A white-winged dove is seen recently in Gardiner. The bird is native to the Southwest, Mexico and Central America. Photo courtesy of Jeff Wells

GARDINER — It takes an educated ear to hear the song of a single bird and realize it’s out of the ordinary.

“It actually woke us up,” Jeff Wells said. “I don’t know if anybody but a birder would wake up because it was a sound that was an unfamiliar dove, a dove that wasn’t a normal dove — a mourning dove or a pigeon — that kind of startled us awake.”

What Wells and his wife, Allison, heard in that brief burst of morning song Tuesday was a white-winged dove, a bird whose normal range stretches at its northern end from southern California to southern Texas, the southern tip of Florida and the Caribbean south through Mexico and into Central America. While the bird has been sighted in Maine before in the fall, this is the first time one has been seen in April.

“It’s a fun thing to have a rarity like that right in one’s own yard,” Wells said.

Wells, who lives in a quiet neighborhood not too far from downtown Gardiner, has an occupational advantage in identifying birds, both those native to the area and the vagrants that circumstance has brought. Before being named vice president for boreal conservation at the National Audubon Society, he worked in science and policy for the Boreal Songbird Initiative and was a senior conservation scientist at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. He’s also written a number of books, including “Maine’s Favorite Birds.”

When the Wellses went to look for the bird on Tuesday, they saw only mourning doves and thought maybe they had been mistaken or that it had been a rock pigeon.

The first time they saw the bird, with a band of white on its wings and ring of blue around its eyes, was late Wednesday, when it was on the ground under one of their bird feeders, about 20 feet away from their kitchen. The male bird has been hanging out with some mourning doves, who so far have tolerated the outsider in their midst.

Don Thompson traveled from South Portland to Gardiner on Friday for a chance to see a white-winged dove, a bird native to the Southwest, Mexico and Central America. Jessica Lowell/Kennebec Journal

Wells said he’s not sure how the bird ended up in Maine, but the weather systems that have brought warm air up the East Coast in the last week or so may also have brought the dove.

When sightings of vagrant birds — those that make appearances outside their normal ranges — are announced, they can and often do draw the attention of birdwatchers, who will travel sometimes hours for a chance to see an unusual specimen.

In 2018, the sighting in Biddeford of a great black hawk, a native of Central and South America, drew hundreds of birdwatchers from across the country. At that time, the hawk had been seen only once before in the United States. The hawk later made its way to Portland, where it appeared to be settling in to spend the winter. Maine’s cold climate proved to be too much for the bird, which was found lying in the snow in Deering Oaks Park by passersby in January 2019. When it couldn’t be saved from frostbite in its feet and legs, it was euthanized.

Before making the white-winged dove sighting public, Wells wanted to first let his closest neighbors know. On Thursday, the notification went out on the Maine Birds birding listserve and the information migrated to a larger audience on social media and birding apps. Within two hours, he said, the first birders arrived, one with a camera equipped with a big lens.

The word continued to spread, with the city of Gardiner posting a notice on its Facebook page, alerting readers that birders would be out in force with their binoculars and cameras.

A very rare bird has been spotted in Gardiner, and the National Audubon Society is notifying birders about the sighting….

Posted by City of Gardiner, Maine on Thursday, April 22, 2021

 

By midday Friday, Don Thompson and Turk Duddy had been haunting the neighborhood for several  hours and they were ready to break for lunch, after which they weren’t planning to return. No one had reported seeing the bird at all by that point on Friday. The most recent sighting had been Thursday afternoon.

“If I haven’t seen it in this amount of time, who knows? It could have moved on,” said Thompson, of South Portland. “It’s been here a couple of days and it likely would be around the feeders in the area.”

“Some years, you’ll get one rarity after another,” said Duddy, who drove to Gardiner from Cape Porpoise. “Other years you won’t get any.”

Last year, they saw a Harris’ sparrow, a golden-crowned sparrow, a Bullock’s oriole, a rufous hummingbird, and a Say’s phoebe among others, and those were only the ones that they knew about. There could be any number of vagrant birds in Maine right now that no one has seen.

“We’ve got a lot of woodlands that people never go in, and anything could land in those and you would never know about it,” Duddy said.

In making his posting, Wells offered some parking advice to birdwatchers, directing them to park around the Gardiner Common and cautioned prospective visitors that they would be coming to a neighborhood where many people are working from home.

“One of the things we put on the listserve was to please stay on the sidewalks and don’t go into anybody’s yards, so that the bird kind of has space in people’s yards to be away from everyone who’s looking at it,” he said.

When he arrived home from errands Thursday afternoon, he saw the bird in the tree next to his driveway and a birder parked in the street. He rolled down the window to let the birder know and tried to wait as long as he could before getting out of his car. But like his neighbors, he also works from home and a Zoom meeting was waiting.

“I was sorry to do that, because the bird flew off into another tree,” he said, “but people have to live their lives, too.”


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