This is Bruce. He is a spruce grouse. He gets a lot of visitors, for which he has only himself to blame.
He has established a territory on a Maine Coast Heritage Trust property Down East and claims a short portion of the trail for his own. He’s often in the path when hikers come by and he is not particularly shy. Most spruce grouse are tame, but Bruce is even less bashful than average.
Bruce is now a star. He is a feathered feature of not one but two birding festivals. The Downeast Spring Birding Festival takes place over Memorial Day weekend each year and the Acadia Birding Festival occurs over four days in early June. In its own way, each festival is maturing.
The Downeast Spring Birding Festival was founded purely for its potential to attract ecotourism to Washington County. I’ve guided for the festival every year of its eight seasons and it always has been amazingly well-organized. The seed was planted by the Cobscook Bay Chamber of Commerce almost a decade ago. It now involves the Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge and the Cobscook Community Learning Center, which take turns acting as headquarters. Elderhostel’s Road Scholars program has found success piggybacking on the festival and now the schedule includes joint programs, trips and dinners while sharing guides. This season was the festival’s most successful yet, enjoying nearly 100 participants.
The Acadia Birding Festival goes back even further. It was established in 1998 and was originally as much a celebration of the flora and fauna of Acadia National Park as it was an ecotourism project. This year’s festival was the biggest by far, with 180 registrants and 40 guides. The festival is large enough to entice nationally famous birding experts, such as Pete Dunne and Kevin Karlson, who both are noted authors and speakers. As the festival continues to grow, it continues to expand its reach.
That’s where Bruce comes in. Although I guide for both festivals, I actually stake out the same territory.
During last weekend’s Acadia festival, a dozen folks jumped into my van each day for a trip Down East in search of boreal specialties that are not easily found on Mount Desert Island. The word “boreal” comes from the Latin word for “north” (Hence, “aurora borealis” is Latin for “northern lights”). A boreal forest contains a lot of spruce and fir trees, with a good smattering of cedar and tamarack. The forest floor tends to be damp and mossy and bogs are prevalent.
That’s where Bruce likes to be. It’s also where you will find boreal chickadees, gray jays, yellow-bellied flycatchers and a number of northern warblers. The true boreal forests of Canada provide that kind of habitat because of its higher latitude and colder climate, but the cool, moist effect of the Atlantic Ocean generates a spruce and fir maritime forest zone along Maine’s coast.
There is a lot of boreal forest habitat above Acadia and it has birds that visitors want to see. For a while, the American Birding Association conducted competitions to see which American counties were birdiest. Washington County was frequently the winner among coastal counties, partly because the habitat across the county is so diverse, but mostly because the birding festivals got a lot of us off the couch and out looking.
Bruce has friends, or maybe rivals. When I started visiting the trail about seven years ago, I suspected that there was more than one male holding court in the area. Eventually, I confirmed a second grouse around the corner that I named Bruce Deuce. Last year, it became clear that a third male defended a territory 50 yards farther down the trail. He was dubbed Robert the Bruce by a client who had a sense of humor and an appreciation for a Scottish medieval folk hero of the same name.
I visit them often enough now to recognize distinct personalities. Bruce is comfortable with visitors, but shy around crowds. Deuce is bolder. He’ll follow individual visitors around and willingly poses for group photos. He sat in a tree above our heads last Saturday, calmly munching on needles without showing the least concern for the crowd of giggling birders below. After awhile, he came down to say hi. Robert is taciturn, preferring that the other grouse get all the attention. I don’t see him as often.
Festivals are a great way to connect beginners with experts, and connect experienced birders with elusive species. Try one next year.
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.