Most Maine hikers have a wildlife story.
The more you hike and learn to see what’s out there, the more stories you have to tell. Sooner or later, if you hike anywhere in Maine you will encounter animals.
Seeing wildlife behavior in its natural habitat is part of the lure that draws people to the outdoors. Wildlife watching is often cited as an activity that trail users participate in all over the state. Most consider encountering wildlife as a cherished memory of any hike.
Autumn is a great time to observe wildlife activity while hiking. It’s cool in the morning; perfect for a day hike to a known wildlife viewing location, then sitting as the day warms up, to observe whatever shows up. Sometimes I plan to hike to a place and stay put for much longer than it took to walk there.
I’m always looking to spot animals any time of year, so I asked around to a few experts in various parks and agencies for some tips on locating wildlife and what creatures you can expect to see this time of year and where. The first person I contacted was Lee Kantar, Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife deer and moose biologist, who advised me about what’s happening out there with those animals.
“Many animals, like moose and deer are gearing up for winter. Changes in food availability lead animals to move and that movement provides opportunity to see wildlife,” Kantar said.
“Deer and moose are also participating in breeding behavior rituals. By the end of September bull moose have rubbed off their velvet and their antlers have hardened. Now they are actively taking part in the rut, courting females and challenging other bulls. With mating on their minds, they are less wary and are also on the move.”
One of the best known places to see both deer and moose is in Baxter State Park. Most of the park is off limits to hunting and the majority of wildlife in that area hasn’t been harassed by many humans. Partly that’s because the park has policies in place and educational handouts for visitors on appropriate viewing practices that insures respect for the animals and creatures we observe.
Marcia Williamson, interpretive specialist in the park, described some of those practices recently. To minimize their intrusion, hikers, she said, should carry binoculars, spotting scopes or telephoto lenses for cameras and view animals from a distance.
“Sitting quietly and being patient increases the likelihood of seeing animals in their natural environment, foraging and other behaviors,” she said.
She also emphasized that, it’s extremely important not to move close to wildlife, chase them, entice them for that perfect picture or feed them.
“All of those human behaviors can stress animals. At this time of year they need to fatten up for the winter months, either for hibernation or to endure harsh winter elements,” Williamson said. “Human food is harmful to animals that would otherwise forage, getting their nutrients from natural sources. As enticing at it seems to feed that red squirrel on the trail, their behavior around humans could change to aggression towards humans instead of a natural caution.”
I asked how someone can tell if they are too close to an animal.
“You can tell that by noticing a change in behavior,” she said. “If it stops eating, flees the area or if its ears go back like your dog or cat, or if the hair on its back goes up, then you’re too close. If it moves towards you, don’t block its path. Just slowly leave and discourage it from following you.”
Both deer and moose are found in or around several ponds in the park, as deer browse shorelines, while moose feed on both the shore and in the water. Early morning and dusk are the best times, but you could see them throughout the day, she explained.
Charlie Jacobi, resource specialist in Acadia National Park, told me this story that illustrates what can happen if animals turn aggressive after being fed by hikers.
“This summer I was eating lunch on top of the Beehive with my technician, Kevin Dougherty, when a herring gull swooped down behind us and snatched Kevin’s sandwich out of his hand. It didn’t draw blood, but it left a big red welt.
“ And it kept hanging around waiting for us to give it another opening, which we didn’t. It was hard to eat lunch back to back, with one eye on the sky. I’m sure it had been fed multiple times by humans and learned that if it was aggressive it would sometimes pay off,” he said.
I then asked him about the types of wildlife commonly seen in autumn in the park.
“If you’re out early you could see otters in some ponds. You also could see porcupines feeding on fresh greens along grassy roadsides like the carriage paths. Migrating raptors are still seen catching thermals over the mountains,” he said.
“We have a hawk watch on Cadillac Mountain, 9-2, every day weather permits. Migrating shorebirds can be seen in large flocks cruising by just offshore.”
The list when on, but I got the idea that there is plenty of animal life to watch in autumn.
I discovered a new respect for animals, after talking to the informed people whose job it is to protect them. I also learned some techniques on how and when to best watch the creatures whose home we are visiting, after all.
Be unobtrusive, stealthy and quiet. Never feed them. Know the signals animals give if I’m too close and how to respond.
If we all apply a few simple practices when hiking and watching, the wildlife is always better off and we’ll see more of it the next time.