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Exploring Coastal Maine

Updated: Aug 7, 2021

This is a long blog post about a long-awaited Maine trip that my wife and I delayed last year due to the pandemic. Before the daily play-by-play, here’s the big picture: We flew into Portland and drove a rental car up and down the coast (all the way to the Canadian border), splitting our 7 nights between AirBnBs and camping. We hiked a lot (perhaps too much) around some of the most breathtaking coastal landscapes I’ve ever seen. Forests on a cliff. We checked out a bunch of small towns (the only kind in Maine); some of them really captured our hearts (and retirement plans). Belfast is #1. We took two boat trips into the Gulf of Maine, each of which afforded intimate wildlife encounters (including a bunch of lifer birds for me). Across all these activities, the weather was a mixed bag, with a few gloriously sunny days squeezed between clouds, fog, or rain (apparently this was the wettest July in Portland in the last 100 years). But it was hard to complain about the weather; temps ranging from the upper-50s to the mid-70s were a welcome break from the heat and humidity of NC.

Friday: Arrival

We flew direct from Raleigh to Portland, arriving Friday afternoon to overcast skies and a light drizzle. We wandered downtown, had a nice dinner, picked up provisions, and were on our way. I’m working with a limited travel palette, but Portland was like a miniature version of Seattle, mixed with a heavy helping of Asheville, with a little Durham on top. (I think I just mixed painting and cooking metaphors.) Anyway, I wouldn’t mind spending a bit more time around town on our next trip to Maine. It’s a cool city.

After our brief Portland jaunt, we headed north to our home base for the next few days: a mini-cabin near Stockton Springs. This was a great find by my wife (she was responsible for eating and sleeping, and I was responsible for exploring). The cabin was efficiently designed, with nary a square inch of wasted space, without sacrificing any comfort. It was also well-built, with softwood floorboards at least 16 inches across and other signs of a well-executed construction job. Add nice landscaping, a nice view, and a convenient location near many midcoast Maine destinations, and we had a winner.

Saturday: Penobscot Bay to the Gulf of Maine

Our first full day in Maine was packed with action, as we slowly made our way down the Penobscot Bay towards the ocean. It started early for me; sunrise is around 4:30 up there and I have trouble sleeping in when there’s exploring to do. I took a short stroll to scope out Sandy Point Park, conveniently located a quarter mile from our cabin. The park juts out into either the Penobscot River or the Penobscot Bay (hard to tell where one ends and the other begins), and features a “sandy” beach (by Maine standards, I guess), a beaver pond (complete with a few beavers), and a couple miles of nice trails through a prototypical coastal Maine forest. More on that in a minute.

After my initial foray, I returned with my wife for a longer hike through the park. This was our first exposure to the “enchanted forest” or “fairy forest” typical of Maine’s moist woodlands. The formula is pretty simple: conifers (esp. Spruces and Firs) + moss + moisture = enchanted forest. These are boggy places, and even in July the trails would’ve been nearly impassible if it weren’t for the skinny wooden “bog bridges” that are ubiquitous in Maine. Wildlife along the trail was interesting, and approximated that of North Carolina’s higher-elevation mountains, with a few additions. Eastern Gray Squirrels, Red Squirrels, and Chipmunks were all present. We flushed a Ruffed Grouse and got great looks at both Canada and Nashville Warblers, among many other species. The ethereal songs of Hermit Thrushes followed us everywhere.

The park’s waterfront was interesting, too. An old dock hosted a breeding colony of a few hundred Double-crested Cormorants, the first I’d ever seen. I was also able to scope out some Common Eiders in the distance (which actually live up to their name this far north). But the main waterfront targets were seals. I managed distant, but definitive, looks at both Harbor Seals and Gray Seals. This was my first encounter with Harbor Seals on the east coast (so, a new subspecies for me), and Gray Seals were entirely new to me. Pretty nice for a small park in the backyard of an AirBnB!

After Sandy Point, we hopped in the car for breakfast in Belfast, followed by a stroll around the town, its waterfront docks, and a footbridge that spans the Passagassawakeag River. What can I say? My wife and I fell in love with Belfast. Although we drove and walked through a dozen other charming Maine towns during the trip, none had quite the same feel as Belfast. This is subjective and hard to quantify, but the downtown commercial district was just the right size, just the right age, with just the right types of stores; it was seamlessly integrated with a scenic working waterfront (complete with lobster boats, sailboats, and a full-sized shipyard) and a quiet neighborhood; and it was filled with just enough friendly people and relatively few tourists. While in Belfast, we also hiked a nice trail paralleling the Little River (you know which Little River I’m talking about, right?).

Camden came next, where we enjoyed a waterfront seafood lunch before rambling around town. Camden has its charms and was far more vibrant than Belfast, but perhaps too much for our tastes. To put it simply, the town was overrun with tourists and traffic. It would’ve rated higher in my book if it weren’t for all the people.

By mid-afternoon, we left the Penobscot Bay towns and headed towards the Atlantic. We first climbed around the rocky shoreline of the Rachel Carson Preserve, just outside of New Harbor. This was our first exposure to Maine’s rugged coastline, and my first exposure to Black Guillemots, a striking alcid (bird lifer #1).

After this quick stop, we sat on the New Harbor docks, awaiting the boat that would take us on our first voyage into the Gulf of Maine. Our destination was Eastern Egg Rock, home of the southernmost breeding colony of Atlantic Puffins (following an inspiring decades-old reintroduction effort). The boat ride was relatively short—less than 5 miles offshore. At the mouth of the harbor we saw some Common Eider ducklings floating in the surf, and once we hit open water I spotted a Wilson’s Storm Petrel. As we circled the 7-acre island, we were surrounded with breeding seabirds, including the target Atlantic Puffins (lifer #2). We saw a couple dozen of these charismatic alcids at close range: sitting in the water, standing on the rocky shoreline, and flying around with mouthfuls of dinner for their pufflings (yeah, that’s a real word). There were also hundreds of Black Guillemots, dozens of Common Eiders, and at least two Roseate Terns (lifer #3), along with many Common Terns and Laughing Gulls that breed on the island. The best non-breeding birds were a pair of Razorbills, which I’d never before seen in their breeding plumage (they breed farther north). If you’re reading this and planning a trip to Maine, I highly recommend this short cruise. Even if you’re a landlubbing non-birder, I guarantee you’ll enjoy it.

After the cruise, we grabbed a seafood dinner in New Harbor. Haddock is apparently the only fish served in Maine, but I’m not complaining. The 2-hour drive back to the cabin had a silver lining: a Snowshoe Hare (alive, and a lifer) on the side of Hwy 130, near Bristol.

Sunday: Rainy Day

On Sunday, it rained. So, we slept in and rain checked our more ambitious plans in favor of a casual day exploring more of the Penobscot Bay area. Our first stop was a return to Belfast for breakfast and another walk around town. Next was a hike through Moose Point State Park, where we saw a few more Gray Seals and a Harbor Porpoise, plus a handful of good birds like Veery and Yellow Warbler (common in Maine). We bailed on a potential third destination, Sears Island, due to the rain. After relaxing at the cabin for a bit, my wife and I returned to the neighborhood park for some more seal watching. The extraordinarily low tides brought at least 18 Harbor Seals out on some nearby rocks, and at least 6 Gray Seals were loafing in the water. My last stop for the drizzly evening was Sandy Point WMA (what we’d call a Game Land in NC). It featured an extensive marsh nestled between small mountains, and although it was easy to access (only a couple miles from our cabin), it was not particularly accessible. I sloshed around the marsh, and after losing (and reclaiming) one shoe in the muck, managed to see some interesting stuff, including Wood Ducks, juvenile Tree Swallows, and some Moose scat. That, plus a good pizza dinner, spelled an end to this rainy but relaxing day.

Monday: Acadia National Park (NP)

We fulfilled our original Sunday plans on Monday, with a trip to Acadia NP. It was worth the wait, as we had perfect sunny weather all day. Before we left, everyone and their brother told us how great Acadia was, so naturally I was concerned that it would be overhyped and overcrowded. Neither were the case. Acadia was the most spectacular place we visited the whole week, edging out a lot of other spectacular places (if only narrowly). We beat the crowds by arriving around 5:30 AM (a full hour after sunrise, so not that crazy, but we were a couple hours away, so maybe a little crazy).

We cruised the nearly traffic-free and Loop Road, which is the most scenic road I have ever driven (topping Route 1 in California, Hwy 98 near Apalachicola, and the BRP). We stopped at a few key destinations. First was the base of Precipice Trail, which was closed to protect nesting Peregrine Falcons. I managed to hear one screaming from the cliffs, but never saw it. Next was Sand Beach, which reminded me of the Marin Headlands in California—it progressed from a forested creek, to a well-vegetated lagoon, to a stream cutting through a sandy beach, to a small cove flanked by cliffs, and finally to the Atlantic Ocean. Our third stop was Otter Point/ Otter Cliffs, where we took a short but breathtaking hike along the cliffs bordering the ocean. I saw a handful of Black Guillemots and I’m pretty sure I heard a Common Nighthawk calling.

We completed the scenic loop road after a couple hours and began our first real hike of the day, a 5-mile loop that took us through a nice mix of scenery. We began in the swampy forests near Sieur de Monts spring, trekked up and down Dorr Mountain’s granite dome, and finished alongside the creeks, marshes, and ponds of the Gorge and the Tarn. Dorr Mountain itself was really spectacular. We hiked (sometimes scrambled) up a gentle granite ridge, and every time we turned around, we were treated to panoramic views of Bar Harbor, the bay, and the ocean. We never saw a soul on this lesser-known mountain. However, by the time we summited (at 1270 feet above the nearby ocean), we did see dozens of people atop the much better-known Cadillac Mountain. Maybe they had better views than us, but I’m not convinced anyone did. On the tail end of the hike, the late morning sun woke up some odonates in the wetlands of the Gorge and the Tarn. As you might expect (?), this was pretty exciting to me. Of the dragon- and damselflies that call Maine home, a significant proportion aren’t found in NC and are new for me. (By contrast, a lower proportion of Maine’s butterflies, and very few of Maine’s birds, aren’t findable in NC.) Since this was a “hike,” I only stopped a few times, but I still managed to see three lifers, including Chalk-fronted Corporal, White Corporal, and Frosted Whiteface.

After the hike, we headed to downtown Bar Harbor for brunch. This was another place we’d heard a lot about, and apparently so had everyone else. It was beset by tourists and tourist-focused retail stores, spoiling a bit of its charm. And the people there apparently don’t know how to poach an egg.

We left Mount Desert Island to check out a different segment of Acadia NP—the Schoodic Peninsula section. It was almost as scenic, with admittedly lower peaks and with fewer crowds. After another hike, we were treated to spectacular views from the rocky 442-foot Schoodic Head summit. While atop the mountain, we were greeted by a Canadian Tiger Swallowtail (lifer butterfly) and few White Admirals (not technically a lifer, but a new subspecies). I’m also pretty sure I saw a Black Saddlebags, an exceptionally uncommon species in Maine. As we returned to our car, a Merlin buzzed overhead, flying towards one of the many islands dotting the coastline.

After Acadia, we headed north on US-1 towards the northeasternmost part of the state, known as “Downeast” or the “Bold Coast.” We took a slight detour traversing a few miles of gravel roads through Maine’s famous Blueberry Barrens, where an expanse of thousands of hilly acres are dedicated to the production of the native lowbush blueberry. While we didn’t see any Upland Sandpipers (known to breed here), we did see a Wild Turkey and some other birds.

As evening approached, we arrived at Cobscook Bay SP, our home base for the next few days. The park features over 100 quiet, heavily forested campsites, some of which (not ours) have spectacular views of the tidal bay. On a stroll around the park, we watched a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker bring food to its young chicks, and were surrounded by a chorus of at least a half-dozen Swainson’s Thrushes singing their ethereal songs. The dancing flames of our campfire lulled us to an early sleep.

Tuesday: Exploring the Bold Coast

Tuesday morning was extremely foggy; this is apparently the norm Downeast. The fog lent an air of mystery to the already-enchanted coastal woods we explored, and on balance I’d say it was a good thing. Our first destination was the Boot Head preserve, home to a wonderfully preserved, moist, moss-blanketed, spruce-filled boreal forest, perched above rugged 80-foot oceanfront cliffs. It also features a bog with a short boardwalk, complete with Pitcher Plants and other interesting flora. The birding was disappointingly quiet, and I wasn’t able to locate any of my boreal target birds during this hike—or, for that matter, on any of the other numerous boreal forest hikes on the trip. Maybe next time.

After Boot Head, we drove a couple miles north to another property managed by the same land trust: Hamilton Cove preserve. The scenery here was quite different, with expansive boggy meadows leading to more fog-shrouded cliffs. The nature highlight was a calling Alder Flycatcher, my first of the trip.

With two hikes under our belt, we spent midday in Lubec—the easternmost city in the US, separated from Canada by only a 300-yard channel. We would’ve liked to visit Canada (neither of us ever have), but our “friendly” neighbor’s border was closed to tourists. That didn’t stop me from doing a little international birding. Upon arrival, my first-ever foreign bird was a Common Eider loafing across the channel in Canadian waters. We also saw multiple Gray Seals and Harbor Seals frolicking near the Lubec jetty; these were probably in American waters, but they didn’t seem to pay much heed to our imaginary lines.

We strolled through the town, grabbed some warm caffeinated beverages, hiked an impressive boardwalk through the shrubby marsh at Mowry Beach Park, then worked our way back downtown for a waterfront lunch. I had an obligatory lobster roll. No complaints, but lobster is overhyped. I’d put crab, scallops, and oysters ahead of lobster in a shellfish taste competition.

After lunch, we made the short drive from Lubec to Quoddy Head SP—the easternmost point of the continental US. We hiked a tiring 4-mile loop through mossy boreal forests, an extensive bog boardwalk, and lots of very wet cliffside trails. It was basically a more extensive, slightly more varied version of the Boot Head hike from the morning; enveloped by a similarly persistent fog. I didn’t run across too many birds, but we enjoyed great looks at a Snowshoe Hare and marveled at its comically large and furry white feet (responsible for its name).

The fog finally lifted in the afternoon. We headed back towards our campsite to enjoy the sunny mid-70s weather. I spent some time surveying a small pond near the headquarters of Moosehorn NWR. While there, I was rewarded with some new odes—a Dot-tailed Whiteface and many Marsh Bluets—as well as a new frog—a Mink Frog.

After that, we made a short hike within Cobscook Bay SP to an overlook on Cunningham Mountain, a rocky outcrop perched 120 feet over the bay. We spent the late afternoon enjoying our perch in solitude, joined by a few Common Nighthawks and a pair of Racket-tailed Emeralds (lifer odes). After that, it was a short drive back to our campsite for another relaxing night.

Wednesday: Downeast Cont’d

I arose early on Wednesday and, while my wife slept in, spent a couple hours birding a local hotspot: the Edmunds tract of Moosehorn NWR. This was unquestionably the best birding of the trip, and deserved more of my attention than I was able to spare. Time and distance constraints required me to bird from the car, stopping occasionally to walk around. Compounding these difficulties was my own (relative) incompetence. Many of the more interesting Maine breeding birds are only brief migrants through NC, and I’ve never had much of a chance (or taken the time) to learn their songs, so more than a couple birds escaped identification. Nevertheless, highlights among the 11 species of warblers I could identify included a half dozen Nashvilles, a few Magnolias, a Blackburnian, and several Palms, plus a couple Alder Flycatchers and another Snowshoe Hare.

After breakfast at the campsite, we headed back to the Bold Coast for another hike, this time at the Cutler Coast Public Reserved Land. Overall, the 6.5-mile loop wasn’t particularly different from Boot Head or Quoddy Head, but it had less mossy spruce forest and a few more dry, rocky segments. Partly sunny skies replaced the prior day’s fog, finally providing us with spectacular views as we hiked the coastal cliffs. The wildlife highlight was undoubtedly a Porcupine ambling ahead of us on the trail (video below), followed by some good birds, including lots of Nashville Warblers, a Purple Finch, and a Black Guillemot in the surf. I also saw some more Racket-tailed Emeralds, as well as a new butterfly: a Northern Spring Azure.

Cutler Coast gave us severe hiking burnout, so we decided to spend the rest of the day enjoying the finer things around Lubec. Unfortunately, even during the height of season, Lubec is decidedly sleepy, and only a few businesses were open. After a casual lunch, we grabbed a beer at the local brewery and beer garden, entertained by a few butterflies nectaring on the abundant flowers, including another Canadian Tiger Swallowtail. This sparked an interesting discussion: why is this swallowtail’s name preceded by “Canadian”—a rather intuitive adjective—while everyone’s favorite goose is preceded by “Canada”—an attributive noun? (Don’t feel bad about the term “attributive noun”; I had to look that one up. But you should feel bad if you mistakenly call a Canada Goose a Canadian Goose. The latter term might trigger a nearby birder.) Within the bird world, all would-be-Canadian birds consistently begin with the word “Canada.” But this principle is equally consistently shunned for birds of other nationalities. Compare the Canada Goose, Canada Warbler, and Canada Jay with the American Robin, Mexican Jay, and European Starling. What about state-named birds? For some reason, we revert back to attributive nouns: Carolina Parakeet, California Condor, Louisiana Waterthrush. Is this some attempt to undermine Canada’s national sovereignty, placing it on the level of an American state? No amount of Lubec-brewed beers could solve this problem, so we eventually gave up.

With a limited number of options in Lubec, we shot back over to Quoddy Head SP for a sunny mid-afternoon trip, which I spent scanning the seas. Bird highlights included an immature Great Cormorant and a couple dozen Common Eiders roosting on a nearby rock island, plus a handful of Razorbills flying in the distance. A feeding frenzy of gulls a mile offshore drew my eye, where the birds were joined by a small pod of Harbor Porpoises.

We spent the rest of the evening in Lubec. First, more seal watching. Next, our best dinner of the trip (at the Water Street Tavern and Inn). Finally, our best (and only) sunset of the trip.

Thursday: Gulf of Maine

After a relaxing Thursday morning at our campsite, we headed south on US 1, back to Mount Desert Island. We broke up the drive with a short hike around a TNC preserve on Great Wass Island. We could’ve used a little more time to explore, but the mile or two we covered was interesting, with mossy spruce forests (surprise), a few bogs, and a lot of interesting, rocky pinewoods.

So, why the rush? Whales. But first, we had to fight for a parking space in Bar Harbor (this took a maddeningly long time), grab a quick lunch, and then wait nearly an hour with over 100 other people who had the same idea. At long last, we boarded the boat and—miraculously, given our spot in line—managed to grab the last pair of seats on the upper deck. Our perch was a bit cold as we cruised 55 miles at 30 knots, but the panoramic view from up top was worth it. As we cleared Schoodic Point, we saw roughly 120 Common Eiders and a handful of Black Guillemots loafed in the waters, along with some Harbor Seals loafing on the rocks. But the real fun came as we left the mainland far behind. We hurtled past a few dozen Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, a similar number of Great Shearwaters (Lifer #4 for the trip), and a few Northern Gannets, all well offshore in the Gulf of Maine.

After nearly two hours, we reached our destination: Grand Manan Banks, an underwater ledge in Canadian waters. The area was awash with activity. Our first sighting was a Basking Shark—the world’s second-largest shark, and a filter feeder like its larger, better-known cousin the Whale Shark. Living up to their name, these sharks filter food while floating at the water’s surface, appearing to bask (even under overcast skies). Many more of these followed, and eventually we were surrounded by a dozen distant dorsal fins.

It wasn’t long before we spotted our first of many Humpback Whales. We saw roughly a dozen of these too—some close, some far, and often surrounding the boat. The whales put on quite a show, engaging in every behavior you can think of: surfacing to breathe, tail-up dives, lunge feeding at the surface, and even a couple whale-out-of-the-water full breaches! I’ve seen distant Humpbacks off of Nags Head, and my wife and I saw a handful while in SE Alaska, but never more than one at a time. This experience was on a whole different level.

Where there are pelagic mammals, there are also pelagic birds. While cruising around Grand Manan Banks, I saw at least 65 more Great Shearwaters, a dozen Wilson’s Storm-Petrels, a single Leach’s Storm-Petrel, a Northern Fulmar (Lifer #5), and a young Long-tailed Jaeger (Lifer #6). Most of these were somewhat expected, but the jaeger was an unusual surprise. An even greater surprise buzzed the top of the boat just as we departed the banks: a pair of South Polar Skuas (Lifer #7)! This was a pretty big deal (at least to a birder), but I was nearly alone in celebrating; the few remaining whalewatchers on the upper deck didn’t seem to think twice about these big, brown, badass birds. As we picked up speed and headed back to land, my wife enjoyed the warmth of the boat’s cabin as I continued to brave the elements on the upper deck. It was worth it; about halfway back, I was rewarded by distant looks at a Pomarine Jaeger, my 8th and final lifer of the trip.

We made it back to shore just in time for a dark, drizzly drive to our final airBnB of the trip, at Come Spring Farm in Union, ME. We settled into in one of three enclosed geodesic domes, tastefully furnished and extremely comfortable. A few Common Loons added their haunting voices to rain patter, and we called it a night.

Friday: Departure

We made a quick lunch stop in Rockport, a small but pretty town on the Penobscot. Next was Rockland, a busier town with a bustling art scene; we enjoyed the Center for Maine Contemporary Art and a short walk around town. And that was our last hurrah of the trip, other than a very rainy drive to the airport and an unremarkable flight home. Returning to the humidity of North Carolina in July didn’t feel so great, but all good things must come to an end….

Summary by the numbers:

You know I like to quantify my experiences. This 8-day, 7-night trip involved 1400 miles of travel by the air and about 1000 by car, followed by roughly 130 miles by boat, 38 on foot, and 2 by canoe. (We’ll have to work in more paddling and biking on our next trip.) I saw a lot of animals. Birds come first: 103 species total; 99 were in Maine and 19 in Canada. All 8 lifers were basically pelagic birds; I “saved” all my target land birds for a future trip. These boosted my life list to 451 species. Next are the odes: there wasn’t a lot of sunshine, so I only saw 17 species of dragon- and damselflies, but this included 6 lifers, bringing my life list to 121 species. Leps: similar story as the odes: 11 species of butterflies, including 2 lifers and 1 new subspecies. Mammals: 10 species, including 3 lifers and 2 new subspecies for me. Seals are awesome. Herps: 4 species, including 1 lifer frog. Oh, and 2 species of fishes/sharks, both new.


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