Friday, April 12, 2024

Announcing my new book: Dinosaurs to Chickens - How Evolution Works

Really proud to announce a new book from Workman Publishing called Dinosaurs to Chickens: How Evolution Works. 

This is a book I would have loved to have read as a kid. How did modern species evolve to look the way they do? How did bees evolve their stingers? How did Poison Dart Frogs evolve their poison? How did Giraffes get their long necks? I explore these and dozens more examples, reaching back through the fossil record and the tree of life. It's really fun, and I hope readers (everyone 10+!) enjoy it too.

The book is out in August 2024, but it's available for preorders now. Preorder here!

Monday, April 1, 2024

Cumberland County March Madness

March is usually the boring-est birding month. You've seen all the wintering birds, or they've left already, and (at least in Maine) spring migration is really only in its earliest stages. 

March is a slog of a month, and consequently one that, along with February, usually sees my lowest birding effort of the year.

I wanted to change that, for no real reason other than birding is fun. I challenged myself to see 100 species of birds in my home county, Cumberland County, Maine, in March 2024. I had seen just 47 in each of the previous two years, and a personal record of 58 during that first pandemic March in 2020 when there was nothing else to do than bird all day long.

Here's how it went:

March 1 - Clearwater Drive, Falmouth.

1. American Woodcock. 

I left a restaurant in Falmouth with my family and heard the distinctive PEENTing. An early record for sure, but in an area that I've seen woodcocks before. A good omen, and a great start to the month.

March 2 - Prout's Pond, Scarborough

2. Canada Goose

3. Gadwall

4. Mallard

5. American Black Duck

6. Ring-necked Duck

7. Hooded Merganser

8. Common Merganser

9. Mourning Dove

10. Herring Gull

11. Red-tailed Hawk

12. American Crow

13. Black-capped Chickadee

14. American Robin

15. Northern Cardinal

Some friends and I took a trip down to Kittery, in York County, to see the long-staying first state record Spotted Towhee that's been there all winter. We got good looks, then stopped at some spots on the way back home. 

March 2 - Spurwink River Crossing

16. Bufflehead

17. Turkey Vulture

The big push of TUVU into Maine doesn't start until later in the month, but there are some around all winter these days. 

March 2 - Route 1

18. Pileated Woodpecker

A flyover, but you never know when one's gonna show up otherwise.

March 2 - Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth

19. Common Eider

20. Harlequin Duck

21. Surf Scoter

22. White-winged Scoter

23. Black Scoter

24. Long-tailed Duck

25. Common Goldeneye

26. Black Guillemot

27. Great Black-backed Gull

28. Common Loon

29. European Starling

30. Northern Mockingbird

31. House Sparrow

32. House Finch

33. Song Sparrow

March 2 - Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth

34. Brant

35. Horned Grebe

Brant are another easily miss-able species.

March 2 - Mill Creek Cove, Portland

36. Red-breasted Merganser

37. Ring-billed Gull

38. Glaucous Gull

White-winged gulls are really hit-and-miss, especially later in the winter, and so it was nice to see this bird which I think was the only one regularly reported in the county all month.

March 2 - My house, Cumberland

39. Eastern Bluebird

March 2 - Winslow Memorial Park, Freeport

40. Barrow's Goldeneye

41. Red-bellied Woodpecker

42. Blue Jay

43. Common Raven

44. Tufted Titmouse

The same day I was down in York County with pals I knew I needed to see some of the less-common species in the county before they left. Barrow's is at the top of the list, so I picked up my son from home and drove him up to this park where they're regular. We played football on the trail all the way up and back from where the ducks are.

March 3 - My house, Cumberland

45. Pine Siskin

Absent from my yard all year, but they hung out most days this March.

March 3 - Brunswick

46. Rock Pigeon

Got em!!!!!

March 3 - Wharton Point, Brunswick

47. Bald Eagle

March 3 - Broad Cove Reserve, Cumberland

48. Cooper's Hawk

49. Northern Harrier

Really luck to snag these two raptors here, though I'd see plenty over the rest of the month. Beat my previous two years' species counts by March 3.

March 4 - Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, Falmouth

50. Wild Turkey

51. Downy Woodpecker

52. White-breasted Nuthatch

53. Cedar Waxwing

54. American Goldfinch

55. American Tree Sparrow

56. White-throated Sparrow

My office. A great birding spot. The friendly flock of turkeys has inspired thousands of kids to a love of nature, and it's probably the state's most reliable spot for American Tree Sparrows.

March 4 - Canco Woods, Portland

57. Eastern Screech-owl

The coolest bird. Screech-owls are slowly but surely expanding their presence in Maine, and this is the first reliable bird I'm aware of in Cumberland County. It's been nesting at a publicly-accessible area and been enjoyed by many birders. I waited until after dark and heard him trilling, but never got a glimpse. 

March 5 - My house, Cumberland

58. Dark-eyed Junco

March 6 - My house, Cumberland

59. Common Grackle

Broke my previous record by March 6!

March 10 - My house, Cumberland

60. Red-breasted Nuthatch

61. Carolina Wren

62. Fox Sparrow

63. Red-winged Blackbird

Singing Fox Sparrow in the yard! Nice!

March 13 - Pownal

64. Northern Saw-whet Owl

65. Barred Owl

What a fun night. We were hanging at my buddy Ian's house to drink some brews and help him plan for a quick trip to Arizona. The hangout spot is this little yurt he's got deep in the backyard, and on the soggy walk out we wondered if we could conjure any owls out of the woods. We played a quick Saw-whet owl call from one our phones (I know playing calls is controversial but it's really not a big deal if used sparingly for any one individual!), and a bird immediately began responding from the trees. I'd never actually heard the "saw-whet" toot toot toot call before. Magic. "Well, how about a Barred, too?" we thought. We played another call and stared into the darkness. Again, almost immediately, I could make out against the slightly-less-dark of the path ahead and distinct from the very-much-black nighttime trees around us a gigantic dragon flying directly at me. I ducked, and the dragon / Barred Owl wooshed right over our heads and into a nearby tree. So so so so awesome. 

March 14 - Gilsland Farm Audubon Center, Falmouth

66. Brown Creeper

March 14 - Scarborough Marsh, Pelreco Building

67. Great Egret

68. Green-winged Teal

The egrets were super early and tripped a filter on me. Later seen by a few others.

March 15 - My house, Cumberland

69. Red Crossbill.

Never a sure thing, but I've had several Red Crossbill sightings in my yard this winter.

March 18 - Yarmouth

70. Merlin

March 19 - Florida Lake, Freeport

71. Eastern Phoebe

The weather was really balmy in the middle of the month, and everyone was expecting an early spring. This phoebe was an absolute treat, unexpectedly early and a sure sign of warm weather on the way.

March 20 - Thornhurst Farm, Yarmouth

72. Killdeer

I'd dipped a couple times on Snow Goose at this spot near by house. Alas.

March 22 - Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth

73. Great Cormorant

74. Red-throated Loon

March 22 - Prout's Pond, Scarborough

75. Mute Swan

Rare and unwelcome in Cumberland County.

March 22 - Grondin Pond, Scarborough

76. American Wigeon

77. Greater Scaup

March 22 - My house, Cumberland

78. Brown-headed Cowbird

March 24 - Portland

79. Northern Flicker

OK, here's where the ish hit the fan a little bit. After a few weeks of nice weather, Maine got absolutely slammed by a ice and snowstorm. Up north it was pure snow, so things were fine, but along the coast it was snow and then rain and it froze overnight. We woke up to no power and everything coated in ice. Thousands of trees and limbs were down across the state, and everywhere you go there are branches and things across the road. People are still cleaning up. I didn't have any way of making coffee, so I took off across multiple towns and eventually found a gas station by the Portland airport. But I saw a few birds along the way.

March 24 - Greely Rd., Cumberland

80. Wilson's Snipe

A bunch of early migrants were really put off by the snow and ice. I drove past a field that Killdeer love and found them all just standing there on the ice, not sure of what to do. A mile or so later I passed a little wetland that sometimes holds ducks and herons, and spotted this Wilson's Snipe -- a good bird for March -- flying around and standing on the shore. Good bird.

March 24 - My house, Cumberland

81. Dickcissel

The bird of the month. The feeders in my backyard were bumping that Sunday, as is typical after a big snowfall when all the other food is covered up. I was stocking lots of seed and mealworms, and took a few minutes to stand in the frame of my back garage door to enjoy the flock. I happened to glance up into the top of this Alder Buckthorn at the side of my yard and saw a yellow and black bird sitting toward the back. A Dickcissel! Yard bird! Completely unexpected, and I wouldn't have seen it at all if I hadn't been standing exactly where I was - a place I never stand. I couldn't have seen it from inside, I don't think. I had my camera with me because I was shooting the flock, and so managed a couple of terrible, obscured photos. The bird left after just a few seconds. It never came to the feeders at all that I could tell, and I never saw it again. 

March 25 - My house, Cumberland

82. Hairy Woodpecker

March 25 - Higgins Beach, Scarborough

83. Piping Plover

It's always amazing to me that Piping Plovers return in March. 

March 25 - Portland

84. Fish Crow

I was at Dick's Sporting Goods getting something for my son's birthday and heard this bird calling from the corner of a building.

March 30 - Gray

85. Horned Lark

I sped up to Gray quickly to try to see a pair of Sandhill Cranes that had been hanging out for a few days. I pulled up to see my friend Michael's truck pulled over to the side of the road! He was also looking! The goddamn cranes weren't there! Dang! But we got some Horned Larks.

March 30 - North Yarmouth

86. Bohemian Waxwings

On the way home from the crane dip I saw a flock of Bohemian Waxwings at the side of some random road! I slammed on the breaks and pulled over in front of some house to confirm the ID!

March 30 - Highland Rd. Brunswick

87. Northern Pintail

88. American Kestrel

March 30 is crunch time. I had a bunch of birds left to get to 100 and no time to get them. I emailed a friend in Brunswick, Gordon Smith, and he sent me a bunch of good recommendations for his area for some final birds. These two were good pulls just a few hundred yards from each other.

March 30 - Brunswick Executive Airport

89. Eastern Meadowlark

March 31 - Dyer Point, Cape Elizabeth

90. Red-necked Grebe

91. Double-crested Cormorant

The last day of the month and 11 birds to go. My birthday. My wife let me take the entire day off, and friends agreed to join me to help me get the remaining species, if we could. 11 is a LOT for one day this late in the month, and we were really hoping that some migrants had come in overnight. Ed and I started in Cape Elizabeth at 6:30am, and got these two birds. The hunt was on.

March 31 - Trundy Point, Cape Elizabeth

92. Purple Sandpiper

Dipped on these birds several times this month, but finally caught up to this flock at a lovely spot I'd never been to before. 

March 31 - Kettle Cove, Cape Elizabeth

93. Golden-crowned Kinglet

94. Great Blue Heron

March 31 - Black Point Rd., Scarborough

95. Belted Kingfisher

March 31 - Scarborough Marsh

96. Savannah Sparrow

97. Glossy Ibis

98. Tree Swallow

The sparrow and the ibis were great spots by Ed. Wind was picking up at this point and birds were slow, but these were huge to get us to 98. Striking distance, but few reliable options left. Northern Shoveler? Not reported in days. Peregrine Falcon? No good single spot. Purple Finches? Absent this winter. Pine and Yellow-rumped Wablers? Still a few days away. We decided to drive up into Falmouth for a reliable Wood Duck spot and hoped to get lucky on a final species.

March 31 - River Point Conservation Area - Falmouth

99. Wood Duck
100. Sharp-shinned Hawk

I showed up to River Point after than Ed and Michael because I'd stopped in Cape Elizabeth on a fruitless search for Ruddy Ducks. As I was walking down to meet them a Wood Duck buzzed overhead. Number 99, and one that only I saw. We were close, but had few ideas. We poked around for Winter Wren, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, and Hermit Thrush. Nothing. We were exhausted and wanted to go take naps. I was searching eBird and considered heading out to check out a Red-shouldered Hawk report in some random yard in Yarmouth. We paused on the bridge over the railroad and scanned the skies. All day we'd been looking for migrating raptors, but the wind picked up from the north and seemed to quiet the skies. But then there it was - an accipter in the distance. It looked small, small-headed, and flappy. We agreed: Sharp-shinned. Number 100! We'd done it! We celebrated and went home to relax for a few minutes before all joining again for a birthday dinner. What a fun day to cap a fun month.

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