A male belted kingfisher. Robin Loznak/Great Falls Tribune, via AP

A few people asked questions last week about different species of birds that typically, or mostly, migrate south in the winter, but are still being seen in Maine now. It is always interesting to hear about these northern vanguards, attempting to overwinter and perhaps trying to be the first on the breeding grounds this spring. It is a high-risk, high-reward endeavor, and an amazing reminder of what birds are capable of.

The first inquiry came from Ralph Murray in Kennebunk, who has had a belted kingfisher around during the past couple of weeks. This species breeds all over the state (ebird.org/atlasme/map/belkin1). During the winter it can move as far south as Panama but regularly stays across the U.S. Maine is about as far north as these kingfishers will attempt to overwinter (in the east) and even then they are restricted mostly to southern and coastal parts of the state. Looking at eBird data, of the 1,500-2,500 checklists that get reported in Maine each week, belted kingfishers are on less than 1% of those in most winters. This peaks around 12% during spring migration in May, dips when they’re nesting (and harder to detect), then peaks again over 20% in September as they begin moving south. As long as they can find open water, and the fish they’re feeding on, then they can at least try to stick around.

Also noteworthy with Ralph’s observation is that the pond he’s been seeing the kingfisher around has been iced over. While this would prevent it from catching food, I suspect that it is frequently checking on the status of the pond, looking for openings in the ice. Kingfishers can cover large areas – even in the nesting season – to find food, and having plenty of options is going to be a safe strategy when food like fish can be hard to find. Though their diet is primarily fish, they can also eat insects, amphibians, and even berries.

Another inquiry that came in was from Beth Gilford, who has seen an ovenbird overwintering in the Portland area. Ovenbirds are ground-nesting warblers, perhaps best known for their loud “tea-cher, tea-CHER, TEA-CHER” song, or their namesake (but seldom seen) oven-shaped nests. Like most warblers, ovenbirds should be wintering in Central America right now. Beth reported helping this bird along by feeding it mealworms since the ground got covered with snow, and it is apparently doing all right despite those frigid days at the beginning of the month. I’ve heard of a few early winter records, but surviving this late is very unusual. There is a record in Peter Vickery’s 2020 Birds of Maine, of an ovenbird that “fed exclusively on white millet” at a Brunswick feeder from Dec. 23, 1983, through March 1984. That appears to be where the bar is set, and I’ll be rooting for Beth and her ovenbird, which stands a good chance with that high protein meal it’s getting.

I can’t recommend Vickery’s Birds of Maine enough for anyone interested in Maine’s many birds, and especially its historical status and how populations have changed. It is available at Maine Audubon’s Nature Store in Falmouth, but if you act fast, Princeton University Press has a 75% off sale through Feb. 21.



Owls and hummingbirds are by far the families we get the most questions about, and with their unique features and natural history, it is no wonder why. We tend to get a lot of repeats, but a new question came in this week from Jeff McDonald in South Portland, who, acknowledging his suburban environment, asked if it was possible to attract owls with a bird house. The quick answer is: let’s find out.

Of the common owl species in Maine, barred and Northern saw-whet owls do nest in cavities, so you can put boxes up for them. However, neither of these are going to be very likely to occur in suburban areas. Barred owls are probably around, in low densities, but are going to favor larger stands of oaks versus backyards. That said, there is another owl species that is very rare in Maine, but probably more abundant than we realize: the Eastern screech-owl. Most records of these in Maine come from southern York County, in Kittery and up the Piscataqua River. There has been at least one screech-owl that has taken up residence in Casco Bay, with sporadic reports from Peaks and Long islands in the last few years.

As is the case with most owls, there are probably a lot more screech-owls around than we know. One of the best ways to start finding more is to put up nest boxes for them. And thinking of Jeff’s South Portland yard, that is actually a great place for them – they seem to thrive in suburban areas. Cornell’s NestWatch (nestwatch.org) is a great place to find plans for building nest boxes, as well as information on where to put them, and maintenance tips. Jeff, if you put up a box, keep us posted!

Do you have a nature question for Doug? Email questions to ask@maineaudubon.org and visit maineaudubon.org to learn more about birding, native plants, and programs and events focusing on Maine wildlife and habitat. Doug and other naturalists lead free bird walks on Thursday mornings, 8 to 10 a.m., at the Gilsland Farm Audubon Sanctuary in Falmouth.

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