I would have been crazy to say no. When innkeeper Christina Shipps suggested that I stay at Inn On The Harbor in Stonington for a night and then take the mail boat to Isle au Haut the next morning, “Yes” was the only conceivable response. When you step out onto the inn’s waterfront deck, it’s like stepping into a postcard. Stonington Harbor is one of the prettiest harbors in Maine and the inn is right in front of it. Take a cup of coffee out on the deck, survey the view and feel your cares drain away.
Of course, the real reason for the visit was to spare myself considerable embarrassment this spring. Deer Isle and Stonington are hosts to the Wings, Waves & Woods Festival. The celebration bills itself as “birding by land, by sea, and by art.” When the 6th annual festival is held this year on May 18-20, it will feature the event’s first guided walk on Isle au Haut. The plan is to bring participants over on the mail boat and walk from the town landing over to the Acadia National Park portion of the island. I’ll be the guide. Now, that could have been a bit of a problem since I’d never actually been on that portion of the island before.
Most of Isle au Haut is a prime example of a maritime spruce and fir forest, dominated by balsam firs, spruce trees, a mossy forest floor and occasional bogs. Just by looking at the habitat, I could get a good sense of what will be singing in the spring. In my own head, I could already hear the Nashville and magnolia warbler songs. I can guess where the blackburnian warblers will be, and I think I can tease out a Canada warbler or two. Winter wrens and Swainson’s thrushes must be abundant all over the island. Even during my winter walk, the golden-crowned kinglets were everywhere, usually in the company of red-breasted nuthatches. With luck, the white-winged crossbills that I saw fly over will linger into May. This walk will be fun.
However, that’s just half the story. For about two weeks each spring, birds are returning from the south before any of our own wintering birds head north. The festival is timed to catch the arrival of the spring migrants before the winter birds have disappeared. The cluster of islands between Stonington and Isle au Haut offers lee shores and sheltered coves, giving sea ducks plenty of places to escape harsh weather. Any boat trip out of Stonington harbor is likely to see all three scoter species: black, surf and white-winged. The surf scoters are particularly abundant. A few red-throated loons can be found among the many common loons.
Buffleheads, long-tailed ducks and black guillemots are sprinkled over the ocean for the entire boat ride. I especially like searching for purple sandpipers on the rocks at water’s edge as we pass each island and rocky outcropping. They fly north to their breeding grounds around
Memorial Day, but they linger long enough in May to give birders a chance to see them from the boat trips during this festival. I almost always get them just under the lighthouse at Robinson Point on Isle au Haut.
This is the first of three multiday birding festivals that will occur in Maine this spring, and it is the only one that does not require advance registration. Fees are charged for some of the activities on water, but the walks and lectures are free. The following weekend, The Down East Spring Birding Festival will enjoy its ninth year of operation in the Cobscook Bay area. This event always transpires over Memorial Day Weekend. I’ve guided for the festival in all of its years and look forward to showing off some of my favorite secret spots Down East.
Just one week later, the Acadia Birding Festival launches into its fourteenth year and continues to grow. It’s a compliment to the festival that it outgrew the national park last year. Acadia has a lot of great birds, but there are tantalizing targets farther Down East. Last year, I led some all-day van trips into Washington County for the festival and I’ll be reprising those again this year. I do possess my own 15-passenger van into which I throw gobs of money and gasoline. Links to all the festivals and a few tours can be found at www.mainebirdingtrail.com. Join me at one of them.
Bob Duchesne serves in the Maine Legislature, is president of the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon, created the Maine Birding Trail and is the author of the trail guidebook of the same name. He can be reached at email@example.com.