“Birds of Maine” is a magisterial testament: to a man with a vision, to the confraternity of Maine ornithologists, to the amazing avian diversity of this state. Over 600 pages packed with historical and scientific observations, beautiful illustrations in color and black and white, and meticulously executed maps make the tome itself as robust a monument as a marble headstone.

Cover courtesy of Princeton University Press

It is certainly a fitting monument to its author. Peter Vickery was one of Maine’s leading ornithologists. Although he and his wife Barbara lived in Richmond, Peter worked as an avian ecologist at Massachusetts Audubon Society (where we first became friends) for over 20 years.

Nonetheless, he had put down roots in Maine, and Ralph Palmer’s classic “Maine Birds” became “his Bible,” according to Barbara. Written in 1949, it was the standard reference on Maine’s avifauna. Nature, however, does not stand still, and as the twentieth century progressed from its midpoint into the next, the book’s findings were being overtaken.

Vickery started to amass the data he would need to update Palmer’s work 20 years ago. It was seven years before he drafted his first species account. By 2015, he had written up 350 species. Then he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

To ensure the completion of his life’s work, Vickery assembled a team to help him. It was a Who’s Who of Maine ornithologists: Charles D. Duncan, Bill Sheehan and Jeffrey V. Wells. His friends and co-authors in earlier projects, Jan and Elizabeth Pierson, were consultants. The noted author on birdlife, Scott Weidensaul, with whom Vickery had taught courses at the Hog Island Audubon Center, shared the job of managing editor with Barbara, herself just retired from a distinguished career at The Nature Conservancy.

Sadly, Peter died in 2017, in fact on Feb. 28. But the team finished his book. When it was done, it included 494 species, almost a hundred more than Palmer’s earlier work had recorded.

Why is Maine’s birdlife so diverse? Climate plays a role, as maritime influences yield to continental ones across the state. So does topography, which produces a diverse array of forests and wetlands. “Naturally, the avifauna reflects this.”

Maine is also where many southern birds reach their northern limit and northern species meet their southern edge. Largely western species can go no further East than the Atlantic coast, which is also the first stop for European vagrants, those lost birds that show up from time to time, to the rapture of birdwatchers.

So infrequent are 135 of the species in “Birds of Maine,” they required documentary proof to be included. Are more birds straying from their “regular ranges” now than a century ago? Barbara Vickery suggests this apparent increase may be due to technology (binoculars, cameras, cell phones and the internet) “ensuring that vagrant species are documented before they disappear.”

But the last 70 years have definitely seen considerable changes in the distribution and populations of many birds. Reasons range from global (e.g. climate change) to local (land use such as forestry and agriculture). All of this is explored in a series of introductory chapters: Distribution of Birds in Maine, Maine’s Ornithological History, Current Status and Conservation Needs of Maine Birds. If the titles sound dense, have no fear. The science is imparted with an admirably engaging literary style.

The same is true for the species accounts. Many start with an epigraph, sometimes wistful: “Once abundant in Maine waters, but where are they now?” (red-necked phalarope); sometimes poetic: “Named for its sweet evening vespers to the setting sun” (vesper sparrow); occasionally like a trivia question: “This large and flashy Western corvid would be hard to miss in Maine” (black-billed magpie).

The accounts are detailed and cogent, with data on status – current and historical – global distribution and seasonal records. For species at risk, their conservation status is given, both in Maine and globally. Maps are included where needed, and many accounts sport the elegant drawings of Massachusetts-based artist Barry Van Dusen. One of Peter’s final coups was to get the great Swedish bird artist Lars Jonsson to paint a series of watercolors of some of Maine’s iconic birds, starting with the extinct great auk.

One day while birding with Peter on Scarborough Marsh, we flushed a shelduck, a bird I knew well from England. It is not included in “Birds of Maine,” having escaped from captivity, not flown across the ocean. Another bird not found in the book is the redwing, one of which caused a stir last month by showing up at Capisic Pond in Portland. A redwing had never been reported in Maine until this winter. The count has already started for a future assessment of the birds of Maine.

Vickery et al. have set a very high standard for its compilers to meet.

Thomas Urquhart is a former executive director of Maine Audubon Society. His new book, “Up for Grabs, a history of Maine’s Public Reserved Lands,” will be published in May.


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