Bill Sheehan was 10 years old when he fell in love with birds. It came at the end of a long, hot June day in 1973, when his family moved from Long Island, New York, to an abandoned Patten farmhouse on 180 acres of played-out potato fields.
“Moving to northern Maine was culture shock,” Sheehan, 53, said. “The house was in very bad shape. Chokecherries were growing up through the steps, and overgrown bushes blocked views from first-floor windows. I stepped into my second-floor bedroom and was greeted by new roommates: a pair of barn swallows peered at me from their mud nest on a ceiling beam above my bed. For a month, I was enthralled by swallows darting in and out of my broken bedroom window.”
His back-to-the-lander parents purchased the farm the year before. “We were ready to move from Long Island, where my wife’s family lived,” Thomas Sheehan, Bill’s father, said. “At the time, Long Island’s potato and broccoli fields were being developed. It was getting built up fast. Suburbia wasn’t for us. We wanted to raise our boys with a fishing pole in one hand and a BB gun in the other and free to roam the woods and fields.”
“We were on a summer vacation in Vermont in 1972,” he remembered. “It rained the whole week, and our young boys were driving us crazy. So we loaded the boys into the car and drove to Patten to inspect a farm that first caught our eyes in the classifieds of The New York Times. When we got close to where I thought the farm was, a woman waved a dishtowel at us. So we stopped, and she asked what we were looking for. I said ‘John McDonald’s farm,’ and she pointed to it across the road.” The Sheehans walked around the dilapidated buildings and overgrown fields and then began to head south on Route 11 toward home. Just before the Interstate 95 on-ramp in Sherman, the Sheehans turned around and drove to Katahdin Trust Bank to inquire about a mortgage.
“We decided to buy the place if we could afford it,” Thomas said. “We offered $7,500 for the property. It was all we could scrape together. The owner wanted $9,500, but he accepted our offer. Heck, we paid more for our Ford Fairlane wagon than we did the farm.”
A year later, Bill’s parents loaded their 1953 Chevy truck with furniture and crates of chickens and drove to the farmhouse in Patten from Long Island.
“We looked like ‘The Beverly Hillbillies,’” Thomas said. “My mother-in-law, who had never been to northern Maine, drove the kids in her car. When we finally arrived at our new home in Patten, she looked at the place and started crying.”
Bill remembered with a laugh, “My grandmother put down her cigarette and told my mother, ‘Your husband’s crazy. It’s not too late to leave him.’” Also, he recalled, “We’d never experienced black flies, and they feasted on us that first summer.”
Undeterred, the Sheehan family dug in their heels, rolled up their sleeves, and went to work repairing the place over the next 15 years. “Like a lot of old farmhouses in the 1970s, ours lacked basic plumbing,” Bill said. “We had a hand pump in the kitchen, and it often froze up in the winter. We had an outhouse, which made for chilly walks in the winter.”
The oldest of five brothers, Bill’s morning job was emptying the previous night’s chamber pots before school. “One day I tripped carrying a full pot, spilling its contents on my shirt and pants,” Bill said. “I cleaned up as best I could before running to catch the bus. That job prepared me for my Maine DEP career in Presque Isle as a wastewater specialist.”
Bill came by his interest in birds from his father.
“I was raised in Vermont,” Thomas said, “and when the fish weren’t biting, I learned to entertain myself by identifying redstarts and other colorful songbirds. We taught our boys to be observant. Bill really took a liking to birds.”
Boy did he ever. Bill is the most accomplished birder in Aroostook County. His list of Aroostook County birds tops 250 species — his life list of birds tops 600. And as his father did for him, Bill instills a love of birds in others. Rich Hoppe, a retired wildlife biologist of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, is a big fan of Bill. “Bill doesn’t look for birds,” said Hoppe, who lives in Portage. “Birds look for him. He’s a bird magnet. His greatest gift, though, is his enthusiasm for birds. It’s infectious.”
Bill founded the Aroostook Birders group in 2011, and he continues to serve as its president. “We have monthly field trips every season except winter,” he said. “We also sponsor lots of Christmas Bird Counts in Aroostook County. It’s a fun winter activity for our 40 members and countless non-members.” The organization’s goal is to introduce Aroostook County residents, especially young people, to the joys of watching birds, and to promote The County as a birding destination.
“Aroostook County is special because of its wide-open spaces,” Bill said. “I also love the people here. They’re easy-going, and everyone knows each other. Birding is hectic from May until September. Winter birding is slow, but that’s good too because it gives you time to relax and reflect on summer birding. But I like winter. You can snowshoe to places that are hard to reach in the summer, such as swamps and thickets.”
Even in winter, Bill remains close to birds. Each winter day — sometimes three times per day — he fills 22 bird feeders outside his Woodland home. “I’ve gone through a ton of seed so far this season, but in 2015-2016 I was at close to 3,000 pounds by the time the bears trashed my feeders that spring. That winter, I nearly went broke feeding hundreds of evening grosbeaks daily at the feeders. I spent almost $900 on birdseed in over six months. But it’s worth it to me. I enjoy feeding and watching birds.”
His most unusual Aroostook County bird sightings have included an American Avocet, a western wading bird, on Long Lake in St. Agatha; an American white pelican, primarily a western bird, also on Long Lake; a Leach’s storm petrel, a bird normally only seen far out at sea; a Ross’s goose on Mill Pond in Limestone, far from its Arctic breeding grounds; and a northern hawk-owl, another visitor from the far north.
“Birding allows me to lose myself,” Bill said. “Time seems to stop. It’s a great escape. I can do it every day because there’s always something new to see and learn. And it’s great fun seeing someone’s eyes light up as they view a cool bird for the first time. Some people stare at fires, others at the stars, and some stare at birds, like me. Birding is a gateway to better appreciation of nature. The show goes on every day. You just need to get out and see it. I can do this day after day without tiring.”
Others who watch birds in The County report their findings to Bill, calling him almost every day with unusual sightings, such as a summer tanager, a species common in the southern United States, in Easton or the previously mentioned American white pelican in St. Agatha.
Laurie Sheehan, Bill’s now-deceased wife, once told me her husband postponed their marriage for several months after accepting a job counting birds in Texas. “He had to get his priorities straight,” she said with a laugh. “But how lucky he is to have found his passion. We should all be so fortunate.”
Ron Joseph is a retired wildlife biologist. He lives in Sidney.