This August I was fortunate enough to spend 5 days on Peaks Island off the coast of Portland, Maine. This wasn’t a specific birding trip, I was there visiting friends who live on the island. But as anyone who loves birds knows, a new place = potential new exciting birds. How can you resist picking up your binoculars and taking a walk to see what birds are around.
Usually when I’m heading somewhere new I do a bit of research beforehand as what birds to expect. eBird can be a big help with pre-trip planning, but this time I was busy leading up to the trip so I didn’t do any research. My Mother mentioned if I’m lucky I may see Common Eiders which I was really excited about as this would be a lifer for me. But, I figured they were probably rare so not to get my hopes up.
Read on for my Peaks Island birding experience.
Ferry Ride to Peaks Island and Island Interior
The ferry ride over to Peaks Island was a great place to start checking out the local wildlife. I saw numerous Harbor Seals swimming around close to the ferry terminal. Double-crested Cormorants lined the sides of docks, drying their opened wings. Herring Gulls were everywhere, swarming around the local fishing boats. I also saw an Osprey nest with young on a platform off the shore of another island we passed on the way to Peaks.
Once on the island, I wasn’t sure what to expect. As it turns out, the interior of the island is mostly thick forest and it’s only around the edges of the island that you emerge from the forest onto the rocky shoreline. The forest proved to be difficult birding because the trees are very tall and, unless you are good with bird calls, there wasn’t much to see.
Gray Catbirds are everywhere here. You can’t walk three feet without hearing an insistent “meow, meow” coming from inside the nearest thicket. I managed to find a few houses with feeders so I saw the usual suspects – Black-capped Chickadees, House Finches and Blue Jays etc.
Backshore Birding is Where It’s At!
Where things got more interesting was along the coastline on the southeastern shore of the island, or as locals call it the “backshore”. This is the part of the coastline that faces out to the Atlantic and I thought it was one of the most beautiful parts of the island. It’s rugged, with waves crashing against rocks, brightly coloured rose-hips dotting the edges of beaches and views out to the Atlantic ocean.
I recommend starting at Spar Cove and walking south down Seashore Avenue, checking out each cove along the way. Sometimes it helps to just sit quietly on a beach and wait to see what shows up. I had a Spotted Sandpiper land and do its comical bum bobbing a few feet away from me. Further down Seashore, I witnessed a Common Tern family land on some rocks close by. The Juvenile was begging for food and one of the adults landed with a fish in its mouth. The other Terns proceeded to do an elaborate display around the Tern with the fish. An amazing photographic opportunity!
Battery Steele Conservation Area
You can also walk off Seashore into the Battery Steele Conservation Area. Look for a signpost on the inland side of the road. There’s a sort of rugged makeshift boardwalk through a marsh and a few pools of still water at the back. You can also see some World War 2 ruins dotted around the area. Aside from the more common birds I can see at home, the highlight for me was a Snowy Egret in one of the still pools close enough for photographs. I also had great views of an Eastern Towhee one evening at dusk.
Peaks Island Mystery Ducks
As I was exploring the backshore I started noticing these groups of large ducks in every cove I passed by. They were quite plainly coloured all brown with no real distinguishing features, except that they were large and had the large sloping type bill I associate with sea ducks. I was really puzzled, especially with their sheer numbers. I took numerous photographs and decided to review when I got home.
When I started checking my guidebooks, I was quickly able to rule out all the Scoters and other sea ducks. I was running out of options, when I thought for the heck of it I would check out the Common Eider female. Bingo! That’s what I was seeing. Everywhere!! But where are all the males and their bright colours? Well folks, it turns out the male Common Eider goes on a “moulting migration” every year once the eggs have been laid. They can travel a few hundred kilometers north where they lose their feathers and can’t fly until their new feathers have grown in.
Up Close and Personal
Despite my initial disappointment not being able to see the quintessential image of the male Common Eider, I quickly got over it! I was able to see female Eiders raising their young including a few young Eiders being raised by groups of females. I learned that a common practice for Eiders is for many “aunts” to help raise and protect the young.
Furthermore, I saw Eiders sunning themselves on rocks, large groups of Eiders bobbing on the water sleeping close to each other and Eiders surfing in waves at the far end of the backshore. A wonderful way to experience a lifer!
Peaks Island Birding: The Round-up
I had a fantastic and relaxing time on Peaks Island. The moment you get on the ferry and leave the mainland behind, your stresses melt away. I also had some excellent birding photographic opportunities of things I would never be able to get back home in Ottawa.
The island didn’t have a huge variety of birds, but this was August. I would recommend going at another time of year if you’re planning a pure birding trip there (hello: pre Eider migration moult!). I noticed there are Puffin expeditions departing up the coast from Portland. This is something I would love to check out on a future trip!
What birds did I see? Click here for the trip list.