At long last, I birded the new Katahdin Woods & Waters National Monument on Monday. Obviously, somebody has to take responsibility for finding all of the birds there, and it may as well be me.
If you wish to try it yourself, here’s your first challenge: finding it. As you may know, the national monument is not universally popular, and Maine’s governor has prohibited any directional signs to mark the way. Nor are some of the neighbors wildly enthusiastic. You can tell you’re getting close when you start to see “National Park NO” signs in the front yards. The first official sign for the park doesn’t appear until you reach the park boundary, and that is so deep in the woods that Lassie couldn’t find you.
It’s a different story once you’ve entered the monument. It’s easy to get around. The park exceeds 150,000 acres, but only the southern section has a drivable loop. The 16-mile road winds through the woods, and there are several scenic overlooks that offer spectacular views of Katahdin and the surrounding forest.
As I drove the road, one thing became clear: There are more thrushes along this loop than anywhere else on the planet. Approximately half the veery supply in the world is there. As I drove the loop with the windows down, veeries were calling from every corner. Sixteen miles of veery, uninterrupted.
There are seven thrush species nesting in Maine, including robins and bluebirds. The Bicknell’s thrush nests only on our mountaintops, and wood thrushes prefer the low-lying oaks and maples of southern Maine. Hermit thrushes are found everywhere at lower elevation. Swainson’s thrushes are located in the cooler, damper areas of northern spruce-fir forests and higher elevations.
The veery is a secretive thrush of deciduous woodlands where it forages on the forest floor, shielded by a thick understory. It’s not shy, but you’re apt to miss it unless it is singing or calling, which it does a lot. Among the forest thrushes, the veery has the least spotting on the breast, and its uniform cinnamon color helps with identification. It is named after the cascading notes of its ethereal song. The call note is a short, quiet “view.”
Park opponents have often belittled the monument’s park-worthiness because much of the forest was extensively harvested prior to recent ownership. Ironically, that’s why the thrushes are thriving along the loop road, and why there is such a dense concentration of woodland warblers. The forest is regenerating rapidly along all 16 miles, with most trees now reaching mid-height. This is ideal for many species, especially chestnut-sided warblers. This stunningly pretty, yellow-capped warbler seemed to be occupying every tree.
Magnolia warblers are abundant in the Maine forest, and their numbers were astonishingly high along the loop road. Nashville warblers are common throughout northern Maine, especially so inside the monument. Black-throated blue warblers like big patches of mixed forest. They were everywhere. Black-throated green warblers and ovenbirds are now actively tending young, and they were less inclined to sing while I was in the park, but they piped up often enough to convince me that they are also plentiful.
I couldn’t get out of the car without hearing the song of a northern parula, Maine’s tiniest warbler. Black-and-white warblers were omnipresent.
There are many spots along the loop where logs were once piled for pick-up. These have now filled in with saplings and raspberries, perfect for common yellowthroats. If the patch is large enough, the unusual and secretive mourning warbler is a possibility. One noteworthy fellow is known to hang out next to the scenic overlook at Mile 6.
American redstarts, Canada warblers, and yellow-rumped warblers were reported in big numbers throughout much of the spring, but by the time of my visit on Monday, most had gone silent. We’ve reached the summer doldrums where songbirds are done making babies, and are now raising families.
My biggest surprise occurred at Mile 8, where there is an expansive view of Katahdin. Here, a fox sparrow sang. They are common in the region, but generally stick to conifers. To hear one sing against the background chorus of deciduous-nesting birds was a rare treat, demonstrating that there is more habitat diversity in the KWW National Monument than meets the eye.
I’m making plans to visit again in foliage season. All those maples will be spectacular.
Meanwhile, I’ll plan out a hiking route soon. I can’t say that this is the best birding in Maine, but it’s veery, veery good.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.