My native name is “Dances with Grouse.” If all has gone according to plan, I am in the woods as you read this. I am leading a field trip into the North Maine Woods in search of hard-to-find forest birds. Only, they weren’t so hard to find last week.
Thursday, Sept. 20, was a gorgeous day — sunny, cool and windless. I didn’t set an alarm, but excitement forced my eyes open at 4 a.m. and I was out the door moments later. This was the day I was going to make sure that all of my target birds were right where they belonged for my forthcoming trip.
When guiding, there is nothing worse than trying to explain why the birds aren’t where you said they would be, so I check on them now and then.
But this day was different. On this day, I threw a folding chair onto the seat next to the binoculars. It would not take me all day to scout and I knew I finally had time to try an idea I had been pondering for months. On this day, I would sit. I would dash up the predawn interstate at 75 mph — now the legal speed north of Old Town — cruise to Millinocket, drive out Golden Road and then up Telos Road and, upon arrival, I would sit. Rather than chasing the birds, I would wait for them to come to me.
Which they did.
My selected location was a spot where I had previously seen Maine’s rarest woodpecker on multiple occasions. American three-toed woodpeckers barely get south of the Canadian border and they are very hard to find. But they’ve apparently liked this one spot for at least the three years since I found them there. Usually when I visit the area, I search for them on foot. On this day, my plan was to sit and wait. I was curious to see if they worked that particular stand of black spruce often enough that patience would be rewarded.
I needn’t have worried. Even before I entered the woods, I could hear the male drumming. A northern flicker had just called in the distance, which may have made him feel protective of his favorite acre. His mate responded with her own drum about 200 yards away. They kept this up for the next 10 minutes, by which time I was surrounded by spruce grouse.
Now try to picture this: spruce grouse are tame and I have a chair. I tiptoed toward the nearest one until he raised his head and gave me a look of disgust. Then I sat in my chair. He blinked at me twice, quickly judged me to be of no concern, and resumed foraging. The other two grouse did likewise. Now I have grouse at my feet and a comfortable seat from which to enjoy the show. Sure beats Netflix.
I am accustomed to spruce grouse remaining silent in my presence, but apparently there is something about a guy sitting in a chair that charms them. They actually make quite a few little grunts and giggles when foraging together.
I repeated the experiment later in the morning when I went off to check other logging roads in the area. I chanced upon a couple of gentlemen in a pickup truck on an obscure side road and we exchanged pleasantries. I had no need of asking why they were there. I could see the bear bait buckets in the rear of the truck. But I’m sure I’m the first birder they’ve ever encountered that deep in the Maine woods.
They told me that if I wanted to see spruce grouse, I should just keep driving down this road. “Couldn’t miss ’em.”
They were right. I danced with the grouse several more times, moving my chair to a close but respectful distance, enjoying their quiet conversations. They would look at me once in awhile, but mostly they paid no attention. Spruce grouse are not hunted in Maine, and a grouse in late autumn would taste like turpentine anyway.
The moral of the story is that you can observe a lot just by sitting. You become part of the forest rather than an intruder into it. Motion alarms critters. But as any deer hunter in a tree stand will tell you, the secrets of the forest are revealed to those who remain motionless for a while. I plan to sit quietly in the woods more often. But not during black fly season.
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.