From a birding standpoint Maine can be roughly divided into six regions, each with a characteristic mix of breeding bird species, although considerable overlap occurs. During the migration seasons these distinctions blur further, as mixed flocks of shorebirds, passerines, raptors, and waterfowl take advantage of favorable habitat along their routes. During the winter months interior Maine is largely deserted by all but the hardiest species, but the coast harbors large numbers of waterfowl, seabirds, and lingering passerines.
The following is a partial list of some of the better-known birding sites in Maine, the type of habitat represented, and what birds to look for in the region. Reports of unusual sightings and concentrations of interesting birds are recorded on the Maine Birds online discussion group.
Interior southern Maine is covered by a northern deciduous forest. Characterized by red oak, white pine, sugar maple, red maple, eastern hemlock and interspersed throughout with remnant and succeeding agricultural lands, this region supports birdlife similar to southern New England.
American woodcock, broad-winged hawk, ruffed grouse, alder and great-crested flycatchers, black-capped chickadee, hermit thrush, wood thrush, veery, scarlet tanager, red-eyed vireo, chestnut-sided and Nashville warblers, common yellowthroat, ovenbird, rose-breasted grosbeak, and song sparrow are among the typical breeding species of the deciduous woodlands in this region.
American bittern, green heron, Virginia and sora rails, black duck, wood duck, yellow warbler, northern waterthrush, red-winged blackbirds, and swamp sparrows are common in the many marshes and wetlands that dot the region.
North of Bangor the forest cover becomes progressively more transitional in character as balsam fir, spruce, tamarack, and cedar intermix with maple, beech, and birch. Sparsely populated but extensively managed by the wood products industry, this is a landscape of large forest tracts–and large clearcuts. It is also a well-watered landscape, with thousands of lakes, ponds, bogs, wetlands, streams, and rivers that are prime wildlife habitat–and nurseries for hordes of insects. The abundance of food and large tracts of habitat support a high density of breeding birds, including many Neotropical migrants. For many birders warblers are the region’s premier attraction; finding twelve to fifteen different species on June walk would not be out of the question. In addition to warblers, some characteristic birds of this region include common loon, northern goshawk, yellow-bellied and olive-sided flycatchers, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, hermit and Swainson’s thrushes, rusty blackbird, white-throated and Lincoln’s sparrows, purple finch, white-winged crossbill, and evening grosbeak.
Outside the northern forest, the blueberry barrens of Washington County and the agricultural area of eastern Aroostook County deserve attention from birders. The barrens in particular are a unique habitat well worth birding. Here one may find grassland birds in close proximity to those from the northern boreal forest, as well as strays from the nearby coast.
Now that logging roads penetrate virtually all of Maine’s northern forest, access to good bird habitat is almost unlimited. And because much of this vast region has never been thoroughly birded, the possibilities for discovering new hotspots are high.
The Appalachians extend into western Maine 200 miles from southern Oxford to northern Piscataquis counties. Average elevation in the region ranges between 1500 and 2000 feet, with numerous peaks over 3000 feet. Katahdin is the highest point at 5200 feet.
The climate in this picturesque region is relatively severe. Northern hardwoods cover many of the sheltered slopes, but a boreal forest of spruce and fir dominates the exposed and higher elevation areas. Spruce grouse, black-backed woodpecker, yellow-bellied flycatcher, northern raven, gray jay, boreal chickadee, winter wren, Swainson’s and gray-cheeked thrushes, golden-crowned kinglet, blackpoll warbler, white-throated sparrow, and dark-eyed junco are all among the characteristic birds to be found here.
Many of the species that live in this region are among the most sought after by birders from all over the country. Although many of these birds are comparatively tame and allow close approach, they typically live in remote places that require some hiking.
From Kittery Point to Casco Bay, the Maine coast is geologically and biologically an extension of the mid-Atlantic seashore.
Distinguished by sand beaches and saltmarsh estuaries separated by rocky capes and headlands, the southwest coast offers breeding habitat for a number of species that reach the northern edge of their ranges here. In salt marshes look for glossy ibis, snowy egret, little blue, great blue, tri-colored, green, and black-crowned night herons, blue-winged teal, mallard, black duck, willet, snipe, and savannah and sharp-tailed sparrows. On the beaches endangered least terns and piping plovers hold on as nesting species with help from Maine Audubon and other conservationists.
It is during the migration seasons and the winter, however, that the southwest coast offers the best birding. From mid May to early June, and then again from mid July through September, migrating shorebirds are on the move in Maine. At these times a birder may find 17 or more species of shorebirds, some in spectacularly large flocks. Mixed flocks of migrating landbirds also follow the coastline, stopping to rest and feed in available habitat that is also often easily accessible to birders. During the winter months the southwest coast easily provides the best birding in the state in terms of the number of species to be found.
The southwest coast is the most populous area of the state, and thus the most heavily birded.
From Casco Bay to Penobscot Bay, Midcoast Maine is defined by long rocky peninsulas and island-studded bays. This is the beginning of the Atlantic boreal coast. The cool maritime climate and shallow soil favors a forest of red spruce and fir, which is in turn reflected by the land birds one finds here. Much like the mountain and northern forest regions, the Midcoast forest features a remarkable variety of northern warblers. Swainson’s thrush, red-breasted nuthatch, winter wren, golden-crowned kinglet, dark-eyed junco, and white-winged crossbill are other typical species of the region.
The geology of this “flooded coast,” coupled with 9 to 11-foot tidal ranges offers a diversity of habitat attractive to many bird species. Black guillemots, which nest commonly along rocky shores, are the characteristic alcid, but Atlantic puffins are increasing on offshore islands, as are razorbills. Common eiders are abundant throughout the year, while a dozen or so other waterfowl species spend October through April in the many coves and bays. Prominent, too, are terns and osprey, whose populations have rebounded from near collapse earlier in the century.
Midcoast Maine has been well scoped by birders. The geography is perhaps the most conducive in the state for finding vagrant migrants. And not only are there are a variety of habitats to cover, but the scenery is spectacular.
From Mount Desert Island to Passamaquoddy Bay on the Canadian border, Maine’s Downeast coast has a distinctly boreal character. Cold, nutrient-rich water mixed by strong tidal currents supports a diverse marine food web, which includes many pelagic birds. The cold water is the cause of frequent fog that blows in over the exposed rocky shore, creating a lush environment for a northern maritime spruce-fir forest. Along the estuaries a tidal range of up to 26 feet exposes vast mudflats for migrating shorebirds to feed.
Pelagic birds likely to be encountered offshore include greater, sooty, and manx shearwaters; northern fulmar, Wilson’s storm-petrel, and northern gannet. On several offshore islands Atlantic puffins, razorbills, Leach’s storm-petrels, and Arctic and common terns nest in the coast’s largest seabird colonies. Ashore among the spruce and fir one can find spruce grouse, black-backed woodpecker, gray jay, boreal chickadee, olive-sided flycatcher, yellow-bellied flycatcher, Philadelphia vireo, and more than a dozen species of warblers.
East of Mount Desert Island, much of Downeast Maine is still remote with limited tourist traffic and services. Of all the regions in the state, this area offers probably the most interesting birding in terms of the species to be found–an area for serious birders to explore.