Hardcore birders are insane. Naturally, I speak from personal experience. I’ve climbed the Chisos Mountains in the Chihuahuan Desert of Texas just to get a glimpse of a Colima Warbler. In the Everglades, I sprinted through a soup of mosquitoes on a trail called Snake Bight just to find a mangrove cuckoo. I failed. In Colorado, I stepped out of a toasty car into a frigid gale atop Loveland Pass, just to spy a white-tailed ptarmigan. It was so cold all molecular motion had stopped. But I spotted that danged bird a half-mile away on that snow covered slope.
Last week, four of us jammed into a Subaru Forester and surrounded ourselves with pillows and junk food. We drove 16 hours straight to Grayling, Michigan, with the sole intention of finding a Kirtland’s warbler. We got it.
The Kirtland’s warbler is a specialist. It is a ground-nesting warbler that requires dry, sandy soil under a canopy of young jack pines. Almost the entire world population is confined to a few counties in central Michigan. They were on the brink of extinction until federal intervention restored enough habitat to give them a fighting chance.
This rare warbler draws a lot of people and boosts the local economy. Grayling has even created a birding festival around this bird. Why? Because hardcore birders are insane.
This same insanity brings birders to Maine, too. Puffins are sexy, even though they aren’t endangered. There are millions of puffins from Maine to Iceland to Scotland. But at one time there were only two pairs left in Maine. They’ve been restored on five islands along our coast. If you want to see an Atlantic puffin in this country, you have to visit Maine. Birders will travel a long way to do it, emptying their wallets in our state just for the chance.
Again, I speak from experience. Last weekend, I was on the Isle au Haut Ferry out of Stonington as part of the Wings, Waves, Woods birding festival. Dozens of visiting birders crowded the rail, enjoying the puffins on Seal Island. This weekend, it’s the Down East Spring Birding Festival, with birders motoring out of Cutler with Captain Andy Patterson on the Barbara Frost to visit Machias Seal Island’s puffins. Next weekend, I’ll be elbow to elbow with scores of birders at the Acadia Birding Festival, on board the Bar Harbor Whale Watch boat, the Friendship V, visiting the puffins of Petit Manan.
If you’re counting, that’s three festivals along Maine’s Downeast coast and just one for Grayling, Michigan. Our puffin beats their warbler 3-1. We win.
However, there is another difference that really struck me. Central Michigan is great country for sportsmen. The Au Sable River is an outstanding fishing destination. Hunters can pursue bear, deer, elk, ruffed grouse and lots of turkeys. Yet even the smallest of private properties were posted with NO TRESPASSING signs.
The federally protected nesting areas for the Kirtland’s warbler also are off limits, but you’d never know it. There are signs posted along the jack pine stands that celebrate restoration of the habitat but no actual signs that prohibit trespass. We spent a morning with a Michigan Audubon guide, who explained that any birders wandering off the main road on their own would be subject to a $5,000 fine. She went on to explain, rather nonchalantly, that she had been shot at more than once when her biology research had led her to stray onto private land. A couple of years ago, I learned in Louisiana that all private land is automatically off limits, no posting required, and accidental trespass gets you arrested.
So, in a roundabout way, I came to love Maine even more. Our tradition of public access on private land is unusual. We take it so much for granted. My appreciation for private landowners deepens, and I vow to respect their land as much as they do. No littering. No stoving up roads in mud season, or any other season. No forgetting to give thanks whenever possible.
But I digress. My original point was that hardcore birders are insane. They will travel and spend money just for birds. Again, I speak from personal experience. As I type these words, I’m sitting on the deck of Inn on the Harbor in Stonington, perhaps my favorite inn in the entire state. To my left are two visitors from San Francisco. To my right, there’s a couple from Virginia. We’ll be chasing puffins tomorrow.
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.