The Schoodic Institute is an independent 501c3 nonprofit organization committed to guiding present and future generations to greater understanding and appreciation for nature by providing research and learning opportunities through its outstanding Acadia National Park setting, unique coastal Maine facilities, and innovative partnership programs. I was the beneficiary of one such program in June 2015 when the Schoodic Institute’s Bird Ecology Program offered a birding tour in partnership with the Maine Birding Trail. It was designed with Bob Duchesne, former Maine State legislator, natural history tour operator, and author of “The Maine Birding Trail”. It included 4 nights lodging, 5 days of field trips in the northern forest during the height of songbird singing as well as the raucous seabird breeding islands along the Downeast coast. It was fabulous!!
Although I had gone to school in Boston, I was not a birder then and missed out on such great birding areas as the Mt. Auburn Cemetery, Cape Cod and the forests and coasts of Maine. My daughter lives in Boston and so there is always a good reason to visit this formerly neglected area. Previous trips had taken me to some of those missed spots, but I never made it to Maine. The Mountains to Sea program seemed like the perfect combination of highlight areas but was not long enough so I added 4 more days on my own so I could include Machias Seal Island with its breeding colonies and both Scarborough Marsh and the Kennebunk Plains. I had researched these areas and was excited at the chance to see and hopefully photograph many Eastern birds some of which would be new ABA Life birds. Ending the trip with a visit to see my daughter would be icing on a very rich cake.
Oh yeah…a lobster or two would also be nice and the folks at Schoodic must have known this as a highlight was a lobster dinner for the group.
First a note of praise. Bob Duchesne and Seth Benz, the Schoodic leader, were fantastic and the whole program was extremely well done. I believe the program is being offered again this year and I highly recommend it, especially if you have not birded Maine before.
The program started in Baxter State Park and I will start with a disclosure of disappointment. One of the key target birds was Spruce Grouse – a can’t miss specialty – but we missed it. Bob and Seth worked so hard and it just did not happen. Fortunately I later saw one at Bunchgrass Meadows with Khanh Tran in Washington and got a lovely picture but the miss was made up for with other great birds including many warblers not seen in Washington except as rarities. These included:
Black Throated Green Warbler
Bay Breasted Warbler
Chestnut Sided Warbler
Magnolia Warbler (Seen once in Washington at the Gingko SP Ranger Station with George Pagos, Mike Clarke and Kevin Black)
Palm Warbler (seen often in Washington but never in breeding plumage)
Northern Parula (also seen as a rarity in Washington at Walla Walla Fort SP)
None of these were life birds as I had seen them in other Eastern locations or in Texas, but many had not been seen for many years, had not been photographed and were beautiful in any event. I was particularly happy to see the Chestnut Sided Warbler and Ovenbird as they had been chased and missed (more than once) in Washington.
Bob Duchesne was particularly good at finding woodpeckers and we referred to him as the “Woodpecker Whisperer or Conjurer”. Tromping through marsh and woods he was able to deliver stunning views of both Three Toed and Black Backed Woodpeckers for the group. Although I had of course seen both in Washington, many of the others in the group had never seen either before. You can never see too many of these beauties.
Black Backed Woodpecker
Three Toed Woodpecker
Other “special” birds seen in the first part of the trip included Barred Owl, Eastern Phoebe, Bobolink, Boreal Chickadee, Black Duck, Slate Colored form of the Dark Eyed Junco, Olive Sided, Great Crested and Yellow Bellied Flycatchers in addition to many of the more common or familiar birds seen elsewhere including Washington. Some photos:
Boreal Chickadee (seen in Washington but this was my best ever photo)
Yellow Bellied Flycatcher (a first ever picture)
Great Crested Flycatcher
Barred Owl (seen in Washington and elsewhere but never this soaking wet!!)
Black Duck (again seen elsewhere but somehow my first photo)
Eastern Phoebe (I actually saw and photographed this species in Rosalia, WA in 2012)
Not everything seen at the Park was a bird. We also had great looks at moose, deer and minks and a very brief sighting of a distant black bear.
Cow Moose and Calf
We then left the Mountains having seen 86 species and went to the Sea with a planned boat trip to see some of the special alcids etc. that was a major reason for many to participate in this program. BUT we ran into some trouble. We were scheduled to go out on a large boat but it had mechanical problems. Seth performed a miracle and found a smaller boat that would go out for our group only to visit the waters around Petit Manan Island.
I was very pleased with the trip even though some of our views were more distant than I would have liked. But we saw all of the expected birds except for one – Great Shearwater – again a “never miss” that was missed – perhaps because our smaller boat did not go as far ashore as we might otherwise have done. (What was most disappointing about this miss was that not only would the Great Shearwater been a life bird for me, while I was in Maine this species was seen as a major rarity on one of the Westport Pelagic trips – so a double downer.) Eighteen more state birds were added on this last day with the program – a very respectable total of 104 species and our birds that day included Razorbill, Atlantic Puffin, Arctic Tern, Common Eider, Great Black Backed Gull and Black Guillemot among others.
After our day at Sea we had a farewell dinner and bid each other adieu. I won’t list names here, but it was a terrific group and all enjoyed the company as well as the leadership and of course the birds. Again, I would highly recommend the program to anyone. But now I was on my own and my first stop was Cutler, Maine a tiny little harbor where I would board a small boat and visit Machias Seal Island – claimed by both the U.S. and Canada and home to breeding colonies of some of the best birds we had seen the day before. BUT if the tides and seas cooperated we would be able to go ashore and get up close and personal views.
There was a bit of a panic as the group assembled at the dock as Captain Andy of Bold Coast Charters, our captain, was not to be seen. Fortunately he arrived a few minutes later. The Barbara Frost was ready to motor and Andy said that water conditions looked perfect.
I have forgotten how far offshore we traveled but we saw some great birds along the way and arrived uneventfully and disembarked. There is an operating lighthouse on the island that is “personned” by the Canadians. Otherwise it is minimal housing and many blinds for visitors.
As we arrived we were welcomed by birds in the sea and in the air and fittingly by an Arctic Tern perched on the sign (bilingual) that was right at the landing.
The procedure is for the group to gather at a welcoming station, get a short introduction and then be escorted two at a time to one of the blinds. The only “problem” is that while you can stay at your blind as long as you like, once you leave you cannot return and you cannot go to another blind. This sounded like a major infringement on our freedom and a limitation on viewing opportunities – so of course we blamed the Canadians. There was no need to worry however as all of the blinds were in prime territory with sufficient viewing area to see all of the birds and as you will see in the pictures below, they were indeed very up close and personal.
I am not going to include every photo and there were many – please enjoy this selection. Included will be photos of Arctic Tern, Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Northern Gannet, Black Guillemot, Common Murre and Common Eider all of which wither breed on the Island or are found in the waters close at hand.
Arctic Tern Juvenile
Common Eider Pair
Common Eider Male
Atlantic Puffin and Razorbills
As is evident from the photos the birds were often VERY close to us in the blinds and they were also quite oblivious to our presence. At times they were literally just a few feet away. And when we were out of the blinds both Arctic and Common Terns zipped overhead often joined by the alcids returning to their nesting or resting areas.
The visit to Machias Seal Island ranks right near the top of all birding experiences in my life and I cannot recommend anything higher. It was especially great for photography but it would be impossible not to be exhilarated by the experience. The Northern Gannet was the only new state bird for the day – but including the day before I added three new Life Birds: Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill and Black Guillemot. On to southern Maine to continue my trip.
It took the rest of the day to get to my next stop – a pleasant cabin just south of Scarborough Marsh in ____________ Maine. The next morning I visited the marsh and also the Maine Audubon Center at Gilsland Farms and Popham Beach. Scarborough Marsh is another not to be missed spot with many waders, shorebirds and both Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows.
Little Blue Heron
The Audubon Center at Gilsland Farm is beautiful. I had stopped by on my way to Scarborough the night before and learned that a Little Egret had been seen there lately. This is another “mega” for North America – a wader similar to our Snowy Egret but breeding in temperate and tropical areas in Africa, Asia, Europe and Australia. I had seen it first at the Mai Po Nature Center outside of Hong Kong in 1979, later in Australia and then in Kenya and most recently in South Africa in 2014. Finding it in North America was “unheard of” yet there it was and I was fortunate to get a glimpse of it at one of the ponds at the Center. Definitely an ABA Lifer.
Little Egret at Distance at Gilsland Farm
Little Egret Much Closer in South Africa (October 2014)
Next stop was Popham Beach where I was able to get wonderful looks at and photos of both Least Tern and Piping Plover – a delicate little plover similar to the endangered Snowy Plovers found at Grayland Beach in Washington.
Least Tern on Nest
By day’s end the trip list was up to 122 species and both the Little Egret and Nelson’s Sparrow were new ABA Life birds. I had a lobster roll for dinner and slept well in the little cabin with a light rain falling that night.
The next morning I headed off to Kennebunk Plains, a very different habitat – sandy plain with very different birds including my main target – Upland Sandpiper. Birding with Dennis Paulson at the Oyhut Game Range in 2013 we had a very clear but brief sighting of an Upland Sandpiper in Washington where it is extremely uncommon. It flew directly overhead. I had also seen one that year at the airport in Dallas but no photo and I really wanted a good look at this long necked shorebird. I was the only person at the plains and I walked around the loop 2.5 times before finally hearing the Sandpiper’s distinctive call and then finally finding one out in the open on the road.
Other good birds found here were Prairie Warbler, Brown Thrasher, Eastern Meadowlark, Field, Vesper and Grasshopper Sparrows, Bobolink and Eastern Towhee.
I returned to Scarborough with the trip list now standing at 132 species and I had added many new photos to my collection. I picked up a few more trip birds including an Eastern Bluebird posing at my cabin as the rain returned that evening.
It was now time to head to Boston but there would be a couple more stops along the way including a try for Roseate Tern at Pine Point Beach and then on to Capisic Pond. The tides were not right at Pine Point but after a solid hour of searching I was finally able to spy a distant Roseate Tern – another ABA Life Bird. Too far for a photo – lucky to find it at all – but disappointing as I had hoped for one close up. At Capisic Pond I had both Virginia and Sora Rails and both Orchard and Baltimore Orioles. A last stop at Kennebunkport added a beautiful Green Heron, Tufted Titmouse and Black and White Warbler concluding the trip at 147 species seen in the state – far beyond expectations, but better yet because of the quality and the enjoyment at seeing them.
I hope to get back to Maine again – not to add birds to some list but just to revisit some great spots and see some of these birds again. And of course another lobster or two would be welcome as well.