Boreal specialties and northern songbirds
highly coveted species share a habitat preference for
Maine’s boreal forest, which is characterized by lots of spruce
trees. The boreal forest is spread widely through Canada, but it
also nudges across the border into the United States. Maine is
particularly fortunate because the influence of the ocean,
mountains, and boggy wetlands creates ideal conditions for this
habitat. These species are particularly coveted by birders and
they are often in close proximity to each other. However, each
is particular about the kind of conditions it prefers,
and knowing these preferences improves the chances of finding
one or all of them.
Grouse: This tame species can be found only in mature,
old growth, conifer forests. It can be located over much of
northern Maine and New Hampshire but virtually nowhere else in
New England. Spruce Grouse feed primarily on spruce needles with
a secondary preference for tamarack and red pine. In alpine areas,
spruce may be the only tree around, but at lower elevations, mixed
stands of spruce, cedar, tamarack, and fir can harbor this species,
especially close to bogs. The damp edges of bogs support laurel leaves
and berries – other grouse favorites. They are reluctant to flush in
summer and a male on territory may go only to the nearest branch where
he will watch you with considerable curiosity. The key: While they
require spruce, one key attribute of a favorite habitat is
sphagnum moss. If the forest floor is carpeted with moss, they
are more likely to be present. Also, the chicks feed voraciously
on insects, and so mothers with chicks are likely to be along
the edges of dirt roads in June and early July, especially on
logging roads in the north woods and in Baxter State Park.
Hiking trails along the Downeast coast can be a good place to
find one, particularly Great Wass Island, Western Head, and Boot
Head. Roosevelt International Park on Campobello contains a
resident population. They are also seen along the
trails of Maine’s western mountains.
Boreal Chickadee: This species reaches its
southern limit in Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, and New York. It
has an extensive range in Canada. It overlaps with the
Black-capped Chickadee and they often forage together. The
They like their spruce stands short and thick, preferably
impenetrable.. They do react to pishing and, when birding in a
thick spruce area, pishing out Black-capped Chickadees sometimes
brings a Boreal, too. Along the coast, they can be found in
thick spruce areas from the Deer Isle-Stonington peninsula north
to the Canadian border. They are common in the spruce zone of
mountaintops, as well as the lower elevations of the north
woods, Baxter State Park, and the western mountains of Maine.
Like Black-capped Chickadees, they are often heard before seen
and their lazy, wheezy chickadee call is immediately
Gray Jay: This tame jay is well-known as a
camp robber and will even land on a shoulder to steal food. It
is widespread through the Rockies but barely reaches into
northern New England. They like all the same areas as the Boreal
Chickadees, though they do not extend as far south along the
The key: They like their spruce stands
tall and thin.
They like to perch prominently and glide from tree to tree. They
are noisy and curious, especially since their young remain with
them most of the summer. They are drawn to people, and certain
picnic areas and campgrounds may even come to expect a visit
around meal time. They are widespread in the boreal forests of
western Maine, especially above Rangeley. They are in the spruce
areas around Moosehead Lake and in Baxter State Park. They are
common in the interior areas of Washington County.
Black-backed Woodpecker: This unusual
species lives in spruce/fir forests and prefers wind-fallen and
recently burned areas. Its eastern range barely extends into Maine and
The key: Black-backed Woodpeckers generally feed by
stripping large swaths of bark from dead and dying trees. They
much prefer a disturbed spruce forest. Historically, this
disturbance has come from fire or beaver flooding. Mountaintops
are prone to winter kill and it’s not unusual to find them
around summits. With the rise in selective cutting and the
decline of clear-cutting, active forestry operations can also
produce disturbance attractive to them. The woodpeckers are very
noisy during the nesting season through August, when the chicks
finally go off on their own. Their nesting/foraging territory is
large, but they leave a lot of evidence of their presence. Look
for patches of bark stripped from dead trees. They also flick
the top layers of bark off spruce and red pine, leaving a
reddish mark that lingers as a telltale sign of their presence.
American Three-toed Woodpecker: This rare Maine breeder
is difficult under any circumstances. As the most northern breeding
woodpecker, it occupies much of Canada’s boreal forest, dipping across
the border in northern New England, and ranging far into the Rocky
Mountains at higher altitudes. In recent years, they have popped up
sporadically in some of the spruce tracts in far northern Aroostook
County, principally on private timberlands in New Sweden and Stockholm.
They tend to be less noisy than their close cousins, the Black-backed
Woodpeckers, and seem to prefer larger tracts of spruce, especially in
damper terrain. They have been sighted on rare occasions in Baxter State
Park and in Washington County. Once located, they are often reliable in
that location for long periods of the breeding season due to strong site
Bicknell’s Thrush: This bird did not
even exist as a separate species until 1996, when it was split from the
Gray-cheeked Thrush. It can only be found in the highest elevations of
the Northeast, usually above 3000 feet. Because of its newness and
remoteness, many avid birders have not yet seen this prized species. As
alpine birds, they tend to arrive on their nesting grounds late and
leave early. They have a tendency to sing only at dawn and dusk, making
it particularly difficult to hear since a mountain ascent or descent may
be required in darkness. It can be found on the taller of Maine’s
western mountains and Baxter State Park. The key: Their call
notes are loud and carry well in the mountain air. The most reliable
opportunity in Maine is to ascend the ski trail at Saddleback Mountain
Resort near Rangeley. It will require pre-dawn huffing and puffing to
climb the hill, but birders will then be rewarded with a multitude of
boreal birds and warblers in the spruce zone.
White-winged and Red Crossbills:
These species are irruptive. In years when Maine's cone crop is good,
they may be found easily in winter and many will linger to breed in
summer. In some years, poor cone production in Canada and a good year in
Maine will lead to a huge invasion of both species. In other years, they
may be nearly absent. Look for them in all the usual heavy spruce areas
Downeast and in the Baskahegan Lake area of interior Washington County,
in Baxter State Park, above Moosehead Lake, through the Carrabassett
Valley area, and through the Western Mountains from Rangeley to Bethel.
They even reach some of the offshore islands such as Vinalhaven. In a
winter irruption, they may range all the way into southern Maine.
The key: Exceptionally noisy. Both emphasize a jip-jip
call while flying and feeding. Often heard before seen.
Flycatcher: This Empidonax
flycatcher is surprisingly common around bogs and mountaintops, and is
possible in any boreal habitat. Like most of Maine's flycatchers, it is
noisy from late May through mid July and readily located by voice. It is
found in the taller trees around bogs, but usually not in the bogs
key: Be familiar with the call note as well as the song. The song is
similar to the Least Flycatcher's che-BECK, but is a trifle slower and
less insistent: tuh-VECK. The rising chu-WEE call is distinctive.
Curious birds will approach quietly and shyly - more so than other
empids such as Alder and Least Flycatchers.
This tyrant dominates open areas around bogs and forest clear cuts in
northern areas. It can be heard from a substantial distance. It also
perches at the tops of tall dead snags where it can be seen easily,
often flying out to grab an insect and returning to the same spot.
The key: Be familiar with both its Quick Three Beers
song and its Pip-Pip-Pip call notes. It can either vocalization at any
Lincoln’s Sparrow: This shy,
secretive bird is widespread through the bogs and wet meadows of the
mountains in the western US, but barely reaches into Maine, NH, Vermont
and New York in the east. Although they commonly breed in Maine bogs,
they also nest regularly where forestry operations have cleared
roadsides in boreal areas, especially in damper areas. In May and June,
they react vigorously to pishing and will perch in plain view to scold.
The key: A very reliable place is the Orono Bog Walk just north of
the mall in Bangor. They are often seen flitting through the low
||Fox Sparrow: A
relatively widespread boreal breeder throughout the northern half of
Maine, it can be found on many of the taller peaks around Moosehead Lake
as well as lower elevations. It is particularly common in the boreal
section of Baxter State Park above Nesowadnehunk Field Campground. It's
a very vocal songster, singing from high perches. The key:
On its breeding grounds, it's easy to see when singing, very difficult
to find when it's not.
Blackpoll Warbler: This is one of many,
many warblers that breed in Maine, but it is harder to find
throughout the rest of the US because much of its migration
takes place over open ocean. It prefers alpine spruce forests
and is easy to find on most peaks above 2500 feet. But it can be
found also at lower elevations, and even at sea level in such
places as Monhegan Island (and in Anchorage Provincial Park of
Grand Manan, New Brunswick.) Other lower elevation spots
include the park road in Baxter State Park and some logging
roads above Moosehead Lake.
Bay-breasted Warbler: Closely related to the
Blackpoll, it occupies similar habitat, although it is more
tolerant of mixed forest deciduous trees. Like many boreal
warblers, its proliferation often depends on the spruce budworm.
The budworm is devastating to spruce forests, but during its
cyclical outbreak it does provide an abundance of food.
Bay-breasted warblers are easiest to find in Baxter State Park
from Katahdin Stream Campground to Trout Brook Farm Campground,
but it is widely distributed in the same zones as Blackpolls.
Cape May Warbler:
Whoops: this bird was named by Alexander Wilson for his first
encounter with it in Cape May, New Jersey. It was not seen in
that location again for over 100 years. A decidedly boreal
species, its population also rises and falls with outbreaks of
the spruce budworm. Although it is a widespread breeder in
Maine, it is very difficult to locate. If you're in boreal
habitat, stay alert. It's around somewhere. Fortunately, it is
not prone to migrating over the ocean and many American birders
have stumbled over it during its terrestrial migration.
Tennessee Warbler: This bird seemingly pops up anywhere
in northern Maine, even in habitat that isn't extraordinarily
coniferous. It becomes more common the farther north one goes in the
state and is rather ordinary in Aroostook County. Upon first arriving,
they can be frustrating. They will sing while foraging and resist all
attempts to get their attention. They nest rather late, so a pish they
ignored in early June they will readily challenge in early July.
The key: As usual, the song gives them away. Be sure to learn
the difference between the common Nashville Warbler song, which you'll
hear a lot, and the uncommon Tennessee Warbler's song.
Mourning Warbler: There is
nothing easy about finding this Maine breeder. It prefers
disturbed brush land - the more disturbed, the better (hence its
fondness for logged areas that are re-growing.) Brambles,
tangles, thickets, and ravines - if it is impenetrable and looks
like the kind of place an adventurous Common Yellowthroat might
appreciate, there is a slight chance of encountering it. It is
reclusive, and will seldom respond to pishing. Chase it into the
thicket, and it will just withdraw deeper. It breeds over much
of northern Maine, but most of the sightings actually occur in
migration when it is seen regularly in May at Evergreen Cemetery
in Portland. The key: it is fond of
regenerating clear cuts in northern Maine, especially in bramble
thickets. It likes the same habitat as yellowthroats, but appreciates
more shade bushes and shrubs from which to perch and spy. It's call note
is louder than most warblers.
Palm Warbler: Since it is practically a picnic table
bird during winter in the southern United States, it may not be
as highly coveted, but try to find one when you need one! The
Palm Warbler floods the state early in the spring, among the
earliest to return, and then melts into its preferred bog
habitat. It is also familiar in the more boreal areas of working
forest, especially where logging has thinned large tracts. Want
a "can't miss" chance to view it? It sings right through the
summer on the back side of the Orono Bog Boardwalk near the Bangor
Good Boreal Sites
Several land trust properties on
the Blue Hill peninsula contain a lot of spruce. Look for Boreal
Chickadees and Spruce Grouse, especially in Stonington. Barred
Island Preserve is promising. Acadia National Park on Mount
Desert Island has very little boreal habitat, but the Schoodic
portion of the park has potential on Schoodic Head. Black-backed
Woodpeckers are sometimes encountered there.
Downeast: Many of the coastal trails are
productive. The Nature Conservancy trails on Great Wass are very
good. The Maine Coastal Heritage Trust trails on Western Head
and Boot Head have Spruce Grouse and Boreal Chickadees. The Bold
Coast Trail in Cutler is noteworthy. At West Quoddy Head State
Park, Boreal Chickadees are sometimes encountered adjacent to
the parking lot. In interior Washington County, the private
timberlands around Baskahegan Lake are famous for boreal
species, but should be avoided during active forestry
operations. Timber harvesting seldom takes place on Sundays.
Baxter State Park is full of boreal habitat, though much of
it is at elevation. Along the road, mixed boreal habitat extends
from Katahdin Stream Campground through Nesowadnehunk Field
Campground to Trout Brook Farm. The four mile stretch above
Nesowadnehunk Field is particularly boreal.
Moosehead Lake: There are many pockets of
boreal habitat surrounding the lake. The B&A Railroad Bed North
road from Greenville Junction to Shirley is rough but worthy.
Big Moose Mountain is a moderate climb with significant rewards
in both birds and view. Boreal habitat is abundant just north of
Kokadjo and is impressive over the four-mile approach to AMC's
Medawisla sporting camp on Second Roach Pond. Route 6/15 from
Rockwood to Jackman is strongly boreal in places, though road
traffic is fast and loud.
North Maine Woods: This fee area is
Maine's premier working forest. Public access is encouraged, but
make sure to get good maps and info at the entrance gate. Large
boreal stands are present throughout the North Maine Woods and
every trip is an adventure.
Carrabassett Valley: The area around
Bigelow Preserve and Sugarloaf Mountain USA ski resort is full
of boreal habitat. Any mountain trail will ascend into prime
boreal terrain. At lower elevations, the Long Falls Dam Road to
Flagstaff Lake is productive. Tim Pond Road from Eustis to
Jackman contains many boreal stretches. Also in Eustis, the King
and Bartlett Road entrance to the back side of Flagstaff Lake
plunges into boreal pockets pretty quickly.
Mount Blue State Park: The mountain trail
is popular and the summit is very boreal. Also consider the
peaks on state public reserve land nearby.
This area is riddled with boreal habitat, primarily north of
town around Oquossoc and Cupsuptic. A climb up the ski slope of
Saddleback Mountain is about as productive as anyplace in Maine,
with a good chance at Bicknell's Thrush, too. Route 16 heading
east to Stratton is boreal for several stretches not far outside
of town. Watch for moose.
Grafton Notch State Park: All of the
mountains in the area are prime habitat for boreal specialties,
but even at road level, the spruce forest at the north end of
the park is productive for Boreal Chickadees and Black-backed
Woodpeckers. Be sure to investigate for Philadelphia Vireos
around the large parking lot for the Appalachian Trail.
Aroostook County: The county is so far
north that much of it is boreal, particularly the working forest
of the North Maine Woods in the western part of the county.
Route 11 from Marsardis to Ashland is very boreal, and the
lumber roads in the area offer access. Beware of trucks! In
Sinclair, near Long Lake, walk a mile or so of the gated access
road to the wastewater treatment plant and listen for Boreal
Chickadees and Black-backed Woodpeckers.