Camping in the North Woods was torment last weekend. I meant for it to be a quiet time, by which I mean that I wouldn’t get obsessed by birds — for once. Alas, the birds had other ideas.
We headed up to Scraggly Lake, a Maine Public Reserved Land that lies north of Shin Pond, east of Baxter State Park. We grabbed the last campsite, a site that wasn’t even on the lake. Instead, it was an idyllic spot on Green Pond, a pond that looked like it should be full of moose but wasn’t.
The trouble started immediately. The problem with northern Maine is that it has birds that are less common in southern Maine, and, hence, demand attention even when I’m trying to avoid distraction. As we set up camp, we discovered we were surrounded by too many Swainson’s thrushes.
Swainson’s thrushes defend small territories. A bunch can hang around the same area. As it was the height of chick-raising season, our thrushes kept up a din. Seldom did a moment pass when we didn’t hear the “bick” call note, the “grrr” complaint, or the full upward-spiraling flute-like song. Worse, Swainson’s thrushes habitually sing well after dark, and in our case one noisy bird favored a branch directly above the tent.
On our first night, a barred owl alighted in that same tree above our heads, and commenced its famous “who-cooks-for-you” hoot, going on for eight minutes. It was 1:04 a.m. I know that was the exact time because, trust me, nobody can sleep through such caterwauling.
A pair of common loons on the pond saved all of their nocturnal yodeling until they were right next to our tent. Really?
Dawn brought no relief. Olive-sided flycatchers haunt the bogs and disturbed forests of northern Maine. From the nearby marsh, one fellow kept up a constant “pip-pip-pip” every day. But at dawn, he liked to let loose with his full “Quick, three beers!” call — a bellow that can be heard for half a mile. For unknown reasons, this individual liked to do it over our tent at sunrise.
Shortly after, a northern flicker began his morning drumming. It’s a loud booming drum, which is enough to rouse anyone from a sound sleep. Unfortunately, it also tends to inspire the other woodpeckers. A hairy woodpecker drummed. A downy woodpecker joined in. And then we discovered that our campsite was infested with yellow-bellied sapsuckers. The nest hole was above the picnic table, but the sapsuckers were not in it. The parents had fledged three young. At any time, there was at least one of the five overhead, pecking away at our trees.
It got worse. I have been infatuated by crossbills ever since I was a child, when I saw a photo in a bird book. Imagine a bird with a bill that crosses at the tip, enabling it to scissor off spruce cones. They are noisy finches, and sometimes the northern forest can be filled with their “jip-jip-jip” calls as they fly over.
But the white-winged crossbills around our campsite weren’t just calling. They were courting. The singing persisted all day — a multi-note musical trill that seemed endless. We had set up camp right where the males were wooing. I could not ignore them.
Then the warblers started. A pair of magnolia warblers foraged around our tent all weekend, with youngsters tailing parents. The “chit-chit-chit” sounds were constant. Then a yellow-rumped warbler family joined in. I spotted a Blackburnian warbler tending a fledgling next to the water, and a northern waterthrush working the same area. In the woods, a winter wren sang sporadically, evidence the first brood was on its own and was time for the parents to start a second family.
Babies were everywhere. Our pond had families of wood ducks and hooded mergansers. We chanced upon several families of ruffed grouse.
Nor were we safe while driving. Northern Maine’s working forest has good habitat for the unusual mourning warbler, a secretive bird that likes the raspberry bushes of regenerating clear cuts. These are the same areas that bears seek when the berries are ripening, so a little caution was in order. We did well, seeing two mourning warblers and only one bear, just down the road from our moose encounter.
All we wanted to do was celebrate our anniversary in car-camping luxury, but the birds would not leave us alone. It was a plague of birds. And we can’t wait to do it again.
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.