I can admit it now. I was a little nervous. Last Saturday, I led a Maine Audubon trip up to Golden Road, west of Baxter State Park, for what was publicized as a “Finch Fest.” On such a trip, things can go wrong. Besides inclement weather, muddy roads can be a problem. Or the birds might simply not cooperate.
I am still haunted by a January field trip three years ago that I led on Stud Mill Road east of Milford. That was also a day we were looking for finches and assorted northern forest birds. On the day before that trip, I scouted the route and found many birds that would surely please the crowd the next day. But the next day dawned cold and, apparently, the bird rapture had come overnight, for we searched all morning and found just one lonely nuthatch. Worst trip I ever led. I’ve now decided that January is a good month to sit by the fire and read a book.
But on last weekend’s trip, I need not have worried. The moment we crossed Abol Bridge on Golden Road, we were surrounded by white-winged crossbills and pine siskins. I can’t even guess how many white-winged crossbills we saw on the day, but it was many hundreds. The participants speculate that perhaps a thousand pine siskins is a reasonable estimate for the day. These are astounding numbers, and yet not really abnormal for this time of year.
Thus, I am about to reveal one of my cherished secrets. You may want to clip this column for next year. The truth is: the North Maine Woods are amazing for finches in winter. I recommend starting the day early, because they like to pick up gravel from the roads first thing in the morning. It aids their digestion of seeds. A drive along the logging roads should encounter many flocks, all willing to pose for pictures.
The actual mix of species will differ from year to year. Most years are good for crossbills and you should be able to rely on numerous pine siskins. This has been a lousy year for common redpolls, but they are abundant in many years. Likewise, pine grosbeaks are few this year, but next year could be an entirely different story. We picked up just a few red crossbills and purple finches, but those numbers can also go much higher.
Finches tend to hang out in predictable places and make a lot of noise. When roads are snow covered, you will frequently find them around intersections. Turning traffic churns up the snow, allowing the finches to pick out the grit. Along the logging thoroughfares of the northern forest, there are many places where the road brushes past a lake or wetland. The roadsides at such places are habitually lined with alder shrubs that produce great quantities of catkins — enough to feed a flock for the entire winter.
Where the Greenville road comes up from Kokadjo and intersects Golden Road, both conditions exist: turning traffic and plentiful food supplies. This spot never fails to give me a brilliant display of boisterous finches.
There’s something else that feeds my winter addiction to finch finding on Golden Road: it’s free. The North Maine Woods checkpoints are not operated in winter, so anyone with respect for the land and the heavy logging traffic is free to enjoy it. I particularly like April, because the start of mud season takes the heavy trucks off the roads until they firm up again. It is amazingly quiet. I do stress the requirement to be responsible in such conditions. It’s important to avoid damage to spongy roads. Stay off vulnerable side roads, shun soft shoulders, and don’t churn up the mud. No damage to roads is necessary to enjoy the fantastic birding.
Last Saturday’s field trip was fruitful in other ways. Bluebirds and an early tree swallow at Fields Pond Audubon Center were portents that we might see other returning migrants during the day. We did. A belted kingfisher was wicked early at Abol Bridge. A merlin flashed by on Telos Road, just after we found a flock of boreal chickadees and just before we encountered a singing winter wren. An early American kestrel stood atop a power line on our return along Golden Road, and we ended the day with the season’s first osprey and first swamp sparrow when we were nearly back to Fields Pond. I guess I can stop worrying.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.