9 June 2015
Yesterday was the tomorrow in the prediction on 7 June: tomorrow we will be in Maine. On the morning of 8 June, we roll away from our Vermont campsite and back onto the pavement. Our travel in Vermont took us along the only southern highway that runs east and west in the southern part of the state. We pass through Brattleborro, Vermont, into New Hampshire and northeastward to the state capital Concord. Remarkably, since leaving New York State, we are able to avoid areas of heavy urbanization, those regions in a warning color of yellow and orange on our road map. Our route crossing Vermont and much of New Hampshire is similar, but in a reverse direction to my trek traversing those states in 1963. That was when I left Maine for points west during the last days of “Birder Interrupted.” In about an hour and a half on 8 June 2015, we pull into Sanford, Maine.
Our location this morning on 9 June is welcoming. At last, we are in Maine. This is a new and final life state for Linda and a state I had not visited in 52 years. Sandford is less than 20 miles northwest of Kennebunkport, about the same distance to Biddeford to the east and maybe 25 miles north of Portsmouth, New Hampshire. Those distances are as the crow flies. Except for I-95, most of the highways in Maine have not eliminated the numerous twists and turns either along the broken coastline or in the mountains and hills. Maine, according to various sources, has more miles of public roadways than any other New England state. We guess that many of those miles follow the coast as many do since Maine, according to NOAA, ranks fourth among the states in having the most miles of coastline. Maine’s ranking is between much larger California and Louisiana. Yes, imagine all the twists and turns created in the Mississippi Delta. Anyway, our plan is to enjoy coastal Maine, which means traveling on a familiar route, U.S. 1.
Highways often replace earlier routes. In Florida, U.S. 1 once replaced the Dixie Highway, which we used to get to Key West and points north in eastern Florida. In Maine, U.S. 1 replaces parts of the older Atlantic Highway. We were correct, when, back in Florida, that U.S. 1 in Maine would not have the alias “Dixie Highway.”
Sanford is soon behind us and we arrive at the juncture with U.S. 1. Biddeford is to our right. Biddeford is famous among birders for its proximity to Biddeford Pool, haven to migrating shorebirds and migrating shorebirders. The intersection feels crowded, with more businesses and definitely more vehicular traffic than remembered from my time in August 1962. Nonetheless, the population growth in much of southwestern Maine, including Portland, lags behind regions to the south where, in Florida, increases may range above 5%. Commerce, according to local newspapers in Maine, lament slow growth, but tourism and the money generated by it, surely is positive to economic welfare of Down Easters.
One apparent exception to the rule concerning population growth is Scarborough, whose population in 1960 was around 6,400 people compared an estimate of 19,500 in 2014. It is reasonable to say that there are now over three times more people in the region of Scarborough than when I drove my VW beetle there in 1962. I am assuming that the current boundary of Scarborough is the same as it was way back before there was a was, but, without more googling than I care to undertake, I am not sure if the limits for counting people as Scarboroughians include those living in Blue Point and Pine Point. Currently, Blue Point, Pine Point and whole of Scarborough Marsh are in Scarborough.
In a few miles, we leave U.S. 1 and turn south onto Pine Point Road. Not far beyond, we enter Scarborough Marsh. Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center, occupying a small building and a tiny parking lot sits on a dry spot of land at the edge of 3100-acre salt marsh and estuary. The marsh was named for Scarborough, the town in England, the one Simon and Garfunkel sung about its fair. The marsh was not always as we see it today. The Sokokis Indians once hunted and fished here, but when white settlers arrived in the 1600’s, the marsh, surprise, surprise came under siege, first by using parts of the marsh for hay and cattle and sheep and altering the ebb and flow of fresh and salt water. Plans were on the table to use the marsh as either a cheap place to build and as a dump. Finally, after over 200 years of thoughtless abuse, the marsh came under protection of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. Today, thousands of visitors enjoy floating on the channels and hiking the trails.
Scarborough Marsh is on the radar of birders who are looking for Nelson’s and Saltmarsh sparrows that breed in the estuary. When I visited the marsh in 1962, the two species of sparrows were regarded as mere subspecies of what we then called Sharp-tailed Sparrow. Having missed Sharp-tailed Sparrows breeding in the interior, such as Montana to Minnesota where I had traveled in 1962, I knew my first and best chance to add the species to my life list was at Scarborough Marsh. As luck would have it, I found my bird. Thirty-one years later, two studies largely based on birds in Scarborough Marsh, published evidence for warranting recognition of the two subspecies as two distinct species. It seems that interbreeding between the two groups is limited and that there are genetic, morphological and behavioral differences that ornithologists cannot ignore. Conclusions from those studies provides enough incentives for the AOU to vote to split the mostly interior populations from the more coastal birds that officially, in 1995, became Nelson’s Sharp-tailed Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sharp-tailed Sparrow. In a baker’s dozen of years, the AOU changed the English names of the birds to Nelson’s Sparrow and Saltmarsh Sparrow. Of course, that is not the end of the story. The two birds continue to attract researchers monitoring these sparrows sporting sharp tails. So far, biological barriers appear to maintain the present taxonomic status.
In the case of the sparrows of Scarborough Marsh, there are several reasons for recognizing two sharp-tailed sparrows as good species. That Nelson’s and Saltmarsh interbreed is not reason to conclude they are of the same species; they are not conspecific. Good, but what of many birds that likewise demonstrate limited or even no interbreeding, are genetically dissimilar, look different and even act different from some other birds but that the AOU continues to maintain as mere subspecies? That is another story, one that worries my avian systematic and taxonomic sensibilities, one story that deserves attention, but not now. It is time to enjoy seeing two sparrows duly recognized for what they are: two separate species.
My thoughts of lumping and splitting take a back seat somewhere just inside my skull as we stop at the Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center. We have questions. Our primary inquiry is where are the best places to search for Nelson’s and Saltmarsh sparrows. The second question is where was the last sighting of a Little Egret we read about on the web. Directions for a locality to find the sparrows are given, but there are no recent reports on the Little Egret. A staff member excitedly wishes us luck finding the Little Egret and tells us the species has visited Maine three times during the summer since 2011. Sightings of presumably a single bird are limited to the vicinity of Portland and Scarborough Marsh. The Little Egret is strictly a bonus species, one that Linda and I did not expect to see in Maine or in our lifetime. Our target lifers for Maine, Atlantic Puffin and Razorbill will wait since today we have a good chance of two new sparrows and perhaps a new egret.
Whitish-gray clouds cover most of the sky. The lighting is enough to cause us to squint from its washed-out brightness and the wind is strong enough to don our jackets. In a few miles beyond the Audubon Center, we find ourselves first driving over a branch of the Nonesuch River, pass a trail recommended by the Center, and momentarily leave the marsh to drive among trees lining our road and shading lanes and collection of houses called Bluepoint until we again are adjacent to an arm of Scarborough Marsh. Following our instructions, we park next to a blue building overlooking the serpentine river. A man inside, who is in the business of shipping lobsters, tells us it is okay to park there and walk the edge of the marsh. A slight breeze makes it is hard to see any movement in the marsh grass. After about an hour and behind Mister Bagel of Scarborough, a restaurant, I hear a Saltmarsh Sparrow singing. It plays its tune once more for Linda, who now has a new life bird.
A check across the street, where our instructions suggest we might find Nelson’s Sparrow, leaves us sparrowless. With time to spare, we drive back through Bluepoint to the Eastern Trail. Except for a small gap, the trail runs from Portland to Kennebunkport, but Linda and I are interested today in traveling only less than a mile of trail across Scarborough Marsh. Eastern Trail’s gravel surface traces over the elevated bed of the first railroad connecting Portland to Boston in 1842. That is about the time the U.S. Exploring Expedition traveled through my home turf in what was then wild southwestern Oregon Territory. The railway in Maine was abandoned in 1945 and in 1965, a natural gas line was buried in the bed. After considerable efforts, the Eastern Trail opened in 2004, and Linda and I, not smelling gas, hike toward Portland in search of target sparrows.
While listening for sparrows, we try to ignore Marsh Wrens singing or occasionally flitting into view and we continually glass every Snow Egret that pops into view. A stop to sit on some rocks piled at the edge of the narrow straight trail is welcoming. Another Snow Egret flies over the marsh. It is coming from the directions of Portland and lands nearby or at least close enough for us to identify. Our egret has black legs and yellow feet, but the yellow is not as intense as Snowy Egrets we have been observing. Our bird also lacks the fluffy crown we are seeing on the other egrets, but it instead has a flat crown. Maybe it has a, yes, it does, it has a long feathers trailing from the back of the head. Actually, the trailing headgear appears to us, at our viewing point, as one feather, but we read two long feathers complete the decoration. We cannot believe our luck on finding a code 4 species. The mud flats are under a mostly high tide and after a few minutes, the Little Egret, perhaps looking for better foraging, flies back toward Portland. Some hours later, a Little Egret is about nine miles away at Back Cove in Portland. We wonder if our bird and the one at Back Cove are the same. Could there be more than one individual of Little Egret? The species is normally somewhat gregarious and has a large range, but Maine is off its beaten track. There likely was one bird responding to the changing tides while searching for optimum foraging. We are glad it got our attention. (Reports of Little Egret continued into August, including a sighting in the portion of Scarborough Marsh near Pine Point where we spent our first night in the marsh. Sightings also were reported from the marsh south of Eastern Trail where we viewed the egret on 9 June 2015).
Tide pools and old rail road bed in Scarborough Marsh
A few minutes after the excitement, I realize I no longer have my scope. I must have left it on a bench at the side of the trail where Linda and I sat, caught our breath and traded congratulations for seeing the Little Egret. People are walking and jogging along the trail as I alternate between walking fast and almost jogging to return to where we sat. Using my binocs, I see the scope nonchalantly sitting on the otherwise vacant bench. Passersby do not either see it or ignore the unchaperoned optics. Finally and with lungs craving more air, I retrieve the scope, retrace the way to waiting Linda and we return to the waiting RV. By now, it is late, but we are not ready to leave Scarborough Marsh.
Where might we park for the night? We drive a few yards into the coastal village of Pine Point, a community of Scarborough at the mouth of the Nonesuch River. Except for Saco Bay, the marsh almost surrounds the settlement. We drive passed residences, turn down Avenue 5 and arrive at a parking lot. Signs tell drivers how much to cough up for the pleasure of accessing the public shore. On the other hand, is it public? As Oregonians, we shudder to the fact that eastern beaches are so inaccessible. Fortunately, the lateness of the day precludes the need to subsidize the parking lot which allows us free time to catch a view of a sandy beach and our first view of the Atlantic Ocean since leaving Florida. The shore is now barren except for a few people walking the cool whitish sand. In less than a month, people celebrating summer will be elbow to elbow on the shore of the bay. It is time to close the field guide and put away the optics for the night.
We return a short distance to the location where we earlier heard a singing Saltmarsh Sparrow at Snow Canning Road, an access from Pine Point Road to a large trucking facility. A wide place at the edge of this road is flat, not in the path of traffic and perfect for parking the RV. We are short yards from marsh habitat and adjacent to a site the Audubon Visitor Center recommended as a place that might produce Nelson’s Sparrow. Of course, we search the marsh for Nelson’s Sparrows, but find none. A birder drives up and relates seeing Nelson’s in the very spot we are searching, but the marsh, like us, is retiring from the day. There is but one thing lift for the day, which is a visit across Pine Point Road to a seafood establishment. How could one visit here without the taste of succulent Maine lobsters?
10 June 2015
Catbirds, Black-capped Chickadees, cardinals and Song Sparrows wake us from our peaceful night. Straining to hear a Nelson’s Sparrow is in vain. Our breakfast consists of an omelet of sorts, a couple of scrambled eggs nuked in the microwave, and then garnered with a sprinkle of black pepper and sharp cheddar cheese. Black tea drives out the cobwebs, we make the bed, turn off the generator that had powered the microwave and prepare ourselves for public viewing and for our viewing, we hope, of a Nelson’s Sparrow.
Even though it is a weekday, more vehicles crowd the parking lot than yesterday and there is a steady stream of people walking and jogging the Eastern Trail. Our plan is to hike the trail from Pine Point Road to the other side of the marsh at the edge of the trees. The distance is less than a mile one-way, but we take our time, listen and watch and listen. We are prepared, with a lunch and sufficient water to fill the goal, to find a Nelson’s Sparrow. Perhaps being so obstinate about the species is unnecessary. We will br in the breeding range of Nelson’s Sparrow again as we travel across northern Wisconsin and North Dakota, but that would be later in the season when birds might not be singing, assuming we would be in a territory. We might miss Nelson’s Sparrows elsewhere, just as we have in previous years. The chance of finding Nelson’s Sparrow is best here, in Scarborough Marsh.
Following hours of trying to locate the sparrow, attempting to relocate the Little Egret, lunch and enjoying life on the trail, we come to the edge of the trees. We could continue toward Portland, perhaps scare up a Northeastern species missing from our trip list or at least see what is beyond, but we turn back.
A bird sounds off from the tall thick grass of the marsh. Having done our homework by repeatedly playing Nelson’s Sparrow vocalizations from our app on the cell phone; we knew something good is happening. If we were some other kind of mammal, our outer ears would have twitched and twisted toward the sound, the sound aptly described in our field guide as wheezy. We are hearing a Nelson’s Sparrow. With persistence, we locate a bird, but it is not singing. Our bird does not move much and we are able to view changing poses that allow 50% to 90% of the bird to fill our binocs at any given point in time. I snap six pictures of which four reveal grass only. Our bird has all the markings of a Nelson’s Sparrow. It does not appear to be a hybrid between Saltmarsh and Nelson’s sparrows, but our unpracticed eyes lack the training to discern hybrids. Making matters worse, apparently some birds might appear to be one or the other when indeed they are not. However, our bird is near or at the location where we heard a Nelson’s Sparrow and our bird, based on what we see and from two rather bad photographs, has all the characters making it a Nelson’s Sparrow. We conclude that our bird is a Nelson’s Sparrow.
Besides having characters equivalent to a pure Nelson’s Sparrow, the individual we observe is lousy with lice, feather mites, or some kind of ectoparasites that infest our bird to the degree of it appearing miserable. It, nonetheless, appears alert, but it looks horribly uncomfortable. Ectoparasites are anything but rare on birds. Anyone witnessing a bird dying will see small creatures fleeing the cool remains of their once warm host. Dust and water baths and molting and preening help control some of these pests, but our bird, which flies out of sight, may need help. Linda and I also think that anything living in the marsh, including vegetation, requires help from problems from climate change as sea-level laps the shore. Of the species complex, the sparrows with sharp tails, only Nelson’s will escape rising water.
As the day continues, we give up finding another Nelson’s and observing Saltmarsh Sparrows that ought to be in the neighborhood. Still not ready to leave Scarborough Marsh, we drive to Wild Duck RV Park. After nine months on the road, this will be our first commercial RV park. The tidy park sits on the edge of a peninsula of trees jutting into a small arm of the tidal marsh. Our elevation is about 15 feet above sea level under an abundance of tall pines. Our rate is $24, but very soon to go to the considerably high summer rate. It is an adult’s only campground, which has to do with age and not activities.
11 June 2015
This is a holiday with holidays; a day off from birding. Of course, I could not be still all day and explored the small campground. Most of the 70 campsites are full and the trees empty of birds. I never have had much luck in locations dominated by pines and migration is near a standstill. Several Mallards occupy a pond. The birds must be the symbols for the “Wild Duck” in the parks name. A pastoral view out our back door frames a segment of Scarborough Marsh hosting an occasional Snowy Egret to remind us of the Little Egret a couple of days ago.
12-13 June 2015
Opting to avoid a drive through Portland on I-295, which would have taken us past Back Cove where the Little Egret had been seen, we take I-95 around the city. We motor north on the highway, which, unlike most of I-95 ever traveled, is a toll road. Exiting only a few miles northward onto another toll road called Falmouth Spur stands a tollbooth where the toller teller tells us the total toll is $5.00. True, our travel from Scarborough to the toll took us around Portland, but the distance was only about a dozen miles. It would have been less if we were rolling on four tires instead of our trusty dual wheels and it would have been only a buck and a half had we not been tourist and were in possession of an E-Z Pass. Too bad. We could have driven through Portland on a freeway and I might have the enjoyment of recognizing the city visited so long ago. Of course, like most cities I saw in the 60’s and am seeing this year have severely changed skylines, with many old buildings torn down and replaced by much taller structures. Such is so-called progress, a term related to humans and the opposite, regress, a condition of nature.
Typical of so many roadmaps of Maine, attempts to envision our route to Freeport is difficult at best. Maine is full of roads and towns yet seems to garner on road maps the same amount of space occupied by smaller Rhode Island and sparsely populated Wyoming. Cartographers out to allow more space to draw crowded Maine. The route, found by considerable squinting, road signs and our cell phone enables us to travel north on US 1, the highway familiar decades ago that will take us along the coast and to today’s destination, Freeport. Nicknamed the birthplace of Maine, Freeport was first settled about 1700. The population of Freeport was 4,055 in 1960, two years before my visit and was 7,879 in 2010, which demonstrates the trend that human population growth is outstripping the planet. Freeport is bustling today. It appears most of the people jostling up and down the crowded main street are tourists vying for a place to park and to take advantage of the numerous outlet stores. One of the stores belongs to L.L. Bean, a billion dollar business famous for outdoor clothes and recreational equipment. Managing to drive near enough just to see the building front requires negotiating narrow streets for a tight passageway to the other end of town.
Returning to the fray, we find a place to park near a store named “If Pigs Could Fly.” That name is nowhere near to suggesting the wares of the store, but on our way into town, we saw exiting people clutching loaves of bread. Before our own exit from the store, we gathered together one loaf of rye bread they sliced on site, a small jar of pepper and garlic jelly and some bread pudding. The pudding was not like our mom’s, but the bread and jelly were worth the money that could fly out the wallet.
Following a couple of turns on backcountry roads, we enter Winslow Memorial Park. A brochure indicates the park is in Freeport, but like the boundary of Scarborough and, apparently elsewhere in Maine, city limits extend far into rural landscapes. The 90-acre park is on a narrow peninsula. We cannot determine the name of the landform, possibly because of the plethora of peninsulas along the ragged coast of Maine. The park ends at Stockridge Point. Harraseeket River and Staples Cove engulf the scenery to the northeast while an island called Pound of Tea dots the water between the point and another peninsula named Wolfe’s Neck. The park, is a 1800’s estate donated to Freeport in 1953, and offers reasonably peaceful camping and the habitat, second-growth trees and understory, open grass and beach and rocky shore, suggest the possibility for good birding. Most of the 100 camp sites are in use, but we find one a row or two away from the view of Saco Bay to our southeast.
Our site costs $30, which seems steep since electricity is not available. Considering it is the beginning of a weekend, we count ourselves lucky that we have a place to camp. Our generator and propane will maintain our home a couple of nights.
Once settled, which for the RV means turning off the ignition and setting the emergency brake, we walk a few yards to the shore of Saco Bay. Swimmers are attracted to a sandy section of the shore. Offshore is an adult male and female Common Eider, with an uncounted flotilla of downy chicks. Linda celebrates her new life bird and asks if we are seeing a mated pair. My guess is no, since males have little to no interest in their offspring. Linda wonders why attentiveness of young by males of birds varies from species to species. That is a good question I have often pondered and cannot answer, but acknowledge the behavior varies from male phalaropes performing all of the incubation to males of many songbirds being equal partners in raising young to the male eider that swims offshore. A distant gull, probably a Herring Gull is the only other sign of life.
Trekking back toward the entrance, I discover a colony of what appear to be calypso orchids except the leaves and pinkish blossoms are so large. They are growing under the trees near the edge of the paved trail. Descriptions state blossoms of calypso orchids as 1.5 inches in size, but the ones today which are near that size, are at least three times larger than those we know from the mountains in southwestern Oregon. Although one of my heroes is a botanist (David Douglas), I can only guess that the plants represent circumpolar Calypso bulbosa and will leave the mystery of size to contemplate another day.
Near the mystery flowers are a pair of American Redstarts and a white-chinned Yellow-rumped Warbler calling from the trees on the other side of the trail where the little forest beyond sits at the edge of a wet meadow. Yellow Warblers are singing from the foliage of trees practically standing over the orchids and a Song Sparrow scolds from a nearby bush. An Eastern Phoebe is singing incessantly as if in distress while a pair of White-breasted Nuthatches vocalize from a tree trunk in a barely audible whisper. Shadows of the late afternoon become even longer as an unknown woodpecker taps in the distance. It is time to call it a day.
The new morning is full of yesterday’s birds, the Yellow Warbler, Song Sparrow and not forgotten, robins, goldfinches and Red-eyed Vireo. How is it possible to forget the vociferous, almost rowdy, Red-eyed Vireo? A Hairy Woodpecker may have been the bird tapping yesterday. Pine Warblers and Chipping Sparrows trill along the way to the orchids, which I photograph before turning back to hike to Stockridge Point. The trail passes a section of the peninsula still privately owned, but soon views of the bays on both sides of the peninsula are accessible. Birds perch on the low gray rocks at the point. It appears to be high tide, something possible to confirm by an app in the cell phone, but my eyes see, concentrated on the dry rocks, enough Common Eiders to fill an hour of watching. There are adult males and females and several males in dress in transition between adult breeding and a plumage of young, subadult birds. Three years pass before a male acquires the classical black and white pattern, which means it changes its feathers, it molts, eight times before it is fully an adult. The longest known living Common Eider, 22 years, underwent numerous energy-consuming molts, which, along with natural predators, weather and hunting must have produced a tough old bird. My conclusion is that the birds residing on the rocks and a few swimming nearby probably represent several ages of eiders, including older adult males in eclipse plumage.
Sharing the sunny rocks at Stockridge Point are a few loitering Double-crested Cormorant and a scattering of mostly distant Great Black-backed and Herring gulls. Ever on the prowl for something different, I turn my attention seaward and spot a gull sitting on a buoy. Steeped with more years west of the Rockies than I wish are necessary to count, my first thought naturally is that the distant gull might be a California Gull, which would be rare here, but, after all, the bird’s legs are yellowish. However, and that is a big however, the legs are more yellow than any California Gull I know and this is not a California Gull. First, the mantle is dark, which thinking less like a westerner, I realize places the mystery gull in the realm of a black-backed gull, but, because of its smaller size and collection of other field marks, cannot be anything but a Lesser Black-backed Gull. The species had been confirmed genetically to breed with a Herring Gull on Appledore Island, Maine, an island in the Isles of Shoals six miles offshore from the border of New Hampshire and Maine. A Lesser Black-backed Gull was also reported in early May at Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge or about 65 miles east of Winslow Memorial Park. Appledore Island is located about an equal distance from the park where I am standing. Of course, I wonder briefly if the gull I am seeing today is a hybrid. Assuming it is, the mantle is too dark for a hybrid. I decide the bird must a Lesser Black-backed Gull.
Many sun rises ago lay between today and when I found an adult Lesser Black-backed Gull milling about with a flock of Ring-billed Gulls on the Mall in Washington, D.C. The bird was not far from my office window on the sixth floor of the east wing of the Museum of Natural History. Since then, more and more Lesser Black-backed Gulls, native to the Old World, are reported in this country and some researchers propose the species might on their way to colonizing North America.
Common Eiders are not doing well. One might think the largest duck in the Northern Hemisphere, weighing in at 5 pounds, might mean fewer predators, but eiders have plenty to worry about including hunting, oil pollution, monofilament nets, rampant human population growth that takes away necessary privacy for nesting and foraging, and habitat depletion, global climate change and more. Some of the more include predation by other large birds, possibly Lesser Black-backed Gulls. Authorities in Maine report overall increases in the number of breeding Common Eiders, but the species is not faring well in the Old World and elsewhere in North America. Reports of a 53% decline in Alaska of the subspecies v-nigrum may explain why I have yet to see the so-called Pacific Eider. That taxon is morphologically and genetically distinct from other Common Eiders and some people suggest it represents a separate species. However, the degree and type of distinctness that might support recognizing a new species of eider is not presently conclusive. Retracing the morning trek in the afternoon reveals fewer birds.
14 June 2015
It is but a short distance from Winslow Memorial Park to Mast Landing Sanctuary, a place visited during my 1962 travels (Birder Interrupted, Ch 13). My earlier recount of the sanctuary stated the preserve included 160 acres, but the count today states 140 acres. I am not sure if the 20-acre difference is a mistake or the Maine or Portland Audubon Society sold some land. The reason for visiting the sanctuary is more nostalgic than it is for birding. Even so, the trail leading into the forest near where we park the RV might provide a chance at an American Woodcock or a warbler or two. Linda and I elect to walk the road past the small salt marsh where, in 1962, I had searched for then so-called Sharp-tailed Sparrows. I found none. What I did find were two people, who hosted me during much of my time in the vicinity of the southern coast of Maine, who had been caretakers of Mast Landing Sanctuary for five years and, who became old friends. Years after we met, Harry Chadbourne died. Ginny now lives near Portland.
A trail in Mast Landing Millmaster’s House
The salt marsh hosts thousands of yellow irises blooming in the warm sun. At the top of a hill stands the foundation of a fire torn mill, once, centuries ago, powered by Mill Stream, a tributary of the tidal Harraseeket River. Nearby stands the Millmaster’s House where the Chadbournes resided. On our walk up the hill to the house, we meet a woman driving down who said she and her husband had been caretakers of the sanctuary for the last 20 years. Compared to the unkempt trails we saw, the two-story house and the outbuildings are neat but show their generations of age. Mowed grass around the buildings and lawn furniture reveal a modern time. I can almost see Harry and Ginny smiling and inviting Linda and me into their home.
15 June 2015
Last night was on a Wal-Mart parking lot in Rockland. We pass the turn to Reid State Park where I visited many Augusts ago, drive onward through Woolwich dating back to the early 1600’s as do many towns in Maine, to Damariscotta which means river of little fish, towns named for European places such as Camden and Belfast and finally we arrive at Ellsworth at the junction to Acadia National Park.
My first sighting of the Atlantic Ocean occurred during a day of heavy fog in August 1962 at the shore adjacent to Acadia National Park’s Seawall Campground on the southern end of Mt. Desert Island. Today, Linda and I roll to a parking space near the entrance station to the very same campground. Will one of the 150 campsites be available? Should we have reserved a space? No, reservations take away a degree of freedom we usually do not wish to relinquish. Fortunately, there are six unreserved campsites. We gratefully sign up for one.
Forest and shore of Sewall Campground, Adadia National Park
Trying to recall the campground that was my home for several days 1962 is futile except it was cold and foggy. Luckily my notes (see Birder Interrupted) record what I cannot remember too many decades ago. The layout today seems different and larger than soo long ago. Perhaps the campground is the same, but I cannot be sure. Back in the day (see Birder Interrupted, Ch 12), I was camping in a tent. Today, the tent sites are in the central part of the campground whereas the RV sites are about a half-mile to the north. Periodic increases in the number of acres purchased and donated since 1970 are now in the park, which is an improvement, with more land for the highly fragmented park on Mt. Desert Island as well as other islands and Schoodic Peninsula. Since my first visit to Acadia National Park, the population of park attendees rose from 1,600,500 in 1962 to 2,563,129, thus today ranking the park as the ninth most visited national park in the country. Of course, the number of visitors varies from year to year and a park’s rank in popularity may change, but even so, the number of visitors to Acadia is crushingly dense since the park is much smaller than the parks entertaining even more people. Most of the visitors to Acadia National Park come in July and August. I remember crowds in August of 1962 and am happy that we are here in June.
Linda and are glad about our timing and enjoy the cool shade of the campgrounds pines and firs. Once settled, I hike down the campground road to the main drag and check what might be on the water. Not surprisingly, several Common Eiders float on the flat waters offshore, with one raft of five adult females and an undetermined number of downy chicks. While watching, an adult Bald Eagle appears and a Common Loon whinnies. The eagle strafed the flotilla of eiders and each time it makes a pass, most of the eiders, including the chicks, dive under the cold surface. One of the adult female eiders flaps toward the eagle as it makes its unsuccessful passes. After about three minutes of this eider and eagle game, the eagle sails seaward and, for now, leaving the eider nursery in one piece. The loon, never close to the altercations, is now silent.
Four Laughing Gulls ask for attention, but I train my optics on a single Great Black-backed Gull that is in company with a dozen or more Herring Gulls and what is surely another Lesser Black-backed Gull. A car stops nearby and the gulls scatter. White-throated and Song sparrows and Black-throated Green Warblers make themselves known during my return to Seawall Campground.
16 June 2015
Today is cold and dreary, filled with precipitation ranging from a mist to drops of rain as if to remind the sodden days at the same campground over fifty years ago. It is heartening to have Linda at my side this time and to sleep in a dry and warm bed instead of a fog soaked sleeping bag lying on hard ground. Birding is better on this go-around since, during a misty period, venturing outside brings the sound of the song and chip note of a Canada Warbler.
A telephone call reveals a solid booking for a cruise out of Cutler, a small harbor a good 60 miles up the coast on roads slowing us to a two-hour drive. Cruises from there offer good chances of seeing Razorbills and Atlantic Puffins, two alcids missing from our life lists. Fortunately, a three-hour tour out of nearby Bar Harbor sounds promising for the very same alcids, without any mishaps or anyone named Gilligan.
17 June 2015
Bar Harbor sits just outside of Acadia National Park on the northeastern coast of Mt. Desert Island. To reach Bar Harbor, we must drive through the eastern part of the island devastated by a rampant fire in 1947. Most of Bar Harbor did not burn, but several hotels and numerous structures built by the rich and famous that were scattered across the eastern part of the island became ash. The town, birthplace of former vice-president Nelson Rockerfeller and once a place only for the elite, is now full of shops, bed and breakfasts and, probably a laundromat, a place I needed there in 1962. The town has nearly doubled in occupants of 50 years ago.
Our directions take us to the edge of Bar Harbor where we turn into the driveway to Acadian Boat Tours. Our boat will be the Islander, a 67-foot boat, with a crew and a guide hosting 35 curious tourists. Our tickets are less than we would have paid to take the cruise out of faraway Cutler.
It is a little after noon. After lunch, Linda and I prepare with crackers and water in the pockets of our green jackets and wear our seasickness by-begone wristbands. Some say the bands do not work, but they have for us, especially, we hope, today on the relatively flat sea.
Bar Harbor Glacier carved Cadillac Mountain
A soft breeze at the dock becomes a stronger flow from the motion of our tour boat. Carl, our naturalist on board, soon directs the passengers to an island and an adult Bald Eagle perching near its top. He tells the group about a pair of eagles nesting on the island. Our boat arcs slowly east and then southward into the Bar Harbor Narrows. We cruise by several small islands that are steep-sided and draped with conifers on top, which may account for at least three of the islands having the name porcupine in their names. Those islands are part of Acadia National Park.
Time rapidly disappears behind us as I briefly ponder the name “acadia.” It has something to do Greece and pastoral living. An Italian explorer, Verrazano, used the name “arcadia” for regions around Delaware in 1524-1525. Since then, the name “arcadia” was used elsewhere. People today often mistakenly say Arcadia National Park, and although the park comes close to fitting the definition of an arcadian location, the proper spelling of the name is as “acadia.” All this is now unimportant as we ply the blue water, smell the sea and enjoy the view of granite slopes, the glacier scraped barren 1,528-foot Cadillac Mountain and islands dotting our passage. Sometime about halfway through the three-hour cruise, or was it before then, our boat approaches Egg Rock Lighthouse. Terns and gulls are milling over the low rock. As the boat slowly nestles closer to the island, dark objects are found floating on the water. Alcides. The seabirds are rafting on the water. Our first look is of two birds that are swimming about a yard from one another. One is a Razorbill and the other is an Atlantic Puffin. We identify our two life species from a single binocular view. Linda and I glass over anything on the water and count 20 Razorbills and only four Atlantic Puffins. The rafting birds are loosely segregated, with the Razorbills maintaining closer proximity among themselves than the slightly more distant puffins. We discover one Thick-billed Murre swimming near a couple of puffins and several yards from the Razorbills and puffins is a single adult Black Guillemot, its all black body and white wing patch contrasting with its white bellied relatives. It is watching us from a few feet from the white foam of water breaking against the hard rocky shore.
Populations of the clown-faced Atlantic Puffins and the serious appearing Razorbills are showing modest increases in the populations in Maine since around the end of the Twentieth Century. Contrary to their endangered and threatened status of the puffins and Razorbills, Black Guillemot is a common species on the coast of Maine. Thick-billed Murres winter in Maine waters and that single bird today, another lifer for Linda, should have been in the Arctic by now though a few birds are occasionally discovered during summer along the shores of Maine.
In our excitement about the alcids, we barely notice the terns, the few Arctic and more Common and Roseate terns and we try to not notice or at least not smell the seals basking on rocks. Before returning to Bar Harbor, we sail along near Schoodic Peninsula, a discontinuous part of Acadia National Park. Years ago, when planning a trip to Maine, I included the peninsula as a location to find Spruce Grouse. That species would have been a life bird then, but since we saw Spruce Grouse of both subspecies on our trip to Alaska in 2013, using time to go to Schoodic Peninsula this year might hurt our immediate chances for Bicknell’s Thrush.
Back on shore, we stop at a small roadside restaurant outside of Bar Harbor for a celebratory seafood dinner before returning to Seawall Campground. What a rewarding time. Raised glasses of water toast remembrances of sea breezes washing over us while Linda garnishes four life birds and while I pick up two new ones and see two other species not in binocular range for the past half century. What a great day.
18 June 2015
For our last day in Acadia National Park, I walk part of the Hio Truck Road that is just past our campsite loop. I am not sure about the history of Hio Road. It may have been built during the life and times of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., responsible for construction of a 57-mile network of carriage roads on Mt. Desert Island from 1913 to 1940. Hio Truck Road is level and nearly as straight as most arrows. Birch and conifers overhang the quite lane that takes me to the upper reaches of Big Heath where trees are overtaking the wet bog. This sylvan landscape is silent except for an occasional Black-throated Green Warbler. Several places along the road should host a waterthrush, but the forest is empty of birds. I retrace the three-quarter mile route to the south near the campsite loop and walk about a half-mile to the seawall where the eiders are swimming without disturbance from the hungry eagle a couple of days ago.
Discouragement sets in and drives me to head east along highway 102 to Big Heath. On the less than three-quarter mile walk, I pass an occupied house, its presence attesting the fragmented boundary of the park. A little further and in the park, the open soggy landscape, the bog, quickly delivers new trip species, first by the scolding of a nervous Swamp Sparrow called up from its hiding place. The sparrow’s agitated vocalizations are in response to a calling bird from my phone app, which attracts a Northern Waterthrush and a pair of Boreal Chickadees. Although the birds at the edge of Big Heath are encouraging, the trail, horribly overgrown as if not in use for years, is most discouraging. Retracing to the highway, I recheck the seawall for anything with feathers and walk back to the RV.
19-21 June 2015
We check out of Seawall Campground and drive the shore. Common Eiders with chicks and a Common Loon are offshore. After our birding fix, it is time to enjoy the showers and tackle laundry at machines in an RV park at nearby Bass Harbor.
Turning our backs to the Atlantic Ocean and beginning to head more westward than any other direction points to the last stage in tour of the country. We are in Bangor by late afternoon.
Linda has her hair done at in Bangor the next morning. The person working on her hair said her sister works for Stephen King and that the famous author pays college tuitions of all employees and their offspring. Linda once told me her daughter Jennifer, now in Austin, Texas, read all of the available titles that King wrote. Indirectly, Jennifer is helping pay some of those college tuitions.
Our last day and two nights in Maine are in the town of Mexico, located a few miles from Peru and near Rumford on U.S. 2, the route taken when I first entered Maine in 1962. Our elevation is near 400 feet above sea level. It rains, sometimes heavily and dampens plans by us and other RVers on the local Wal-Mart parking lot. We are near the riparian shore of the Adroscoggin River, a name from Eastern Abenaki, a language of the Algonquian of Maine and Quebec. Adroscoggin means river of cliff rocks or deep dwelling river. The point is that here is yet another river with an Indian name that has the name river impregnated within the name. What we have is Adroscoggin River. Oh well. The very same river, the one next to our parking spot is said to be polluted, but also a favorite to fishing people. Oh well again. We hear a Veery’s song between the showers pattering on our roof. In the meantime, we catch up on our notes and tally 366 species since 1 January.
Tomorrow, the weather report may reap the promise of only rain showers. We hope for the best. Tomorrow, we will leave Maine and back into the mountains of New England to look for a rare thrush.