Sunlight streams through snow-caked branches, lighting the tracks that tell of a snowshoer and his dog passing through heading toward Harriet’s Pond. I place my boot into the wide footprint. Melting snow slips off spruce branches and showers my face, and I step back in time.
On the nature trails of Birdsacre Sanctuary, hikers follow the paths blazed by the muse of Birdsacre, a Victorian woman who followed only birdsong.
Cordelia Stanwood, quite possibly the first female ornithologist photographer, created the many trails of Birdsacre, Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary in Ellsworth. It was in the forest that she captured intimate moments between a black-throated warbler and her fledglings. With a journal and Eastman Kodak No. 5 glass-plate camera, she documented Maine’s aviary world.
“I picture Cordie as a Bette Davis,” said Birdsacre caretaker Grayson Richmond. “She was probably not a large woman or tall, but she towered over people … I feel that maybe her spirit still lingers on the property.”
Muse of Birdsacre
Stanwood, the daughter of a prosperous sea captain, was born Aug. 1, 1865. She grew up in a wealthy family with royal ties to the British Empire, but escaped matrimony to become an educator. She dedicated the last 50 years of her life to the woodlands of her childhood.
Between 1905 and 1908, she visited more than 100 nests in the Maine woods. And on one day alone, in 1910, she identified more than 30 species in the Ellsworth woods before lunch. Leading ornithologists referred to her field studies on bird behavior and physiology.
By the time she turned 90, she had run out of money and feared what would happen to her cherished forest.
She died on Nov. 20, 1958, at the age of 93.
A forest saved
A year after Stanwood’s death, Chandler Richmond, an admirer of her work, completed the purchase of 40 acres of her property with the help of financial backers. Birdsacre Sanctuary was established as a historical site, open to the public.
“People around town were able to help rescue this property for future generations,” Richmond said. “It’s all a grassroots effort, really.”
Since then, the nonprofit sanctuary run by a board of trustees, volunteers and the Richmond family has grown to 200 acres through local donations of land and funds.
The historical site quickly become something else altogether.
“People started dropping off birds,” said Richmond. “My grandfather did have a reputation of healing injured birds, though it wasn’t a well-known thing. They fell into the right hands.”
Today, Birdsacre is a registered avian rehabilitation center, home to injured or disabled geese, ducks, hawks and owls. Chandler’s son, Stan Richmond, has cared for the birds and forest for 30 years, and his son, Grayson, joined him as caretaker 10 years ago.
Birds of birdsacre
Grayson Richmond visits the birds every day to feed them mice and grain, care for their beaks and talons and socialize them for educational programs. He greets them on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Years, he said.
“I probably feed them too much because I feel cold and I want them to be warm,” said Richmond about the many geese and ducks that mingle in the pond near the orchards.
This year, Eagle Scout Michael Vittum is replacing the fence around the pond, a high-traffic area for both webbed and shoed feet. The general upkeep of the birds’ enclosures is always on Richmond’s mind.
“There are a few roofs that need to be improved,” he said. “And when they pile up one each other, it can get kind of daunting.”
When birds are brought to the sanctuary, there is a 50 percent chance they will be released into the wild again, Richmond said. Some birds can’t ever be released, such as Shiloh, the great horned owl who has an eye defect that prevents him from seeing moving prey.
Nevertheless, Shiloh may live a long and comfortable life. One great horned owl, Thor, died last year after 35 years at Birdsacre.
“She had known my grandfather and father. I had grown up with her, basically,” he said of Thor. “She owned the place, kind of like a matriarch, and was very aggressive but could be sweet as well.”
This winter, the sanctuary is caring for several injured hawks and roughly two dozen owls — great horned owls, barred owls and 8-inch-tall saw-whet owls.
They always hope to be able to release the birds back into the wild as soon as possible. Freed owls usually linger on a nearby trees for a while, taking stock of their new surroundings. But hawks, when freed, shoot up over the treeline and don’t look back.
‘Cordie’s’ trails today
Brightly painted, hand-carved signs lead hikers on loops through the varied forest of Birdsacre, over bubbling brooks, up knolls and circling the tiny ponds.
The Perimeter Trail leads to the Queen’s Throne, ancient pine growing on top of a boulder, its trunk forming an L-shape seat where Stanwood liked to perch and listen to the thrushes.
“When the thrush speaks to me,” she wrote, “it seems as if the rags and tatters that enshroud my soul fall away and leave it naked … I would like to spend eternity thus, listening to the song of the thrush.”
Year-round access to the trails is free. The registration log shows foot traffic in the summer and winter is about equal.
“The neat thing about our trails is that they’re interconnected,” Richmond said. “[Stanwood] made them crisscrossed through the forest to favorite spots of hers — waterfalls, rock formations, ponds — and because of that, it’s quite endless.”
The longest trail — the Perimeter Trail — is about two miles long. And the shortest trail — the Red Trail — is about a half-mile long.
In the summer, quotations from her writing are posted on trees and hand-carved.
“Nature will have all of your attention or nothing of you,” Richmond recites from Stanwood’s writing. The Thoreauvian quote continues, “If you think of yourself, or your affronts, you forget to look for the color, you lose the Cecropia’s cocoon, you fail to see the bird or hear the song, and the flowers lose their fragrance … Intimacy with Nature is acquired slowly.”
Stanwood’s home, now the Stanwood Homestead Museum, is open June-September, as is the Nature Center, a collection of her research. If interested in volunteering at Birdsacre or offering a donation, call 667-8460 or email firstname.lastname@example.org. For information, visit www.birdsacre.com.