When I venture beyond my backyard, birdwatching often entails seeing something different than what I intended or hoped to see. If I’m paying attention, and get lucky, I sometimes learn or notice something new.
While searching for the famed Steller’s Sea Eagle on the Maine coast this past week, I saw a number of stellar (not Steller) sea birds—birds that survive and thrive through frigid winters in the Atlantic Ocean, birds that can dive hundreds of feet underwater, staying down for long minutes, birds that have their own unique migration journeys.
Here are a few stellar highlights, including some birds that were new to me.
I think this bird is the cutest. I saw Black Guillemots for the first time last summer, but wouldn’t have recognized them in their whitish winter plumage till now. Every time I think I’ve learned a new bird, I find out I have not.
Razorbills are adorable and remind me of penguins, if penguins lived in the Northern Hemisphere and I’d ever seen a real penguin in the wild. Razorbills—the penguins of the North Atlantic.
I’ll be honest; I’d never heard of this bird before. While standing on the rocky coast staring at faraway smudgy trees, a guy who’d driven all the way from Philly to see the Steller’s Sea Eagle told me there were Red-necked Grebes swimming nearby. I thanked him as if I knew what he was talking about. I’d later see this bird at Reid State Park and once home and ID-ing it think, oh that’s a Red-necked Grebe. Pretty.
The Common Loon is a common summer resident on the lakes where I live, but I don’t usually see them in their winter homes on the coast. So this was a treat, like unexpectedly bumping into a friend from home while on vacation. These ones were busy diving for seafood in the harbor.
We jokingly call them all ocean ducks at my house, but in fact there are many families and species of sea ducks, most of which are excellent divers and all with different names. I’ve now learned a few more, like these Long-tailed Ducks, which unsurprisingly have long tail feathers.
It was relaxing watching the Common Goldeneyes rise and fall with the waves, diving together, then wondering where they’d pop up. The very next day I saw more on the Kennebec River near home.
I’d never heard of a scoter before—it’s yet another duck—but it beats its nickname of “old skunkhead.”
Also available in white-winged variety.
American Black Ducks
American Black Ducks are fairly common, but I’d never seen—well, more accurately never noticed—one before. They look a lot like female mallards, who they hang out with. Then I saw a pair swimming in the harbor. Later I saw flocks in a lagoon. They’ll likely be everywhere I look now.
The most familiar of ducks, maybe of all birds, let’s not forget the Mallard, or as my teenage son says, a “regular” duck. So common they often don’t get noticed, Mallards are the ancestors of nearly all domestic duck breeds.
Mergansers—still ducks. Red-breasted ones are also called “sawbills” for the tiny serrations on their bills. Since they need to eat 15 to 20 fish every day—which means diving underwater 250 to 300 times—a good grip is important.
Suffering from the same overfamiliarity issue as Mallards, gulls often get dismissed as just more seagulls. But like ocean ducks, there are so many varieties and different plumages. I don’t know how people keep them straight. I often end up assuming they’re all Herring Gulls until I learn differently, thanks to Merlin Bird ID.
Hey, we’re eagles too! I’m lucky to see Bald Eagles semi-regularly, but it’s still impressive to stand at the edge of the ocean and have one fly by and over your head. They’re big and powerful birds, though the bird word is that there’s an even bigger and more powerful eagle somewhere out there…
All pictures were taken by me, Alicia MacLeay, either January 1 or January 3, 2022, in Georgetown, Maine, from Five Islands Wharf, Ledgemere Nature Preserve, or Reid State Park. Click on an image to see it larger.