Into the Wild: Maine birder hits major milestone

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In early August, a photographer spied a group of stocky wading birds called ibis in the salt marsh near Wells Beach and posted her photos to the Maine Birds Facebook group, where she identified them as glossy ibis.

Doug Hitchcox, scrolling through, was among the first to catch the error: these weren’t glossy ibis at all but similar-looking young white ibis, a southeastern species that hadn’t been seen in Maine since 1993.

Nick LundHitchcox quickly spread the word to other birders before jumping in his car and speeding down to Wells to find the birds still hanging out in the marsh. It was a spontaneous midday chase similar to ones he had undertaken scores of times before in search of rare birds, but slightly more special: White ibis was the 400th species of bird Hitchcox had seen in the state.

At 33, he became the youngest and just the fourth birder to see 400 bird species in Maine.

Around 300 bird species are regularly found in Maine in any given year, either as year-round residents or seasonal visitors. Beyond that, birders search for vagrants: birds that don’t live in Maine but show up here as a result of some unknowable error.

No one ever knows when or where a vagrant bird may show up, or how long it will stay, and so seeing 400 species means finding or chasing down these vagrants wherever and whenever they show up.

The unpredictability of vagrant birds, and the spontaneity of the chase, are what drive Hitchcox.

Early on, he was advised by Denny Abbott – one of the three other members of Maine’s 400 Club, along with Peter Vickery and Louis Bevier – that “If you want to see the vagrant, go as soon as possible.”

Doug Hitchcox and Laura Bush
Doug Hitchcox, right, birding earlier this year with former first lady Laura Bush. Hitchcox is the fourth birder to see at least 400 bird species in Maine.

Meetings are canceled when a rare bird is spotted, dinner plans are postponed, and niece’s birthday parties are cut short. It’s thrilling to be sitting in a meeting one minute and then the next unexpectedly tearing along Interstate 95 to some random field in Houlton, or some beach in York County, or chartering a boat to some island all while trying to rearrange the rest of your schedule. It’s a hectic life at times, but also a celebration of a wild and untamed world.

Hitchcox’s excellent memory allows him to recall details about nearly all his vagrant chases. Memories of self-found rarities, like a little egret at Scarborough Marsh and a Virginia’s warbler on Monhegan, share space with frustrating “dips,” when his target had flown away before he arrived.

One time he paid a random boat owner in Camp Ellis to ferry him and a friend out to Stratton Island to see a rare fork-tailed flycatcher, then had to use a flat piece of cardboard to row themselves to shore when the dinghy didn’t have any oars, all to learn that the bird had disappeared.

He remembers sitting bored outside of the American Eagle changing room at the Maine Mall when he learned about a Curlew sandpiper in Phippsburg – one of only two species that I’ve seen in Maine that he hasn’t (the other being a European golden-plover). I remind him often.

A birder needs to have support at home. Hitchcox’s wife, Alex, says she’s become used to his erratic schedule.

“I remember coming home after he’d rushed out after some bird and it looked like he’d vanished in the rapture or something,” she told me. “I could still smell the toast he’d made for his sandwich at lunch, and had to call him to make sure he hadn’t been kidnapped.”

But now, after 10 years together, she appreciates that time is of the essence for birders and gets excited for him to track down a new species.

Despite all his chasing, Hitchcox is much more than “just” a lister. He has been the staff naturalist at Maine Audubon since 2013 (and my colleague there since 2018), and in that time shared his love of birding with thousands. He helps review bird records for eBird, sits on the Maine Birds Record Committee, keeps the peace among competitive birders as moderator of the state email listserv, helped coordinate the recently completed Maine Bird Atlas, gives countless presentations and bird walks, and patiently answers thousands of bird identification requests and other questions.

Birding with Hitchcox means building in extra time to allow him to kindly point out birds to some inquisitive passerby. His passion, knowledge, and good humor have earned him legions of fans and admirers in the state.

And he’s not done. A mega-rare Eurasian marsh-harrier in South Thomaston in late August was No. 401, and a Western wood-pewee in Falmouth in early September was No. 402. Hitchcox will keep finding birds as long as they keep showing up, and the Maine birding community will be here to cheer him on.

Nick Lund of Cumberland is outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon. He 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.