This Blog is For the Birds

  • Long-legged Waders

    This summer, Sandhill Cranes once again returned to the watershed.  A pair was seen regularly in the vicinity of Carlton Pond.  Students from Unity College noted them feeding in an old cornfield in May and June on Rt. 220 and the birds were also observed throughout the summer at Carlton Pond.  Sandhills, which stand over four feet high, have recently colonized Maine.  Thankfully, the species has recovered from years of persecution and overharvesting and is now increasing over most of its range.  This has also resulted in range expansion further eastward into northern New England.

     It is thought that they formerly nested in New England but were wiped out before the mid-1800’s. There were no nesting records until they were found with young in the Belgrade Lakes area in 2002.  The New England breeding population only numbers around thirty birds.  If this pair decides to return and nest next year at Carlton, it would represent the furthest eastward in the U.S that they have nested in historic times.  Cranes are much more common in the West.  Great Blue Herons, a common nesting species in Maine is often mistaken for a crane but they lack the red on the top of the head and “bustle” of feathers over the rump.  Cranes always fly with the necks out straight, while herons usually “fold” it back over their back while flying.


    The Great Egret, another uncommon wader that is fairly rare in inland Maine, has also been sighted recently at Carlton Pond.  Soon, all these long-legged waders will head south as fall gives way to winter.

  • River Birds on the Lower Sebasticook

    From Erynn Call, Ph.D.
    Raptor Specialist, Bird Group
    Maine Dept. Inland Fisheries & Wildlife

    The Maine River Bird Project (MRBP) is a statewide initiative aimed at better understanding relations between rivers and river-associated birds, emphasizing dam removal and the return of sea-run fishes.  Through collaboration of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Biodiversity Research Institute, and Unity College, project efforts expanded in 2014 and surveys were initiated to specifically document Bald Eagle and Osprey activity during the spring river herring (collective term for blueback herring and alewife) run.  These river birds had been observed gathering in the rich five mile section of the Sebasticook River, between Benton Falls Dam and the confluence of the Kennebec.  Since the removal of the Ft. Halifax Dam near the mouth of the Sebasticook and the fish lift installations at Benton Falls and Burnham, these anadromous fishes have returned to the watershed in great numbers, nearing 3 million  after five years of operation. This is the largest river herring spawning run in the northeast!  Surveys are ongoing, however results from 2014 showed a strong reliance on this food resource by juvenile (less than 3.5 years old) bald eagles and the presence of 3 successful bald eagle nests in the study area.  

    This section of the river is especially suited for river bird fishing. The tall trees on the banks provide great places for eagles to perch and view their fish prey.  Rock outcroppings allow for close up fish spotting. In the narrow sections the fish become more densely packed and in the ledge areas of shallow riffles the fish are forced close to the surface. Both of these conditions make catch success more likely.  All in all a good spot for river birds. 

     The raptors frequenting the river include Osprey or fish hawks and Bald Eagles, mature, sub adult, and juvenile.

    Some questions answered:

    How do you tell Juveniles from Sub Adults? 

    Tom Aversa: 

    They appear larger if anything.  Juveniles can be recognized by the even freshness of the plumage - all the flight feathers look even and unworn.  A one year old is starting it's molt and the second generation of feathers is slightly shorter than the old juvenal feathers from last year so the trailing edge of the wing often looks uneven or ragged.  The older feathers also often look faded. (I think the scruffy one on the branch is a Juvenile)

    How do raptors dive into shallow water and not get hurt?  

    Ospreys are water resistant because this is the only bird of prey that routinely dives into the water, always feet first, to catch its prey. The bald eagle does not submerge itself like the osprey when hunting; instead, it plucks fish out of the water that are swimming close to the surface. After being submerged, an osprey can easily power itself out of the water with its incredibly agile wings, something the more robust, lumbering bald eagle has difficulty doing.


    Eagles just scoop fish off the surface.  Ospreys are adapted with specialized wings to help them lift themselves up, and also fold them up over their back as they enter the water.

    How much travelling do the Sub Adults do and what prompts them to move?

    Erynn Call:

    There have been published scientific papers summarizing movements of Bald Eagles in North Florida and Arizona.  Work in Maine by Biodiversity Research Institute is ongoing.  They have placed GPS transmitters on fledgling bald eagles and track their movements throughout the state.  From these data, they know that juvenile eagles do move often and are attracted to river herring runs such as that along the Sebasticook River.  Because they do not have a breeding territory to defend, they are able to move far and wide in search of food.  Often the fledglings settle and set up a territory in the same general region of the state as where they were born.  

    You can contact Chris DeSorbo at BRI for more information on this research.

    And for humans paddling on the river at this time of year is a great treat. There is a boat landing off RT. 100 near the Benton/Winslow line on Alewife Lane and you can take out just before the confluence at Halifax Fort Park. Enjoy.

    Directions to  Alewife Lane

  • Deb Dutton's Brown Thrasher Siting

    Thrush-like in appearance, the Brown Thrasher (Toxostoma rufum) is a medium-sized, skulking songbird native to eastern North America. It is bright reddish-brown with white underparts which are boldly patterned with black. It also possesses a long tail and long, thick-set legs.  Male and female brown thrasher are similar in appearance and size.  Juveniles have bars of pale yellow-brown on the wings, compared to the white bars on the adult’s wings. This species also has striking yellow eyes.

    The Brown Thrasher has an amazing repertoire of songs, one of the largest of any North American bird. Its song generally consists of a loud, long series of variable phrases, with each phrase usually repeated twice and punctuated by a pause. It also occasionally mimics the calls of other birds as part of its repertoire.

    The thrasher breeds from May to June, with the male singing from conspicuous places such as treetops in order to establish a territory and attract a mate. Although the Brown Thrasher does not engage in elaborate courtship displays the male has been observed to sing a soft courtship song to the female.  Thrashers are fairly uncommon in Maine.  Their numbers have declined in recent years due to their preference for dry, scrubby field edges, which tend to fall victim to development or grow into mature forest.

  • Migrating Shorebirds

    Although August is still summer to us, many birds are well into their fall migration.

    Many of our woodland songbirds have already departed. For many shorebirds the movement starts as early as the Summer solstice! Most of these group nests in arctic or subarctic areas with only a few like Wilson’s Snipe (below) being local breeders. The important migration stopovers found in our watershed are critical in allowing these species to reach their wintering grounds, which are primarily far to our south.

    The American Woodcock,   a game species which is another of our local nesting birds, was found in very high numbers this summer during invasive plant surveys at SRLT’s Fowler Bog property. This is good news for this species which has declined in recent years as reflected by limitations imposed on hunter bag limits.

     The working agriculture lands of the watershed provides habitat for a diverse array of shorebirds. Farmers are often familiar with birds like  the Kildeer  and Solitary Sandpiper (below) which use their properties.

    As the water levels drop at local water bodies, shorebirds also use the muddy margins and floating islands. During recent trips to Carlton Pond, Semipalmated Plover (below), a species uncommon in central Maine was spotted more than once. A shorebird more commonly found migrating in open ocean habitats than central Maine, the Red-necked Phalarope (below2), was found in Thorndike at a farm pond demonstrating the importance of agricultural areas to wayward migrants. Phalaropes are unique sandpipers that spin rapidly to stir plankton upward to the surface to feed on. They can easily be recognized by this feeding style so keep your eyes open.

  • Rare Birds At Home In the Watershed

    Black Tern

    Rare birds.  The Sebasticook River watershed provides homes for some of Maine’s rarest species.  The state-endangered Black Tern can be found during the early summer at Carlton Pond.  Numbers this season seem higher than in recent years with over a dozen birds tallied on 6/28.  On the same early morning canoe exploration, a Sandhill Crane was heard calling at dawn over the marshes.  This iconic bird is a recovering species that has recently colonized Maine.  Later in the morning it circled the pond bugling loudly before settling down in the marsh in what may have been territorial behavior.  Could these cranes be nesting here?  There are very few places in the state where they nest with one being the Belgrade Lakes.

    Black Tern

     Carlton Pond is protected by the USF&WS as a waterfowl production area.  Many Wood DucksAmerican Black Ducks, Ring-necked Duck and a Hooded Merganser were sighted along with two uncommon marsh birds, the American Bittern and Pied-billed Grebe.  The extensive boggy habitat provides a safe haven for the ducks during their flightless period as they molt all their wing feathers simultaneously.  Several broods of young ducklings proved that waterfowl are indeed being produced here.

    American Black Ducks

     This unique spot has to be among the most gorgeous habitats in the watershed.  Put your canoe in early some morning and enjoy it yourself.

  • If It's June, It's Nesting Season in Central Maine

    If It's June, It's Nesting Season in Central Maine

    From Tom Aversa

    Bird families.  Baby birds are starting to fledge from their nests all over the watershed.  The cycle of life continues with most birds raising a new family every year.  Some species such as American Robin even raises several families throughout the spring and summer.  Ducklings have been evident everywhere.  Mother ducks don’t always nest right next to the water so are seen carefully escorting their families across roads and back into wetlands.  Hazards are many including predators such as snapping turtles, herons and otters which can whittle down the number surviving to flying age.  Great Blue Herons nest in colonies building their large stick nests in trees killed by beaver flooding.  Local rookeries are now filled with nearly fledged youngsters and in one Benton location, a Great Horned Owl co-opted a nest and successfully fledged at least one owlet.


    Most songbirds leave their nests in in late June and July.  Watch for agitated behavior from adults to indicate the presence of youngsters.  A pair of American Kestrel, a raptor known locally as “sparrowhawk” was seen recently feeding young at Sandy Stream near Unity College.  Sadly this once common raptor is declining in numbers for unknown reasons.  Watch for them along roadsides and look for family groups.


    An unusual species sighted recently at Unity Pond was a Philadelphia Vireo.  First noted on June 16, a singing male has apparently taken up residence.  These birds normally nest to the north or east of the watershed.  You can’t beat summer in Maine!

  • The Amazing Aerial Insectivores

    Summer birds.  Most breeding birds are paired and on territory.  Spring migration has more or less ended here in the watershed.

    Most songbirds are singing less frequently now that they have found mates and gotten down to the business of raising a family.  A recent visit to the newly acquired Richardson Memorial Preserve in Unity found Tree Swallows utilizing the bluebird boxes that were built and installed by the Unity cub scouts.  Long-time SRLT supporter Andy Reed donated the pine lumber which he harvested and milled on his woodlot.  Overhead, two Turkey Vultures were soaring.  Vultures usually nests on rocky cliffs so perhaps they are wandering from a nearby breeding area.


    At Unity Pond the Purple Martins seem to have completely filled up the apartment-style nestbox at the Field of Dreams.  This species, which is rare in Maine presents a great opportunity to observe behavior up close since they nest in one of the busiest parts of the park.  Martins and swallows are described as “aerial insectivores”, which means they catch insects on the wing.  These birds help to keep pesky mosquitoes and black flies in check.  Unfortunately they are declining in most areas so it is great to know that the watershed provides habitat for them.

  • Four Miles on Twenty Five Mile Stream

    Four Miles on Twenty Five Mile Stream

    Jennifer Irving, Executive Director of the Sebasticook Regional Land Trust, just sent me a list of 42 species of birds sighted during a four mile paddle Friday on 25 Mile Stream in the Moulton's Mill Preserve. It is so wonderful to know more about the richness of this beautiful place especially with the mention of the magnificent Burr Oaks that were thought to have been planted originally by local native americans who used the stream to travel through the watershed. Very grateful to Maine birder and author Peter Vickery for his keen eye.

    The e-bird list was posted by Peter Vickery, the author of  A Birder's Guide to Maine, and president of the Center for Ecological Research at UMO.This is his E-Bird Report.

    Moulton's Mill Preserve, Unity (SRLT), Waldo, US-ME
    May 16, 2014 10:30 AM - 12:35 PM
    Protocol: Traveling
    4.0 mile(s)
    Comments:     We canoed 4 miles of 25-mile stream.  Much of the forest is lovely large Burr Oak (Quercus macrocarpa).
    42 species

    Wood Duck (Aix sponsa)  6
    Mallard (Anas platyrhynchos)  2
    Great Blue Heron (Ardea herodias)  1
    Spotted Sandpiper (Actitis macularius)  5
    Solitary Sandpiper (Tringa solitaria)  9     Scattered along the stream.
    Mourning Dove (Zenaida macroura)  2
    Yellow-bellied Sapsucker (Sphyrapicus varius)  2
    Downy Woodpecker (Picoides pubescens)  1
    Hairy Woodpecker (Picoides villosus)  1
    Northern Flicker (Yellow-shafted) (Colaptes auratus auratus/luteus)  1
    Least Flycatcher (Empidonax minimus)  1
    Eastern Phoebe (Sayornis phoebe)  1
    Great Crested Flycatcher (Myiarchus crinitus)  5
    Eastern Kingbird (Tyrannus tyrannus)  1
    Blue-headed Vireo (Vireo solitarius)  2
    Red-eyed Vireo (Vireo olivaceus)  7     FOS.
    Blue Jay (Cyanocitta cristata)  5
    Common Raven (Corvus corax)  2
    Tree Swallow (Tachycineta bicolor)  2
    White-breasted Nuthatch (Sitta carolinensis)  1
    Winter Wren (Troglodytes hiemalis)  2
    Hermit Thrush (Catharus guttatus)  1
    American Robin (Turdus migratorius)  8
    Gray Catbird (Dumetella carolinensis)  1
    Ovenbird (Seiurus aurocapilla)  20
    Northern Waterthrush (Parkesia noveboracensis)  2
    Black-and-white Warbler (Mniotilta varia)  3
    Nashville Warbler (Oreothlypis ruficapilla)  1
    Common Yellowthroat (Geothlypis trichas)  6
    Northern Parula (Setophaga americana)  8
    Magnolia Warbler (Setophaga magnolia)  3
    Blackburnian Warbler (Setophaga fusca)  1
    Yellow Warbler (Setophaga petechia)  2
    Chestnut-sided Warbler (Setophaga pensylvanica)  5
    Yellow-rumped Warbler (Myrtle) (Setophaga coronata coronata)  3
    Black-throated Green Warbler (Setophaga virens)  8
    Canada Warbler (Cardellina canadensis)  1     FOS.
    Song Sparrow (Melospiza melodia)  3
    Scarlet Tanager (Piranga olivacea)  6
    Rose-breasted Grosbeak (Pheucticus ludovicianus)  5
    Brown-headed Cowbird (Molothrus ater)  2
    American Goldfinch (Spinus tristis)  4

  • Migration In Full Swing

    Migration In Full Swing

    The warm weather over the May 10 weekend pushed a large wave of migrants into the watershed.  Although larger birds like raptors and waterfowl are easily observed, songbirds are considered by many to be the most beautiful of our summer birds.  Colorful residents like Rose-breasted Grosbeak, increasing numbers of Purple Finch and American Goldfinch in their breeding regalia now decorate our backyards and woodlands. 

     Maine hosts 25 species of breeding warbler and these feathered jewels present incredible beauty for those with the patience to use binoculars.  Thrushes like Wood Thrush and Veery also arrived over the weekend and can now be heard delineating their territories with their ethereal vocalizations.  Flocks of several species of sparrow including confiding White-throated Sparrows also arrived in numbers at local bird feeders.

     The cooler weather that followed the warm southwestern airflow apparently caused many birds to pause and feed in our area including some unusual migrants.  On the 14th, the Unity Pond wetlands hosted a loose flock of shorebirds that included a Wilson’s Phalarope, a species seldom sighted in inland Maine.  Equally rare was a spring sighting of a singing Clay-colored Sparrow on a local farm.

     Take advantage of the tardy sprouting of our forest foliage as it makes it much easier to see newly arrived species like Scarlet Tanager and Baltimore Oriole.


  • Tom Aversa Is Our Resident Bird Man

    Tom Aversa Is Our Resident Bird Man

    Tom has written two bird guides and is at work on a third.  Tom serves on the Board of Directors  at the land trust and on several committees as well. He knows a very lot about birds but best of all he is passionate about them. His latest love is a tiny Eastern Screech Owl who is now a permanent resident at Unity College. Going on a walk or drive with Tom is a treat as he spots birds  at every turn and describes their habits in rich detail.  What I love most is that he is opening my eyes to the richness of winged creatures within a few miles of home here in Central Maine.  It's so much fun.