Everyone loves a good Portland celebrity sighting (my ex-girlfriend once served Billy Joel at Gilbert’s Chowder House), but no recent visitor was as remarkable as the great black hawk.
In December 2018, a juvenile bird of this tropical species – never before seen north of Mexico – showed up in Deering Oaks Park. No one knew why it arrived, but it was enjoyed by thousands of birders and nature-gawkers over the next few months.
But things did not end well for the great black hawk. It’s not a species equipped to handle a Maine winter – its long legs, for example, were without the warm, dense feathering found on northern raptors – and in late January 2019 the frostbitten bird was taken to a rehabilitator, where it died. A sad ending, but not without a hopeful epilogue: there are plans in the works to place a life-sized statue commemorating the bird in Deering Oaks.
Like the Great Black Hawk, many of the other rare creatures that have shown up in Portland did not survive their visits. It’s sad, in a sense, but it’s possible to look at it in another light. I prefer to think of these animals as explorers, daring souls willing to take on incredible risks to gain knowledge for the rest of their species, like a doomed astronaut or Captain Cook. I like to think they’re celebrated in their home ranges, and have schools named after them. It’s baloney, but it makes me feel better. Here are a few:
Moose: May 2009
Not quite as long of a journey as a tropical hawk, but Mainers know how rare these beasts are south of, say, Rangeley.
But a female moose was seen strolling along Forest Avenue near Baxter Woods just after Memorial Day 2009. Game wardens spent six hours chasing the animal with tranquilizer darts, but instead were forced to euthanize her after she darted towards the road.
Ivory gull: January-March 1997
The working fisheries along Portland’s waterfront are known to attract many hungry gulls, none more spectacular than the ivory gull that set up shop in the winter of 1997. A spectacular species rarely seen away from the high arctic, this black-speckled young bird stuck around for two months and was enjoyed by hundreds of birders before departing, presumably back north.
Beluga whale: March-October 2004
Another visitor from the frozen north, a young white Beluga whale delighted sailors up and down the Maine coast in 2004. Nicknamed “Poco” after first being spotted near Pocologan, New Brunswick, the small whale was subsequently spotted in Casco Bay, Saco Bay, the Midcoast, and even Boston Harbor.
Poco hammed it up with locals, pushing dinghys around with his nose and squirting water in the faces of children, according to the Bangor Daily News. Alas (sorry to have to do this again), Poco was found on a South Portland beach in October 2004, after succumbing to what scientists believe was a viral infection.
Rare animals can be an unexpected delight in Portland, and even more exciting is their safe departure.
Nick Lund of Cumberland, outreach and network manager at Maine Audubon, 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.