Linda Woodard, director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, and Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth, react after a sighting during the center’s morning bird walk. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

For Rob Speirs, it was three pink-footed geese near his home in Cumberland that opened his eyes to the powerful draw of birds.

The three geese Speirs found in Maine in 2009 thrilled birders across the country as he continued to report the vagrant’s whereabouts online. His was the second recorded sighting in Maine of the birds, which nest in Greenland and Iceland and migrate to northwestern Europe.

“Where I had just started to get more serious about my birding that summer as a result of reconnecting with an old friend, this put me right in the middle of an exciting event in Maine birding,” Speirs said. “A guy from Alaska came to see those birds, and I met him and a guy from North Carolina who flew up.”

Today, Speirs is one of the most prolific birders in the state. As of last week, he ranked No. 5 with 374 species seen in Maine in his lifetime. The rankings can be found on eBird, a website hosted by the Cornell Lab of Ornithology. The ranking many birders pay attention to is the most species seen in a state over a lifetime, a list that totals 21,000 birders in Maine. But there are other variables one can focus on, such as the most species seen in a county, or even during a particular month. 

For Speirs and others near the top of the Maine eBird rankings, competition with other birders is not a driving force. Instead, they are simply motivated by a passion for studying birds in different locations and in different seasons. And, of course, by the opportunity to view a bird rarely seen in the state.

Linda Woodard is one of the top birders in Maine, ranked No. 18 on the eBird list with 349 species seen in the state. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

More than 460 bird species have been seen in Maine, including 285 regularly occurring species – 215 of which breed here. But to see all birds native to Maine as well as all the vagrants who happen to land here – like those pink-footed geese – is a tall order. Only 17 birders have seen more than 350 species in Maine, according to eBird.

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Birders do not need to provide photographic evidence of their species sightings, although some do. In general, the accurate identification of species is based on the honor system. And who wouldn’t believe the top birders, considering that some go to great lengths to see a rare species?

Doug Hitchcox, the Maine Audubon naturalist, is a good example. He ranked at the top of the Maine eBird list with 398.

On Feb. 18, he jumped in his car at 4:30 a.m. with colleague Nick Lund (No. 18 on the Maine eBird list) to drive to Eastport to get his 398th Maine species, a common gull. They cleared it with their boss and colleagues at Maine Audubon who told them, “YOLO” (you only live once).

“There are about 10 (vagrants) I know might come to Maine at some point. So I’m watching reports,” said Hitchcox.

This marbled godwit was seen by Margaret Viens of Rome while birding with her twin sister, Marjorie Watson, in 2013 in Biddeford. Margaret Viens photo

For Linda Woodard – tied with Lund for No. 18 on the eBird list (349 species) – the craziest chase of a rarity was not in Maine but for a red-footed falcon that was at Martha’s Vineyard in 2004. Woodard dropped everything to see it because the raptor is found in Europe, winters in Africa, and had never been reported in North America before.

Woodard, who is the director of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, hopped in a car with a colleague and drove down to Massachusetts to catch the ferry to the island as pedestrian passengers. The trouble with their plan was the bird was some distance from the ferry terminal.

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But, as luck should have it, a man was standing at the ferry terminal on the other end holding a sign that read: “Van to Falcon.” So they hopped in the van and he dropped them off near the falcon.

“We didn’t have to wait too long to see it at all,” Woodard said. “Of course, then it dawned on us that we weren’t sure when, or if, the van was coming back and if it would coincide with the departure of the last ferry.”

For Noah Gibb of Freeport – who is No. 7 on the list (366 species) – the most memorable chase was the bird he missed.

He went to Bar Harbor with his son, Tyler, and a friend to chase a black-headed grosbeak seen the day before, only to hear what Gibb called the dreaded words in birding: “It hasn’t been seen all day.”

“We, of course, did not see the bird and the area didn’t have any good options for lunch, with it being outside of the tourist season. My son was hungry and the only place we could find with food was a gas station that had slices of mediocre, at best, pizza. I have forever labeled this trip as the six-hour journey for gas station pizza,” Gibb said.

But Gibb will make up for it. He recently switched jobs to take a second-shift job at Idexx, so he can have mornings and early afternoons free to spend more time with his family – and go birding.

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Noah Gibb photographed this pine grosbeak from inches away in 2021 while he was studying it under a fruit tree. Noah Gibb photo

“I don’t want to wait until I’m retired. You never know what will happen in life,” said Gibb, 44. “I don’t care about the ranking. I want to study the birds.”

That resonated with Margaret Viens – No. 9 on the eBird list with 361 species. Since she retired in 2007, she has had more time to bird – and catch up to her siblings, all birders, including her twin sister, Marjorie Watson.

Two years later, when Viens joined eBird in 2009, her life list in Maine took off.

But even when Viens is seeing the same birds over and over, she’s happy. In fact, six years ago, she and her sister set a new goal: To start their birding list anew every month.

“We try to get 100 different species a month, wherever we are,” Viens said. “Once you get a lot of species, it’s hard to get anything new. This makes it fun. It forces us to get out. We get excited to see the same birds every month, and when we’re out birding a lot, we see more.”

Charles Duncan of Portland is No. 4 on the Maine eBird list with an impressive 381 species. Duncan waves off his high ranking as a result of birding in Maine for 40 years.

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And even after all that time, Duncan also finds new ways to enjoy and challenge himself and explore the birds in Maine.

“My birding drastically changed when COVID hit. We started working on our Cumberland County list,” Duncan said of he and his wife, Laura Blutstein. “It took us to new places in the county we had never been to.”

The one thing that has remained the same over 40 years of birding in Maine, Duncan said, is the camaraderie in the Maine birding community, which he said is distinctively Maine. 

“There is competitive teasing. But it’s teasing, it’s very light-hearted,” Duncan said. “The fact is we help each other. And we engage new birders. That, in my experience, doesn’t happen in all 50 states.”

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