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Late January and February Bird Activities on the Backshore

Kathy's Valentine Love Birds Photo © Jody Halliday

How do seabirds prepare for the night? Where do they go? And why?

Each species over time has developed a nighttime survival strategy – weighing out their options that work best to stay alive.

The Common Eiders and Black Scoters off the Backshore share similar strategies. At dusk and close to shore you may notice small gatherings of these sea ducks. They feed on the seafloor on mussels and crustaceans. Their diving tactics vary, though. The eiders, although social, are indifferent to each other while feeding. They dive, search for prey, and return to the surface – hopefully with a beak full of food – but without much interest in their neighbors. The scoters, however, depend on one another during their feeding rituals. Have you seen black water bugs moving over the water’s surface? A twirling event. The scoters perform a similar dance. Heads and necks held high, they circle around each other, tension mounting. They watch each other. One dives, and they all follow in unison. Perhaps you have watched a flock of Black Scoters close to shore – but you blink, and they are gone. You are not hallucinating. Look again and you will see the scoters almost simultaneously, pop to the surface as they return from the depths.

With their feeding habits in mind, let’s return to the next step in their nightly activities. As described above they feed, filling their bellies for the night. Either as a mixed or single species flock, some individuals begin to move slightly offshore (a few stay behind to feed). The eiders generally follow a leader – male or female – forming a straight line perpendicular to the shore. The scoters mostly create a loose horizontal line of birds that slowly moves offshore. When the eiders and scoters form a mixed flock the configuration of the flotilla becomes more loose – a hybrid shape.

Not ready to make the commitment to go way offshore, the birds slow down and casually cluster together into a round crowd.

Here they loaf and socially interact - either casually or with displays of affection. If you listen carefully you may hear the delicate high whistles of the scoters and the low grumblings of the eiders. Watch for splashes of water. They bathe with enthusiasm – flapping their wings with such vigor that the splashes of water, catching the yellow and pink hues of the sunset, look like crystal shards.

As darkness approaches those individual birds left behind feeding, hastily move from the crashing surf to join their companions. Once they gather together, the long haul out to sea begins – to ‘bed’ and safety. With a little light left before dark, you can follow their journey. They stop at dark, about a half mile from shore:

Their rituals are not so unlike ours. We have dinner, we socialize, perhaps we have a snack, we bathe, and we go to the safety of our beds. Under comforters and blankets we sleep. Although safe from land predators and crashing waves on the rocky shore these sea ducks face other perils - cold and unpredictable seas, sharks and seals. So the birds nestle their heads in their back feathers, keeping one eye open for anything suspicious.

Common and Barrow's Goldeneyes

Red-breasted Merganser pair

- and mergansers paddle out to sea either individually or in small groups. Common Loons similarly use foot power after feeding in Whitehead Passage or Hussey Sound. On rare occasions you may see three of them in their unique and majestic manner, follow their chosen leader to their nightly respite.

Other sea ducks prefer different transport methods. The Long-tailed Ducks, Surf Scoters, White-winged Scoters, and some Black Scoters prefer flying out to sea as compared to foot power. These birds spend their days within Casco Bay. Perhaps they have a larger distance to safety from the bay to the sea. Flying is faster. A good vantage point for observing the flights of these birds is near Whaleback (Hussey Sound) or Picnic Point (Whitehead Passage). They fly close to the water’s surface in groups from several birds to as many as 50, or more.

Follow their trajectory and you can see them literally plop onto the sea’s surface, between Peaks Island and Outer Green Island – about a half mile from shore.

Where do these exquisite Harlequin Ducks, another sea duck seen off Peaks Island on January 11th (ML), sleep at night?

Male Harlequin Ducks 3 above Photos © Michael LaCombe

The Great Cormorants’ nightly survival tactics differ. They sleep on the cold ledges of Whitehead Cliffs (Please see: End of January and February Bird Sightings 2016):

As early as 3:00 PM these elegant fish predators arrive on the cliffs. They fly low over the water. They reach the cliff’s face and somehow ‘swoop-up’ to their roosting position. Not all approaches are successful, especially if another cormorant is on its preferred ledge. For example, just before dark a lone straggler usually shows up, hoping for a vacant ledge. After repeated attempts, the late arrival finds a suitable, but probably not ideal, ledge. Sometimes the ledges are covered in snow.

Perhaps the soft and insulating snow is equivalent to a pillow or comforter. This year up to 21 Great Cormorants are counted by nightfall.

The demure Black Guillemots (in their grey and white winter plumages) are commonly seen individually bobbing in the waves off the Backshore. These little birds are seen near but generally not within flocks of eiders and scoters. Where do they go to sleep at night?

Red-necked Grebes were abundant off Whaleback in December. They fed and loafed offshore. In January and February (see 2017 Bird Lists) only a few are observed. Where have they gone? Where did they sleep?

As spring approaches many of these seabirds will slowly disappear from the Backshore: scoters, Long-tailed Ducks, goldeneyes, Buffleheads, some mergansers, loons, grebes, and Great Cormorants. The eiders, guillemots, and some mergansers will stay with us as they form couples and start new families. Please enjoy our winter residents while they are still here, and continue to marvel over the breeding behaviors of our year round ones.

Other Information:

News Flash (ML): An American Kestrel is sighted on the mainland (Peter Rudenberg, February 22). Is it the male that spends its winters further north than the female, thereby, traveling a shorter distance to Maine? Keep your eyes focused on the oak trees at the Lion’s Club for the Peaks Island pair. Lisa have you seen the kestrel? (Please see Part 1: Selected August Bird Activities on Peaks Island 2016.)

Please Note: Michael continues to provide us with detailed bird lists. (Please see 2017 Bird Lists under Bird Blog.

Contributors: Michael LaCombe (ML)

Reviewers: Sam Wainright, Michelle Brown, Michael LaCombe, Marty

By and Photographs (except where noted otherwise): Photos © Patty Wainright

Thank you for your interest in the Bird Blog. If you have any additional bird sightings you would like to share or questions regarding Peak Island's bird life, you can send them to:

“A Paddling of Ducks”

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The Backshore Bird Blog


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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take a look at our list of the 100 varieties of birds that have been spotted around the Island here. How many can you spot?

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