No list, no book, just your eye for life on the wing
Wildlife is abundant in the vast forests of northern New England, with moose, white-tailed deer, red fox, and beaver commonly sighted. Yet, nothing quite prepared us for the extraordinary pair of bald eagles we found nesting on a dead oak tree on Umbagog Lake one autumn day. Loons lounged on the glassy waters, their laughing call echoing atop the spruce and fir trees, as we paddled around. This vast 7,850-acre lake, whose shores lie half in New Hampshire and half in Maine, is a wildlife refuge primarily because of what we were about to see.
My wife and I glided to where we found the large nest built on the highest branch of a leafless tree. As we drew closer, we spotted the female eagle guarding her home, her pointed beak sticking out through a maze of twigs. The sight of her mate perched on the branch below was mesmerizing. His white head was cocked in a royal pose, his eyes aware of everything around him, hence the term “eagle eye.’’ We skirted the island for a long time, fascinated by the awesome spectacle.
Back home in suburban Boston, I keep a pair of binoculars handy near my desk. I have never thought of myself as a bird-watcher, just someone with a couple of birdfeeders in the backyard, hoping to spot that fleeting yellow warbler in the spring and the beady-eyed red-tailed hawk in late fall. I can understand the allure of finding new birds in the wild, watching a great blue heron take flight on a serpentine river, spotting a ruby-throated hummingbird feed in the bushes, or staring in awe at the regal eagle, yet I’m not quite ready to start compiling a list.
Thankfully, New England doesn’t discriminate based on expertise. A dolt like me can have just as much fun bird-watching in all four seasons as the most avid lister. There are some 300 species of birds in the region, from the everyday blue jay to wild turkeys to endangered piping plovers nesting on the shores of Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard. Then there are the birds that might take a little more effort to seek out, but memorable once you find them.
Near the mouth of the Bay of Fundy, Machias Seal Island is a tiny unspoiled sanctuary for a number of Maine’s most noted marine birds. You can visit the island nine miles from the mainland on a charter boat operating out of Cutler. An hour later you disembark onto a small low-lying island. Hundreds of plump birds whiz over your head searching the waters for food. Some have hooded black heads that look like Batman’s disguise. These are the razorbills. Others have eyes the size of a parrot with beaks dotted red, black, and yellow. This is the bird everyone is excited to see, the Atlantic puffin.
Weather permitting, you can climb atop the seaweed-slick rocks and see puffins two or three feet away. The eastern part of the island is covered with Arctic terns. The razorbills might look like superheroes, but it is the aggressive tern that keeps predators like the gulls away from the eggs on the island. Paths lead to four blinds where you can set up shop and watch the puffins return to feed their young.
No doubt, spotting puffins in the wild is a real treat. Yet the best part about bird-watching is that you don’t have to venture far to enjoy it. I just saw a pair of white-crowned sparrows chasing each other outside my window. Or were they tufted titmouses? Excuse me one second while I check my “Peterson Field Guide to Birds of North America.’’
Stephen Jermanok, author of Outside magazine’s Adventure Guide to New England, can be reached at www.activetravels.com.