Birding is a sport that anybody can play. And as with all sports, you get better with practice.
There’s a whole range of opportunities to practice, from simple feeder watching to gung-ho rarity chasing. Actually, fishing and hunting are like that, too. There are anglers who simply enjoy sitting on the dock with a pole and a worm, and those who gleefully wade into raging rivers with a fly rod. There are those who hunt because it gives purpose to a relaxed walk in the forest, and others who skillfully track the big bucks.
It was an autumn day, two years ago. I was birding deep in the Maine woods, driving the backroads somewhere north of Millinocket. It was upland game bird season, and it was a Saturday. There was a pickup truck around every corner, filled with hunters looking for ruffed grouse. I’ve been in smaller traffic jams leaving a high school basketball tournament.
I followed one hunter down a side road, keeping my distance. After a mile, I watched him get out, take aim and harvest a grouse. He drove off happily with his future meal. He never saw the second grouse just ahead. But I did. I got out, took some video and also drove off happily.
The lesson stuck with me. That hunter and I were doing exactly the same thing. The only difference is that I didn’t take a bird home with me. Indeed, I’m the luckier one because my style of hunting can be applied to all birds, in all seasons. I can hunt on Sundays.
I’ve never minded sharing the woods with hunters. In fact, there’s good news in this story. Maine makes a lot of grouse. Our forests are so productive that there are more grouse in this state than there are people, up to two million birds by the end of summer. Like most prey species, grouse survive by making a lot of babies. Foxes, bobcats, hawks and owls are much bigger threats to grouse than human hunters are. In fact, cold, wet weather is a bigger threat.
More importantly, Maine’s grouse population is healthy. Pennsylvania’s is not. Pity the Keystone State. The ruffed grouse is Pennsylvania’s official state bird, yet it is declining so rapidly that it is likely to disappear completely in a few decades. Habitat loss is the leading culprit. Pennsylvania has a lot of forest, but it’s a mature forest. Grouse need a young forest, regenerating after fire or harvest. West Nile virus has also taken a huge toll in Pennsylvania. So has climate change. The warming weather is pushing grouse northward all along their range.
Conversely, ruffed grouse are doing great in Maine. I’m actually rather pleased to see so many hunters in the north woods. Once upon a time, deer hunting helped sustain the rural economy there. Grouse hunting has helped fill the void.
There’s a whole evolution of how Mainers use the woods these days. We still have a strong sporting tradition in this state, but hunting and fishing are not the universal passions they once were. Meanwhile, baby boomers have reached the age when scaling peaks and running rapids are giving way to less death-defying pursuits. Birding has increased greatly in popularity.
As a long-time reader of the Bangor Daily News, you’ve likely noticed the changing trends on these pages. Thirty years ago, the sports pages might have been adorned with daily photos of 14-point bucks and trophy fish. Today, a whole section of the paper is dedicated to a subject called “Outdoors.” Act Out with Aislinn Sarnacki covers a wide range of activities, and her 1-minute hike videos are wicked popular. There’s even – gasp – a birding column every week.
As Mainers transform how they play outdoors, the man in charge of negotiating this change is BDN Outdoors editor, John Holyoke. He follows in the footsteps of other legendary sportswriters, but with an expanded range of topics beyond hooks, bullets and box scores. He’s a collector of stories, and last year he put many of his stories into a book titled “Evergreens.”
The Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon has invited Holyoke to share some of those stories next Thursday night, March 5. Since some of those stories might go better with beer, the yarn spinning will take place at Mason’s Brewing Company in Brewer at 7 p.m. Some attendees will likely follow my example and show up early to dine, making a full evening out of it. The talk is free. The beer isn’t.
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.