A red-breasted merganzer patrols the coastal waters of Maine. Credit: Courtesy of Bob Duchesne

Winter birding in Maine is surprisingly simple. There are basically only three things you can do.

The first is backyard birding — sitting by the hearth with a cup of coffee, watching the bird feeders. Maine’s common winter birds can be quite entertaining. Chickadees, nuthatches and titmice lead the way. Downy and hairy woodpeckers visit regularly. The mix of small finches varies every year, but American goldfinches, pine siskins and common redpolls typically turn up somewhere. And squirrels, of course.

The second alternative is backroad birding. Every winter is different, but if it’s a good year, the small finches may be joined by big finches. Last year saw an abundance of white-winged and red crossbills, evening and pine grosbeaks, and purple finches across northern Maine.

A variation on backroad birding substitutes field for forest. I don’t do it often, but it’s always worthwhile. Big flocks of snow buntings can be found in blueberry barrens, hayfields and fallow farmland. A few horned larks and Lapland longspurs may lurk among them. Red-tailed hawks patrol open areas, and large fields are good places to look for rough-legged hawks. Rough-legged hawks are Canadian breeders, but a few irrupt into Maine every winter.

The third alternative takes advantage of Maine’s rugged coast. With all its nooks and crannies, the shoreline offers seabirds a respite from the tempestuous North Atlantic. I have a strong affection for the Down East coast, but I grudgingly admit, the coast of southern Maine is equally good in winter. I look forward to at least one weekend getaway in Ogunquit, just to revisit all the best places.

If I were to organize a tour of the southern Maine coast in winter, I’d probably start in York at “The Nubble.” This classic lighthouse sits on an island just a stone’s throw away from Sohier Park on Cape Neddick. This vantage point provides sweeping views of the coast in all directions, without even leaving the car. Eiders and scoters are generally numerous, and it’s possible to spy a few harlequin and long-tailed ducks. More than once, I’ve spotted a snowy owl on the island.

Perkins Cove in Ogunquit is another destination that can be birded from the parking lot. It is also the southern end of Marginal Way — a paved path that follows the shoreline for a mile to Ogunquit Beach. I consider this to be the top spot for winter birding in the entire state. Every sea duck in Maine can be seen along its length, and I can usually spot a few purple sandpipers, too.

Wells Harbor is ridiculously easy. The parking lot, reached via Atlantic Avenue from Wells Beach, is surrounded on three sides by water. Both the harbor and the channel access tend to be really birdy, especially at higher tides. Common eiders, long-tailed ducks, red-breasted mergansers and common loons are often so close that they are recognizable even through a frosty windshield.

Biddeford Pool is fun. Birding from the car is appropriate on frigid days. The best drive-up spot is along Ocean Avenue, at the eastern tip of the peninsula. Parking anywhere in the area is a vexing problem, but there is not much competition for the few available spots in the dead of winter. If it’s not too snowy or icy, a walk through Maine Audubon’s East Point Sanctuary can be quite entertaining.

There’s no lack of winter birding sites to visit in the Portland area. Topping the list: Pine Point in Scarborough. A municipal parking lot overlooks the Nonesuch River as it wends its way out of Scarborough Marsh, through a channel that connects Maine’s largest estuary to the sea. It’s a food-rich mixing zone of tidal and fresh water, which draws in hundreds of ducks and foraging seabirds.

Kettle Cove in Cape Elizabeth lies at the east end of Crescent Beach. You will likely see birds from the parking lot, but you would do better to get out of the car and walk toward the water for a better view.

Dyer Point in Cape Elizabeth lies just beyond Two Lights State Park. In summer, the Lobster Shack Restaurant on the headland keeps the parking lot full to overflowing. The restaurant is closed in winter, but it’s still a popular place. You will have to exit the car to scan for seabirds, but it’s a short walk to the top of the rocks for an awesome ocean view and a predictable number of eiders, scoters and harlequin ducks.

Birders know that Maine winters are never boring.

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Bob Duchesne, Good Birding

Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at duchesne@midmaine.com.