A few minutes ago, I returned from the Florida Everglades. If you think that birding among mosquitoes and alligators is tough, think again. Birding Maine is much tougher.
Here’s why. Our birds are just much tougher to see. Maine forests are thick, sometimes impenetrable. Our birds hide in treetops, thickets and marshes. Florida birds stand out in plain sight, on a beach or boardwalk. Theirs are big. Ours are small.
Florida birders enjoy a wide variety of wading birds and waterfowl. Herons, egrets, ibises, wood storks and roseate spoonbills are big and obvious. Waterfowl are plentiful, often gathered in large, easy-to-see flocks, while they ride out those tough Florida winters where temperatures can dip all the way down to 50. Their brown birds are humongous pelicans. Ours are teensy sparrows.
Maine birding is all about chasing tiny birds — warblers, thrushes, flycatchers and kinglets. When nesting, they hide. They’re not like Florida’s small birds, which just lounge about the palm trees, sipping pina coladas. In Maine, you’ve got to work for your sightings.
Some Florida shorebirds passed through Maine during fall migration. Up here, they were skittish on our mudflats, uncertain of their surroundings, and wary of falcons and humans. In Florida, shorebirds stay in the same place for months, becoming accustomed to people walking by on beaches. They barely raise an eyebrow when you approach. On Cobscook Bay, the Maine tide swells by 22 feet. On Florida Bay, next to my campsite, it’s 2 feet. Wimpy.
You might think that birding the creeks and sloughs of southern Florida would be difficult. But most trails in the Everglades are easy, even wheelchair accessible. There are no elevation changes. The tallest point in the Everglades is 4 feet above sea level. The tallest point near Fort Lauderdale is a landfill.
I’m sure mosquitoes get worse by mid-April, but March is dry season in the Everglades. Biting insects are often negligible. Besides, for sheer meanness, our black flies can beat up their mosquitoes.
Alligators? Forget about it. When temperatures dip below 70 degrees, alligators stop feeding. They’re dormant much of the winter. You see them mostly just basking in the sun, unwilling to move. Vultures walk among them, unconcerned. And humans don’t look like a meal to them. I wouldn’t suggest swimming with them, or walking little Fifi next to the shoreline, but otherwise, alligators aren’t much of a threat. I worry much more about a Maine moose defending her calf.
Yes, I was once confronted by a wrathful mama moose. It happened while I was birding Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge in May. She lowered her head and walked my way, stiff-legged. I ducked into the woods and hid behind a sapling. That’s when I learned that moose are myopic. How could she not see me when I was standing that close?
We Maine birders do have a few things in our favor. Our birds sing. When they return from southern wintering grounds, our birds erupt into full voice, establishing territories and recruiting mates. They tell us where they are. Without a mate or territory in Florida, songbirds are largely silent. In the Everglades, most of the bird noise comes from just a few species. If you memorize the prairie warbler and white-eyed vireo songs, plus every sound made by a catbird, cardinal and red-bellied woodpecker, you pretty much know every bird you’re hearing. Maine birds make much more noise, but that means we also have a lot more bird songs to learn up here. TONS more.
Our foliage is thicker. It’s super-easy for a warbler to hide in Maine’s maples and oaks. Even our spindly beeches and birches are denser than a Florida mangrove, cypress, sycamore, live oak or gumbo limbo. I guide professionally in Maine, and it’s always a challenge to help southerners spot a stealthy bird. They’re not used to working that hard. Frankly, it’s even hard to get westerners on a Maine bird. Majestic lodgepole pines and Douglas firs can’t hold a candle to our white pines, red spruces and balsam firs, when it comes to their bird concealment qualities.
So, my hat is off to you, amazing Maine birder, with your will of iron and skin of steel, toughened by a lifetime of black fly bites. You’re made of sterner stuff than that sad lot of Floridians who share their state with me every few years. I’ve returned from Florida, tanned, rested and ready to confront Maine’s returning songbirds this spring.
Well, tanned anyway.
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.