WINTER HARBOR — One recent morning, a black-capped chickadee’s high-pitched “chicka-dee-dee-dee” and a downy woodpecker’s descending whinny are heard amid the roar of surf crashing against granite boulders in Arey Cove. A bufflehead and eiders ride the breakers rolling in from the Gulf of Maine and striking the western shore of Acadia National Park’s Schoodic District.
In just an hour, those were among the 10 species of birds that Seth Benz saw and heard during a mile-long walk at Schoodic Point. One would think the frigid sea — 47 degrees F this day — frequent freezing air temperature and bitter-cold winds would drive these feathered creatures farther south to spend the winter. Plenty do, but some stay put and weather Maine winters while others touch down to feed and refuel before continuing south. As a result, the Downeast region has an ever-changing kaleidoscope of avian residents and visitors.
Schoodic Institute’s Bird Ecology Director Seth Benz watches the eiders, whose preferred food are blue mussels, but they consume clams, crabs and sea urchins too. Diving in shoal waters, the seaducks swallow the mussels whole, grinding down the shells with their powerful gizzard. At dusk, they usually move offshore to islands to overnight and avoid predators such as bald eagles and great black-backed gulls.
“Eiders have superior down feathers,” Benz explained, referring to the sea ducks’ cold-hardiness. “Their [legs’] veins and arteries run side by side, so it helps them preserve heat.”
Driving nearly two hours from Belfast, where he travels from to work at Schoodic Institute, Benz never tires of describing the unique traits and behavior of eiders, chickadees and wealth of other birds inhabiting coastal Maine from late December through March. The bird ecologist and educator seizes opportunities to share his knowledge and instill the same sense of wonder that he experienced as a boy hearing a gray catbird’s soft mew and beholding a rough-legged hawk whose head-to-toe feathers help it survive in the Arctic. After over a half century of observing birds, he still thrills at learning new things about winged creatures in Maine and beyond. In the field, his fresh curiosity and enthusiasm are contagious.
As Maine’s long winter deepens, Benz’s advice is “Embrace the weather” as his email’s automated sign-off
encourages. In that spirit, the bird ecologist will offer “Winter Birds of Acadia National Park” Thursday-Sunday, Feb. 3-6. Participants can stay over the three days in private guestrooms in apartments on the nonprofit Schoodic Institute’s campus but also have the option of traveling daily to Schoodic Point. Both options include all meals, materials and transportation. The four-day program coincides with the institute’s 8th Annual Acadia Winter Festival, which runs Friday-Sunday, Feb. 4-6, and features a wide range of activities from “Snow journaling” with Maine Master Naturalist and author Karen Zimmermann to a “Moss and Lichen Walk” with the institute’s forest ecologist, Peter Nelson.
In the inaugural “Winter Birds of Acadia National Park,” Benz says participants don’t have to venture far on foot to see some of the 227 species of birds known to inhabit or visit the Schoodic Peninsula. He recently spotted snowy owls, which fly down from the high Arctic tundra, on Schoodic Island. Northern gannets, which dive like torpedoes into the water and boast a spear-like bill to catch fish, have put in an appearance. The seabirds winter at sea and many nest in summer on Bonaventure Island off Quebec’s Gaspe Peninsula. Harlequin ducks, whose vibrant, theatrical plumage makes them easy to identify, have been sighted too. The sea ducks’ small stature doesn’t diminish their ability to swim and forage in rough water.
“They like this crashing surf along these rocky edges,” related Benz, scanning the waves smashing against the sprawling pink granite headland at Schoodic Point. Mount Desert Island rises to the south. “These birds just thrive in this roiling water.”
As part of his upcoming program, Benz also takes participants across Frenchman Bay to MDI for birdwatching along Acadia National Park’s Ocean Drive and to the Southwest Harbor village of Seawall’s rugged shoreline and woods. He knows well the island and its avian hotspots, having served as Acadia’s lead field interpreter for over a year and having volunteered for years in its annual Cadillac Mountain Hawk Watch from mid-August through mid-October.
In its 27th year, the Hawk Watch is part of a collaborative partnership with the Hawk Migration Association of North America. Across the continent, volunteers at more than 300 sites count, identify and record migratory raptors such as hawks, osprey eagles and falcons daily during five-hour stints.
“Eagle numbers are going up across the continent,” Benz says, while the number of migrating “American kestrels [North America’s littlest falcon] and Cooper’s hawks are going down.”
Hawks, actually, have occupied much of Benz’s time and thought over the years. After earning a bachelor’s degree in environmental studies from East Stroudsburg University of Pennsylvania, he worked as assistant to the curator at Pennsylvania’s Hawk Mountain Sanctuary for seven and a half years. He went on to direct National Audubon Society/Maine’s seasonal Hog Island Audubon Camp and Education Center off Bremen, while pursuing a master’s degree in science in environmental education from Lesley College in Cambridge, Mass., for nearly a decade. Birds and environmental education have been the constants — the common thread — running through all his jobs through the decades. The lines blurred between life and work long ago.
In his role at Schoodic Institute, Benz strives first to make the public aware of birds and pique their interest. He is not one to tick off stats and facts and turn some people off. That way, people progress at their own pace to caring and becoming concerned about the avian world and the environment. The institute’s annual Sea Watch, during which volunteers count thousands flying past Schoodic Point in autumn, is among many activities offered to involve and empower people of all ages to become citizen scientists.
Most of all, though, he sees himself as a catalyst for creating memorable moments. Like hearing the dawn chorus of songbirds marking their territory.
“I like to think of birds bringing the sun up,” he muses. “I like to think they sing the sun up each day.”
To sign up for Schoodic Institute’s “Winter Birds of Acadia National Park,” a new workshop featuring “Ornitherapy author Holly Merker and other 2022 activities and outings, visit schoodicinstitute.org/science/bird-ecology-research/birding-tours-2/. To contact Seth Benz, email him at [email protected].