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A rare visitor from the far north

There's no doubt that the sight of an all-white, chicken-sized bird with feathered feet walking on the ground somewhere here on the coast of Maine in the spring would make just about anyone shake their head and blink their eyes in disbelief. For a birder, this would be especially shocking, as the possibilities of what it could be are fairly limited and all highly unusual.

The first thought might be that the bird was an albino of some sort. Perhaps an albino ruffed grouse if it was walking around on the ground like a chicken. Someone else might wonder if it could be a strange animal that strayed from the farm, like a guinea fowl, or something released at a hunting club, like a chukar or pheasant that found itself in an unfamiliar environment.

But then a closer look reveals a round head with a black beak… and those feathered feet.

A sighting like this here in Maine is so odd that anyone, birder or not, would probably snap a photo of it. Luckily, someone did just that on Cliff Island a few weeks ago. The photo eventually found its way into the bird world.

It was a Red Grouse! And there was a recent report that it may have been spotted again in Phippsburg in the last few days.

Like their close relative the rock ptarmigan, red grouse are primarily birds of arctic and subarctic regions of North America, Europe, and Asia. The closest breeding grounds to the coast of Maine are at least 500 miles north in Quebec or Newfoundland. Red grouse sometimes migrate hundreds of miles south of their breeding grounds to overwinter, returning in the spring. In Alaska, thousands of birds have been observed passing through certain areas, and they have even been seen flying past from boats far offshore.

So what does a red grouse do down here in Maine in the spring? The best explanation is that occasionally a bird gets its north and south directions reversed and heads south when it should be heading north.

There are seven or eight previous records of these grouse in Maine. Except for one undocumented report, all other occurrences occurred in April or May. The last occurrence before this spring occurred in May 2000 on Great Chebeague Island.

Interestingly, a ptarmigan was photographed outside Quebec City in April of this year.

In April 2022, someone was surprised to see one of these white birds on the side of the road in southern Massachusetts, so they photographed and videotaped it. A person did the same in northern Vermont in May 2020, and in April 2014, many people were able to see one of these birds in northern New York.

Red grouse are not rare birds in their normal range, but they do not leave this northern range very often. What an amazing bird to visit in Maine, and what a great experience for the lucky few who have seen it!

Jeffrey V. Wells, Ph.D., is a Fellow of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and Vice President for Boreal Conservation at National Audubon. Dr. Wells is one of the nation's leading bird experts and conservation biologists. He is co-author of the groundbreaking Birds of Mainebook and author of the Birder's Conservation Handbook. His grandfather, the late John Chase, was a columnist for the Boothbay Register for many years. Allison Childs Wells, formerly of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, is executive director of the Natural Resources Council of Maine, a nonprofit membership organization that works statewide to protect Maine's wildlife. Both are widely published natural history writers and authors of the popular books Maine's Favorite Birds (Tilbury House) and Birds of Aruba, Bonaire, and Curaçao: A Site and Field Guide (Cornell University Press).

Anna Harden

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