Pink-Footed, Snow and Canada Geese (Photos by Don Reimer)
Pink-Footed, Snow and Canada Geese (Photos by Don Reimer)
Successful birding ventures often involve some degree of luck and timing, as was the case for me during the December 31 Rockland/Thomaston Christmas Bird Count (CBC). My specific coverage area of the 15-mile count circle included the inner downtown of Rockland City and a segment of its sprawling harborfront. I also patrolled the bushy habitats of the Rockland Transfer Station and a couple of abandoned quarries in that vicinity. Given the fixed parameters of my suburban beat, I’m always a strong contender for the highest totals of city-dwelling Rock Pigeons and chunky House Sparrows.

Around mid-morning, I stopped to scan the grassy athletic fields at Rockland’s South School, where a flock of 31 Canada Geese grazed quietly on the snowless ground. Upon viewing any assembly of flocked birds, it is always advisable to check for potential outliers. Is one individual bird notably larger or smaller than its comrades? Is its leg color or bill shape somehow different or unique? Not this time, though, all Canadas.

I revisited that same field around 2 p.m. that day. By this time, a bulky pure white bird with black wingtips had joined the flock. A Snow Goose! While considerable numbers of these Arctic-nesting geese use the Eastern flyway to reach wintering areas along the Gulf Coast, a few stragglers can wind up in Maine. In following days I learned that this white beauty was somewhat of a loner, often flying and feeding independently from the main flock.

Let’s fast-forward to January 2, when I scrutinized the school athletic fields again. Over 100 Canada Geese now dotted the landscape there. As my car rolled to a stop, two slightly smaller, grayer geese drew my eye. Through binoculars, I noticed their bright pink legs and stubby pinkish bills. These were Pink-Footed Geese, a vagrant species that breeds in Greenland, Iceland and the Svalbard archipelago of Norway. Nests are often located atop cliffs that provide some security from roving Arctic foxes. Normally these two off-course geese would winter in Great Britain, the Netherlands and Denmark.

Maine sightings of Pink-Footed are rare but increasing slightly in recent times, so this was definitely a new record for the Rockland CBC and for Knox County as well. Rockland was initiated as a formal Christmas Bird Count territory back in 1970, and I reviewed its historical count data on the national CBC website. I found some interesting and changing trends from previous decades. Consider, for example, a species that we might take for granted, such as the ubiquitous Herring Gull. The 1986 count tally was a whopping 6,404 Herring Gulls compared with 392 this year. Setting aside possible variables of weather conditions, visibility, etc., what would account for this drastic change? In 1986 Rockland was a thriving fishing port with active fish processing facilities that provided food scrap waste for hungry gulls. Open garbage pits at the former Rockland “Dump” were a second boon to existing gull populations. In those days, counting the swarms of the dump gulls required some focused time and effort. For better or worse, the fate of many species of birds is linked directly to our human activity.

Two examples of familiar songbirds help to illustrate other shifting population trends. In 1976, one cardinal was recorded within the count circle; this year’s total was an impressive 83. Mourning Dove numbers continue to climb — 15 doves on the 1972 census versus 785 this year. These trends may be connected to the increased popularity of bird feeding stations and the gradual northward progression of birds in response to a warming climate.