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Birding Hot Spots

07/21/04 12:00AM By Ted Levin
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(Host) Commentator Ted Levin says that late summer and fall is a great time to visit some of North America's birding hot spots, as much for spectacular scenery as for birds.

(Levin) Churchill, Manitoba is a mosaic of wet tundra, evergreen forest, old sand beaches, lakes, ponds, eskers, mudflats, and the rocky shores of Hudson Bay. Great numbers of waterfowl and shorebirds nest there, including more than 50,000 pairs of snow geese. Churchill was the first place I saw nesting golden plover, whimbrel, and semi-palmated plovers. And it was in Churchill that I saw three pair of nesting Ross's gulls, one of the rarest breeding birds on the continent. Churchill also has polar bears, beluga whales, and lavish blooms of tundra flowers.

Acadia National Park, on Maine's Mount Desert Island, is the warbler capital of the United States, supporting 21 breeding species. And from the cliffs above Frenchman's Bay on the east side of the island, you can watch black guillemots and common eiders dive in the surf. But my favorite birding spot on the Maine coast is Machias Seal Island, a 25-acre jumble of rocks at the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, where hundreds of Atlantic puffins, razorbills, and Arctic terns nest along with dozens of common murres.

Bonaventure Island lies two miles offshore, near the tip of Quebec's Gaspe Bay Peninsula. It is home to 50,000 gannets, the largest colony in North America. These spectacular seabirds are white with black-tipped wings that stretch nearly six feet across. To catch fish, they plunge into frigid water from heights up to 100 feet. Atlantic puffins, razorbills, Leach's storm petrels, harlequin ducks and other birds are also found on Bonaventure.

The rocky islands in the Bering Sea or along the Aleutian chain are good birding spots. I visited Round Island to photograph walruses and found a vast colony of more than 250,000 seabirds nesting on sheer cliffs mostly common murres and black-legged kittiwakes. Horned and tufted puffins and three species of auklets posed on rocky outcrops, oblivious to my camera less than ten feet away. A red fox foraged near the ledges, and thousands of birds rose in a screaming mob.

Fire Island is a barrier island off the south shore of Long Island. At one point it narrows to less than a quarter-mile across, where you can see both the Atlantic and the Great South Bay. And in late September, thousands of migrating birds pass over the western tip - shorebirds, robins, flickers, warblers, cormorants, and hawks. Cape May, New Jersey, may attract more birds, but Fire Island attracts fewer people. One day I counted more than 5,000 hawks, including 300 merlins, among thousands of plump flickers and small songbirds as tens of thousands of monarch butterflies fluttered by.

So remember to pack binoculars and a field guide on your next vacation. And if you're in unfamiliar territory, check with the local Audubon chapter, science museum or college biology department for directions.

This is Ted Levin from Coyote Hollow in Thetford Center.

Ted Levin is a writer and photographer, and winner of 2004 Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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