By Mel White
|National Wildlife Refuges||National Parks||Acreage of Important Bird Areas|
Maine has a lot to offer any traveler, from fragrant conifer forest and picturesque lighthouses to mountain peaks and some of the most beautiful rocky shoreline in North America. Here’s the wonderful bonus if you’re a birder: The state’s best birding destinations include all of these attractions. Birders spend plenty of time checking out water-treatment plants or scanning farm fields. So why not visit a gorgeous spot like Acadia National Park?
Maine’s coast offers treats such as eiders, Harlequin Duck, shearwaters, Razorbill, Black Guillemot, Atlantic Puffin, Black-legged Kittiwake, and Roseate and Arctic terns. Inland, sought-after species include Spruce Grouse, American Three-toed and Black-backed woodpeckers, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, and Bicknell’s Thrush.
A dozen miles south of Portland, Biddeford Pool has long been known as one of the best locations for shorebirds in the Northeast. Heading northeast (or “down east,” as locals say) travelers arrive at stunning Mount Desert Island and Acadia National Park, where birding matches the scenery. North and inland is famed Baxter State Park, where nearly mile-high Mount Katahdin rises as Maine’s highest mountain. The North Maine Woods region is heavily used by timber companies, but offers vast areas to explore.
Maine Birding Hotspots
A trip to Monhegan Island is a true bucket-list experience for birders. Located about 11 miles off the coast, this small (1.6-mile-long) island can be teeming with migrants in spring and fall, creating a true birding spectacle.
Migrant birds following the coast often wander off course, or are blown off by winds, and see this speck of land and its vegetation as a life raft in the Atlantic Ocean. They drop from the sky in the thousands to rest and feed before moving on. The peak periods are May and September into October. At those times, birders simply walk the roads and visit the coastline, because practically anything could show up anywhere.
It does little good to list species that might be seen here, since that would comprise practically all the migrant species of the eastern United States, plus resident species, plus seabirds, plus an astounding list of rarities that have appeared over the years (Band-tailed Pigeon, Calliope Hummingbird, and Hermit Warbler, to name a very few).
In addition to migrant land birds, the sea around the island is home year-round to Common Eider, Common Loon, and Black Guillemot, and seasonally to scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Atlantic Puffin (scarce), and Iceland Gull.
If possible, try to spend a night or two on the island (it has a handful of inns, cottages, and B&Bs) because a day trip via ferry leaves little time for birding.
The coastal town of Biddeford has long been a favorite location for seeing waterfowl, wading birds, and shorebirds. Popular spots include an enclosed bay called Biddeford Pool and Maine Audubon’s East Point Sanctuary.
Access is not straightforward, though. To bird the pool, follow Highway 208 south to Hattie’s restaurant, park and ask permission, and then walk to the pool to scan for wintering Brant and ducks, summer wading birds, and shorebirds. A falling tide is best, and a spotting scope is very helpful.
East Point Sanctuary, on Orcutt Boulevard, also has limited parking. It’s worth angling for a space. From fall to spring, visitors can see Brant, all three scoters, Long-tailed Duck, Red-breasted Merganser, Red-throated Loon, Red-necked Grebe, Northern Gannet, Great Cormorant, Purple Sandpiper, Razorbill, and Black Guillemot, to name a few regular species. Be careful on the sanctuary’s rocks and respect private property as you explore this area.
About 10 miles southwest of Portland, Scarborough Marsh encompasses Maine’s largest expanse of salt marsh. It’s an excellent birding destination year-round. If you’re visiting in summer, stop first at the Audubon Center on Pine Point Road (Highway 9) for maps and advice on exploring this 3,100-acre estuary.
There’s a short nature trail at the Audubon Center, and canoes and kayaks can be rented. The center offers guided tours seasonally. Farther south, Pine Point Road crosses the Eastern Trail, which provides another access point into the marsh. Or you can continue to the Town Landing area.
Great Blue Heron, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Little Blue Heron, Tricolored Heron, Green Heron, Black-crowned Night-Heron, and Glossy Ibis are seen here in summer, along with Osprey, Bald Eagle, Virginia Rail, Least Tern, Roseate Tern, and Common Tern. Also look for Belted Kingfisher, Marsh Wren, Common Yellowthroat, Nelson’s Sparrow, Saltmarsh Sparrow, Swamp Sparrow, and Bobolink.
From fall through spring, the marsh harbors diving ducks, loons, and grebes. Shorebirds are present from spring through fall, peaking in August when 20 or more species may be seen.
In Falmough, just a few minutes from downtown Portland, Gilsland Farm Audubon Center offers good birding in 65 acres of woodland, salt marsh, and grassland. The headquarters for Maine Audubon, it presents varied programs throughout the year.
The center’s 2.5 miles of trails, as well as viewpoints onto the Presumpscot River estuary, have contributed to a bird list of around 250 species. Birds seen in nesting season include Wood Duck, Wild Turkey, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Glossy Ibis, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Alder Flycatcher, Willow Flycatcher, Marsh Wren, Cedar Waxwing, Black-and-white Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, Bobolink, and Baltimore Oriole.
The month of May can bring a variety of thrushes, warblers, and other migrant songbirds, and several species of shorebirds frequent the estuary in August. If you happen to be in Portland in May, consider a visit to Evergreen Cemetery on Stevens Avenue. This is considered the state’s best locale for songbird fallouts, when weather conditions cause large numbers of birds to congregate in patches of vegetation. Representatives of Maine Audubon lead guided bird walks at 7 a.m. daily in mid-May.
One of America’s most beautiful and popular national parks, Acadia is a place of rugged shores, quiet ponds, rocky cliffs, and winding trails through forests of conifers and northern hardwoods. Its bird list of more than 230 species ranges from the Winter Wren of deep forest to the Peregrine Falcon nesting on steep cliffs.
Set mostly on Mount Desert Island, Acadia has plenty of vantage points from which to scan the Atlantic for birds such as Common Eider, Red-throated Loon, Great Cormorant, Black Guillemot, Common Tern, Arctic Tern, and scoters. Osprey and Bald Eagle nest on lakes and coasts. Be sure to bird sites along Seawall Road in the southwestern part of the island for a broader range of habitats.
Along inland trails, look for nesting Ruffed Grouse, Alder Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Golden-crowned Kinglet, Hermit Thrush, Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Purple Finch, and Pine Siskin. Schoodic Point, the only portion of Acadia on the mainland, has more gorgeous seascapes and birding.
For a chance to see seabirds such as Northern Fulmar, Great Shearwater, Common Murre, Razorbill, and Atlantic Puffin, considering taking a whale-watching or seabird cruise from Bar Harbor. In fall, a hawk watch held on Cadillac Mountain often brings sightings of Osprey, Northern Harrier, Sharp-shinned Hawk, Cooper’s Hawk, Bald Eagle, Broad-winged Hawk, Merlin, and Peregrine Falcon.
Marked by one of Maine’s most iconic lighthouses, this 541-acre state park encompasses the easternmost point in the United States. Its coastal location makes it a good lookout site for seabirds, and its woodland is home to interesting land birds.
Common Eider, Common Loon, Bald Eagle, Razorbill (scarce), Black Guillemot, and Great Black-backed Gull are seen year-round, while summer brings Osprey and late summer Northern Gannet and Black-legged Kittiwake. Between fall and spring there’s a chance of Harlequin Duck, all three scoters, Great Cormorant, and Purple Sandpiper.
Walking the inland trails might bring sightings of Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Boreal Chickadee, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Brown Creeper, Swainson’s Thrush, Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Palm Warbler, Blackpoll Warbler, and Lincoln’s Sparrow.
With luck, the woodland at Quoddy Head could produce Spruce Grouse, Black-backed Woodpecker, Gray Jay, or White-winged Crossbill—though none should be expected.
Located on Highway 99 about 5 miles west of Kennebunk, this preserve is a largely treeless 2,000-acre habitat called a blueberry barrens. Old roads make walking easy for those who’d like to explore a natural area with several rare animals and plants. (The threatened northern blazing star wildflower, a liatris, has a significant population here.)
Birders know Kennebunk Plains as breeding grounds for regionally rare or unusual species. Among them are Upland Sandpiper, Grasshopper Sparrow, Clay-colored Sparrow (scarce), and Vesper Sparrow.
The local bird list of 170-plus species includes much more than the specialties, including Ruffed Grouse, Wild Turkey, Broad-winged Hawk, Eastern Whip-poor-will, Alder Flycatcher, Least Flycatcher, Horned Lark, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Prairie Warbler, Savannah Sparrow, Bobolink, and Eastern Meadowlark.
Just south of Kennebunkport, this reserve has a bird list of around 240 and protects habitats including salt marsh, forest, and Atlantic Ocean beach. The Maine Coastal Ecology Center here features exhibits explaining ongoing research on estuarine environments. Visitors can walk seven miles of trails, including a Salt Marsh Loop, a Forest Interpretive Trail, and a path to the beach at the mouth of the Little River.
Birds that might be seen here in summer include Wild Turkey, Great Egret, Snowy Egret, Osprey, Bald Eagle, Piping Plover, Willet, Least Tern, Common Tern, Alder Flycatcher, Veery, Chestnut-sided Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Nelson’s Sparrow, and Bobolink. Common Eider is present year-round, as are scoters and Red-necked Grebe (albeit more sporadically). Shorebirds are most common in August.
The 326-square-mile Baxter State Park in north-central Maine protects one of the most important wilderness areas in the Northeast, and it offers excellent birding for species of the boreal forest. Maine’s highest peak, 5,269-foot Mount Katahdin, is the centerpiece of the park, as well as the northern end point of the Appalachian Trail.
Snow can begin in the park in mid-November and last through April. Be aware that roads are unpaved and have restrictions on vehicle size; there is no treated drinking water in the park and the only restrooms are outhouses. Visitors should bring all the supplies they might need. But none of this information should keep birders from a summer visit to this superb destination.
Notable birds of the park include Spruce Grouse, Northern Goshawk, Northern Saw-whet Owl, American Three-toed Woodpecker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Merlin, Yellow-bellied Flycatcher, Blue-headed Vireo, Philadelphia Vireo, Gray Jay, Boreal Chickadee, Bicknell’s Thrush (above 3,000 feet), and White-winged Crossbill—not to mention a very, very long list of breeding warblers, including Mourning, Cape May, Bay-breasted, and Blackpoll.
All told, the park has 200 miles of trails to explore. Good starting points are the area around Roaring Brook Campground and the road beyond Nesowadnehunk Field Campground.
Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge comprises two units about 20 miles apart (as the raven flies; it’s farther by road). The Baring Division lies south of Highway 1, near the town of the same name in extreme eastern Maine. This area provides excellent birding for marsh birds and many boreal species typical of northern forests.
The refuge headquarters is located on Charlotte Road, about 2.5 miles south of Highway 1, and has maps and information. In addition to several hiking trails, many miles of roads, closed to vehicles but open to walkers, provide access to forest and extensive wetlands, such as bogs, heaths, and impoundments. Look for wildlife-viewing platforms along Charlotte Road.
Birds nesting on the refuge include American Black Duck, Ring-necked Duck, Ruffed Grouse, Spruce Grouse, Osprey, Bald Eagle (a nest-viewing area is located on Highway 1), Virginia Rail, Sora, Yellow-bellied Sapsucker, Black-backed Woodpecker, Blue-headed Vireo, Boreal Chickadee, Veery, Hermit Thrush, Nashville Warbler, Magnolia Warbler, Bay-breasted Warbler, Blackburnian Warbler, Black-throated Blue Warbler, Palm Warbler, Black-throated Green Warbler, Swamp Sparrow, and Purple Finch.
One special bird at Moosehorn National Wildlife Refuge is American Woodcock. The refuge has a handicapped-accessible trail dedicated to seeing this bird’s amazing courtship flight in April and May.
Anchoring the northern end of our Atlantic Coast, Maine is almost as large as all the rest of the New England states combined, with miles of wild coastline and vast tracts of wilderness offering plenty of room to roam. The state’s birding trail is divided into 14 separate loops, showcasing the wide range of natural habitats. Many visitors will be eager to explore the north woods, looking for creatures more typical in Canadian boreal zones. Here you can find huskyvoiced boreal chickadees, colorful pine grosbeaks, nomadic white-winged crossbills, and more. Those who are lucky enough to spot a famous spruce grouse will delight in how astonishingly tame this little forest chicken can be. Other trail loops weave through hardwood forests, wild rivers, blueberry barrens, beaver ponds, and coastal marshes. Of course, prominent among Maine’s main attractions are the offshore islands, and this trail includes multiple departure points for boat trips heading out to seek seabirds like terns, guillemots, and the celebrated Atlantic puffin. Audubon scientists have succeeded in reintroducing puffins to several islands where they had vanished, so your chances of seeing this comical bird have improved in recent years. —Kenn Kaufman
Audubon State Office and Centers*
- Borestone Mountain Sanctuary
- East Point Sanctuary
- Hamilton Sanctuary
- Josephine Newman Sanctuary
- Mast Landing Sanctuary
- Todd Wildlife Sanctuary
- Fields Pond Audubon Center
- Gilsland Farm Audubon Center
- Hog Island Audubon Center
- Project Puffin Visitor Center
- Scarborough Marsh Audubon Center
*Be sure to call ahead before visiting Audubon centers to make sure that they are open to the public.