Words On Birds by Steve Grinley

Rare Heron Draws National Attention
August 11, 2012

By Steve Grinley

     There have been recent reports of a Little Egret at Scarborough Marsh in Maine. This rare egret from Europe and Africa makes rare appearances to the eastern United States. This bird last appeared in the same marsh in Maine a few years ago and later made a one day stop on Plum Island. Needless to say, the birding community will be on high alert around here once that bird leaves Maine.

     This brings to mind another rare long-legged wader, a western reef heron, that appeared in Maine six years ago. That bird drew much attention back then and I thought that it would be fun to share my story of that bird with you again:

     Most birders keep a “life list”, a list of the birds that they have seen over the years. Many birders keep a year list, the number of birds that they see in their state each year. Some folks just keep yard lists, birds that visit, or fly over their property. Listing can be fun. It gives you a perspective of how bird abundance and movement changes over time, and it is usually a function of how much time you spend looking at, or for, birds.

     For birders like me, I do it for fun. It gives me a sense of accomplishment. I can make up realistic goals that add fun to a day, or year of birding. Usually it is the year list that is a key motivator. I ask myself, “Where can I go to see the birds that I haven’t seen yet this year?” When I want to travel, I ask myself, “Where can I go to see birds that I have never seen before in my life?”

     At another higher level, lists can also make birding competitive. It can be competitive with just yourself: can I see more birds this year than I did last year? Or it can be competitive with others: how many year birds can I see this year versus someone else? Many of the “power” birders keep an ABA (American Birding Association) list. This list includes all birds seen in continental North America, north of Mexico and not including Hawaii. Birders who keep such a list and have been doing it for a while, will often travel great distances to find a new rare bird for their ABA list.

     Just such a rare bird showed up in Kittery, Maine last Friday. It was only the fourth North American record for a western reef heron. It is a heron from Africa and Asia that is about the size of a snowy egret. It is mostly blue/gray in color with a white throat, a long plume off the head and yellow feet. It was found early Friday morning on a small island off Kittery Point, looking from the piers behind Frisbee’s Market. The word went out on the Internet and birders from Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts headed for Kittery to see this rare bird.

     It was speculated that this bird is the same bird that spent the previous couple of months in Nova Scotia. Due to distance, logistics and cost, only the real die-hard birders traveled to Nova Scotia to see the bird. I actually gave it brief thought, but I don’t general expend that much time and money just to see one bird. Now that this bird was found in Kittery, it was reasonable to drive a half hour to try to see this bird. Worst case, we could enjoy some Maine lobster as a consolation prize!

     So early Friday afternoon, we headed up to Kittery and found a cast of thousands, OK, maybe it was only forty or fifty birders, on the pier with scopes focus on nearby islands and coastline. Apparently the bird hadn’t been seen since about 9am that morning. We stood around, searching the area for a while and then decided to travel around the area by car and look for other possible habitat or vantage points.

     We spent over an hour searching without luck.

     Arriving back at the pier, long faces (and lack of cell phone calls) told us that the bird hadn’t been seen. Our friend Ida then decided to solicit the help of a local boat owner who agreed to take a dozen of us out in his boat, for five dollars each, to look for this bird. We traveled all around the harbor area, including the waters off Odiorne Point and New Castle, New Hampshire, again without success. As happens when one “chases” birds, often times you don’t see the bird. We did have our consolation prize, a delicious lobster roll, right there off the pier. We left near dusk, think that this bird was a one day wonder and was probably flying over Plum Island on its way south.

     But the next morning we checked the Internet and, sure enough, the bird was seen around 6 am at the same location off the piers at Kittery Point. So instead of birding Plum Island as we had planned, we headed again up to Maine and arrived just before 10am. This time the bird hadn’t been seen since before nine o’clock. We kept vigil on the dock, search by car, again, briefly, and took another boat ride around the harbor (this time it was ten dollars each.) The boat took us into some of the estuaries around New Castle and by the Wentworth Hotel. Again no success.

     I needed to be at my niece’s graduation party for 2:00, but it was almost that time when we got off the boat. So we headed to Nashua for the party, thinking that we could try again early Sunday morning. Traffic was backed up at the Hampton tolls, so we cut over to Route 101. We were half way to Manchester when the cell phone rang. “Steve, the bird is here. It is in New Castle”. I replied that we were already half way to my family function and that we couldn’t turn around.

     After I hung up, I thought about it. It is a western reef heron. If the bird is now in NewHampshire, it might likely NOT be in Kittery in the morning. It might be harder find tomorrow or it may be gone. My family, on the other hand, will always be there.

     So I turned the car around and called on the cell phone to find exactly where the bird was being seen. It was along Route 1B and when we arrived there were twenty or more birders lined up with scopes looking at the bird. It was among several snowy egrets and we got excellent looks at it in the late afterrnoon sun. After spending more than a half hour with the bird, my family duties pulled me away and we headed for a belated visit to Nashua.

     The western reef heron has been found each day since. The next couple of days, it was found early in the morning in Kittery and later in the day around New Castle. As the tides changed during the week, the bird stopped appearing in Kittery and is found most often along the mudflats, somewhere around the Route 1B loop through New Castle. Birders from all over the country have been traveling to see this bird. The phone has been ringing off the hook, all week, for updates on the western reef heron. Birders from New York, Pennsylvania and New Jersey have driven to see this bird. There was a story of four birders from Maryland who spent fourteen hours in a car, driving back and forth, only to have enough time to spend twenty-five minutes with the heron. Others have flown in from Minnesota and Florida, just to see this beautiful heron.

     As for me, I was happy to travel just a half hour, even a couple of times, and delay a family visit, to see this life bird.

Steve Grinley
Bird Watcher’s Supply & Gift
Route 1 Traffic Circle
194 Route 1
Newburyport, MA 01950
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