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The question came up recently about where to go for the best wildlife viewing in Maine, and I was surprised to hear people suggesting parks, state forests or even golf courses as good places to see, observe and photograph wildlife.
In fact, any place that is wide open, dominated by mature trees and is easy to walk through is probably the worst choice if a diversity of wildlife is your goal. Few bird and animal species feel safe and secure when they are fully exposed, which is part of the reason why you rarely see much wildlife in stands of mature forest or on open lawns. Also, there’s not much to eat in such places. You will find a few boreal birds inhabiting the treetops in climax forest, but at ground level the opportunities to observe wildlife is nil. That is the first thing I notice whenever I happen to wander through a stand of tall, stately trees – there’s nothing there!
Few people want to hear it, but to see the greatest variety of large and small critters, head for water. Walk along any river, stream, pond or beaver flowage and you’ll see everything from mice to moose. Water attracts all sorts of creatures on its own, but water also means succulent shoreline plants and a wide variety of herbaceous species, which also means a wide variety of bird and animal life. Nowhere else is the “food chain” so evident as it is near water. Plants, insects, crustaceans and small animals (frogs, snakes and the like) attract all kinds of bigger creatures to the water’s edge. The signs of many nocturnal animals (raccoons, mink, otters, muskrats, deer, bear and moose) will be found in the shoreline mud, and if you get out there early or late in the day you will likely see these species up close and personal.
Bird life is abundant near water as well. Most of our native birds are brush-loving creatures, and low growth is the norm along any shoreline. Take a seat on a rock or log just inside the woods and watch and listen for a while. You’ll hear hawks, kingfishers, blackbirds, blue jays, chickadees, wrens, nuthatches, sparrows, robins and many other species, including the tiny, surprisingly silent warblers that flit from branch to branch just overhead. Of course, you’ll hear crows and ravens, maybe a grouse or woodcock, and wild turkeys as well. All of these creatures feed in, on or around waterways and swamps, and most nest in the adjoining cover as well.
Perhaps the best way to observe wildlife in our local wetlands is to hop into a canoe or kayak and do some exploring. Certainly the main watercourse will have enough going on to keep you busy (ducks, geese, shore birds and herons are abundant in these places), but I’d recommend that you duck into any small cove or feeder stream you come to and see what you can find.
Few humans ever wander into these obscure areas, so most wildlife species are surprisingly tame when they are encountered. It’s nothing to paddle right up to beavers, snakes, ducks and other water-based critters, and there may be fishers, martens, weasels and other animals nearby as well. Paddle quietly and use your eyes to find and observe your surroundings. Many times you’ll catch a deer or moose crouching behind some brush observing you, and if your movements are slow and non-threatening, they will stay put as you go by.
When you need a break, paddle to shore at a point where mature forest come down to the edge of the wetland area. Find the natural plateau where the woods meets the marsh and walk along this natural travel way. The open woods will seem empty of life, but the marshy cover will be rich with the sights, sounds and sign of a rich diversity of wildlife. Woodpeckers, blue jays and nuthatches will be busy in this zone, especially around the old, dead trees that loom like ghosts in the lush foliage.
You’re likely to find a stand of stripped hemlocks in this transition zone between wet and dry, and the odds are that a porcupine (or lots of porcupines) has been busy denuding the branches.
Of course, you should encounter plenty of squirrels, chipmunks and grouse along the plateau, and if the going is extremely wet you should see wood ducks, black ducks and even mallards or teal where the water is deep enough to sustain them.
Most folks don’t realize it but late summer is the best time to observe wildlife because the breeding and rearing seasons are over and food is plentiful. That means you’ll see higher numbers of everything until the annual migration period begins and populations start to dwindle going into fall. For example, grouse families will still be traveling together as a group, and you can often flush six, eight or more of them in one place – a rare event come mid-October.
Some bird species gather in huge flocks in preparation for flying south in anticipation of winter (black birds and starlings are among the obvious examples). It’s hard to miss a flock of 400 or more grackles, starlings or blackbirds when they are right overhead! The rustle of their wings as they explode into flight is more than worth the trip!
If you want to enjoy your wildlife watching more, forget the parks and stately woods and head for the nearest lake, pond or swamp. You will be surprised at the diversity of wildlife you see and that, in most cases, you’ll have the place all to yourself! Few people (other than hunters) venture into these areas, and our area of the state is flush with wetlands and waterways where wildlife is abundant and easily observed.
Wear your PFD when boating and be sure to bring quality binoculars with you. Wetland wildlife is trusting to a point, but binoculars will help you traverse those last few feet where “a bird” becomes a scarlet tanager in full, brilliant plumage.
Go out, look around and see what you can find. Bring your wildlife identification book and your “life list,” because you’re going to need them!
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