.

“I’ve come to really enjoy summer birding, which can be slow in the hot weather, but I find a lot of value in slowing down and watching individual birds going about their days,” he said.

Summer is the nesting season so if you stay with an individual bird, you can catch some intimate behaviors including building a nest or carrying food to feed a chick.

“Winter also brings some really cool birds that we don’t see any other times of the year: Harlequin ducks spend the winter on Maine’s rocky coast, usually in the rough surf, and the chance for finding a snowy owl is always a good enough reason to bring your binoculars along any winter day,” he said.


Among the birds seen on a recent hike at Gilsland Farm were two bald eagles, a red-throated loon and lots of black ducks.


If such sightings — and others — interest you and you want to give it a try, Hitchcox recommends finding a local place that you can visit regularly to watch the birds change with the seasons.

Frank Paul of Portland keeps a handwritten log of the bird species he is able to identify in the field. Paul estimates he has been bird watching for 50 years. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

“It’s a great way to start learning what is out there and when you can see them,” he said.

He said there aren’t any rules for birding, “but it is good to keep in mind that you want to do as little as possible to disturb or scare birds away.”

No need to dress in camo, he said, but blaze orange is recommended during hunting season for your own protection. And try to keep quiet and not make fast movements.


“People sometimes get really excited when they see a bird and will point and shout, ‘There it is!’ only to have the bird quickly fly away,” he said.

Longtime local birder Stan DeOrsey’s advice for beginners is to start with your backyard and a feeder. Then buy a bird guidebook showing the different birds.

“Pick anything to start, then you can always get a second book if you need another opinion,” he said.

And buy binoculars.

“The general advice is to buy the best you can afford,” he said. “However, I suggest talking with other birders on a walk or at a club meeting (most meetings are free), to see what others use for binoculars.”

Stan and his wife, Joan, both Auburn natives, belong to the Stanton Bird Club based in Lewiston. They joined about 15 years ago when they returned to Maine after years of living in Poughkeepsie, New York, where they began birding “literally after we got married, as a way to do something as a couple,” Stan said.


They now lead walks for Stanton and try to go out at least once a week, he said, depending on the weather.

You can find a scheduled walk led by a bird club (Stanton offers free walks from May into October), but most bird watching is done in your backyard with a clean and freshly filled feeder, he said.

“Use one type of food per feeder and use a feeder designed for that food,” he said. “The usual problem is too much white millet in a seed feeder. Millet is good for sparrows and ground feeding on a platform feeder or on the ground. Put enough for one day so you do not attract unwanted animals at night.”

Audrey Stack of Falmouth, right, looks for birds during a weekly bird-watching walk at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Stack is taking a Maine Master Naturalist course studying Maine bird species and habitats. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

If you would rather venture out, good places to go now are Martin’s Point Park and Long Beach at the south end of Sabattus Pond in Sabattus, Stan said.

The pond “literally fills with ducks at this time of year because the water is low and the lake bottom has a variety of food for them,” he said.

Parks, including Stanton’s Thorncrag in Lewiston, are also good places to see birds.


“Walk the Riverwalk in Auburn south of the Court Street bridge, or the Androscoggin River Trail from Sunnyside Park in Lewiston, or the Papermill Trail in Lisbon. Mornings are the best time as the birds are up and hungry, but they can be found all day,” he said.

He said birders have “frequent rare sightings. Let’s call a rare sighting a bird which is not always found in Maine and/or generally in small numbers.”

These include a purple gallinule, which was seen in the town of York and in Piscataquis County in early October. He also mentioned the Hudsonian godwit in Portland “and who can forget the Steller’s sea eagle seen (in Portland) for the past two winters. It was last seen in September in Newfoundland, but we hope it will show up in Maine again this winter.”

You might also expect to see migrant pine grosbeaks, redpolls and Bohemian waxwings in Maine in January and February if winter is extremely cold in Canada, he said.

“Birding is a great way to get outdoors, visit locations you might not otherwise visit (cemeteries can be very good places to walk and see birds, as are sewerage treatment ponds),” Stan DeOrsey said. “Be sure to ask permission and follow any rules.”

Maine Audubon’s Hitchcox encourages everyone to give birding a try.

“The hobby covers a very wide spectrum from enjoying birds at a feeder in your yard, to keeping a list of all the birds you can see, or increasingly getting good photos of them,” he said.

Birding is a good hobby because they are so accessible, he said.

“I always joke that if I could go out and see a bobcat or lynx every day, I’d be much more into mammals than birds. But almost anywhere you go, any time of the year, you can find a bird within minutes of looking. From the deep woods to a busy downtown, birds are easy to find and there is something to be learned from every one you see.”

Susan Gilpin of Falmouth, right, looks for birds during a weekly bird-watching walk at Gilsland Farm in Falmouth. Gilpin is taking a Maine Master Naturalist course studying Maine bird species and habitats. Andree Kehn/Sun Journal

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