Wildlife watch: buffleheads and loons in Camden Harbor

Camden Harbor is a bustling place in the summertime, when everything from kayaks to windjammers sidle up to its docks, but in the wintertime, it’s an especially great place to go bird watching.

In fact, the harbor is one of 201 locations profiled in the book “Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide,” a guidebook written by a dozen Maine birders and published this past spring by University Press of New England. The book is a handy resource for wildlife lovers, offering multiple birding locations in all 16 counties.

One animal I love to watch in the winter is the common loon, and that’s a species that is very easy to find in Camden Harbor. There they dive for fish, crustaceans and snails, sheltered from the rougher elements of the open sea. However, keep in mind that during the winter, loons appear much different than they do in the summer. Their winter plumage is gray and detailed, but far less flashy than the iconic black and white pattern they sport in the summer.

A common loon in its winter plumage in Camden Harbor.

My experience there: The first creature I spotted in the water of Camden Harbor wasn’t a loon, but a bufflehead — a small, pretty duck with iridescent feathers covering its head. In fact, I saw a whole group of buffleheads — five in total — fishing at the bottom of Megunticook Falls, where Megunticook River spills out into the harbor, tumbling over mounds of seaweed and over the rocky shore.


Megunticook Falls

It was Valentine’s Day, and I was in the midcoast region for work. I’d just gotten done eating lunch, a turkey burger at Sea Dog Brewing Company, and I decided to walk the boardwalk along the harbor to search for birds.

To watch the buffleheads, I found a bare, dry spot on the boardwalk and sat down on the worn wood, happy for the warmth of the sun. From my past experiences with that species, it tends to be shy, so I thought that by sitting I’d seem less threatening. From my seat, I watched as they dove under the waves again and again. The males were the flashiest, with bright iridescent heads, green and purple in the sun, and stark white breasts. The females, on the other hand, were a drab dark dray with a white spot on each cheek. To someone who didn’t know much about bit, they’d appear to be two entirely different species. The males even have bright red feet, while the females have grey feet. But if you look closely, their general shapes are the same, including their bill shape.

A male and female bufflehead.

After watching the buffleheads a while, I got up and walked the boardwalk, photographing herring gulls sunning on a dock and mallard ducks flying by. Both species are extremely common in Maine, so much so that people rarely photograph them, but I think they’re good practice, and mallards are actually quite pretty, the males having a bright green head and neck. And since I don’t know my gulls well at all, there’s always a chance I could snap a photo of a rare gull without realizing it.

Herring gulls

A male mallard

And to my delight, as I walked along the boardwalk, I spotted a loon swimming my way. Sitting down on the wood once more, I watched the bird for quite a while as it preened (straightened and cleaned its feathers). I then spotted another loon, much farther away, but by now, I find I can recognize its general shape from a distance. And weaving through the few boats in the harbor were a few stray buffleheads, their bright white bodies and spots on their heads reflecting the afternoon sun.

How to get there: There are plenty of places to park in downtown Camden within easy walking distance of the water, but since I was already having lunch at Sea Dog Brewing Company, I parked in the parking lot behind the restaurant. From the intersection of Main Street, High Street, Mountain Street and Central Street in downtown Camden, drive south on Main Street 0.2 mile, then turn left onto Commercial Street just after Sea Dog Brewing Co. Drive down Commercial Street about 0.1 mile to the parking area for the restaurant, surrounding galleries and docks. Park there, then walk along the boardwalk above the docks to search for birds in the water.

Aislinn Sarnacki

About Aislinn Sarnacki

Aislinn is a Bangor Daily News reporter for the Outdoors pages, focusing on outdoor recreation and Maine wildlife. Visit her main blog at actoutwithaislinn.bangordailynews.com.