Journal list

Maine’s most prolific birders share their adventure stories

Linda Woodard, director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, and Doug Hitchcox, naturalist at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, react after a sighting on the centre’s morning bird walk. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

For Rob Speirs, it was three Pink-footed Geese near his home in Cumberland which opened his eyes to the powerful lure of birds.

The three geese Speirs found in Maine in 2009 delighted birdwatchers across the country as he continued to report the wanderer’s whereabouts online. It was the second recorded sighting in Maine of the birds, which nest in Greenland and Iceland and migrate to northwestern Europe.

“While I had just started to get more serious about my birding that summer following reconnecting with an old friend, it put me right in the middle of an exciting event in the Maine birdwatching,” Speirs said. “A guy from Alaska came to see these birds, and I met him and a guy from North Carolina who flew out.”

Today, Speirs is one of the state’s most prolific birders. Last week it ranked No. 5 with 374 species seen in Maine in its lifetime. Rankings can be found on eBird, a website hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The ranking that many birders pay attention to is the most species seen in a state in a lifetime, a list that totals 21,000 birders in Maine. But there are other variables to focus on, like most species seen in a county, or even in a particular month.

For Speirs and others near the top of the Maine eBird rankings, competition with other birders is not a driving force. Instead, they are simply driven by a passion for studying birds in different places and in different seasons. And, of course, the chance to see a bird rarely seen in the state.

Linda Woodard is one of Maine’s top birders, ranked #18 on the eBird list with 349 species seen in the state. Ben McCanna / Personal Photographer

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More than 460 species of birds have been observed in Maine, including 285 regularly occurring species, 215 of which breed here. But seeing all the birds native to Maine as well as all the vagrants that land here—like these pink-footed geese—is a tall order. Only 17 birders have seen more than 350 species in Maine, according to eBird.

Birders do not need to provide photographic evidence of their species sightings, although some do. In general, accurate species identification is based on the honor system. And who wouldn’t believe the best ornithologists, given that some go to great lengths to see a rare species?

Doug Hitchcox, Maine Audubon naturalist, is a good example. It topped the Maine eBird list with 398.

On Feb. 18, he hopped in his car at 4:30 a.m. with co-worker Nick Lund (#18 on the Maine eBird List) to drive to Eastport to get his 398th Maine species, a Common Gull. They settled it with their boss and co-workers at Maine Audubon who told them “YOLO” (you only live once).

“There are about 10 (vagabonds) that I know of who might come to Maine at some point. So I watch the news reports,” Hitchcox said.

This marbled godwit was seen by Margaret Viens of Rome while she was birdwatching with her twin sister, Marjorie Watson, in 2013 in Biddeford. Photo by Margaret Viens

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For Linda Woodard – tied with Lund for No. 18 on the eBird list (349 species) – the craziest hunt for a rarity was not in Maine but for a red-footed falcon that was at Martha’s Vineyard in 2004 Woodard dropped everything to see because the raptor is found in Europe, winters in Africa, and had never been reported in North America before.

Woodard, who is the director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Centre, jumped in a car with a colleague and drove to Massachusetts to take the ferry to the island as foot passengers. The problem with their plan was that the bird was some distance from the ferry terminal.

But, coincidentally, a man was standing at the ferry terminal at the other end holding a sign that read: “Van to Falcon”. So they jumped in the van and he dropped them off near the falcon.

“We didn’t have to wait too long to see it,” Woodard said. “Of course, we realized then that we didn’t know when or if the van would return and if it would coincide with the departure of the last ferry.”

For Noah Gibb of Freeport – who is No. 7 on the list (366 species) – the most memorable chase was the bird he missed.

He went to Bar Harbor with his son, Tyler, and a friend to hunt a black-capped grosbeak seen the day before, only to hear what Gibb called the dreaded words in birdwatching: ‘He doesn’t hasn’t been seen all day.”

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“Of course we didn’t see the bird and the area didn’t have good lunch options as it was out of tourist season. My son was hungry and the only place we could get food was a gas station that offered mediocre pizza slices at best. I always labeled this trip as the six-hour gas station pizza trip,” Gibb said.

But Gibb will catch up. He recently switched jobs to take a second shift job at Idexx, so he can have free mornings and early afternoons to spend more time with his family – and go bird watching.

Noah Gibb photographed this pine grosbeak from inches away in 2021 as he studied it under a fruit tree. Photo by Noe Gibb

“I don’t want to wait until I retire. You never know what will happen in life,” said Gibb, 44. “I don’t care about the standings. I want to study birds.

This resonated with Margaret Viens – #9 on the eBird list with 361 species. Since retiring in 2007, she’s had more time to birdwatch – and catch up with her siblings, all birdwatchers, including her twin sister, Marjorie Watson.

Two years later, when Viens joined eBird in 2009, his life list in Maine took off.

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But even when Viens sees the same birds again and again, she is happy. In fact, six years ago, she and her sister set a new goal: to start their bird list every month.

“We try to get 100 different species a month from wherever we are,” Viens said. “Once you get a lot of cash, it’s hard to get anything new. It makes it fun. It forces us to go out. We are delighted to see the same birds every month, and when we go birding a lot, we see more.

Portland’s Charles Duncan is #4 on Maine’s eBird list with an impressive 381 species. Duncan drops his high ranking following bird sightings in Maine for 40 years.

And even after all this time, Duncan is also finding new ways to have fun, challenge himself, and explore the birds of Maine.

“My birding changed drastically when COVID arrived. We started working on our Cumberland County roster,” Duncan said of him and his wife, Laura Blutstein. “It took us to new places in the county where we had never been.”

The one thing that has remained the same over 40 years of birding in Maine, Duncan said, is the camaraderie within Maine’s birding community, which he says is distinctly Maine.

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“There are competitive teasing. But it’s teasing, it’s very light,” Duncan said. “The fact is that we help each other. And we are hiring new ornithologists. In my experience, this does not happen in all 50 states.


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