Altogether, I noted 43 species and 126 individual birds as we looped the Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument last Saturday. Admittedly, I had an advantage over the other nine participants during the field trip, sponsored by the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon. I was riding shotgun in the 15-passenger van, with my head out the window, listening intently.
As destinations go, KWW is an exceptionally birdy place. There is a sand pit campsite near the entrance. We began the adventure by walking a small piece of the loop road from there, perhaps a quarter mile. In just that short distance, I listed 13 different species, totaling 40 individual birds. But we missed some.
There are only two types of birds in the world — the ones you see and the ones you just missed. Several campers were quick to point out that we were 15 minutes too late to see the gray jays, which had just visited their breakfast table in search of a handout. Moments later, a pair of birders from southern Illinois met us on the road and gleefully proclaimed that they had just photographed a rare black-backed woodpecker. I heard a suspicious drum. Others witnessed an indistinct flyover. That was as close as we ever got.
At Lynx Pond, 2.2 miles ahead on the Loop Road, we exited the van again and milled about. An olive-sided flycatcher called from beyond the pond. A yellow-bellied flycatcher called from much closer. A palm warbler foraged in the bushes. These are all birds of Maine’s northern forest — the kind of birds that might be very attractive to visitors from, say, Texas.
Still, it was a surprise when the next vehicle was a van containing members of a Texas Audubon chapter. As we gazed upward at the flycatcher, now perched above us, the ringleader inquired as to what we were looking at. I behaved. Normally when I’m leading a bunch of birders, and we’re all peering through binoculars into the treetops, if somebody asks what we’re looking at, I reply, “A moose.”
I tiptoed away. I was afraid they would ask where to find boreal chickadees, and I knew I could not resist saying, “You can’t get there from here.”
The Texans were not the only visitors from away. Along the loop, we noticed license plates from South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island and Washington state, in addition to the Illinois folks. Plus, there was the usual contingent of Maine pickup trucks, mostly carrying fishing gear, but also a few tents and mountain bikes. Despite controversy surrounding the monument’s creation, despite the political disinclination to put up directional signs to guide visitors there, despite the truly obscure entrance along dirt logging roads, it appears that visitors are actually finding it. I don’t know how many of them spent money in the local economy, but I know that when 10 Maine Audubon members walk into a convenience store in Sherman, there’s about to be a line at the cash register.
Another odd-but-fun thing about KWW: critics correctly noted that much of the tract was cut hard before ownership changed hands. For birders, that turned out to be a plus. There is a lot of forest regeneration going on, and countless medium-age trees alongside the road. Many bird species like the sunny edges of Maine’s forest, and KWW has loads of sunny edges and easy viewing.
Our drive continued. The scenic overlook of Katahdin at Mile 6 was extraordinary. We commandeered two of the picnic tables for lunch, leaving just one table for those Texans…should they ever catch up. (They didn’t.) At Mile 8, we giggled as we watched the hind ends of two adorable bear cubs scamper into the woods. Presuming mom was around, we put another mile of distance between us and them, before singing indigo buntings lured us out of the van for another walk. These astonishingly blue birds might have been the highlight of the trip, if we hadn’t run into a singing Philadelphia vireo moments later.
Barely larger than warblers, Philadelphia vireos are difficult to find. Their song is nearly identical to the abundant red-eyed vireo, making them easy to overlook. They seem to like deciduous trees near the base of mountains. I find them in Grafton Notch at the base of the Mahoosucs in western Maine, at the base of Sugarloaf and Bigelow in the Carrabassett area, and in Roaring Brook Campground in Baxter State Park. And now, apparently, at Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument.
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.
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