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Atlas Surprises —

How quickly the years (and decades) do pass. Between 1978 and 1983, I was an eager, young(er) participant in the previous “Atlas of Breeding Birds in Maine” project. Recently I browsed a slightly yellowed paper copy of the finalized results from that earlier study. 329 citizen-science volunteers did the field work to collect data. A total of 201 species were determined to be breeding in the state at that time, representing 50 percent of all species ever found in the state at any season. Fourteen of those species were previously undocumented as Maine breeders. The list includes some now-familiar birds such as Great Cormorant, Turkey Vulture, Tufted Titmouse and Wild Turkey, to name several.

With the inception of the current five-year Maine Bird Atlas, various factors have evolved in the intervening 35 years. Advanced communication technology is perhaps the most obvious change, allowing for instantaneous online sharing of bird sightings, videos, photographs and sound recordings. GPS tracking devices to identify pinpoint locations are now standard equipment on many phones and even digital cameras.

The composition and distribution of Maine’s nesting birds have also changed as increasing numbers of southern U.S. species gradually shifted northward with the warming climate. A southern cousin of the Whippoorwill, a Chuck-will’s-widow, has been present for much of June in Orland but is not yet confirmed as nesting there. This general northward trend is evident across the entire North American continent with dozens of species.

Of our three midcoast counties, Knox has tallied 100 breeding species; Lincoln 95 and Waldo 93. Over 600 Maine atlasers have confirmed the breeding status for 169 species in the state, plus possible or probable breeding records for an additional 48 species. Nine species are newly confirmed breeders not recorded during Maine’s first atlas: Manx Shearwater, Great Egret, Sandhill Crane, American Oystercatcher, Common Murre, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Merlin, Fish Crow, and Carolina Wren. Locally, Red-bellied Woodpecker numbers have risen substantially in the past decade and Fish Crows and Merlins are now found nesting in Rockland on a regular yearly basis.

The midcoast can contribute an additional new species to the state and county lists — a family of nesting Orchard Orioles in Rockport! On June 19, while investigating a group of several nesting Baltimore Orioles, I heard a slightly different song – burry, whistled tones mingled with harsh churrs and chatters. And out popped an immature male Orchard Oriole. Birds of this particular age are greenish yellow with a black throat patch. Although Orchard Orioles appear occasionally in Maine, I strongly doubted that this young bird was capable or interested in starting a family.

The smallest of North America’s orioles, the adult male acquires his rich brick-red breast and black upperparts in his third year. Orchards construct a similar pouchlike nest to the more common Baltimore Oriole and winter in Central America.

Now back to the Rockport bird. In succeeding days, the young oriole sang, chattered and remained within a tight circle of alder/maple habitat at the edge of a pond. He acted increasingly protective, agitated and tightly focused on an area of tall alders. My suspicions grew daily. Bingo! On July 9, I spotted him carrying food in his bill — a confirming sign of nesting activity. The following morning, he and a female companion were both carrying food. After viewing a few delivery routes, I spotted the nest about 15 feet above the ground.

To date, the other breeding confirmations for Orchard Oriole are at Portland’s Capisic Pond Park and in York. There is little doubt that other surprises await us as we explore Maine’s transitioning avifauna.