Nature in a jewel box: The Acadia Birding Festival

Atlantic puffins and razorbills fly at Petit Manan Island, Maine
Greg Miller
Atlantic puffins and razorbills fly at Petit Manan Island, Maine
Posted June 18, 2014, at 2:22 p.m.
Last modified June 20, 2014, at 1:38 p.m.

What’s the world’s most picturesque place for bird-watching? That’s a tough one, but the answer just might be Acadia National Park.

“It’s got that feel of nature almost perfected — nature in a little jewel box,” said Jeff Gordon, president of the American Birding Association and a keynote speaker for the 16th annual Acadia Birding Festival.

Drawn to this microcosm of paradise — and to the warblers, puffins and other jewels it holds — more than 250 binocular-laden participants attended the May 29-June 1 festival on Mount Desert Island, where they took part in excursions, workshops and catered gatherings, all while enjoying idyllic spring weather.

Visiting birders hailed from Maine, 28 other states and even Canada, Chile, and Colombia.

“I haven’t really been to the northeast,” said the festival’s youngest participant, 11-year-old Topi Martínez of Boulder, Colorado. “This is good birding habitat.”

The island is, in fact, a kaleidoscopic array of good birding habitats, thanks to its dramatic topography and unique location at the intersection of northern forests, southern forests and the Atlantic Ocean. Martínez and fellow birders chose from 50 guided trips to destinations on the island itself and in the surrounding region — an eclectic set of habitats with names such as Flying Mountain, Pretty Marsh, Ship Harbor, Sieur de Monts Spring, Otter Cliffs, Seal Cove, Asticou Azalea Garden, Witch Hole, Schooner Head, Seawall and Wonderland.

Some birders paddled canoes down Northeast Creek or took a ferry ride out to Little Cranberry Island, and some hopped into vans to head northeast along the coast, where they found species of the boreal forest — including spruce grouse and the coveted boreal chickadee. Others headed northwest to Saddleback Mountain to glimpse a rare Bicknell’s thrush in its high-elevation nesting habitat.

The excursions were led by three dozen of Maine’s top birders, with Yarmouth resident Becky Marvil at the helm as executive director of the festival.

“Having people that can guide you around and give you the inside scoop, the inside perspective, is unbeatable,” Gordon said. “There’s still no substitute for that local knowledge.”

Joining Gordon as a keynote speaker was Greg Miller, the real-life inspiration for Jack Black’s character in the 2011 film “The Big Year,” based on a book of the same name by Mark Obmascik. Miller told stories about serving as a birding consultant for the movie, which portrays his 1998 race against two other ace birders — played by Steve Martin and Owen Wilson — to see the most North American bird species in a year. He also presented a workshop titled “Techno-Birder,” to introduce participants to some of the apps and devices that are accompanying birding into the digital age.

Additional workshops by Maine bird experts offered insider tips on birding in the region, coached people on identifying birds by song, and refreshed everyone’s seabird ID skills in preparation for the much-anticipated “pelagic” trip on the open ocean. When the birders finally stepped aboard a 112-foot catamaran chartered from the Bar Harbor Whale Watch Co., they were ready to conquer all manner of pelagic challenges, such as identifying angel-like arctic terns and telling the great cormorant apart from its smaller cousin, the double-crested cormorant.

Miles offshore in the Gulf of Maine, on a gently rocking sea, the voyagers were treated to sights such as the vibrant breeding plumage of a flock of red-necked phalaropes — a species in which the female is the colorful one, while the cryptically hued male is the one who takes care of the chicks. Atlantic puffins and razorbills paddled in the water, passed by in flight, and perched on the rocks beside the lighthouse at Petit Manan Island.

In total, 147 bird species were seen or heard during the festival — all of them recorded in the online checklist eBird, which provides birders and scientists with real-time data about bird distributions.

Besides species mentioned above, the list included 20 species of colorful warblers, red crossbill, great crested flycatcher, purple sandpiper, Iceland gull, bobolink, peregrine falcon, roseate tern, long-tailed duck, upland sandpiper, northern gannet, Philadelphia vireo, northern saw-whet owl, black tern, black scoter, northern goshawk, gray jay, red-throated loon and more. Many participants were thrilled to add multiple “life birds” — species that they’d never seen or heard before — to their personal lists.

The value of introducing visitors to Maine’s birds goes beyond checklists, according to the trip leaders, who noted that the festival brings attention to the environment that these birds call home.

“Hopefully people will leave here seeing the value of protecting lands like this,” said Doug Hitchcox, staff naturalist at Maine Audubon and a guide for the festival, adding that the festival boosts ecotourism on the island during an otherwise quiet time of year.

“My big concern, and a lot of birders’ concern, is conservation,” said Marvil, who has coordinated the proceedings since 2009, when she took over from festival founder Michael Good of Mount Desert Island. In 2013, she and her team instituted an Environmental Stewardship Award, a large post-festival donation to an organization involved in conservation.

Frenchman Bay Partners was the inaugural recipient, and two organizations — Friends of Maine’s Seabird Islands and Maine Coast Heritage Trust — have just been named as the award’s 2014 winners.

The festival further expanded its conservation reach this year by becoming affiliated with a sister birding festival, Louisiana’s Yellow Rails and Rice Festival, whose sixth annual celebration (Oct. 28-Nov. 2) honors the 250th anniversary of the Acadian people’s arrival in Cajun Country. The 2014 Acadian Birding Festival was sponsored by Wildside Nature Tours, with additional support from 40 local, regional and national organizations, many with conservation ties.

“When a bunch of us get together under that banner of birding, [it] can be really powerful,” Gordon said. “It can give us a voice as being advocates for improving the habitat, improving access, all that kind of stuff that you just don’t get if everyone comes on their own.” Plus, he said, “the food is great — the roasted eggplant sandwich for lunch today was a thing of beauty.”

Abby McBride is a science writer and illustrator.

 

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