“Hey, you’re THAT guy!”
We were standing at a bird feeder, watching a splendid assortment of winter finches, when a woman from Pennsylvania recognized me midway through our conversation.
I’m generally surprised, but not shocked, when that happens. After all, I do get around. Plus, my photo is at the bottom of this column. But in this case, I was astonished. This recognition happened last week on a back road in a remote region of northern Minnesota.
The last time this happened, I was on a boardwalk at Corkscrew Swamp near Naples, Florida. In both cases, the recognition occurred because people had been looking at my YouTube videos on how to bird Maine. Of course, most video viewers fancy a summer trip to Maine. Winter? Not so much.
I was at Sax-Zim Bog, west of Duluth and south of Hibbing. Even though the area is remote and sparsely populated, with virtually no tourist amenities, it’s famous among birders because it’s known for attracting owls. Great gray owls and northern hawk-owls come down from Canada in winter.
After 20 years of longing, I finally knocked Sax-Zim Bog off my bucket list. But it left me wondering. Is Maine on the bucket list of other people across the country? Are there places in Maine that birders have always wanted to visit? Does Maine have anything to offer that can’t be found elsewhere?
Yes. Maine is the only state with Atlantic puffins. If you’re a Minnesotan, and you’ve always wanted to see one, Maine is on your bucket list. Beyond that, birding the Maine coast is probably more popular nationally than we realize. It’s significant enough to sustain three consecutive birding festivals in the spring.
The Cobscook Bay area deserves the same national attention that Sax-Zim Bog gets. The habitat and species diversity in Washington County is off the charts. Sure, the local towns are small and tourism amenities are sparse, but they’re far more robust than the hamlets around the Minnesota bog. Aside from one convenience store, the nearest grocery to Sax-Zim was 40 minutes away.
Are there places in Maine that could be a bucket list destination in winter? I think the birding along the southern Maine coast is exceptional in winter. So is Acadia National Park.
But after experiencing Sax-Zim Bog, I’m expanding my view. The owls make the bog unique, but many of the other birds that draw people to such a frigid remote location are just as easily found in Maine — more easily, in fact.
I imagine some of the same experiences could be found around Rangeley, Jackman, Greenville, Millinocket or just about anywhere in Aroostook County. Even the woodlands in and around Sunkhaze Meadows National Wildlife Refuge in Milford could work. Logging trucks? They were in Sax-Zim, too.
The big difference between here and there may be rare owls, but it’s also organization. Some time ago, the locals recognized the magic perched up in their Minnesota backyards. The Friends of Sax-Zim Bog built a small welcome center that operates for only three months of winter. They printed maps. They established bird-feeding stations that draw swarms of winter birds. Some of the feeders are located miles down uninhabited dirt roads.
Hey, Maine has uninhabited dirt roads! These folks created a national birding destination in a place famous for hostile weather and subzero temperatures. Why not here? Hardcore birders are nuts. If they would go to the Antarctic to see penguins, they’d certainly brave frostbite here. Maine birding is so good, it’s a destination that should be on every bucket list.
Or maybe I need a dose of reality. Maybe our lack of Minnesota owls means nobody would visit Maine in winter. Maybe we’ll just have to keep all these northern forest birds and winter finches to ourselves. Heck, I’m not even sure we can get southern Maine birders to visit northern Maine in winter.
Then there is the slight problem of unpredictability. Every winter is different. Last winter, the northern Maine forest was awash in finches. This winter is eerily quiet. Likewise, even well-organized Sax-Zim Bog felt the challenge. The region was awash in grosbeaks, both pine and evening. American goldfinches, pine siskins, and common redpolls swarmed the feeders. But crossbills were almost totally absent.
Worse, the sexy owls were mostly missing. I did finally see one northern hawk-owl, but no great gray owls. That’s right, I flew 1,400 miles to not see an owl. I could have not seen an owl right here at home.