An Adventure at the Kennebunk Plains

By Brynlee Kimball
Photographs by Rob Mumford

We were the first to arrive at 4:47am.  It was dark and cold. As we waited for the rest of the group, the eastern Maine sky bloomed orange and the gray fingers of fog released their grip on the blueberry barrens.  It is just astounding how many birds are singing in the very early morning. Upland Sandpipers, at least five different species of sparrow, Prairie Warblers, Chestnut-sided Warblers, and a few more were all awake and singing their little hearts out.

After everyone had arrived, we listen for a minute or two and then started walking on the trail through the savannah. Almost immediately to our left in a scrubby little bush we heard a babble of song and turned to find a Field Sparrow hopping amongst the branches. We walked for a few minutes, just listening to the birdcalls when suddenly we saw little heads bobbing in and out of the grass. Then we heard the whooping call of the Upland Sandpiper, its speckled head briefly visible in the tall grass as we peered through binoculars. To our left we spotted an old tree snag with two large birds: a pair of Red-tailed Hawks waiting for the thermals to carry them aloft for the day. 

At last we came to the tree line of the woods surrounding the plains. First a dark shape came overhead winging its way past us. It was a Double-crested Cormorant. Then a small yellow shape flying to the right of us caught our eye. As our binoculars followed it we realized that it was our first Prairie Warbler, although it was definitely not our last. We were searching for a bird that we heard sing in the trees right next to us when one of the kids said, “Look, a Scarlet Tanager!”  There, up near the top of the tree, was a Scarlet Tanager, its wings the color of night and its body the color of blood. We only saw it for only a few seconds before it took off, but still it was exciting. Then either our loud exclamations or the Scarlet Tanager’s flight startled a woodpecker-sized bird out of a nearby tree. The bird had yellow shafting in the wings and a white rump. So we consulted the bird guide. It turns out we saw a Northern Flicker, a woodpecker whose Western cousins have red shafting in the wings.

A moment later a Baltimore Oriole flew to a pine tree in the savannah close to the path we were on. We watched it as it took off again, its bright plumage visible. Then a bright flash of blue landed on the top of another tree. An Indigo Bunting. Not a second later about four branches down to the right a Prairie Warbler landed. Not even two seconds after that a Brown Thrasher landed about nine branches down and to the left of the Indigo Bunting. A triple shot of fabulous color. It seemed as if the birds were posing for the camera. We watched them until one by one they flew off. A while after the triple shot I looked up and saw a Chestnut-sided Warbler perched at the end of a branch on a tree a foot away from the path. The little warbler sat there and chirruped for a second or two before winging away.

Not a few paces away Kelsi spotted a pine branch sticking out, low to the ground. On the branch was a Luna Moth. Its wings were a minty green, its body was snowy white and its tails were twisted. Henry told us that the tails were twisted because the Luna Moth had just emerged from its chrysalis and was still unfurling its wings. Everyone crowded around, snapping pictures of the Moth.

A bit later we heard a Common Yellowthroat, although it decided not to be seen. Despite our best efforts, it did not show itself.  But when we heard the next beautiful call, we spotted the caller. At the tippity top of a pine tree was an Eastern Towhee. It had a black back, rusty sides, and a white belly. The spotting scopes were brought out and we got the prettiest looks at this handsome bird. A second later we saw another towhee hopping around on the path. But it was accompanied by a Gray Catbird. We watched the two birds hop around before they disappeared into the undergrowth. We completed the trail that circumnavigated the barrens and led us back to our cars, seeing more of the same species spotted earlier.

We then had a break before crossing the road to the plains to the south. We walked through the tall grasses. The field was ideal for Tree Swallows and so of course we saw a few. Tree Swallows’ aerial flight is amazing as they swoop and turn. We then spotted two dark shapes ahead, Eastern Kingbirds fluttering around together. They wove around the grasses chasing each other and then flying away. The river was only a few hundred feet in front of us so we looked for ducks and surprisingly, there were none! But from the trees on the farther bank a twittering was heard and a small flock of Cedar Waxwings flew directly over us as if to say, “Hey people, look at us!” A couple of people saw them in the spotting scope as the posed in a nearby tree. We poked around a bit more but found private property, so we headed back.

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Back to the cars to take a break and drive to Maguire Road, just a few miles away, where we parked and got on a trail through more grassland. Despite an intensive search of a clump of red pines, the smaller birds were not showing themselves. But then a Red-tailed Hawk appeared above the tree line and soared overhead. A few Turkey Vultures were spotted. Suddenly we noticed the Red-tailed’s smaller cousin, the Broad-winged Hawk, as it soared into view and began harassing the Red Tail. For a while the two circled before connecting, then separating, then repeating the process. Over and over. We watched the hawks and the vultures for a while then we headed back to the cars where we hung out for a bit, discussing the sightings of the day. This birding adventure was amazing and well worth the hours and miles invested. I saw 45 species of birds that day and added several to my life list.  It was a day filled with color.  The bright orange of the Baltimore Oriole, the brilliance of the Scarlet Tanager, the lovely blue of the Indigo Bunting, and the brilliant green of the Luna Moth.  No one will soon forget them.