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End of January and February Bird Sightings

Part 1: Whitehead Passage Birds

Part 2: Three Bird Lists (including February 17)

Part 3: Bald Eagle Photographs

Part 4: Rare duck sighting

Whitehead Passage Birds

Something new is on Cushing Island’s Whitehead Cliffs. Big-black-birds - but they are not the little Black Guillemots that nest on the cliffs in the summer, as they spend the winter on the seas and their plumage attire appears mostly greyish now. With the help of binoculars and best observed from Picnic Point, you can see that these black birds are cormorants with white faces.

Our summer residents, the Double-crested Cormorants have red faces, and with the exception of a few stragglers (Michael saw one on January 25th diving for fish in Spar Cove), they have moved south for the winter. Who can blame them – they knew winter would finally come to Maine – at least all but our Spar Cove optimist.

The white faces of these cliff-roosting birds identify them as Great Cormorants (GRCO):

Right profile,

mug shot,

and left profile. Photos © Patty Wainright

They are rare here -– only a few of them are observed along the Backshore in the winter. On this side of the Atlantic, this handsome 7-pound cormorant mostly breeds in southwestern Greenland and Canada’s maritime provinces. They move down the Atlantic Coast in the winter months (1). The breeding population of GRCO is listed as a Threatened in Maine.

This roosting colony of GRCOs is a treat to watch. At dusk they gather on the cliff ledges:

Great Cormorants at dusk Photo © Patty Wainright

At dawn they depart their cold ledges – not necessarily in any big rush though, as some linger awhile until their bellies remind them that feeding is more of a priority than the serenity of their cliff hideaways. Sometimes after taking that initial plunge from the cliff, they return after swooping around in a wide circle – only to put their webbed feet forward for a landing. Sometimes they miss their target. But why the change of mind? Why do some individuals linger longer than their cohorts?

Ready to go ....

... launched,

coming around,

- cheered on,

and coming into a landing. Photos © Patty Wainright

Remember the windy night of February 4th before the heavy snows on February 5th? Where did the cormorants roost that night – were they blown off the cliff? Do they roost on the snow-covered cliffs? Yes, even in the snow they perch on the cold slippery cliffs, but who knows what their struggles were in those howling winds.

Great Cormorants on snowy Whitehead Cliff

Still pondering that question about why some individuals linger on the cliffs at dawn and some return earlier than others at dusk. Entertainment? Safely perched above Whitehead Passage the cormorants watch parades of birds pass by. Common Eiders, Long-tailed Ducks, the three-scoter species, Common Loons, Red-throated Grebes, and more use the passage as a conduit between Casco Bay and the sea. In the morning many birds enter the bay to feed, and at dusk they return to the safety of the sea to sleep. Some species wing-it and others paddle. Some are steadfast and focused; others linger in groups feeding and bathing in the passage before making their final decision to move-on.

In a single file the loons paddle; eiders paddle and gather in small to large flotillas; scoters fly in low undulating or billowing groups; Long-tailed Ducks fly in groups forming more of a straight line than scoters; and grebes just paddle. Where do the gulls go to sleep after enjoying a great feast from the lobster boat – Bucko?

Common Loons filing through passage (Note size differences - ducks and loons)

Lingering Common Eiders

Long-tailed Ducks: stocky and rounded with white bellies;

contrasting with their long, slender, and pointed dark wings -

fly close to water surface.

Bucko and gulls Photos © Patty Wainright

Only, by chance another unusual bird species is seen. In Woodcutter’s Cove a single Herring Gull looks lost until a second bird pops to the water’s surface after feeding – it looks like a black and white version of a yellow rubber-duck. The gull is willing to share the bounties with this bird.

Herring Gull and murre

What is this little bird? At first it appears to be a Dovekie – a tiny bird related to Maine’s Black Guillemots, Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and Common and Thick-billed Murres (Family Alcidae –the alcids). Dovekies have a very small beak, however, the beak of this bird is bigger, the size of a murre. Both murre species may spend their winters along the Maine coast. My interpretation of these photographs, taken at a distance, is that, this bird is a Thick-billed Murre: No streaked flanks, thicker and more down-turned bill, and a slight hint of a white gape line (sliver of a white line mid-way along beak) (2).

Michael admits that it is a ‘tough call” and his interpretation of the photo differs: “Against: The bill seems too sharp, too long, and rather in keeping with a Common Murre. As well, there is no white “gape” in the throat that I can see. In favor: - a Thick-billed Murre is consistently being reported on the mainland via eBird.”

What is your opinion? This murre is seen one time, even after repeated searches along the shores facing Cushing Island. Has anyone seen it? (Note: The black feet of this murre differ from the vibrant red feet of the Black Guillemot.)

Murre butt and black feet

Thick-billed Murres - showing body plumage out of water - on Alaska Cliffs

Murre Photos © Patty Wainright

American Crows

Winding Way Pair Photo © Patty Wainright

In November many of us observed large numbers of crows gathering on the island in the late afternoon. Since then, I have not noticed these gatherings, until now. On the first of February nearly 300 crows appear over Whitehead Passage – heading this way. Due to their passion for noise, crows are rarely quiet but this large flock is silent. The Winding Way Crow Gang that patrols the South Shore so vigorously and noisily takes notice. Whether their calls are to discourage the mass (murder) of crows or whether they are calling to encourage them, so that they too may join the large winter roost, is a mystery. Perhaps some of the young crows within this Winding Way family may join this larger foraging-roosting group – to interact and learn new social skills (4). The social life of crows is complex and venturing from the family circle is beneficial – it balances how a crow views the world. For several days at dusk crows cross Whitehead Passage, but instead of one large mass, they trickled over to Peaks Island. Are these crows roosting on Peaks Island or do they go elsewhere? Do they change locations to different Casco Bay Islands each night - a strategy to prevent predators predicting their whereabouts?

Michael’s Bird Lists (submitted to eBird) and Comments

January 28, 2016 11:00 AM - 1:00 PM Comments: High thirties, sun, calm seas; beautiful day

American Black Duck 7 Common Eider 55 (along back shore, from Whaleback down to Battery Steele; 100 yds. off shore; females to males 2-1, 3-1) White-winged Scoter 2 Black Scoter 17 (off Evergreen Landing, 150 yards out; not seen with naked eye, but picked up by scanning) Long-tailed Duck 23 (yodeling, out on Diamond Pass, in groups of 3-5) Bufflehead 38 (up and down Gr. Diamond Pass; in small groups of 3-5) Common Goldeneye 6 Hooded Merganser 2 Red-breasted Merganser 1 Common Loon 5 Red-necked Grebe 4 Black Guillemot 5 (off Whitehead) Herring Gull 7 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 9 American Crow 7 European Starling 7 House Sparrow 7

February 7, 2016 10:00 AM - 12:30 PM Comments: Sunny, high forties, no wind; everybody out, even the mockingbird

“Feb. 7th was an extraordinary day: warm, calm seas, bright sun. BUFF’s* are everywhere in Diamond Passage, but very far out, and I need the 20x80 binoculars to distinguish them clearly from the white-headed LTDU’s **. Backshore drive was replete with winter walkers, sea ducks everywhere (all three scoters, all three mergansers), and as I turned the bend to go home at the foot of back shore, there was the mockingbird, six feet away, looking stunned that I might pass him over. But winter is back here now in full force, and I am longing for one, single, solitary song sparrow.”

Canada Goose 2 American Black Duck 7 Common Eider 57 Surf Scoter 7 White-winged Scoter 4 Black Scoter 9 Long-tailed Duck 4 ** Bufflehead 19 * Common Goldeneye 13 Barrow's Goldeneye 1 Hooded Merganser 2 Common Merganser 5 Red-breasted Merganser 11 Common Loon 4 Red-necked Grebe 8 Great Cormorant 1 Black Guillemot 2 Herring Gull 7 Great Black-backed Gull 2 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 3 Blue Jay 3 American Crow 9 Northern Mockingbird 1 European Starling 14 Northern Cardinal 2 House Sparrow 13

Feb 17, 2016 1:30 PM - 3:30 PM

Comments: Sunny, warm day, reached 50 degrees; low tide, rolling surf

American Black Duck 7 Common Eider 33 Surf Scoter** 2 White-winged Scoter* 7 Black Scoter 120 (in large flocks in rolling surf, strung out along back shore; occasional WWSC*, SUSC** with them) Long-tailed Duck 16 Bufflehead 15 Common Merganser 1 Red-breasted Merganser 2 Common Loon 1 Red-necked Grebe 7 Ring-billed Gull 1 Herring Gull 115 Great Black-backed Gull 2 Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon) 11 Mourning Dove 9 Blue Jay 6 American Crow 13 European Starling 44 House Finch 20 House Sparrow 30

Can you see anything in this oak tree overlooking Cushing Island?

David’s Bald Eagle

Now in the middle of cold and dreary February, David takes us back to the warm days of July with his impressive photographs of our resident Bald Eagle. I will say no more, as David’s narrative and photographs say it all, so well:

“Here are photos I took of a Bald Eagle that landed in our oak tree on Torrington Point on the very south end of the island by Hadlock Cove. He is holding what is left of a seagull (unfortunately for the seagull, no longer part of the bird population of the island….). The eagle visited, appropriately, on Independence Day weekend, and stayed for several minutes.”

Bald Eagle with Herring Gull ... Photo © David Steed

.... getting a closer view, Photo © David Steed

.... and close enough. Photo © David Steed

Bald Eagle sideview... Photo © David Steed

.... with nice tongue view, Photo © David Steed

.... a very close sideview of feathers, Photo © David Steed

.... and face. Photo © David Steed

Lisa’s rare duck sighting

Lisa has seen Harlequin Ducks in Casco Bay - species status is considered Threatened in Maine.

Other Information


  1. Johnsgard, P.A. 1993. Cormorants, Darters and Pelicans of the World. Smithsonian Institution Press. Washington and London.

  2. Sibley, D.A. 2000. The Sibley Guide to Birds. Alfred A. Knopf, NY.

  3. Behrens, K. and C. Cox. 2013. The Peterson Reference Guide Series: Seawatching Eastern Waterbirds in Flight. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Boston and NY.

  4. Marzluff, J.M. and T. Angell. 2005. In the Company of Crows and Ravens. Yale University Press, New Haven and London.

Contributors: David Steed, Michael LaCombe, and Lisa

Reviewed by: Michelle Brown and Marty

By: Patty Wainright

Thank you for your interest in the bird blog. If you have any questions or comments please contact Michelle:

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The objective of The Backshore Bird Blog is to share the wonder and diversity of bird species seen along the Peaks Island shore.

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