More Birds to Spot While Paddling Coastal Maine
A few years ago we described some of the birds we see most often while paddling in our post titled “Seabirds to Spot While Paddling the Maine Coast.” But we only scratched the surface, and we left out some of the species that we most enjoy observing. So we’re following up with this post that covers birds ranging from fast- moving raptors you’ll spot soaring above to slower-moving shorebirds that you’ll see waiting patiently near the water’s edge.
All photos used below are courtesy of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s Macaulay Library and All About Birds, and are the work of the respective photographers, except where noted otherwise.
The bald eagle is the most iconic bird of prey in the U.S., and these birds have hundreds of nests in towering trees along the Maine coast. Bald Eagles are easy to spot with their large size, brown bodies, white heads, and bright yellow feet and beaks (though it can be easy to mistake them for the also common great black-backed gull when soaring – and vice versa).
Despite their iconic status there’s a lot that most people don’t know about bald eagles. For example, take their screechy calls. They are so piercing that movies and television shows often replace them with the much more majestic sounding red tailed hawk!
The diet of bald eagles is also fascinating. They have one of the most diverse diets of any eagle in their size range. While they are best known as fish-eaters, bald eagles also eat birds as large as ducks, mammals and reptiles of many sizes. And they will also eat eggs from other birds’ nests, scavenge carrion, and steal other birds’ catches on a regular basis!
When paddling you are most likely to see bald eagles soaring high in the sky, resting on the exposed branches of coniferous trees, or engaged in conflict with ospreys and gulls. You might also see them inhabiting their large stick nests high in trees or on man-made structures.
In late summer keep an eye out for the mostly solid brown fledglings as they begin to outgrow the nest and explore further away. It will take these “teen” eagles five years before they grow into the iconic white headed plumage of breeding adults. Bald eagles reuse the same nests year after year, which has the benefit to birders of providing surefire locations to view these majestic birds.
To learn more about bald eagles, and hear their very funny calls, check out their listing on All About Birds.
One of Maine’s most famous residents, the common loon, may bring to mind images of misty mornings at the lake, as their haunting, howl-like song echoes across the water. When we spot a loon during our sea kayaking tours, people are often surprised to see a loon on the ocean. But those loons aren’t lost! They frequent saltwater as well as freshwater, and their unique calls echo across Maine’s bays as well as its lakes. In the fall adult loons head to the coast, where they will spend the winter on the ocean. Newly-flighted immature loons will follow a few weeks later. The adults return to lakes to breed in the spring once the ice is out, but the immature common loons stay in coastal waters year round until they are at least two years old.
Loons have a look that’s almost as distinct as their sound. Their large size, sharp beak, bold coloring, and red eyes make them stand out against the water. Keep an eye out for these charismatic birds carrying their small, downy babies on their backs while they swim, a unique behavior among waterfowl.
Immature loons lack the distinct black and white bands and spots of the adults in summer, instead showing a slate grey color and white belly. Adults in winter molt their breeding plumage and return to this slate grey pallet for the season. If you enjoy coastal walks in winter, or are one of the brave souls who goes out paddling all year round, you might be lucky enough to see them!
Shorebirds are a diverse group of birds which spend much of their time feeding along the shores of beaches, sand dunes, and marshes. Nearly forty different shorebird species live in Maine at various times of the year, with eight that nest and raise their young in the state and twenty which use the Maine coast as a major stopover during their migration flight. The plumage of shorebirds tends to be limited to variations of tan, brown, and white, so telling them apart can be tricky. This video from Maine birding legend and Maine Birding Trail founder Bob Duchesne is an excellent resource for learning to differentiate these adorable little beach goers. Plus, it gives you a chance to check out the downeast coast’s famously massive tides, something we regularly experience on our Downeast Ramble trips!
The most common shorebirds in Maine are also the smallest, and are colloquially grouped together as “peeps.” These are the least and semipalmated sandpipers and the semipalmated plovers. All three of these birds are about the size of a sparrow, with the plovers being the largest. Sandpipers have long, thin bills for their body size, while the plovers have very short, thick bills. Least sandpipers are a browner color than semipalmated sandpipers and have more yellowy legs, compared to the semipalmated’s grayish color and dark legs.
Other shorebirds are larger than the peeps, ranging up to the size of a pigeon, though some have very long legs for their body size which can make them appear even larger. Once you’ve gotten the hang of identifying the peeps, others will start to jump out as being “not like the others” and you can continue on your bird identification journey by focusing on what makes the odd balls stand out!
Protecting Shorebird nesting and “staging area” sites is critical to the survival of many species, including the endangered (and adorable) piping plovers which nest on southern Maine beaches. That’s why the Maine Audubon, the state government, the Rachel Carson and Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuges, and a number of other conservation organizations work so hard together to preserve sand dune habitat, and to prevent disturbance from human activities like off leash pets, kite flying, and more.
If you want a chance to see a large number of shorebirds while paddling, head over to our Crescent Beach location, join us for a surf class at Higgins Beach, or book a delivery rental or private tour to one of southern Maine’s many well conserved beach and marsh habitats!
Great Blue Heron
This is the largest of Maine’s resident wading birds, and one of the largest birds in the state period, with gray and blue plumage unlike any other. The great blue heron is iconic and difficult to mistake. The way herons hold themselves perfectly still before springing forward to grab a fish faster than the eye can follow is truly mesmerizing, and has drawn humorous comparisons to samurai, ninja, and the Karate Kid.
GBHs and their smaller heron and egret cousins are all adapted for hunting prey in shallow water, with long legs and necks, and long, sharp beaks. With a distinctive stalking walk like a velociraptor straight out of Jurassic Park, it is no wonder that these powerful hunters are often described as prehistoric as well. The impression is not lost when in flight, as the unique curved position in which they hold their necks, trailing back legs, and their heavy beaks, give them a look reminiscent of the extinct pteranodons.
Paddlers are most likely to see GBHs when exploring tidal marshes, near mudflats and tide pools, or on slow rivers and ponds near shore, as the herons take advantage of the calm and shallow waters to stalk fish, amphibians, crabs, and other invertebrates, which they stab with their sword like beak. Occasionally you may even be lucky enough to spot them stalking small rodents and reptiles through tall grasses on shore. During the summer herons form colony nest sites, building large stick nests in trees near the water’s edge, often with several pairs building nests in the same or neighboring trees. These breeding sites are closely monitored by the state of Maine’s volunteer Heron Observation Network program in order to track the health of this top level predator in the ecosystem. Herons are an almost constant sighting on our Presumpscot River trips here at Portland Paddle.
During the winter great blue herons engage in an unusual behavior called partial migration, in which some individuals migrate, while some stay in Maine year round. The distances covered by migrating herons also vary significantly with each individual. Some anecdotal evidence suggests that GBHs may be migrating later in the year, and more may be staying in Maine year round than has been the case in the past, likely due to milder winter temperatures and less snow.
To learn more about Great Blue Herons, check out their page on All About Birds!
Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets
Snowy Egrets are the most commonly seen of the smaller herons, with white plumage and daytime activity that makes them stick out significantly in contrast with their drabber or more nocturnal cousins. Snowy Egrets and Great Egrets are both white so can easily be confused for each other, but paying attention to a few key details can have you wow-ing your friends with your bird knowledge in no time!
The first key feature to look at is relative size. Great egrets are close to a GBH in size, though less hefty overall. Snowy egrets are significantly smaller, nearly half the size of the great egret.
Next up is beak color, as the great egret has a yellow beak, while the snowy egret’s is black. The snowy’s beak is also smaller and more delicate looking. If you’re lucky enough to spot these wader’s feet out of the water you’ll also notice the opposite color scheme on the feet, with great egret’s feet being all black, while the snowy’s are bright yellow, like they are wearing silly little boots!
When searching for prey great egrets exhibit the stalking and stand-and-strike behaviors typical of herons, either solitarily or in small groups. The snowy egret on the other hand exhibits a diverse array of hunting strategies. They may also stir mud and water with their feet to reveal hidden food, hop and run through grass to spook prey, and strike at prey with their beaks while hovering on the wing. They often form large groups to forage, and do so interspersed with other wading birds such as glossy ibis, canada geese, other herons, spoonbills, and more.
Maine’s egrets rarely visit the rockier shores, so they are most commonly seen by paddlers in grassy estuaries. Here in southern Maine your best bets include the shores of Back Cove near our main site at East End Beach, the Scarborough Marsh and the Spurwink River near Crescent Beach, or the Kennebec Estuary.
You can learn more about both Great and Snowy Egrets on All About Birds. And if you’re what Mainers affectionately refer to as a “snow bird” and you’re headed to southern Florida this winter, you might even be lucky enough to see a Great White Heron, the same species as Great Blue Herons but with a tropical color morph.
Even More Gulls and Terns!
We covered the common tern and the three most common types of gulls in Maine in our previous article, but we were just getting started with these grey and white, quick flying birds. Gulls and terns are all members of the family Laridae, and are most often seen in large, intermingled groups swarming over baitfish (or the unattended snacks of beach goers), so it’s no wonder that they can be difficult to tell apart. Here are two more gulls and three more terns for you to keep an eye out for.
Bonaparte’s Gull – One of the smallest gulls, and the only gull which regularly nests in trees! They pass through Maine as they migrate to and from their breeding grounds in the boreal forests of Canada. Distinguished by their solid black head and beak.
Laughing Gull – Laughing gulls spend summers in Maine where they breed. They can be distinguished from other gulls by their small size, all or mostly black head and red beaks.
Arctic Tern – A rare sighting for most kayakers, these terns inhabit Maine’s offshore protected seabird islands during the summer nesting season, where they group tightly together to help protect the nests from predation by gulls. They migrate from the breeding grounds in the arctic to the antarctic each year, never spending a winter in either location. Telling terns apart can be difficult at a glance, but these speedy aerialists can be distinguished by their longer tails and wings, and solid red beak.
Roseate Tern – Often seen at the same time as both their common and arctic tern cousins, roseate terns can be distinguished by their black cap, solid or mostly black beak, and red tinge to their bellies. In mixed groups they also tend to fly higher above other species of terns before diving for fish. They eat primarily small fish, but will also eat invertebrates.
Least Tern – The smallest of the world’s terns, everything about these little guys is described as sharp, from their beaks to their wing tips. They nest on beaches in southern Maine, many of which are protected by the Maine Audubon’s Coastal Birds Project and by the work of the Maine DIFW and US Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners. Their yellow beaks and legs can also help distinguish them from other terns. They can be spotted both in the open ocean and the tidal estuaries near their nesting grounds.
What Birds Are You Spotting From Your Kayak?
In our two articles on birds we’ve covered just about every species we regularly spot on the water when we’re paddling along the Maine coast in summer, but there’s no doubt an avid birder could think of at least a few more. If you spend much time paddling in the winter, further inland in marshes and freshwater, further out to sea in the “pelagic zone” and around Maine’s most remote islands, or start noticing all the smaller perching birds inhabiting Maine’s foliage, your kayak birding list rapidly grows even longer! And you never know what farflung birds (like the Steller’s Sea Eagle that’s spent recent winters in Maine, or the lone pacific Tufted Puffin that was spotted last summer) might find their way to our coast for a visit.
If you’ve spotted a bird while paddling that’s got you excited, let us know. And if you managed to get a photo you can share, that’s even better!