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A Birder's Guide to Maine

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SOUTHERN MAINE

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The area we refer to as southern Maine stretches from Kittery north to Portland and west to the New Hampshire border. Few other regions in Maine include as great a variety of landscapes and habitats as this region does. The shoreline varies from barrier beaches and salt marshes to rocky coves and headlands and generally is low-lying, gently sloping, and at least by Maine standards, relatively straight. Inland the topography is low and flat, with 692-foot Mt. Agamenticus being the highest point of land. Distinctive habitats in the region include the southern deciduous forests of the Berwick-Eliot-York area (where several tree and shrub species reach the northern extremes of their ranges), the 1,000-plus-acre Saco Heath in Saco, and the extensive grasslands of the Kennebunk Plains in Kennebunk.

Whatever the season, you can find some excellent birding in southern Maine. Some of the sites we mention—such as the Kennebunk Plains, where you can find nesting Grasshopper Sparrows and Upland Sandpipers, or the Cliff House in Ogunquit, where you can find wintering Harlequin Ducks—offer unusual birding opportunities during a specific season. Far more sites, however, offer interesting possibilities at any time of year. Seasonal highlights include an excellent variety of migrating hawks, shorebirds, and landbirds (particularly warblers), winter waterbirds, and breeding wading birds and landbirds. Among Maine’s unusual or locally distributed breeding species that occur in this region are Piping Plover, Upland Sandpiper, Roseate and Least terns, Horned Lark, Blue-winged, Prairie, and Palm warblers, Louisiana Waterthrush, and Vesper, Grasshopper, Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed, Nelson’s Sharp-tailed, and Seaside sparrows (see Appendix B for information on the taxonomic split of the two salt-marsh sparrows).

 

WESTERN MOUNTAINS & LAKES REGION

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Maine’s western mountains and lakes region extends from the Kennebec River on the east to the New Hampshire border on the west and from Oxford County north into southern Somerset County. This is a distinctive and delightful area, where the pine-oak forests of southern Maine blend into mixed hardwood and spruce-fir forests and where the low hills and many lakes and ponds of the Kennebec Valley gradually give way to the steeper and more rugged contours of the western mountains. The last include the Katahdin group and the Boundary, White, and Longfellow mountains.

Birders who have not explored this region may be surprised to discover how much good birding it has to offer. The highlight is the breeding season, when you can find a good cross section of wetland-associated breeders in the lowlands and boreal breeders at higher elevations. And oftentimes the lowland and high-elevation sites are not all that far apart. You can also find many of Maine’s more unusual or locally distributed breeding species here, including Least Bittern, Common Moorhen, Black Tern, Blue-gray Gnatcatcher, and Yellow-throated Vireo. Fall migration brings waterfowl and even, at some sites, shorebirds. Winter birding is usually far less interesting, but depending on the cone crop and other whims of nature, you can get excellent flights of Bohemian Waxwings, Northern Shrikes, Red and White-winged crossbills, and Pine and Evening grosbeaks.

 

MIDCOAST MAINE

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Midcoast Maine stretches from Casco Bay north and east to the mouth of the Penobscot River near Bucksport. This extensive and varied coastline is characterized by a series of long, narrow peninsulas separated by equally long, narrow bays—the drowned river valleys left behind by the rise of sea level after the last ice age. In many ways this is a transitional area of Maine’s coastline. At the mouth of the Kennebec River in Bath, the sand beaches and salt marshes so characteristic of southern Maine give way to rocky headlands, and spruces and firs begin to replace the White Pines and hardwoods. Offshore are a myriad of islands, many of them small and close to shore, others lying more than 20 miles out to sea. Several rivers flow through the region, and their tidal estuaries are rich in marine and bird life.

The birding in midcoast Maine is delightfully diverse. You won’t find any obvious specialties here that you can’t find elsewhere in Maine, but you will find a broad mix of birds. The peninsulas, for example, are excellent spots to look for seabirds, waterfowl, and windblown vagrants year-round and for a good mix of hawks and landbirds on spring and fall migration. Small numbers of Piping Plovers and Least Terns nest along the largest sand beaches; Common Eiders, Laughing Culls, Common, Arctic, and Roseate terns, and Black Guillemots nest on many islands; and Atlantic Puffins and Razorbills nest on Eastern Egg Rock and Matinicus Rock. Bald Eagles seem to be increasingly numerous each year, nesting as far south as Casco Bay now and occurring in substantial numbers around Merry-meeting Bay from early fall through winter. Nesting landbirds are largely similar to those in southern Maine—which means that boreal species are essentially absent.

 

MOUNT DESERT REGION

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The narrow coastal corridor bounded on the west by Penobscot Bay and on the east by Frenchman Bay is one of Maine’s smallest yet most distinctive natural areas: the Mount Desert region. Even in a state that has long been famous for its beautiful and varied landscapes, this area is exceptional. Here you will find a unique mix of mountains, sea, and domed granitic islands—a combination that occurs nowhere else along the Maine coast. The islands are larger and more numerous than farther south, the bays are broader, and the water is colder (which means you will encounter more fog). Almost everywhere you look is evidence of glacial scouring, from kettle-hole ponds to U-shaped valleys and huge erratic boulders. The topography—unusually hilly for the Maine coast—includes Cadillac Mountain, at 1,530 feet the highest point on the eastern United States seaboard.

Not surprisingly, the birding in this region is also remarkably varied. Of the nearly 420 species of birds that have been recorded in Maine, at least 320 have been seen just on Mount Desert Island. Highlights include boreal landbirds and an excellent variety of waterbirds year-round, nesting Peregrine Falcons and at least 21 species of nesting warblers, good numbers of migrant landbirds in spring and fall, the highest concentration of wintering Harlequin Ducks in eastern North America, and the opportunity to do some true pelagic birding (primarily between mid-June and late September). The region is also of interest as a contact zone for many northern and southern bird species.

 

CENTRAL MAINE

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The area we refer to as central Maine includes Penobscot County and much of Piscataquis County. This is a rugged and beautiful portion of Maine, traversed by the Penobscot River and characterized by numerous lakes and ponds, mature hardwoods and often impenetrable spruce-fir woods, and several mountains. The focal point of the area is Baxter State Park, a 200,000-acre wilderness that is widely recognized as one of the most spectacular natural areas in the eastern United States. Included within the park are 46 peaks and ridges and the highest point in Maine—5,267-foot-high Katahdin. Bangor and, to its north, Orono are the only sizable population centers. Much of this part of Maine consists of privately owned (but usually publicly accessible) pulp and paper-company land.

Birders, particularly those who relish the idea of access to some true wilderness, will find much to draw them to central Maine. The highlight is the breeding season, especially June and early July, when you can find a rich assortment of boreal nesters. Spruce Grouse, Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers (both rare), Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Bicknell’s (formerly Gray-cheeked) Thrush, Philadelphia Vireo, 22 species of warblers, Lincoln’s and Fox sparrows, Dark-eyed Junco, and Pine Siskin all breed throughout this area. Additionally, on the Tableland in Baxter State Park you can find one of New England’s most restricted breeding species—American Pipit, which nests at only one other site in the eastern United States. Spring and fall migration bring a good variety of waterfowl to central Maine as well as many landbirds, and winter brings the chance of finding specialties such as Barrow’s Goldeneyes (regular in small numbers on the Penobscot River between Bangor and Orono) and northern owls and finches.

 

WASHINGTON COUNTY

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Washington County, or the Sunrise County as it is often called, is the easternmost county in the United States. It is also a remarkably lovely spot and the most unspoiled area along the Maine coast. The deeply indented and rocky coastline is marked by four large bays and headlands, and the landscape is distinguished by extensive spruce-fir forests, peatlands, and blueberry barrens (Washington County is the world’s largest producer of wild blueberries). The tides, ranging from about 16 to 26 feet, are among the highest in the continental United States, and they provide a rich feast for the many shorebirds and seabirds that feed along these shores.

The birding in Washington County can be good at any time of year, and especially during the breeding season, it can be quite varied. The highlights are migrating shorebirds (primarily between mid-July and late September); gulls (year-round, but especially in August and September); nesting peatland, blueberry barren, and spruce-fir specialties; and on the offshore islands, nesting seabirds. An added delight is that Washington County also offers a bit of solitude. Whether you are walking across the Lubec Flats in search of shorebirds, scanning for gulls off Eastport, or hiking along the shore on Great Wass Island, chances are quite good that you will be alone. Few Maine birders, and even fewer out-of-state birders, spend much time here.

 

AROOSTOOK COUNTY

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With an area of nearly 6,500 square miles, Aroostook County is the largest county east of the Mississippi River—and one of the most sparsely populated. Although many people think of “The County,” as it is called in Maine, as one large commercial forest, it is also an area of lakes and rivers, low rolling hills, isolated mountaintops, and rich agricultural fields. Still, there is no denying that this is primarily logging country; more than 4 million acres of Aroostook County are commercial forestland, whereas less than 1 million acres are farmed, mostly for potatoes.

The best birding in Aroostook County generally is between about late April and early October, when you can find a wide cross section of boreal nesters and migrants. You can also find an excellent variety of nesting waterfowl (among them small numbers of Northern Shovelers, Northern Pintails, American Wigeons, and Gadwalls) and, in appropriate habitats, several species that many birders may not associate with Aroostook County. Least Bittern, Northern Harrier, Upland Sandpiper, American Coot, Common Moorhen, Bonaparte’s and Ring-billed gulls, Common Tern, Marsh Wren, Eastern Meadowlark, and Bobolink all occur in this region. Shorebirds stop over on their fall migrations, and waterfowl (including Snow Geese, Common Eiders, Bufflehead, and all three scoters) stop over in spring as well as fall. In short, there is far more to Aroostook County than Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadees.

 

APPENDIX A Checklist of Maine Birds

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By Peter D. Vickery, Jody Despres, and Jan Erik Pierson

This checklist portrays our understanding of the status, distribution, and seasonal abundance of Maine’s birds. A total of 419 species of birds and one additional form, “Thayer’s” Gull, have been recorded in Maine as of October 1995, excluding the extinct Labrador Duck, Great Auk, and Passenger Pigeon. No fewer than 27 species and that one form (listed below) have been added to the state list since 1978. Of these, four had occurred in Maine before but were not then recognized as full species (marked with an asterisk below). A specimen of Eurasian Siskin, collected at Kittery in 1962, had previously gone unlisted as a possible escape from captivity. Eurasian Siskins are now considered vagrants from Eurasia. In addition, two reports of Sprague’s Pipit, although not thought to have been American Pipit, are now treated as Pipit sp., due to possible confusion with other species.

Additions to the Maine state list since 1978 include the following:

 

APPENDIX B Birds of Special Interest

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This appendix includes short discussions of several species deemed to be of special interest to birders in Maine. For many species, localities included in this book are listed; readers should refer to the index and from there to the appropriate chapters for more details or for directions. Although many of the best sites for a species may be listed below, the index may lead you to other sites that offer potential as well. Also check the index if you are interested in a species not listed in this appendix.

Four groups of particularly interesting birds are discussed in the Introduction under the section entitled “Migration”; these are Waterfowl, Shorebirds, Diurnal Raptors (Hawks and Others), and Land-birds. There are also sections in the Introduction entitled “Pelagic Birding” and “Winter Birding.”

Red-necked Grebe.  Fairly common winter visitor and common spring and fall migrant along the coast (late October–April). At some sites (e.g., East Point Sanctuary or Fortunes Rocks Beach at Biddeford Pool, Reid State Park, and on Mount Desert Island off Indian Point and along Ocean Drive between Sand Beach and Thunder Hole), sizable groups occur. Rare in summer.

 

APPENDIX C Algae, lichens, Fungi, Plants, & Animals

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Following are the scientific names of all algae, lichens, fungi, plants, and animals (excluding birds) mentioned in the text.

Algae

Lichens & Fungi

Plants

Sources used to compile the above lists were the Checklist of the Vascular Plants of Maine (third revision, Josselyn Botanical Society, Bulletin 13, Maine Agricultural and Forest Experiment Station, University of Maine, Orono, ME, 1995) and Newcomb's Wildflower Guide (L. Newcomb, Little, Brown and Co., Boston, 1977).

Animals

INVERTEBRATES

FISH

REPTILES

MAMMALS

Sources used to compile the above list were The Amphibians and Reptiles of Maine (ed M. L. Hunter, Jr., J. Albright, and J. Arbuckle, Maine Agricultural Experiment Station, Orono, ME, 1992), A Field Guide to the Atlantic Seashore (K. L. Gosner, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1978), A Field Guide to the Insects of America North of Mexico (D. J. Borror and R. E. White, Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1970), A Field Guide to the Moths of Eastern North America (C. V. Covell, Jr., Houghton Mifflin Co., Boston, 1984), and Walker's Mammals of the World (4th ed., R. M. Nowak and J. L. Paradiso, Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1983).

 

APPENDIX D Resources

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Books

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Adamus, P. Undated. Atlas of Breeding Birds in Maine, 1978–1983. Maine Dept. Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Augusta, ME. (Out of print, but available in some Maine libraries or through interlibrary loan.)

American Ornithologists’ Union. 1983. Check-list of North American birds. 6th ed. American Ornithologists’ Union, Washington, D.C.

Appalachian Mountain Club. 1993a. AMC Guide to Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park. 5th ed. Appalachian Mountain Club Books, Boston, MA.

Appalachian Mountain Club. 1993b. AMC Maine Mountain Guide. 7th ed. Appalachian Mountain Club Books, Boston, MA.

Bennett, D. 1988. Maine’s Natural Heritage: Rare Species and Unique Natural Features. Down East Books, Camden, ME.

Bennett, D. 1994. Allagash: Maine’s Wild and Scenic River. Down East Books, Camden, ME.

 

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