Difficulty: Easy-moderate. Birdsacre is home to a wheelchair accessible woodland boardwalk, as well as a network of woodland trails that are not designed to be wheelchair accessible but travel over fairly even terrain. The Perimeter Trail, marked with white blazes, is the longest trail in the network at 2 miles in length. On the trails, expect some exposed tree roots, rocky areas and a few muddy sections.
How to get there: Birdsacre is located at 289 High Street (Route 3) in Ellsworth. To get there, start at the four-way intersection of Main Street and High Street in Ellsworth and drive south on High Street (Route 1-Route 3) toward Bar Harbor. After about 1 mile, High Street (Route 3) splits off to the left from Route 1 and becomes a one-way road headed toward Bar Harbor. Take High Street (Route 3) and drive about 0.3 mile to Birdsacre on the right, just before the China Hill Restaurant.
Information: The Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary, more commonly known as Birdsacre, is a 200-acre piece of quiet woodland surrounded by the hustle and bustle of downtown Ellsworth. The sanctuary includes a trail network, bird rehabilitation facility, nature center and 19th century homestead that used to be the home of Cordelia J. Stanwood (1865-1958), a naturalist, ornithologist, wildlife photographer and writer who lived and studied on the property for many years.
Birdsacre is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the home and vision of Stanwood, according to the organization’s official website, birdsacre.com. Through its wildlife rehabilitation and educational programs, as well as its open door to the public, the organization keeps alive Stanwoods curiosity about birds, as well as her respect and love for nature.
The daughter of a sea captain and a prosperous merchant’s daughter, Cordelia Stanwood was raised as a Victorian lady, but was determined to set her own course, shunning societal expectations. At her childhood home, Birdsacre, she devoted more than 50 years to the study of nature, and most notably birds, to become possibly the first highly respected female ornithologist photographer.
Today, visitors to Birdsacre can follow in Stanwoods footsteps on the sanctuary’s system of footpaths, which consists of a 2-mile Perimeter Trail and many shorter trails that crisscross through woods and wetlands. It was on those trails that Stanwood spent many of her days observing birds and recording her findings in research notebooks and later, on camera — an Eastman Kodak No. 5 glass-plate camera, to be specific.
On wooden plaques erected on tree trunks throughout the trail network are quotes from Stanwood’s field notes. These passages offer glimpses of Stanwood’s deep reverence for the wilderness, her love of animals, and the peace and happiness she found in being outdoors.
One such plaque reads: “Intimacy with nature is acquired slowly. It comes not with one year out of doors, or with two. You look and listen, bewail your stupidity, feel that you have acquired little new information; yet, are determined never to despair or give up. All at once you know what you never dreamed you knew before.”
Through her studies, Stanwood uncovered a wealth of information concerning bird behavior, life stages and physiology. Her discoveries were published in popular magazines at the time, including the Audubon Society’s Bird Lore, and contributed to major publications, including Arthur Bent’s “North American Birds” for the Smithsonian, and Edward Forbush’s three-volume “Birds of Massachusetts and Other New England States,” according to the Birdsacre website.
As you explore the Birdsacre trail network you’ll come upon the same landmarks that Stanwood enjoyed more than half a century ago — a boulder called “Egg Rock,” a giant white pine called “Queen’s Throne,” and several small ponds. Signs throughout the trail network direct hikers to these natural features. There are also signs that tell hikers about how many minutes it will take them to walk back “home,” or to Birdsacre’s hub and parking lots.
The Birdsacre “home” consists of many enclosures where injured birds are being rehabilitated. For many of these birds, the goal is for them to be healed and released back into the wild. But some of the birds are non-releasable, meaning they wouldn’t survive in the wild for one reason or another. For these birds, Birdsacre is their permanent home, and many of them have been trained to participate in educational nature programs.
Also a part of this hub is the Stanwood Museum, the 19th century home of Stanwood; as well as the Richmond Nature Center, which was built by the Ellsworth Vocational Tech class in 1990 and showcases a collection of bird and mammal mounts, many of them being more than 100 years old. The nature center also contains the Merrit Fitch egg collection, 58 species of eggs collected by two teenage boys in 1888.
And right by the nature center is the start to the Woodland Gardens and Boardwalk, a 540-foot-long wheelchair-accessible boardwalk that travels through five diverse environments. The project was proposed by Master Gardener Volunteers of Hancock County in 1997 and was completed in 2001 with funding from several organizations and donors.
The Birdsacre trail network is open to the public during daylight hours year round. The homestead museum and nature center open June through September, 10 a.m.-4 p.m., dependent on volunteers. Admission is free, but donations can be made at the kiosk by the parking area. Dogs are permitted on the trails but should be kept away from all bird enclosures.
To learn more about Birdsacre, visit its website at birdsacre.com or call 667-8460.
Personal note: I first visited Birdsacre in the winter of 2011, during the first year of my “1-minute hike” series. I remember peering into the dark bird enclosures to be startled by a pair of wide, yellow eyes staring back at me — a great horned owl. I remember the ducks and geese playing in the sanctuary pond, which was partially frozen. And I remember the quiet trail network, a web of trails that seemed so peaceful in the winter sun.
When I returned to the sanctuary recently, it appeared quite different. The sign to the homestead museum was crowded by big yellow flowers, and the door was open. A group of children were gathered around a large carved map of the trail network, choosing the next route they’d take — the blue trail or the red trail. And a caretaker was walking around in a well-worn Birdsacre T-shirt, chatting with visitors and tending the birds.
Yet many things remained the same. As I struck out on the nature trails, they were just as peaceful as I remember them being. Instead of snow piles and icicles, the woods was adorned with ferns and lichens, mushrooms and moss, and the ponds were nearly hidden by the tall grasses and cattails that grew on their banks.
My dog, Oreo, whined impatiently as I paused to re-read the eloquent words of Cordelia Stanwood. The way she wrote about the wilderness resonates with me. I feel a kinship with her, and wish we could have met.
To pay me back for being a contemplative slowpoke, Oreo dashed after a squirrel, nearly yanking my arm for its socket as he found the end of his leash. Later, he jumped off a boardwalk, burying himself up to his elbows in mud; then dashed into Harriet’s Pond. Worried he might disturb the aquatic life, I pulled him back ashore, where he shook, showering me with pond water. He certainly makes me pay for his company sometimes.
The sun was sinking when we returned to the parking lot and secured Oreo in the car with the air conditioner on. I wanted to make a few more stops without my mischievous dog before calling it a day.
Slowly, I approached the many bird enclosures, searching their dark interiors until I found a red-tailed hawk, great horned owl, barred owl and blue jay. By the duck pond, I was growled at by a goose, then a crow hopped up to the fence and started screeching for food. I quickly retreated, feeling a bit guilty for causing such a hubbub.
Upon returning to the car, I opened the door to what felt like a freezer. I’d gone a bit overkill on the AC settings. Oreo looked unimpressed. I hurriedly rolled down the windows to let in the warm evening air, and headed home for dinner, one of Oreo’s favorite events of the day.