This story was originally published in May of 2019. Program dates have been updated for the 2022 season.
As the days warm and lengthen in the spring, the forest surrounding my house comes alive with birdsong, drawing me outside with a camera in hand.
A number of animals stick around for Maine’s long, harsh winters, but the population of active wild things in the state notably increases throughout April and May as birds migrate up from the south, black bears climb out of their dens and frogs emerge from the mud.
This is an especially exciting time for wildlife watching. During the spring, you can witness animals building nests, dancing and singing to impress mates, and — later in the spring — raising their young. There’s nothing quite as adorable as a line of baby ducklings following their mother’s every move.
If you’re new to wildlife watching, here are a few ideas for finding critters in the spring. Just remember to keep a good distance. Try using binoculars or a long camera lens. And after a romp in the wilderness (even a city park), check yourself thoroughly for ticks. Unfortunately, we can’t pick and choose which creatures wake up for spring. If we could, I’d tell the ticks to go back to bed.
1. Visit a marsh
Many public trails visit the edge of marshes, where you’re almost guaranteed to spot wildlife in the spring. This type of wetland, lush with plant life, is an ideal nesting area for many species of birds. Some commonly spotted species in marshes include mallard ducks, wood ducks, red-winged blackbirds and grackles. Muskrats and beavers are also commonly spotted in marshes, and in the evening, many marshes come to life with the high-pitched calls of spring peepers, a tiny frog with a big voice.
Check out this photo gallery of animals I found at a marsh on the Essex Woods property in Bangor in early April 2019. And this photo gallery of animals on the same property in late May — including ducklings!
2. Take a leisurely paddle
I’ve found that one of the best ways to spot wildlife is by water, and it doesn’t have to be an epic adventure. A small pond or calm stream can offer many changes to view animals. Turtles sunning on half-submerged logs and boulders is one of the most common sights I’ve seen while paddling in area ponds during the spring. I also often see belted kingfishers, a bird that nests in burrows that they dig into banks, often near water. This bird has a distinctive rattling cry and makes impressive dives at the water to snatch up fish, making it hard to miss. Spring is also a time when loons return to Maine’s lakes to nest. Likewise, many bald eagles return to nests that have been built up over the years in tall, lakeside trees (typically white pines).
One year, I came across a Canada goose sitting on a nest on the edge of an island in a Maine lake. Due to my ignorance, I initially thought the bird was dead, until it raised its head! I quickly paddled away, worried I’d disturb it.
Check out this video of a kayaking trip I took on Jones Pond in Gouldsboro in May.
3. Attend a birding festival or walk
Many local organizations plan birding events during the spring. For example, the annual “Wings, Waves and Woods Birding Festival” in Deer Isle is scheduled for May 20-22 and features a three-day schedule packed with guided walks, boating trips and workshops. The Maine Audubon offers weekly bird walks on Thursday morning with Gilsland Farm, while Fields Pond offers nature walks on Friday mornings.
Check out this video of a birding boat trip out of Stonington that I attended in late March 2019. This guided tour was a great opportunity for me to see and identify a wide variety of birds (and seals) with local birding experts.
4. Find a vernal pool
Vernal pools or “spring pools” are shallow depressions in the forest that usually only contain water for part of the year, in the spring and part way through summer. These small bodies of water serve as essential breeding habitat for certain species of wildlife, including salamanders, frogs and fairy shrimp because they’re too small and temporary to support large predators such as fish. In the springtime, vernal pools are fascinating places to visit because they’re full of amphibians, egg masses, water bugs and more.
Vernal pools are located all over the place in Maine. Check out this springtime video of Caribou Bog Conservation Area in Orono, where I found salamander eggs in a vernal pool. A great way to find a vernal pool is by calling your local land trust and asking if they own a property where you can visit a vernal pool by trail. Because it’s such an important habitat, land trusts tend to keep track of where they are.
5. Stake out a nesting box
You can watch wildlife by visiting nesting boxes in the spring, however, it’s important to keep a good distance so you don’t disturb birds and spook them from their nests. I suggest observing nesting boxes with binoculars or a long camera lens.
In Maine, you’ll notice square nesting boxes on poles in meadows, often at farms and conserved lands. The birds you’ll find using these nests include bluebirds and tree swallows. In addition, nesting boxes are often placed in wetland areas, usually by conservation organizations. In those boxes, you’ll often find waterfowl such as hooded mergansers and wood ducks.
6. Visit a city park
Green spaces in the middle of urban areas are popular stopover areas for migrating birds to rest. You might be surprised at what you can find in a city park during the spring, especially if that park features a pond or even a few bird baths. When visiting these green spaces, keep an eye out for warblers, a group of colorful songbirds that fly up from the south each spring to nest and raise their young in Maine. During the summer, Maine is home to two dozen species of breeding warblers, according to this column by Bob Duchesne, and they all have their own special feather patterns and colors.
In Bangor, I suggest visiting Cascade Park, which features a fountain, gardens, lawns and a forested area. From this park, if you climb uphill (away from the road) on the trails, you’ll enter Saxl Park, an open meadow with mowed paths where you’ll find an even greater variety of birds. Another good spot in the heart of Bangor is Prentiss Woods, a forest with a network of easy public trails.