I love mud season. Days are getting longer. It’s an especially good time to visit the coast. Winter birds are still hanging around the bays and coves, and most won’t leave until May.
It’s an awesome time to go into the woods. You’ll think I’m nuts, but bear with me here. Yes, the logging roads of northern Maine are muddy and rough. After a brutal winter, some culverts are heaved by frost. Small sinkholes in the road are marked by sticks and ribbons. The roads are so squishy and ragged that most timber harvesting operations cease for a month. And that’s why I go. I’ve got 3 million acres almost completely to myself.
It’s fun to bird the woods before all those distracting warblers arrive. It’s a time when finches are abundant and noisy. It’s a time when some of our permanent residents are getting romantic and frisky. So it was last Sunday, when I threw an extra spare tire into the trunk and headed north.
Along the way, I picked up Anita Mueller. She and Mark Picard operate Moose Prints in Millinocket, and Mark is possibly the best moose photographer on the planet. Frankly, “moose photographer” is something that looks dead sexy on a business card. It’s much more impressive than “gerbil photographer.”
It was a fun trip. I picked Anita’s brain about where to find moose. She picked my brain about where to find birds. I lead birding tours in the area, looking for those unusual birds that don’t exist south of Bangor. Anita also gets called upon to guide birders occasionally. We spent the day looking for rare woodpeckers.
We quickly got distracted. It continues to be an awesome finch winter in northern Maine. From the moment we crossed Abol Bridge, heading west of Baxter State Park, we were confronted by flock after flock of red crossbills and pine siskins in the road. This was expected. Seed eaters need a little help with digestion. They ingest grit, which is used in the gizzard to grind up seeds. Most animals accomplish this with teeth, but teeth would be bulky and heavy in a bird. Moving mastication to the center of the bird helps it maintain the balance necessary for flight.
It’s common for finches to collect in the road first thing in the morning. They load up on grit before beginning their treetop feeding. They are particularly prone to gathering at intersections, and the turn from Golden Road onto Telos Road was alive with crossbills. Some were exhibiting another curious behavior. As we arrived, the temperature was 14 degrees. Some of the birds were on the edge of frozen puddles, breaking off tiny ice crystals for their drinking water.
It was all very entertaining, which is why I was late getting up to Chamberlain Lake, the headwaters of the Allagash. My true quest was to find Maine’s rarest woodpecker. The American three-toed woodpecker is a bird of northern spruce forests. Its range stretches across Canada and dips down through the Rockies in the west. In the east, it is seen in the northern tips of Maine, New Hampshire and Vermont. Well, to put it more accurately, it is not seen there. It is a ghost bird. It’s easier to find Elvis.
The American three-toed woodpecker is about the size of a hairy woodpecker, which is familiar to Mainers because it is common and readily comes to suet feeders. The three-toed woodpecker is a specialist. He strips bark from dead and dying spruce trees that have been disturbed by fire, floods and forestry. He likes big stands of disturbed black spruce. So I drive the logging roads, looking for that. A bit insane, I know.
I have better luck first thing in the morning. This time of year, woodpeckers drum when the air is cold and still. The sound carries better. All woodpecker species are pairing up right now, drumming quite a bit, and I was hoping to hear some clues. I have several favorite spots in the woods west of Baxter. To my chagrin, my first two target roads were unplowed. I was forced to go directly to my third: my emergency backup woodpeckers.
Bingo. Two of these ghosts were right next to the road. To see one is rare, but two? Anita Mueller is no slouch with a camera herself. She whipped out her lens with the speed of a gunfighter and snapped off the best photo of American three-toed woodpeckers in the history of woodpeckers.
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.