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Spruce Grouse

Boreal specialties and northern songbirds

Boreal Chickadee Many 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.
Spruce Grouse Spruce 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 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 key: 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 distinctive.
Gray Jay 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 coast. 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 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 New Hampshire. 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.
Northern Three-toed Woodpecker American Three-toed WoodpeckerAmerican 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 fidelity.
Bicknell's Thrush 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 Crossbill 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.
Yellow-bellied Flycatcher Yellow-bellied FlycatcherYellow-bellied 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 themselves. The 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.
Olive-sided Flycatcher Olive-sided Flycatcher: 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 time.
Lincoln's Sparrow 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 vegetation.
Fox Sparrow 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 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 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 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  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 Mall.
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.