A Clark’s grebe, center, swims in Togus Pond in Augusta on Tuesday as birdwatchers on shore and in a canoe observe. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — An extremely rare bird, only the second Clark’s grebe ever recorded in Maine, has taken a liking to Togus Pond, where it spent at least the last week fishing and being admired, and photographed, by birdwatchers.

The distinctive red-eyed, yellow-billed bird was first spotted and identified by a local resident Aug. 8, then several other sightings were reported over the last week, and there was at least one reported sighting Saturday morning.

The bird species, which normally migrates between the western part of the country and the west coast, and doesn’t typically venture east of the Mississippi, has only been spotted once before in Maine.

“It’s an absolutely amazing record, the rarest thing that has happened this year,” in Maine, said Doug Hitchcox, naturalist for Maine Audubon. “It’s pretty incredible that this bird, that has really only made it east of the Mississippi a handful of times, would show up here in Maine, especially in the summertime, which is a bizarre time for it to be seen.”

While it is common for people to travel to Maine in the summer, it’s highly unusual that a migrant bird would end up in this part of the country then, as most so-called vagrant birds stray from their normal range while migrating in the winter or spring.

Though it’s possible the white and gray bird with an unusual patch of black feathers atop its head may not be a summer arrival — it could have arrived on the water body some time ago, in a spring migration that somehow got extremely off-course, and only been identified as unusual recently.

“It’s hard to say what’s going on with this bird, in the middle of summer,” Hitchcox said. “It’s almost easier to guess it was on a spring migration and got out here and it took a couple of months for someone to notice it. I wonder, how many people on Togus Pond could have been looking at it all summer and thought, what a funny looking loon.”

Local resident Tom Renckens posted a photo and identified the wayward bird as a Clark’s grebe Aug. 8 on the Facebook page of Maine Rare Bird Alert.

The Clark’s grebe. Photo submitted by Doug Hitchcox

Seeing that, Hitchcox was up early the morning of Aug. 9, positioning himself on State Route 105 at sunrise with a spotting scope to see it for himself. He spotted it after an hour and a half or so from the southern end of the pond, more than a mile away, and confirmed what it was. He then came back Monday, with his kayak, to paddle up to the northeast side of the pond to get a closer look and better photographs.

He was excited to record the bird, the 393rd species he has spotted in Maine, edging closer to a life goal of spotting at least 400 species of birds in Maine. He said there are no signs the bird is poised to leave anytime soon. He said sometimes rare bird sightings are “one-day wonders” and a lot tend to stick around for two or three days, taking a break to rest and eat then continuing their journey. He said the grebe may stick around all summer, but hopefully will depart before snow and ice come.

Avid birder Logan Parker, of Palermo, an ecologist working for the Maine Natural History Observatory where he leads bird monitoring and conservation projects, learned of the grebe from his wife, Hallee, who showed him a post about it on a Maine birding Facebook page that was “sort of going viral in the birding community,” that turned out to have been posted by his parents’ neighbor.

He spotted the grebe Aug. 9, in the northeastern cove of the pond, while on a boat ride with his parents who live on Togus Pond.

“We got to enjoy the bird together,” he said. “I was fortunate enough to see the bird first at a distance and took a few photos before it dove. To our surprise the grebe resurfaced just a few feet from our boat. I was able to get some great photos and close looks. It was one of my favorite birding moments so far.”

He said it was the first Clark’s grebe he’d ever seen. He was also one of many Maine birders to see a wayward great black hawk spotted in southern Maine in 2019, which was euthanized after it suffered frostbite. He said probably the rarest bird he’s seen was a surfbird, a small shorebird that breeds in Alaska and winters on the west coast, he saw in March of 2015 on the edge of Biddeford Pool.

Normally, this time of year, the Clark’s grebe would be out west, such as in the Montana or Utah area, from where it would migrate to the west coast. This grebe appears to have settled in nicely on Togus Pond.

“A bird like this grebe, they’re not migrating right now; it’s too early,” Hitchcox said. “There’s no sign it’s going to leave anytime soon, there’s no reason for it to. Other than, in another month or so, it could disappear. It should be good, especially given that it’s at least in the right hemisphere. It doesn’t have any injuries we can see. There’s nothing wrong with it aside from the fact it’s on the wrong side of the country. My hunch is it’ll be here until close to the fall; it’ll still have that migratory urge that will most likely send it off.”

Whether it’ll go in the right direction or not may be another matter.

Hitchcox said one theory on how birds end up way out of their range is their instincts to use the stars to guide their migrations, the “map” of the stars they use to help them navigate, may somehow be 90 or 180 degrees off from where it is in a normal bird, due to a genetic mutation.

Another theory is that since a lot of vagrant birds are young males, that they may be “prospectors,” going out to check out new territory. He noted, however, that birds, like other animals, don’t tend to wander for the sake of wandering.

“Usually no animals have the free time to just wander; humans are good at that,” Hitchcox said of how the bird may have ended up here. “I think that is one of the most exciting parts of birding and rare birds is that so often we don’t know why that bird is here.”

It’s only the second confirmed sighting of the grebe in Maine. The first was in 2005 in Owls Head, according to the Maine Birds Records Committee website. The group, established in 2005, reviews reports of birds and maintains the official list of birds species recorded in Maine.

Hitchcox said it’s likely birders will come from all over Maine, and beyond, to see the bird, including someone from Pennsylvania posting online that they were considering a trip to see it. A challenge in spotting the bird is a lack of much public access to Togus Pond, most of it is surrounded by private homes and camps.

Parker said factors that drive birders to seek out rare species include the thrill of seeing something new or novel, competing with themselves to add birds to their “life list,” and an appreciation of wildlife and the fulfillment that comes from being outdoors in nature.

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