Every Mainer knows a snowbird: Someone who is here for the summer, but spends the winter somewhere warm, like Florida or Arizona. You may even be one yourself, but do you know Maine is actually a winter destination for some actual snowbirds?
Many birds spend their summers in the Canadian boreal forests or the Arctic tundra, feasting on the plentiful insects, or breeding on remote water bodies. But when winter hits the Arctic gets a whole lot loss enjoyable, so lots of these birds escape to the relative warmth of southern Maine.
Dozens of species of waterfowl – ducks, geese, and the like – spend their summers nesting on freshwater lakes, but no duck can swim on solid ice. When winter comes, these birds fly south to find open water, and the ocean along Maine’s coast is a sure thing.
The common loon might be our most surprising winter visitor. Many Mainers see these iconic birds on inland lakes in the summer, but they’re actually more numerous along our coasts in winter.
The rub is that winter loons look different than summer loons. The intricate black-and-white arrangement of their breeding plumage is replaced by a simple black above-white below pattern. Their large, blocky heads and long bills are keys to the identification. Keep an eye out for loons diving in almost nearshore waters, even in Portland Harbor.
Several duck species join the loons on our winter coast, including some not seen in Maine at all in the summer.
The smallest of these is the bufflehead, an adorable black-and-white duck with a fat head. The namesake feathers of long-tailed ducks can be difficult to see, but they announce themselves with loud, seal-like calls. Goldeneye ducks, both the common and the rare Barrow’s, red-breasted Mergansers, and three species of scoter can also be found in winter. Back Cove, the Eastern Prom, and Portland Harbor are all good places to see winter sea ducks.
Winter also brings a couple of new gull species to downtown Portland. (“Just what we need, more gulls,” you might say; I get it, and I’ll put up a defense of gulls in a future column.)
These winter species, Iceland and Glaucous gulls, look a lot like the other gulls in downtown Portland (our common year-round species are herring, ring-billed, and great black-backed gull) but have one key difference: all-white wings. Pretend you’re playing “Where’s Waldo” and scan the gull flocks at the Portland Fish Pier for these ghostly visitors.
Our most exciting regular winter visitor might be the snowy owl. These stunning birds appear in small numbers in southern Maine each winter, likely driven off the tundra in search of food. They are more numerous in some winters than others (so far this winter has not been a big one), but look for them perched like a big marshmallow in places that resemble the tundra.
The short grass expanse of the Portland International Jetport is a regular winter haunt, as are remote beaches in places like Biddeford Pool, or even on top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. They’re not easy to find, but spotting a snowy owl is something you’ll never forget.
Enjoy these birds while you can, because come spring they’ll all be headed back north and be replaced by more traditional snowbirds – the human and the avian – now waiting out the winter down south.
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.