Birding the East Coast in Summer

The stunning male Magnolia Warbler (photo Bob Bowers)

The stunning male Magnolia Warbler (photo Bob Bowers)

If you are an Arizona grandparent with grandkids graduating in Virginia and Connecticut in the summer, you go.  If you are a birder, you take your binoculars.  We just returned from such a trip, visiting family, celebrating graduations and touring the nation’s capital.  It always amazes me to see the diversity of birdlife in different parts of the country.  You don’t have to travel to Mexico, Africa or Australia to find strange birds.  If your travels take you out of state this summer and you’re a birder, don’t forget your binoculars.

A mimic like mockingbirds, the Gray Catbird is common back east (photo Bob Bowers)

A mimic like mockingbirds, the Gray Catbird is common back east (photo Bob Bowers)

Of course, we missed some ‘yard’ birds you don’t find back east, like Verdins, Cactus Wrens and Vermilion Flycatchers.  Some others are found both places, like mockingbirds and cardinals, although you might have trouble recognizing an eastern cardinal’s song.  Maybe it’s that New York accent.  The real treat, though, are the birds you just don’t see in Arizona, like Carolina Chickadees, Gray Catbirds and a plethora of colorful spring warblers, like Black-throated Green, Black-throated Blue, Bay-breasted, Chestnut-sided and Magnolia.  Occasionally, one of these will wander or be blown off-course into Arizona, like a Magnolia Warbler that was reported at the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix in May.  This is a stunningly beautiful bird, but I don’t think I would drive to Phoenix and elbow my way through a crowd for a glimpse, at least not when a graduating grandkid on the east coast gave me an opportunity to see dozens.

Atlantic Puffin in breeding plumage, Machias Seal Island (photo Prudy Bowers)

Atlantic Puffin in breeding plumage, Machias Seal Island (photo Prudy Bowers)

Our two graduations were separated by a couple of weeks, just enough time to visit Acadia National Park and attend the Down East Birding Festival.  Not sure why it’s called ‘down’ east, since this part of Maine is so far up east, an accidental turn put us in Canada.  Campobello Island, Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor are remarkably beautiful and worth a visit, regardless of graduations.  Bar Harbor, by the way, is pronounced ‘Bah Hahbah’, maybe another reason eastern cardinals get confused.  The Down East Birding Festival is a low-key, under-attended gathering that is a fun way to add a lot of birds to your western-based life list.  One of the highlight field trips they offer is a boat ride out to Machias Seal Island, under protection of the Canadian Coast Guard.  With proper weather and a little luck, you get permission to land and spend an hour in an enclosed blind on this small rocky islet.  Atlantic Puffins, Arctic Terns and Razorbills nest here, and they pose so close to the blind you don’t need binoculars or telephoto lenses.

Spruce Grouse in Moosehorn Refuge, Maine (photo Prudy Bowers)

Spruce Grouse in Moosehorn Refuge, Maine (photo Prudy Bowers)

The Down East Festival also provides professionally guided field trips into Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge, a mixed woodland and wetland habitat with thick stands of spruce.  Loop roads cross some of the 8,000 acres of the Edmund’s division, an area managed specifically for the American Woodcock.  In addition to woodcocks and lots of warblers, this is a great place to find Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadees, Whip-poor-wills and Blue-headed Vireos.

The author, birding in black fly country (photo Prudy Bowers)

The author, birding in black fly country (photo Prudy Bowers)

I used to wonder why warblers, vireos and Ruby-throated Hummingbirds would leave their bug-rich Mexican habitat to fly hundreds of miles north to nest in the spring.  Now I know.  I’ve been to bug-rich Mexico, but it doesn’t hold a candle to bug-richer Maine, home of the black fly.  Black flies might be worse than mosquitoes, which, by the way, are also present.  At least the males, which appear first, don’t bite like the females, but when you are picking hundreds of tiny black flies out of your facial orifices, it doesn’t seem to matter much.  Fortunately, you can buy a bug net to cover your face and head, and, surprisingly, you can even use your binoculars while wearing it.  It’s worth it to get a good look at a Magnolia Warbler.

(This article originally appeared in the July, 2014 issue of the Saddlebag Notes newspaper, Tucson, Arizona.)

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About Bob

A lifelong naturalist, Bob's avocation is birding, including field observation, study, photography and writing. He spent a career in computers and consulting, but his free time has been spent outdoors backpacking, fishing and enjoying nature firsthand. Bob has traveled extensively, exploring and photographing above and underwater in Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand, Cambodia, Egypt and throughout the United States, Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Central and South America. Now retired, as an amateur ornithologist Bob studies, photographs and writes primarily about birds of the Western Hemisphere. Formerly the Feature Writer for Latin America and Caribbean Travel at Suite101.com, he has been Suite101's Feature Writer for Birds and Birding since January, 2010, and has received seven Editor's Choice awards, which are listed below. Bob also writes a monthly birding column for a newspaper in Arizona, and his work appears in the travel magazine, Another Day in Paradise, published in Zihuatanejo, Mexico. His blog, Birding the 'Brooke and Beyond, discusses birding, travel and other topics in Southeast Arizona and beyond. Bob is a member of the National and Tucson Audubon Societies, Western Field Ornithologists, Arizona Field Ornithologists, the American Birding Association and other birding and conservation organizations. Bob and his wife, Prudy, live in the Santa Catalina Mountain foothills near Tucson, Arizona. To date, Bob has received Suite101 Editor's Choice awards for the following articles: • Birding by Cruise Ship in the Caribbean • The Xantus' Hummingbird, Baja California's Only Endemic Hummer • Birding the White Mountains in and Around Greer, Arizona • The Greater Roadrunner, New Mexico's State Bird • Where to Find Steelhead on the Lower Deschutes River in Oregon • Birding La Bajada near San Blas, Mexico • The 2008 Christmas Bird Count at Estero del Yugo in Mazatlan
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