In early September, we had the pleasure of kayaking with a large group (43 people) on the Androscoggin River for about 10 miles between Gilead and Bethel in western Maine. It was quite interesting to look for birds from this very different vantage point on moving water.
Many of the birds we found were, as you might expect, species that rely on water or water’s edge habitats.
A belted kingfisher rattled noisily as we came upon it at one bend of the river. Spotted sandpipers (as we wrote about in our last column) were in evidence along much of the river, though none were still showing their spotted breeding plumage. A great blue heron stayed just ahead of us for much of the way before circling back around to find a quiet spot behind us.
Several gorgeous adult bald eagles soared low overhead in a few places, their white heads and tails gleaming as they circled. Near where we stopped for lunch, a smaller raptor (a broad-winged hawk with its wide black and white tail bands) gave excellent views.
A highlight for many of us on the trip was a group of seven or eight young common mergansers that huddled close together against the bank and tried to stay hidden behind a fallen log.
Other birds that we saw were making use of the open edge or shrubby river edge habitats. There were loads of cedar waxwings. Many times people think of cedar waxwings as birds that eat only berries and fruits. And they do, for most of the year.
But in late summer and autumn they become catchers of flies, even if not true flycatchers (like Eastern phoebes and Eastern kingbirds, for example). As we paddled along, cedar waxwings would flutter out high over the water in pursuit of flying insects.
At times we were even able to spot the little bug it was chasing before the waxwing would grab it in its bill. We speculated that some of the insects might have been those in which the immature stage resides underwater and the adults emerge into winged above-water life for a brief time to mate, insects like mayflies and stoneflies.
One other interesting aspect of birding by kayak on a moving river was the number of birds identified only by their voices as we passed by them. Hidden in the forest vegetation but revealing their presence to us were red-eyed and blue-headed vireos, golden-crowned kinglets, common yellowthroats.
Of course, at multiple locations we heard the familiar “chick-a-dee” calls of black-capped chickadees and the high, tinkling “potato-chip” calls of passing American goldfinches.
But perhaps what we loved best was the way so many of the others on our trip were enjoying the birds, too.
Most did not consider themselves “birders”; they were on the trip to celebrate and enjoy this gorgeous stretch of the Androscoggin as part of an event with the Natural Resources Council of Maine.
But when we came upon the merganser family, those in kayaks near us made every effort to slow their boats in the swift water so they could enjoy the little flock.
Everyone who saw the great blue heron, it seemed, called out, “Heron, heron!” so as many people as possible could catch a glimpse.
The cedar waxwings were a frequent source of curiosity. And when those bald eagles flew over, well, if our group could have stopped the river to take it all in â the eagle soaring against the brilliant blue sky, the Mahoosuc mountain range loping in fine greenery across the horizon, the flotilla of kayaks on the river reminiscent of a flock of colorful birds â they probably would have.
What a great reminder that you don’t have to be a “birder” to enjoy birds. You just have to enjoy the natural world you’re part of.
Dr. Jeff Wells is the senior scientist for the Boreal Songbird Initiative. During his time at the famed Cornell Lab of Ornithology and as the Audubon Society’s national bird conservation director, Dr. Wells earned a reputation as one of the nation’s leading bird experts and conservation biologists. Jeff’s grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, also formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is a widely published natural history writer and a senior director at the Natural Resources Council of Maine. Together, they have been writing and teaching people about birds for decades. The Maine natives are authors of the highly acclaimed book, “Maine’s Favorite Birds.”