Into the Wild: Where to find a wild phoenix

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I’ll write about a lot of animals in this column about Maine wildlife, but I won’t write much about the phoenix. Because, you know, it’s not real.

The phoenix is a part of ancient Greek folklore, a giant bird associated with the sun. It’s said to have lived for 500 years before dying and being born again, though there’s disagreement about whether that rebirth occurs in an explosion of flames or after regular decomposition.

There’s also disagreement about what the phoenix looked like. It was often depicted as an eagle, but elsewhere as a rooster. It was variously red and yellow, or brightly colored like a peacock, or the bright purple associated with Phoenician civilization, where the bird derived its name. Despite the general disunity of opinion, however, classical scholars do all agree that you’ll never see one flapping over greater Portland.

But that doesn’t mean that Maine doesn’t have phoenixes of our own. The closest is surely the American bald eagle. The phoenix was said to resemble an eagle, so there’s that, but more importantly the bald eagle has undergone a rebirth of almost mythical proportions.

Bald eagle populations were way down in the middle of the 1900s, nearly two centuries after the bird had become an official symbol of the United States. Habitat loss and polluted water were factors, but the major culprit was a widely used pesticide known as DDT. Birds would eat fish or other prey contaminated with small amounts of the toxin, which would accumulate in their bodies. DDT expressed itself in the birds cruelly, including by thinning the shells of eagle eggs such that they could easily crack, killing the developing young inside.

DDT wasn’t commercially available in the United States until 1945, but it didn’t take long to impact eagle populations. There are estimated to have been about 2,000 bald eagles in Maine in 1820, the year we became a state, but fewer than 60 birds by the late 1960s.

Enough was enough. Environmental activism blossomed in the ’60s and ’70s, and awareness of DDT’s impacts grew, thanks in large part to longtime Maine resident Rachel Carson’s landmark book “Silent Spring.” DDT was eventually banned in 1972, and the bald eagle was one of the first species listed under the Endangered Species Act after it was passed in 1973. Like a phoenix rising from the ashes, the bald eagle began returning to the Maine landscape.

Today there are more than 1,400 bald eagles living in Maine, and more each year. The bird was removed from the federal Endangered Species List in 2007, and from the state list in 2009.

There are almost no bad places to see a bald eagle these days in Portland: they’ve been spotted from both Promenades, along Back Cove and Commercial Street, in Deering Oaks Park, and on almost all the islands of Casco Bay. Look for them perched in tall trees, especially along the water, where they can be surprisingly easy to miss, despite their size.

The real trick is to understand that you’re not just looking for the classic white head and white tail of an adult bald eagle. It takes four years for eagles to achieve their famous adult plumage, and young birds can have confusing identifications. Immature eagles are still huge – about 3 feet tall when perched, a full foot taller than a red-tailed hawk – but they sport a mottled brown and white coloring.

So while you won’t find any phoenixes flying around southern Maine, keep your eyes peeled for bald eagles, a majestic, risen-from-the-ashes real-life legendary beast you can see right in your backyard.

Nick Lund of Cumberland has written about nature for the National Audubon Society, Down East, National Parks Magazine, the Washington Post, and others. He can be found online at TheBirdist.com, and on Twitter @TheBirdist.