At over 3,000 acres, Scarborough Marsh is the largest contiguous salt marsh in Maine, and also one of the most famous and productive birding destinations. Thousands of birders visit Scarborough Marsh each year—from Dunstan’s Landing to the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center to Pine Point and elsewhere—and find some incredible birds. This summer we’re celebrating the 50th anniversary of the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center and showcasing its unique and important habitat.
This blog post isn’t necessarily the rare birds that call Scarborough Marsh their home. Those birds are incredibly important—the Nelson’s and Saltmarsh Sparrows, the Roseate Terns that feed along the river at Pine Point, and many others—but they’re not the focus for today. Today we’re talking about birds that aren’t usually found in Maine at all but that have been found at Scarborough Marsh.
It’s impossible to pack all of Scarborough Marsh’s rarities into one list, but we’re going to try anyway (and cheat a little bit). Take these rankings with a grain of salt— each of these birds was a thrilling find and none are really “better” than any other, but we’ll try to include the most unusual sightings at the top. So, here are the Top Ten Rare Birds from Scarborough Marsh.
- Tricolored Heron
Any summer visitor to Scarborough Marsh knows that it’s a haven for herons and egrets. The most common species are Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, and Snowy Egret, though others show up as well. The Tricolored Heron is typically confined to southern New England and down through the southern Atlantic and Gulf coasts, but one or two typically show up every year at the Marsh, by far the most likely place in Maine to see them. One (or more) Tricoloreds have mated with local Snowy Egrets, producing conspicuous hybrid offspring that can be seen
- Hudsonian Godwit
Scarborough Marsh is also an important stopover point for thousands of shorebirds moving between breeding grounds in the tundra and wintering grounds down south. Several species are common in migration, such as Least and Semipalmated Sandpipers, but occasionally a rarity turns up too. Hudsonian Godwits are a relatively large and long-billed shorebird with a breeding range restricted to just a handful of spots in Alaska, Nunavut, and along the Hudson Bay (where their name comes from). They are rare but regular visitors to Scarborough Marsh, especially during fall.
- Storm-blown birds: Gull-billed Tern, Black Skimmer, and others
Once a hurricane or other big storm passes safely overhead, birders get excited to head to the coasts. Often, southern birds are pushed far out of range after being caught up or avoiding the storm. The beaches at Pine Point are a great place to look for these waifs as they gather themselves before heading back south. Rare-in-Maine birds like Gull-billed Tern and Black Skimmer have been spotted.
- Flashy Waders: Black-necked Stilt and American Avocet
Among the rare shorebirds that are occasionally seen at Scarborough Marsh are two of the country’s flashiest: the Black-necked Stilt and the American Avocet. Large, long-legged, and boldly-patterned in black and white, these two stunners are easy to pick out among the other mostly-brown shorebirds. Both birds typically show up in summer, when they may accidentally overshoot their typical breeding range along the southern Atlantic coast.
- Little Egret
Of all the rare waders to show up at Scarborough Marsh, the most unusual might be the Little Egret (pictured above). Native to Europe and Africa, Little Egrets occasionally and accidentally show up across the pond, and then typically adapt to living with closely-related Snowy Egrets, living a parallel life in the New World. One or more Little Egrets have been appearing at the Marsh each year since 2011—after first being spotted on a Maine Audubon bird walk—and are likely breeding nearby with Snowy Egrets. Look for the Little Egret in summer by catching a glimpse of its very long head plumes, but be careful to distinguish from the lookalike Snowy.
Perhaps the most interesting rare-but-regular wandering shorebird showing up at Scarborough Marsh is the Ruff. A long-distance migrant between Africa and the tundra of Europe and Asia, vagrant Ruffs occasionally show up all over North America, typically at marshes and other shorebird hotspots. They’ve shown up at Scarborough Marsh more than a dozen times, sometimes even males in dazzling breeding plumage, which varies from deep red and black to a large scarf of fluffy white or red feathers.
- Northern Wheatear
Scarborough Marsh is more than just wetlands, it’s also important open-country habitat. In winter, the grassy expanse of the marsh provides one of the best opportunities in the state to see birds like Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, and Lapland Longspur. Sometimes there are even rarer visitors, like Northern Wheatear. A summer denizen of tundra and rocky habitats in Alaska and far northern Canada, these small songbirds occasionally stray south, and often look for habitats that resemble home. There are several records from Scarborough Marsh, mostly in fall.
- Eskimo Curlew and Long-billed Curlew
These two species of streak brown shorebirds were some of Scarborough Marsh’s most amazing visitors. Let’s tackle the Long-billed first. The name barely does it justice: this bird’s thin beak is among the longest of any shorebird at more than 8 inches. They breed in the grasslands of the American West, but occasionally stray during migration, and have shown up at Scarborough Marsh a handful of times – the last being in 1939. Eskimo Curlew is a shorter, stockier cousin of the Long-billed, but with a sadder history. Once fairly regular in Maine during migration, the bird was at one time one of the most numerous shorebirds in the country. But rampant hunting and habitat loss caused their numbers to quickly dwindle, and the last sighting anywhere was in 1963.
Honorable Mentions: Maine’s only nesting record of Wilson’s Phalarope was at Scarborough Marsh in 2002. The only record of Steller’s Eider in Maine was shot at Pine Point in 1926. Two Fulvous Whistling-Ducks were seen at the Marsh in 1972. Maine’s first ever Bar-tailed Godwit was seen at Pine Point in 1978. The state’s first Chestnut-collared Longspur was seen among Horned Larks at the Marsh in 1993.
- Golden Plovers: European Golden-Plover and Pacific Golden-Plover
The gold medal goes to two golden-plovers. Two species of these robust Pluvialis shorebirds—Black-bellied Plover and American Golden-Plover—are common migrants through the Marsh in spring and fall, but some real rarities have joined them. Maine’s first and only record of the West Coast migrant Pacific Golden-Plover was spotted in 1911. Most exciting of all, the nation’s first Lower 48 record of European Golden-Plover, which as its name implies typically haunts the coast on the other side of the ocean, was spotted in October 2008.
We can’t wait to see what great birds turn up in the next 50 year of Scarborough Marsh and beyond!