Maine in July is Fantastic
July once again meant a family vacation to Maine (last’s year trip report is here). And Maine in July means endless green as far as the eye can see. For a resident of Los Angeles, where it basically never rains and concrete and buildings cover the landscape, Maine is an impossibly lush environment. The roads are lined by all manner of green trees. The hikes wander through forests of green trees and fields of green bushes and green grasses. The rocks are covered in green mosses. This green bounty creates a curious dilemma. For an urban birder like me, life can be easy because the birds are usually concentrated in the small patches of available bird-friendly habitat. But when you get to a place like Maine, it’s all habitat. In every direction. The birds could be anywhere. Looking for a Northern Parula? Just walk a few feet in any direction and look in the trees. No spot is all that much better than another. Birding in a place like Maine defies the (increasingly, in my view, noxious) eBird idea of birding hotspots.
Another joy of Maine is the chance to see species that don’t regular come to the West Coast. There is a certain set of birds that I associate with being in Maine. There’s the Bobolink, who sound like R2-D2 and emerge from tall grass fields in surprising numbers as you walk by. There’s the unbelievable fiery face of the Blackburnian Warbler that makes the bird look like a tiny meteor entering the atmosphere. There’s the Bald Eagle majestically perched in pine trees at the water’s edge. There’s the impossibly long and intricate song of the tiny Winter Wren emanating from somewhere deep in the forest.
Of course, a trip to Maine is also good for unexpected sightings. This year, I added a half dozen birds to my Maine life list. An Indigo Bunting popped out of some bushes one day, and left before I could snap a photo. A Bonaparte’s Gull was hanging out at low tide in a cove while some Common Mergansers swam past. One evening, a Common Nighthawk danced high above a grassy field. On our drive back to Boston airport, we stopped at a Henslow’s Sparrow stakeout. And a lunch break in Portland got me a Northern Mockingbird at almost the northeastern edge of its range. In addition, I got great looks at birds I don’t see every time I come. They included Black-and-white Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Red Crossbill, and Pileated Woodpecker, who I tracked down thanks to its impressively loud drumming.
One day during the trip, my oldest son and I took a drive to Canada. The border was just over two hours from where we were staying. Since he’d never been to Canada, and I hadn’t been there since I became a birder, we both were looking to check some boxes on our to-do list. There wasn’t much in the way of cities nearby. Since it was just going to be a day trip, we decided to visit Campobello Island in the province of New Brunswick. Despite being Canadian land, it’s the home of a U.S. National Park–Roosevelt Campobello International Park (it’s actually jointly managed by the U.S. and Canada). Apparently, Franklin Roosevelt had a summer home there, and some buildings are preserved.
We skipped the home tours and headed straight for East Quoddy (Head Harbour) Light at the northeastern tip of the island. The lighthouse is on a rocky islet. It is an island at high tide, and accessible by foot at low tide (the tides here shift some 15 feet from low to high, and can rise 5 feet an hour). It’s picturesque. Our timing was almost perfect – we had to wait about 15 minutes until the tide was low enough to walk over. It’s a fun, short adventure – there’s some slippery rocks to manage, mysterious fish heads decaying, and some rusty, off-kilter stairs to ascend and descend. The lighthouse itself was closed, but it was a nice spot to chill and see some whales (no Great Cormorants, which would’ve been a lifer, but the only Black Guillemot of the trip). We checked out a couple of other spots on Campobello Island, including a cool little cove with 5 old shipwrecks, and then stopped for lunch. All told, we got 10 species of bird, and were able to turn all of Canada light yellow on our eBird profiles.
After lunch, we went back to the United States and out to West Quoddy Head Lighthouse. It is the easternmost point of land in the lower 48 states (apparently the U.S. Virgin Islands is farther east). We checked the rocks for Great Cormorant (none), and took a short hike along the coast. Now we’ll need to go to Washington, Florida, and Minnesota is we want to hit the westernmost, southernmost, and northernmost points in the contiguous 48 states.
Before we drove back to Boston for our flight home, I checked eBird to see if there were any possible lifers along the way. It turned out that a guy had recently found a Henslow’s Sparrow in a field along the side of the road (he was apparently driving by with his windows down, and heard the bird. Notably, Henslow’s Sparrows have the shortest song of any North American songbird, so this is quite a ridiculous find). It was only the 4th record ever for Maine of this declining grassland sparrow, and the spot was just 5 minutes off the highway. It promised to be a short stop: either the bird was there when we pulled up, or we’d stand in place for 5-10 minutes and strike out. If we were lucky, there’d be some birders already present with their scopes pointed at the bird. We were lucky. As we drove up to the location, two other car loads of birders pulled up almost simultaneously with us. At least three different birders were present, peering through binoculars out into the field. We walked up, they pointed to the bush where it was perched singing, and I had a lifer. The bird was a bit far out in the hot field for me to get good photos (see below).
I snuck in one last birding excursion before we boarded the plane. Near our airport hotel was a place called the Belle Isle Marsh Preservation. It offered a chance to catch a glimpse of a Saltmarsh Sparrow, and maybe some other birds that would bump up my year list. To my delight, there were Saltmarsh Sparrows moving around. They never stood still out in the open, but darted from one patch of marshy cover to another. You never knew where one would pop out, so you had to be quick on the trigger if you wanted to good photo. I totally failed to get an identifiable picture of one (see above), but it was fun to try.
As usual, it was great to get to the northeast.