Birders came from as far away as Arizona to view the rare great black hawk that landed in Biddeford in August 2018. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Few birds create more excitement than the great black hawk that flew from South America to Maine two years ago. This summer the bird got its own statue in Portland’s Deering Oaks Park, where it lived for two months before succumbing to frostbite in January 2019. The mount of the rare bird is at the Maine State Museum in Augusta, and in the coming months it may be available for viewing in southern Maine.

But every year vagrants or rarities – those birds that have wandered from their natural range – thrill birders in Maine, and this year is no different. Yet birders say what makes seeing a rare bird so thrilling, chiefly, is the help in finding it, and the excitement shared in the larger community who have seen it.

“It really is about the community,” said Julie Perrin of Gorham, who saw a rare prothonotary warbler in South Portland this April. “I think it is being with others – that energy. Everyone being in the same place seeing the bird and sharing the experience. But also, I was so thankful I saw it. And it is the gratitude that’s a part of it.”

For the past 15 years, Maine has averaged about two to three new birds in the state per year, said Maine Audubon Staff Naturalist Doug Hitchcox. In 2019, there was only one new species (a zone-tailed hawk), and in 2018 there were five. This year, as of Friday, there have been none.

While none of the unusual birds seen this year qualifies as a state record – a bird never documented before in Maine – the stories of the state’s top rarities in 2020 show that for many birders, the biggest thrill is the shared experience.

That, of course, is precisely why the great black hawk received such a level of fame. It was the second sighting of the species ever in the U.S. and the first sighting in Maine. While setting up shop in downtown Portland, the great black hawk rose to rock-star status because hundreds of birders were able to see it.

“Observability significantly adds to excitement,” said Hitchcox, who administers the Maine Rare Bird Alert listserv. “Unfortunately that hawk set the bar about as high as it could go, so it’ll be a long time before we get something like that again. Fun to dream about though.”

A mount of the great black hawk that arrived in Maine two years ago is now at the Maine State Museum in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

In 2018, the great black hawk made its way to Maine after it first stopped in Texas. The raptor came to Maine in August of 2018 and settled in Deering Oaks Park in November, where it lived and hunted for two months before it succumbed to severe frostbite. It was euthanized at a bird rehabilitation center in Freedom in January 2019.

This March, the hawk mount went on display at the state museum in Augusta, but two weeks later the exhibit, and museum, closed because of the coronavirus pandemic, and after it reopened in June, it closed a few days later because the building’s air system failed. Because it will take more than a year to design and install a new HVAC system, Maine State Museum’s Deputy Director Sheila McDonald said the hawk mount should go to a temporary home – ideally closer to Portland where it lived – for the public to view it.

“It’s one of the most amazing (mounts) we have in our museum collection,” McDonald said of the institution that dates back to 1836. “I think the public really was so captivated by it. That’s why we were so excited to get it.”

This year, there have been a handful of rare birds, Hitchcox said. And a few seldom-seen species created a burst of excitement – but that usually occurred with the ones many birders could get to, he said.

For example, the golden-winged warbler that came to Capisic Pond in Portland on May 17 is a species that shows up on occasion in Maine, but not every year and is typically very hard to get to and see, he said. But when this one showed up on a weekend and dozens of birders got to see it, a joyful buzz resulted, Hitchcox said.

By comparison, the golden-crowned sparrow is a species that has been seen in Maine only a few times – and yet when it showed up on May 11 in Jefferson at bird feeders “it lacked excitement because it was only seen by the couple who found it,” Hitchcox said.

A prothonotary warbler, shown in a file photo taken in Florida, comes in for a landing with food for its offspring that wait in its nest. The species, rare to Maine, was spotted in South Portland this year. AP

Then there is the prothonotary warbler, which has been seen in Maine before this year dozens of times. Yet the large warbler this spring drew several small crowds at easy-to-get-to Hinckley Park in South Portland – and that great opportunity to see it created a wild buzz. During the several days the bird was in Maine, 136 reports were posted on the Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s eBird website, an amazing number for a rarity, Hitchcox said.

Perrin had tried to see it a year before in Kennebunk and searched for two hours, to no avail. This time, she not only saw it – she had a personal experience with it.

“It was so exciting. There were four of us looking for it in Hinckley Park. We were very lucky it stayed there so long,” Perrin said. “I was backing up and it was coming toward me, so I stood still, but it kept coming. I looked at Doug who was there, and then it went between my legs. I didn’t move. It was really exciting. My adrenaline was going. I went home and sat down, and it was still going.”

Likewise, the black-headed grosbeak that arrived on Mount Desert Island on May 29-30 was seen by a few small crowds thanks to generous landowners who allowed birders on their property. Once directions to the location of the bird on a dead-end road were posted online, others came to see a rare species that has been in Maine almost a dozen times before – but rarely at an accessible location.

The fact it was “the first chaseable one in a long time,” Hitchcox said, fueled the excitement.

Veteran birder Craig Kesselheim of Southwest Harbor, got to see it since he lives on the island. And because he had tried to see the species in Maine once before and failed, he was doubly thrilled. But Kesselheim said the way fellow birders explained on social media where to park, how best to view the bird, and how to respect the landowners property – particularly during a pandemic – made the experience more meaningful.

Kesselheim often birds alone. He said the community aspect – the shared mission – is a key part of the thrill in finding a rare bird. The kindness in that communal effort captures, to him, the essence of birding.

“It’s more of a buzz with more people,” Kesselheim said. “The excitement for me is the amazingness of the rarity that it somehow found its way to such a remote place far from its normal range. But there is a community guiding how to find the bird, giving directions, sharing where to walk. That community – and a lot of gratitude – is a big part of it.”


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