The primary complete information to Maine’s birdlife in some 70 years will get all the pieces proper

“Birds of Maine” is a will of a judge: for a man with a vision, for the brotherhood of ornithologists in Maine, for the amazing bird diversity of this state. Over 600 pages full of historical and scientific observations, beautiful illustrations in color and black and white, and carefully executed maps make the volume itself a sturdy monument like a marble foundation stone.

Cover courtesy Princeton University Press

It is certainly a fitting memorial for its author. Peter Vickery was one of the leading ornithologists in Maine. Although he and his wife Barbara lived in Richmond, Peter worked as an avian ecologist with the Massachusetts Audubon Society (where we first became friends) for over 20 years.

Even so, it had taken root in Maine, and Ralph Palmer’s classic “Maine Birds” became, according to Barbara, “his Bible”. It was written in 1949 and was the standard reference for Maine’s avifauna. Nature does not stand still, however, and as the 20th century passed from one center to the next, the book’s findings became obsolete.

Vickery began collecting the data he would need to update Palmer’s work 20 years ago. It took him seven years to write his first species report. By 2015 he had written 350 types. Then he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

To ensure the completion of his life’s work, Vickery put together a team to help him. It was a who’s who of ornithologists in Maine: Charles D. Duncan, Bill Sheehan, and Jeffrey V. Wells. His friends and co-authors on previous projects, Jan and Elizabeth Pierson, were consultants. Renowned avian writer Scott Weidensaul, with whom Vickery had taught classes at the Hog Island Audubon Center, shared editor-in-chief with Barbara, who had recently retired from a prestigious career at The Nature Conservancy.

Unfortunately, Peter died in 2017, actually on February 28th. But the team finished their book. When it was finished, it comprised 494 species, nearly a hundred more than Palmer’s earlier work had recorded.

Why is Maine’s bird life so diverse? Climate matters as maritime influences give way to continental influences across the state. This also applies to the topography, which produces a multitude of forests and wetlands. “Of course the avifauna reflects this.”

In Maine, many southern birds also reach their northern limit and northern species meet their southern edge. Largely western species cannot go further east than the Atlantic coast, which is also the first stop for European tramps, those lost birds that appear from time to time to abduct bird watchers.

135 of the species in Birds of Maine are so rare that detection is required. Do more birds deviate from their “regular range” today than a century ago? Barbara Vickery speculates that this apparent surge could be due to technologies (binoculars, cameras, cell phones, and the Internet) “that ensure that vagrant species are documented before they go away”.

But over the past 70 years the distribution and populations of many birds have definitely changed significantly. The reasons range from global (e.g. climate change) to local (land use such as forestry and agriculture). All of this is explored in a series of introductory chapters: Distribution of Birds in Maine, Maine Ornithological History, Current Status and Conservation Needs of Maine Birds. If the tracks sound tight, don’t be afraid. An admirably engaged literary style is imparted to science.

The same applies to the species accounts. Many begin with an epigraph, sometimes wistfully: “Once abundant in Maine waters, where are they now?” (Red neck sphalarope); sometimes poetic: “Named after his sweet evening vespers for the setting sun” (Vesper sparrow); occasionally like a quiz question: “This large and conspicuous western corvid is hard to miss in Maine” (Magpie with a black bill).

The accounts are detailed and meaningful and contain data on current and historical status distribution as well as seasonal records. For endangered species, their conservation status is reported both in Maine and around the world. Maps are included if needed, and many reports feature the elegant drawings by Massachusetts-based artist Barry Van Dusen. One of Peter’s final coups was to get the great Swedish bird artist Lars Jonsson to paint a series of watercolors of some of Maine’s legendary birds, starting with the extinct great auk.

One day while we were bird watching with Peter on Scarborough Marsh, we washed up a Shelduck, a bird I knew well from England. It is not on Birds of Maine because it escaped captivity and did not fly across the ocean. Another bird not found in the book is the red wing, one of which caused a stir last month when it appeared at Capisic Pond in Portland. A redstart had never been reported in Maine until this winter. The enumeration for a future Maine bird rating has already begun.

Vickery et al. have set a very high standard for its compilers to meet.

Thomas Urquhart is a former executive director of the Maine Audubon Society. His new book, Up for Grabs, A History of Maine’s Public Reserves, will be published in May.

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