The Winter Birds of Back Cove

Many people would think birding in Maine in the winter months is horribly dull. “It’s freezing cold,” they say. “Everything is under feet of snow,” they point out. “How on earth can birds live there? Have fun staring at chickadees.”

They would be wrong! Birding in Maine is perhaps the best in the winter. Seabirds and waterfowl, who have spent most of the summer and fall in the far reaches of Canada and the Arctic Tundra, are suddenly off the Maine coast and peppering inlets and bays, within easy reach of binoculars and zoom lenses. They are just as active as those colorful songbirds enjoying tropical weather in South and Central America, only instead of flitting from tree to tree they dive and flap within the freezing waves, seemingly unperturbed by the frosty temperatures.

portland, maine, back cove, nature

An easy jaunt around Back Cove in Portland would gave my mother and I the perfect opportunity to see these wintering species in early December. The path is just over three miles, sloping gently around the cove in what has to be one of the most used public walking trails in Maine. Portland may not be large, but at 66,000 people, it is Maine’s largest city and the walkways are always dotted with joggers, bicyclists, and even plucky rollerbladers.

The walk is normally easy, but as soon as we set off we realized the paved trail was practically a block of ice. We were weighed down with cameras and binoculars, nervous about falling and smashing our rather expensive (in our minds) equipment to bits. It had snowed and then rained, freezing solid in an overnight arctic blast.

Luckily, a few crazies had ventured out before us, pressing their heels into the fast freezing snow and forming imprints that we used for our own balance. They were runners, I knew they had to be, these insane citizens who had been out even before us, probably even before the sun was up. These were the same people who jogged about when the temperature skyrockets to 100, when it is hailing buckets, or when the temperature falls to the single digits – and they run in shorts. It is a healthy passion, but some people are absolutely addicted to running, the more pain the more gain! They always make me feel like a fat vegetable, lounging around while they train for their next marathon or iron man or whatever the out-of-their-minds live for. (Okay, I’m really jealous of them. Aren’t we all?)

Anyways, I was grateful to them, at least for today.

nature, landscape, bufflehead, birding, maine

Photo by Lindsey Rustad.

The trail begins along a rocky section of the coast that descends into mud flats during low tide. The path then continues up and over a busy bridge, providing great views of the cove to one side and a baked bean factory on the other, before curving around a series of neighborhoods and then back to the parking area. While mudflats may be good for migrating shorebirds, we wanted waterfowl up close, and so we were happy to see that the tide was relatively high. We went only a few dozen yards before spying our first birds of the day: black and white Buffleheads, both male and female.

Is that not the best bird name you’ve ever heard of? Bufflehead. Apparently the name comes from the slightly puffy head of the males, which reminded people of a buffalo. I think a better nickname would have been “Marshmellow Duck,” because that’s exactly what they look like as they dive under the water and emerge with a pop!

The males are brilliantly black and white, with feathers that almost shine in the sunlight. Females are slightly less striking, with black and gray plumage but an adorable white smear below their eye, like they’re wearing some kind of eye reflector paint (think football fans). They are not large, but are fairly common along the coast in the wintertime, and I soon was seeing them everywhere on my winter excursions. It’s hard not to see them, even when they almost blend in to a snowbank along the shore.

We watched the Bufflehead for a few minutes, trying to time our photos for the moments when they suddenly appeared on the surface. When that became frustrating we moved on, drawn to much larger white and brown shapes by the bridge. From our vantage point looking straight down, we could see the crisp outlines of the Common Eider, a seabird seen in Maine all year round. The males are black and white, almost like Buffleheads, but their bills are green; the females are just all-around-brown. They are sleek, that’s for sure.

Walking on became a constant competition to see who could spot the next diving bird. I saw a Red-breasted Merganser in the distance, but Mom pointed out a Common Loon. And more and more and more Buffleheads, the apparent favorite bird for the cove that afternoon.

common eider, maine, nature, landscape, bird

Photo by Lindsey Rustad.

Though it was cold when we started out, I was rapidly overheating. Don’t mess with Mainers and our wintertime clothing – we take layering very seriously. I had an old ski jacket as my outer layer, a green and white number that was showing its age by slowly accumulating dirt and turning an almost brown shade. It wasn’t even new when I started wearing it, but had been a hand-me-up from a younger cousin who bought a new one. In fact, my husband hated this old coat so much that for Christmas he bought me a cool black parka that I could wear without being embarrassed – but that came later.

Next was a fleece shirt, chosen carefully from LL Bean. At least my mother chose carefully; I was borrowing it (are you sensing a pattern?). My jeans were just regular old jeans, but underneath I had a thin set of long underwear, over which I pulled heavy wool socks and thick, insulated boots. Add a hat I knit myself, a warm scarf, and two thick mittens I would periodically shuck off to take a picture, and I looked like I had walked straight out of a winter wonderland catalogue. No wonder I hated it so much when joggers passed by me in their shorts!

Still, I was hot now, and as we reached the final mile of our jaunt I focused more on unzipping layers of clothing and stuffing my hat in my pocket than I did on my birding. There were no new species for the year, though there were some familiar birds doing odd things.

portland, maine, nature, landscape

The other side of the cove faces neighborhoods, the bottom of a hill that holds houses, parking lots, and other impermeable surfaces. Water, as it does, runs downhill, and a culvert collects the H20 and deposits it as a small stream flowing into the cove. This water, warmed by its time on the pavement, is a higher temperature than the salty water, and it attracts Canada Geese and American Black Ducks like crazy. They formed tight knit clusters, some sitting on the snow, others hunkered down in the water, forming a very brown contrast to the bright white snow. As we walked by some took off, while other flocks of geese landed gracefully on the surface before quickly paddling over. No, they weren’t rare birds, but they were really fun to watch.

Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.