March 24-26 Sightings
Spring always follows Winter* – A flock of Robins picking out little seaweed flies/larvae on the Wharf Cove shore is a sure sign that spring is nearly here.
The Canada Geese are observed again in early March in the salty waters – Casco Bay and Diamond Passage. Michelle and Butch are questioning why these geese are here so early and why have they resorted to swimming in the Ocean. Perhaps they were here too early and all the lakes were still frozen?
Herring Gull and Great Cormorant, Whale Rock
As an infrequent winter visitor to the Backshore, the Great Cormorant was a treat to see basking on the end of Whale Rock, along side a full-mouthed Herring Gull. Perhaps this cormorant is heading to its breeding grounds in Eastern Canada and lower Greenland. Or it may be a winter resident, but infrequently seen – I saw what appeared to be a Great Cormorant on January 4th, flying southerly along the Backshore. This larger cormorant can be distinguished from our three-seasonal Double-crested Cormorant by its white face - with the edges trimmed in a pinkish-orange color. A striking white patch of feathers is displayed on its lower side, past the leg and below its wing.
The adult Double-crested Cormorant sports an all black plumage and an orange face.
Double-crested Cormorant and Mature Female Common Eider
Photos © Patty Wainright
Our featured winter birds - the scoters, Red-breasted Mergansers, Long-tailed Ducks, Black Ducks, Common Goldeneyes, Common Loons, and Common Eiders - are still with us. However, fewer scoters are feeding off the Backshore, and the pair of Barrow’s Goldeneyes and the female scaups observed in February on Woodcutter’s Cove (end of Great Pond Rd) were not seen in late March. Several Black Scoters foraged along with the eiders, whereas five Surf Scoters were more independent, stayed on the outskirts of the flock, and appeared to show little interest in joining them. A couple of White-winged Scoters dallied along with the eider flocks or drifted off by themselves. Butch sighted a pair of Common Goldeneyes in Wharf Cove in early March. His earlier sightings and the three female and two male Common Goldeneyes in Wharf Cove that I saw in late March is encouraging. Remember in late February we were concerned about the survival of the female goldeneye with the dark smudge on her breast – hopefully she is one of these three ladies and that she was able to repair her plumage for that night’s frigid cold. The diminutive Black Guillemot was not observed; perhaps they are not close enough to shore for binocular observations. Previous years I have seen them nearly year round. Has anyone seen the guillemots?
Fewer Common Loons were found off the Backshore but many more were in the protection of Casco Bay, seen in route to Portland – still in winter plumage. Now and through April the loons are in the process of molting their entire plumage, including their flight feathers, in preparation for their migration to their breeding grounds in May.
The large flocks of 300-400 Common Eiders seen earlier in the winter apparently found better hunting grounds away from Peaks Island, preferring the waters off Whitehead, Cushing Island. At different times of the day they can be found diving off the point or found just off the cliffs facing Peaks Island. Another large flock was observed closer to Portland Light. This flock may have been eiders or scoters, or a mixture of both. Several smaller flocks of eiders along the Backshore stayed at their favorite haunts - off the South Shore, off the Bicycle House, and the Heart House.
Map modified from NOAH Chart 13290
Even though many of the eiders appear to have deserted the Backshore for Cushing Island, they occasionally return. For example, part of the eider flock (50) off Cushing Island made a B-line for two small flocks off the South Shore/Backshore Corner – peacefully merging into one larger flock. Why and who makes such decisions? Many times one can observe a flock of eiders feeding off the shore, and suddenly without any apparent reason, an eider-leader (generally a female and sometimes a male) simply starts moving away from the flock, and the others follow. It may be all or only part of an eider crowd that follows. This newly formed flock may move independently to another location or they may team up with another group. The blending of these flocks is fluid and with no fan-fare. The eiders make these sojourns in different formations – long lines, a large loose clump, or wide bands. They move with great intent, other times a bit of dawdling slows down their progress. Either way, if the eiders are not actively feeding, sleeping, bathing/preening or courting, they are on the move.
Eider courting is ramping-up. One can observe more vocalizations (‘grunting’ calls, as compared to the sweet whistle calls of scoters) and posturing. The males have a broad selection of striking females to court, as there are more of them than males.
The male selects an eligible female that has two distinct white wing bars (indicates sexual maturity) and a flash of white under her wings.
White-wing Bands and White Patch Under Wing on Female Common Eider
Photos © Patty Wainright
But before courtship begins, the female must determine the male’s suitability by evaluating him, as he struts his magnificent black and white plumage and puffs out his pinkish-white breast for her visual delight.
Male Common Eider Display Photo © Patty Wainright
Once they choose their partners, a pair will display a series of courtship ‘dances’. The female then flattens herself atop the water’s surface indicating her interest in his romantic attentions.
Female and Male Common Eider Courtship Photo © Patty Wainright
Please stay tuned for more details of the eiders’ courtship displays, as spring launches into a full swing. Remember: Spring always follows Winter*.
Thank you for your interest in our Peaks Island birds, and if you have any additional bird sightings you would like to share or questions regarding Peak's bird life, you can send them to: firstname.lastname@example.org
Written by: Patty Wainright
Reviewers: Sam Wainright and Michelle Brown
* Phrase borrowed from Claire Ottens