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Wingin' It: Birding in the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge

A family vacation in Corea, Maine, gave us the opportunity to explore another area of New England. The house we rented on a bluff overlooking Gouldsboro Bay is almost as far east as one can go. A main attraction (no pun intended) was the blueberry fields surrounding the house. Our grandkids’ version of heaven was going out at all times of the day, picking handfuls of blueberries and immediately devouring them.

A deck provided expansive views of the bay. The most numerous birds in the spruce along the bluff were goldfinches, and various species of gulls, mainly herring and black-backed, cruised by. A high point of the day was the visit of an osprey. We had spotted its nest with young peeking out on a utility pole on the road into Corea village. The osprey would announce its presence with its shrill call as it dove for fish right in front of the house.

Common yellowthroat. (Photo by David Durrant)

One afternoon while sitting on the deck, David heard the shrill cry of cedar waxwings, the call being familiar as they nest at our farm. Knowing that we were far enough north to be able to see the slightly larger Bohemian waxwing, we scanned the spruces hoping to get a good view. Soon, a waxwing perched right on top of one of the spruce trees in front of us, affording excellent views of its rufous undertail coverts. These reddish-brown outer feathers distinguish it from the cedar waxwing, which has white coverts. Unfortunately, the photos David got were not great but did confirm our visual identification.

Puffins, seals, and innovations in lobstering

Our son Ian had done a little research of the area and found a lobsterman who offers “catch your dinner lobster tours” that include puffin and seal sightings. Knowing young grandkids Zoe and George would have a blast doing that, we signed on. Early one afternoon we boarded the Bottom Line, a 46-foot lobster boat. Its owner Dan, a fisherman for 30 years, had this boat specially built so he could fish far offshore where the larger and more lucrative lobsters can be trapped. After a safety briefing, we headed out to Petit Manan Lighthouse, built in 1857. The lighthouse stands at 119 feet and still is in service today.

The island is part of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge that spans more than 250 miles of the Maine coast. Petit Manan is one of the few islands in the states on which Atlantic puffins breed. We had been lucky to see them on Eastern Egg Rock a few years ago and were looking forward to seeing them at one of their other breeding spots. As we slowly approached the island, we saw a few puffins flying and were lucky enough to get good views of three or four bobbing in the waves by the rocks close to the shore. We also spotted a couple of razorbills standing erect on the rocks like two small penguins on guard. Heading away from the island, we were accompanied by various terns and gulls and also a few Wilson’s storm petrels doing their familiar foot pattering on the waves as they fed.

Unfortunately, the prospect for puffins continuing to breed on these islands is threatened due to the warming temperatures in the Gulf of Maine (see “For more information” below).

Pulling traps

The lobster part of the tour came on the way back to Corea. The plan was for Dan to pull traps and if successful, we would take the lobsters back for dinner. On the way Dan explained some of the innovations in securing pots to the line. The attachments now mandated by law to protect whales break away if a whale gets caught up in the line. Pulling the pots, Dan explained the need to measure each lobster with a gauge he kept on hand. Any that were undersized or oversized went back into the sea. He checked the sex of each and if female, he would throw it back (to ensure lobster reproduction or, as he said, lobsters for his children) after making a small identifying notch on one of its tail shells. He gave us eight lobsters when we docked, and off we went to the house and cooked them up for the freshest lobster ever.

One evening we took a walk in Corea Heath, another section of the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge. The boardwalk into this coastal plateau bog leads to a small seating area. As usual, Pam scanned for wildflowers and found an orchid not 8 feet off the platform. As we watched the sun setting on this isolated, peaceful heath, we were serenaded by dozens of hermit thrushes singing in the woods surrounding the bog. What a great way to spend our last few hours in Corea.

After saying goodbye to the family, we drove farther up the coast. Our plan was to spend the night in Machias and then take the bridge over to Canada and Campobello Island. On the way we decided to stop and hike the trails at two other Maine Coastal Island National Wildlife Refuge divisions, one in Gouldsboro, the other in Steuben on Petit Manan Point. The Birch Point trail on Petit Manan Point goes through blueberry barrens and boreal forest to a salt marsh. It was late July, a quieter time in the woods for birds, as nesting is completed, so we did not expect to see the variety of warblers known to frequent the area.

A green warbler on Campobello Island

The next day we crossed the bridge to Campobello Island, passed through customs, and checked our map of trails in the Roosevelt Campobello International Park, a 2,800-acre natural area that includes FDR’s summer home. It appeared we had the island almost to ourselves. While hiking the Friar’s Head trail, Pam heard the distinctive call of the black-throated green warbler. Having spent many hours in the north woods doing plant surveys for The Native Plant Trust, Pam had grown familiar with this warbler that summers and breeds in northern New England woods.

Stopping to see if we could see it, we imitated the bird’s call—or “pished”—a few times and the warbler appeared not 10 feet from us, giving us unparalleled views of this magnificent bright yellow warbler, with its striking black throat.

Next stop was Eagle Hill Bog. David opted for the car while Pam took the boardwalk through the bog. Throughout the walk Pam was greeted by the now-familiar song of the hermit thrush and finally by a perfect view of the thrush perched on top of a black spruce tree, singing away. David heard a common yellowthroat. It was concealed in dense bushes, but again David pished and it came out and perched on a branch not 6 feet from the open car window.

Hummingbirds at home

Back home at our farm, David was reading a book on the terrace when two or three hummingbirds continually buzzed him—apparently the red cap he was wearing attracted the birds. Ironically, the book was Jon Dunn’s “The Glitter in the Green: In Search of Hummingbirds,” an interesting book tracing the history of hummingbirds and Dunn’s quest to travel from the Arctic to the Sub-Antarctic in search of rare species of the bird.

The book is a good read for anyone interested in hummingbirds. It also discusses how our environment is exerting increasingly negative effects on wildlife. The book describes threats ranging from domestic and feral cats, responsible for billions of bird deaths a year (just in the USA), to introduced species like buff-tailed bumblebees in Tierra del Fuego that are affecting the feeding habits of the few remaining green-backed firecrown hummingbirds, to the worldwide use of neonicotinoids, known to cause chronic conditions in all living species. Dunn paints a bleak picture. What is encouraging is that during the course of his travels he meets people who are making an effort to help the environment by planting native species, fighting deforestation, and rallying against the use of neonicotinoids, a single treated seed of which can kill a songbird.

The benefits of not spraying or mowing

A good example of how we can help locally was highlighted one evening here on the farm. Pam was in the garden harvesting tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans, when David went out to see how she was doing and noticed dozens of barn swallows swooping around an area where we had let the grass grow all summer. On closer examination, he saw hundreds of dragonflies swarming around in the tall grass. Both dragonflies and barn swallows are voracious hunters of insects, especially mosquitos; what was clear was that the swallows, along with a couple of eastern wood-pewees, were having a great feast.

It felt good that this simple act of letting nature take over, not mowing and not spraying, had provided hundreds of dragonflies and a couple of dozen barn swallows with a good meal and also helped keep us mosquito-free throughout the summer.

For more information

“A bellwether of climate change, puffins are struggling to survive in a warming Gulf of Maine” by David Abel (Boston Globe, July 29, 2022).

David and Pam Durrant live and work at Micheldever Farm on East Bare Hill Road.

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