July 3, 2014: How can I explain Chris’ “last day?” It would be our last day birding together for a long time, and in some ways it was more meaningful and magical that all the others that came before. We had no set plan. We did not know where we were going, other than the fact that Chris had done some research the night before and discovered that a snowy owl was still being seen down in Kennebunkport. But, I had never been to Kennebunkport. I did not know that way, nor did I know what to expect when we got there. The other place we decided to bird was the Kennebunk Plains. Again, a place I had never heard of or been to. It was all one wildly unknown adventure, but we were up to the task. All the pressure was off. We were just out to have fun. Perhaps that is what made it all so magical.
Of course we set out GPS for the route to Ocean Avenue in Kennebunkport. While I had driven through the town on the highway, I had never gotten off the exit to visit Kennebunkport in all the years I have lived in and travelled through Maine. Now we were going. It was the day before the 4th of July, and I expected there to be crowds of people and long lines of traffic, but there were not. We easily made it almost all the way to town before we encountered any traffic, and then, even though we were travelling towards the ocean, the traffic lessoned as we turned away from the town.
As we neared the coast the fog rolled in until we found ourselves on Ocean Avenue where the owl was reported to have been seen. I let Chris drive so I could navigate. And while I had seen the snowy before, it was a life bird for Chris and Micheal. As we rounded the corner near the location noted on eBird I saw the owl on top of a chimney on a mansion near the water’s edge. Chris pulled the car over to the side and hopped out while I pulled the car up into a better parking location. Chris was already snapping photos while Micheal peered through his new binoculars at the large, white owl perched on the roof.
The funny thing about Snowy owls is the way they look. Unlike other owls, their mouths take on an almost puppet-like expression when open. Snowies have large, round yellow eyes, and this one slowly turned its head and peered down at us, unperturbed by our presence and looking as if it wanted to ask, “What’s all this fuss about?” Chris and I both snapped off photo after photo. A few people ran or drove by, but no one stopped to ask us why we were taking pictures or what we were looking at. Perhaps they were all caught up in their own holiday plans, too busy to notice strangers on the side of the road.
Ocean Avenue is lined with mansions. Some are on the ocean side, and some across the street with the ocean coming right up to the road in places. Fog shrouded the land making everything mysterious and dream-like.
The air was cool and damp and refreshing after some of the recent heat and humidity we had experienced. After looking and gaping and photographing this marvelous bird, I finally tried to take a photo of the two guys in a victory dance. But they surprised me with suddenly becoming shy and self conscious and gave weak impression of their joy.
I chided them for this and they finally complied with big gestures and expressive faces worthy of finding their Lifer Snowy Owl!
We finally tore ourselves away from the owl and drove farther down the street. It turns out we were on the same road as the famous Bush Compound, where the former president resides. To our surprise there was a church across the street with public access to the property. We were able to just drive in and park and count birds in the church yard.
There was an outdoor chapel right on the seawall welcoming all to sit and meditate. The little church itself had open doors where one could walk and pray or gaze at the light coming through gorgeous stained glass windows.
We did not see lots of birds here, but we saw some, and it was a pleasant place to be, with pounding surf and ghostly fog.
After awhile our growling tummies pulled us away towards a coffee shop and some semblance of lunch. We saw the most traffic on the main streets of the historic old town, but soon found ourselves on back roads to the Kennebunk Plains. I had never heard of these plains before, but apparently they are well known in the birding world for sparrows and Upland sandpipers. Ever since Chris arrived we had been trying to find this species of birds. It had reportedly been sighted at Brunswick Landing nearby to where I live, but though I had looked for it there several times, I had never spotted a single one, even after Chris arrived to help me.
The Kennebunk Plains are on a back road west of Kennebunk. They are owned by the Nature Conservancy and host a unique variety of plants and animals not found anywhere else in Maine! I was shocked and surprised to discover all of this. We pulled into one of the parking lots and got out. The ground was still wet with recent storms and deep puddles were all about us. Indeed, another storm was heavy on the horizon to the south west with dark gray clouds and rumbles of thunder. A few sprinkles pelted us and we feared we would have to abandon our trek, but we kept out eye on the storm and headed out on one of the trails to see what we could find. Sparrows popped up here and there, and all the sparrows that had eluded us until now were being seen. We quickly racked up Vesper, Grasshopper, Song, Savannah, and Field Sparrows, as well as Eastern Meadowlarks. In this one location I think we all added 6 species or more to our year and/or Life Lists! I know the Field Sparrow was a Life Bird for Chris. Yet, still no Upland Sandpiper.
A quick look on eBird revealed another hotspot on the plains just one road over, so, we hopped back in the car and drove over there. The paved road soon turned to dirt and we slowed the car, rolled down the windows and started counting. In the storm heavy air we soon heard birds, and then, we saw one! An upland sandpiper took to the air with its wild wolf-whistle, flying over our heads about the plains.
I quickly pulled the car over and we all jumped out and tried to contain our excitement as the birds flew over our heads. Yes, birds! First one, then two then three Upland sandpipers took to the air frantically flapping and calling. We did not chase them or try to scare them. Indeed, we did not even see them until they were airborne. We all stood there in awe as the birds circled over our heads, then landed in the tall grasses and disappeared.
After getting our looks and photographs, which were poor to say the least given the lighting conditions; we walked across the street into the parking area and looked around. A few titmice and pine warblers flitted in the trees. A mourning dove flew overhead, then landed in the forest and sang its mournful song. Suddenly a bird with a rusty body and long bill and tail flew by. Oh my! I could not believe it! “Chris, Look! There is a Brown Thrasher,” I called out! He turned and got his lens on the bird and snapped off his photo of this Life Bird (for him). After exploring this parking area, we decided to drive a bit farther east on this dirt road. As we neared the end of the open plains and the area became wooded and residential again, we pulled off to check out the birds we were hearing and seeing.
Suddenly a cute little yellow warbler streaked with black sang out its ascending call from the nearby brush. A Prairie Warbler! Yet another Life Bird for Chris and Micheal! I was so thrilled for them! We were going to be happy just to see the Snowy Owl. All the rest of this was an unexpected bonus. We quickly fell in love with the Kennebunk Plains and wished we had more time to explore the area. But, the storm that had threatened us all afternoon was moving off to the southeast. It was late and we were all tired and hungry, so we got back in the car and bid the plains good-bye and headed home. Later we found out that the storm that loomed on the southern horizon was actually a severe thunderstorm that hit York County, Maine with a small tornado! We had just missed it! Thank God it did not catch us out alone on those plains far from any protection!
Chris’s last full day here was probably the best day of all, but the birding was not done yet. Before we left to take him to the airport on July 4th, he and I were out in the yard first thing in the morning counting birds once again. And what should show up, but another Brown Thrasher in my yard this time, along with a Lincoln’s Sparrow! I think the Lincoln’s was the last new bird Chris added in Maine. Yet, when we arrived at the airport we were surprised to find at least 14 killdeer running around on the grass near the tarmac!
Yes, we did a bird count at the airport in Augusta! We counted birds to the very end. I suppose it was a good way to keep either of us from getting too emotional. Before I knew it, we were saying good-bye, and Gus and I were on our way out the door and headed home. I do not remember if it was the next night or a day after that, all I know is I was driving home in the dark alone, and suddenly it hit me. I would not be birding with Chris again for a long time. This good-bye was more final than the one when I left Tucson and I knew he would be coming to visit me again and bird with me. Now the tears I had held inside flowed like the Kennebec River! I pulled the car off to the side and let myself sob, before heading home again…alone.
- Chris Rohrer’s blog
- Hedwig-Chris’ post about the Snowy Owl
- 10,000 Life Birds-Upland Sandpiper
- 10,000 Life Birds-Brown Thrasher
- 10,000 Life Birds-Prairie Warbler
- Las Aventuras-all posts about birding with Chris
- Our Big New England Birding Adventure-all posts on this subject
- Kennebunk Plains-The Nature Conservancy
- Map of Kennebunk Plains Maine WMA
- Kennebunk Plains info-scenic walks
- Kennebunk Plains-eBird Hotspot
- Kennebunk Plains, Maguire Road-eBird Hotspot