FREEPORT — The chart hanging on the board at Freeport Wild Bird Supply was colorful enough with the purple, yellow and green stars denoting attendance at the Saturday morning birding walk. But a closer look might discourage any birders to the south from participating in these winter walks, with reports of walks spent in temperatures of 3 degrees, 27 degrees and, last weekend, minus 11.
Then again, this is Maine.
“The three contenders for the grand prize are here. It’s a big day,” said store owner Derek Lovitch at 7:50 a.m. last Saturday.
Lovitch and his wife, Jeannette, who have owned Freeport Wild Bird Supply for 10 years, lead the walks each Saturday as a way to connect with the rich birding community in Greater Portland. But in the winter they turn the friendly walk into a contest, challenging birders to get out and participate in their sport when it’s frigid outside.
“I started it as a joke, and then thought, this is not a bad idea. I try to keep the prizes fun. It’s not about the prizes. It’s about the birding. Has it increased participation? Maybe on the worst days,” said Lovitch, whose bird walk draws as many as 25 in the summer.
In winter there are fewer birds to find around Maine’s woods and waters. Many have gone south on their migration cycle, missing the cold and snow that coats the land here as much as six months of the year.
But the birds that can be found – chickadees, pileated woodpeckers, white-throated sparrows – are more rugged than those tiny, gentle wings suggest. At the risk of anthropomorphizing, some might even call these fragile critters courageous.
“They’re remarkable creatures. To think at that size they still are surviving in frigid temperatures like today,” said Barbara Brenneman of Bowdoin as she carried her large scope across the snow behind Lovitch.
Brenneman has commuted from Bowdoin to Freeport every Saturday morning in the winter to find birds the past three years, and cinched the birding title at the Freeport store in that time.
But Brenneman said she attends the Saturday winter walks for the chance to learn all the wildlife lessons from Lovitch that she missed growing up in New Jersey, where her father led birding walks at places like Cape May and at the Delaware Valley Ornithological Club. Brenneman regrets she didn’t learn more from her father.
Now Lovitch considers Brenneman a well-schooled birder in her own right.
“She’s the Babe Ruth of the birding walks,” Lovitch jokes.
And Brenneman, like the six other birders with her last Saturday, wasn’t a bit fazed with the subzero temperatures. Birders like Brenneman know the silver lining in winter birding can be found in the crown of a kingfisher, the intricate pattern of a red-shouldered hawk’s wings, or the glorious glide of a bald eagle.
The birding group scouted Freeport’s town landing on the Harraseeket River only to find it socked in with ice, which meant no open water for ducks. So they went to Cousins Island in search of open water, only to find more ice and sea smoke.
With that, the birders followed Lovitch over snowy roads to a backyard treasure trove of bird feeders, nearly 20 in all, chock-full of suet and seed.
“You need to have something up your sleeve in case this happens. That’s the first time that channel has frozen in five or six years,” Lovitch said after a half-hour of getting skunked.
As the birders enthusiastically followed Lovitch’s lead further into the cold day, they found themselves on a bridge overlooking the Royal River at Lower Falls in Yarmouth. And all seven suddenly seemed oblivious to the cold, the icy sidewalk and the oncoming traffic they walked beside.
They were looking up and over the river.
When a kingfisher flew out from under the bridge, this frozen march suddenly became a very worthwhile bird walk.
Bolstered by their unexpected find, the group decided to head back to the ice and chill at the Harraseeket River. There, a pair of bald eagles greeted them as if to remind that this is Maine after all.
As a red-shouldered hawk drew seven pairs of binoculars straight up, the seven birders now had something to brag about. And with that, Lovitch called it a wrap.
“He should have been south by now, but he must have found food. That’s a good bird in winter,” the guide smiled.
By 10:30 a.m. the birders had seen 33 species in all – though the temperature rose to only minus 4.
Well worth it, they agreed, if for no other reason than to check the day off on the birding board back at the Freeport store.
“I’ll admit the contest had something to do with it,” Frank Paul of Portland said of his attendance that day.
Staff Writer Deirdre Fleming can be reached at 791-6452 or at: