Birding Tour USA: Maine – From Mountain Forests to Sparkling Shores
Birding Tour USA: Maine – From Mountain Forests to Sparkling Shores
Maine (and the northeast region of the United States in general) offers a great mixed bag of birding through its diverse habitats and high latitude location. Many migrant species call this area their home in the summer as they stake out territories and breed. The overlap between the more southern breeders and northern breeders is rarely seen elsewhere, meaning Maine offers a unique chance of some fantastic birding generating some good lists. The habitats on display range from coastal saltwater marshes to sandy-plains grasslands, high altitude mountain tops of the Appalachians, expansive boreal forests, and unique clusters of offshore islands inhabited by puffins and other charismatic wildlife. Each habitat contains its own picturesque beauty along with key bird species to see. This nine-day tour explores the best this region has to offer. On this tour, we focus on Maine, but also foray into New Hampshire and time-permitting into Vermont.
The striking Saltmarsh Sparrow is always a real treat to see.
The trip will begin by exploring Scarborough Marsh, a massive saltwater estuary home to a large population of both Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows. From here we will continue along to the Kennebunk Plains and into the White Mountains National Forest of New Hampshire for our first taste of boreal forest birding. One of the best locations for breeding Bicknell’s Thrush is near the top of Mount Washington (from roadside pull-offs, so no need for a strenuous hike), the highest peak in the northeast (6,200 feet, almost 2,000 meters). We will continue our boreal birding experience scoring a myriad of thrush, warbler, and flycatcher species, all of which will be on their established breeding grounds by June. Black-backed Woodpecker, Canada (Grey) Jay, Spruce Grouse, Boreal Chickadee, Red Crossbill, and other charismatic birds of the taiga forests, are all possibilities. Eventually we will make it back to Maine’s coastline and begin our exploration of the ocean. With two pelagic boat trips planned, we will hopefully experience up-close-and-personal views of Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Murre, Black Guillemot, Arctic Tern and more as we visit the numerous offshore islands. Finally, the trip concludes with a journey through the jaw-droppingly beautiful Acadia National Park, full of scenic viewpoints and great breeding birds. This New England birding and wildlife holiday might also generate some non-avian finds, such as Ocean Sunfish, Grey Seal, Humpback, Fin and Common Minke Whales, American Beaver, North American Porcupine, American Black Bear and Moose.
Date-wise, this Maine and New Hampshire birdwatching tour is combinable with our Alaska birding tour and extension (and sometimes with other USA birding tours of ours) but if you combine with Alaska you’re in for a long flight across North America – a similar distance to flying from London to Maine.
The boat departure to Machias Seal Island featured on Day 6 of this tour is sometimes replaced with a different pelagic trip to Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. This refuge and series of islands are located in more southern waters of Maine and features a restored seabird colony full of Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, and Arctic and Common Terns. Additionally, this area features the largest colony of Great Cormorants found in Maine. With any luck, there is also the potential for a surprise star bird nicknamed “Troppy”, a Red-billed Tropicbird that has amazingly called these islands home for over 15 summers in a row! We never know until about early to mid May each year if this rather out of place, beautiful tropical seabird returns. Please note that in years we make this itinerary change, we also reverse the order of the itinerary because the alternate boat trip is further south, making logistics work better this way.
Itinerary (9 days/8 nights)
Day 1. Arrival in Portland, Maine
The tour begins in Portland, Maine with arrival at the Portland International Jetport (PWM). From here, we’ll transfer to our hotel and head to dinner to prepare for our upcoming tour as well as get to know each other better. If time and daylight allow, we may head to the coast to get our first breaths of the sea air and hopefully see a few species such as Common Tern and Common Eider.
Overnight: Portland, Maine
The adorable Canada Jay is one of the boreal species we hope to encounter.
Day 2. Scarborough Marsh and Portland area
This morning we will begin at Maine’s largest saltwater marsh, Scarborough Marsh. This expansive estuary plays host to numerous breeding birds and is one of the best places to see both Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows. The shallow waters and rich habitat also prove to be a haven for wading birds like Little Blue Heron and Snowy Egret. After a productive morning of exploring the marsh, we will venture out to a few coastal sites for a chance at some great birds including Roseate Tern and Piping Plover.
Overnight: Portland, Maine
Day 3. White Mountains National Park
Today we head to into New Hampshire and the White Mountains National Forest, but first, we will plan a stop at the Kennebunk Plains along the way. This huge grassland area will provide us with a great opportunity to see some specials such as Grasshopper and Vesper Sparrows, and Upland Sandpiper. Unfortunately, some of these birds have become quite scare and local in the northeast as these sand-plains have greatly dwindled. After a great morning of birding the grasslands, we will head up into the mountains. It is here in the higher altitudes and forests that we will have a chance at boreal species like Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, and even a shot at Spruce Grouse. We’ll finish near the small town of Gorham for the evening and prepare for the next day.
Overnight: Gorham, New Hampshire
Day 4. Mount Washington and boreal birds
This morning we will begin to properly explore the White Mountains a bit further with a start on the Mount Washington Auto Road. Luckily, this 7.6-mile (12 kilometer) road allows us to gain sufficient altitude with relative ease in hopes of scoring our big target for the day, Bicknell’s Thrush. These sneaky birds typically only nest at high elevations of 3,000 feet (1,000 meters) or higher. Luckily, there are a few pull-offs along the road which allow for searching. In addition to the thrush, we hope to encounter other nice bird species such as Canada Jay, Dark-eyed Junco and the unusual Blackpoll Warbler.
From here, depending on how we’ve faired so far, we may even dip into Vermont for a bit, in hopes of encountering Spruce Grouse and Two-barred (White-winged) Crossbill. Plus, it is always fun to tick a few birds for a new state life list. From here we will continue along through the scenic spruce and firs of the boreal forest before eventually settling into Rangeley for the night.
Overnight: Rangeley, Maine
Day 5. Mountains and back to the coast
Today, our goal is to make it back to the coast of Maine in Machias, but of course there is plenty of birding to do along the way. First up is the Rangeley area, birding along the roadsides of the forest. This is a great area to pick up more superb bird species including Yellow-bellied, Olive-sided and Alder Flycatchers, Boreal Chickadee, Blue-headed Vireo, Veery, Winter Wren and a variety of breeding warblers.
We will then continue our journey towards the ocean in the afternoon, with a stop at Messalonskee Lake en route. This narrow lake hosts both Black Tern and Purple Martin colonies in addition to the other more common lake species like Common Loon and Western Osprey. We’ll make it to our hotel in Machias and get some rest in preparation for our boat trip the following morning.
Overnight: Machias, Maine
The delightful Cape May Warbler.
Day 6. Machias Seal Island
We depart Cutler Harbor at 7:00 a.m. and set sail for Machias Seal Island, home to an incredible seabird colony. We should see nesting Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Common Murre, and Arctic Tern, all at point-blank range. Weather permitting, we will be able to land on the island which makes for great photographic opportunities. Grey Seals are likely at North Rock, while Harbor Seals are common. During the morning boat ride, we will look for pelagic species such as Northern Fulmar, Great Shearwater, and Wilson’s Storm Petrel. After lunch we’ll drive to Quoddy Head State Park that juts out into the Grand Manan Channel, which offers great opportunities for seabirds and shorebirds. Boreal species may include Lincoln’s Sparrow and Palm Warbler. After dinner, we will journey along the coast until we reach Bar Harbor where we will stay for the next two nights.
Overnight: Bar Harbor, Maine
Day 7. Petit Manan boat trip and Bar Harbor
We’ll have a few hours in the morning to begin our exploration of Mount Desert Island, the largest island off the coast of Maine. Around mid-morning we’ll head for the dock at Bar Harbor and prepare for a half-day boat excursion to visit Petit Manan Island National Wildlife Refuge. This series of many offshore islands plays host to loads of seabirds including Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, and Common Murre plus the potential for a roaming shearwater or storm petrel. Humpback Whale is likely, with several other species of whales and porpoises also possible. This short boat trip also serves as a great back-up to Machias Seal Island if the weather was poor on the previous day. After arriving back on land, we will continue our birding of Mount Desert Island and its spruce and fir forests hoping for nice birds such as Magnolia, Blackpoll and Cape May Warblers.
Overnight: Bar Harbor, Maine
We aim to see Razorbill on our visit to the seabird colonies.
Day 8. Acadia National Park and back to Portland
This morning and into the afternoon, we will get a chance to explore and bird the beauty of Acadia National Park. Taking up a large chunk of Mount Desert Island, Acadia has a great vastness and is rich in biodiversity. We should hear the echoing songs of Wood Thrush throughout our visit along with other amazing species like Blackburnian and Black-throated Green Warblers, Ovenbird, Cedar Waxwing, and more. After a great morning and afternoon inside the park, we will do one final scan along the coast for any potential species we are missing, and it is also a great location for Great Cormorant. Finally, we will head back to Portland for our final evening of the trip.
Overnight: Portland, Maine
Black-throated Green Warbler is one of many wood warblers we should see on this tour.
Day 9. Departure from Portland
Today concludes what was surely a fantastic tour full of many highlights. If time permits, there may be a chance for a brief morning birding session at Scarborough Marsh or another nearby location before checking out of the hotel and transferring to the Portland airport.
Please note that the itinerary cannot be guaranteed as it is only a rough guide and can be changed (usually slightly) due to factors such as availability of accommodation, updated information on the state of accommodation, roads, or birding sites, the discretion of the guides and other factors. In addition, we sometimes have to use a different international guide from the one advertised due to tour scheduling.Download Itinerary
USA – Maine Birding Tour: Set Departure Trip Report
05–13 JULY 2021
By Jacob Roalef
DOWNLOAD TRIP REPORT
This nine-day set departure tour of Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont commenced in Portland, Maine on the 5th of July 2021 and concluded back there on the 13thof July 2021. The tour visited many amazing birding locations including Scarborough Marsh, Kennebunk Plains, Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge, Vinalhaven Island, Acadia National Park, Messalonskee Lake, Moose Bog, and Mount Washington Auto Road.
Always a fan favorite, Atlantic Puffins are a top highlight of this trip.
The tour connected with many of our target birds giving us a great list for our nine days in the region. Avian highlights included a long list of breeding species such as Upland Sandpiper, Vesper, Saltmarsh, Nelson’s and Field Sparrows, Atlantic Puffin, Razorbill, Great Cormorant, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Roseate, Least, Black and Arctic Terns, Sandhill Crane, Purple Martin, Olive-sided, Yellow-bellied, and Alder Flycatchers, Canada Jay, Ruffed Grouse, Common Eider, Piping Plover, Bicknell’s Thrush, Winter Wren, Broad-winged Hawk, Hooded Merganser, Purple Finch, Pine Siskin, Brown Creeper, Magnolia, Nashville, Pine, Blackpoll, and Blackburnian Warblers, Ovenbird, and a code 3 ABA rarity in Red-billed Tropicbird.
A total of 148 bird species were seen (plus three species heard only), along with a few other amazing animals, including Moose, Stoat (Ermine/Short-tailed Weasel), and Harbor Porpoise. Species lists can be found at the end of the report.
Day 1, 05thJuly 2021. Arrival in Portland and birding Crescent Beach
After gathering everyone from the airport and meeting at the hotel, we decided to venture out for a quick session of birding before dinner. We headed over to Crescent Beach State Park for a lovely stroll along the sandy beach. Our hour or so of birding yielded some great species including Common Tern, Common Eider, Great Crested Flycatcher, Brown Thrasher, and Piping Plover, with a pair of adorable fluffball chicks. From here we headed off to dinner to discuss our upcoming trip in further detail.
Day 2, 06thJuly 2021.Kennebunk Plains, Scarborough Marsh and Gilsland Audubon
The morning started off with a bit of birding in the hotel parking lot which netted us a stunning Pine Warbler, before we headed off towards the grasslands of Kennebunk Plains. This unique habitat was full of awesome birding and the weather held off nicely for us. We were treated to loads of sparrow species such as Eastern Towhee, Vesper, Grasshopper, and Field Sparrows, however the real highlight had to be a pair of Upland Sandpipers circling overheadand landing at the top of a pine tree! We crossed the road into another section of the plains in search of Clay-colored Sparrow and while we heard one singing, alas it did not want to make an appearance for us. That’s the way birding goes sometimes though. We headed off for more coffee and a bit of brunch.
Our next birding stop was the expansive saltwater marsh habitat of Scarborough Marsh. This area contains a nice (and extremely popular) dike trail, cutting right through the middle of the marsh. We had a great time birding here and the sun even poked out halfway through. Bird species here included Glossy Ibis, Snowy and Great Egrets, Song Sparrow, Tree and Barn Swallows, Sand Martin (Bank Swallow), Least Tern, and we were successful with the top targets for this location, Saltmarsh and Nelson’s Sparrows. We continued south to the mouth of the Nonesuch River where we set up shop to watch the tide recede and enjoy the various water birds coming in to feed. Here we managed to follow a pair of Roseate Terns way out over the water, really studying the plumage and identification characteristics, versus the more numerous Common Terns nearby. In addition to the terns, we spotted Great Black-backed and Bonaparte’s Gulls, Bald Eagle, and Common Eider. Our last stop of the day took us to Gilsland Farm. This lovely nature center offers a few feeder areas and some prairie areas where we noted White-breasted Nuthatch, Tufted Titmouse, Red-bellied Woodpecker, Black-capped Chickadee, House Finch, and a family of Wild Turkeys, including ten chicks! This certainly capped off a great day of birding and from here we headed off to dinner.
This Wilson’s Storm Petrel was part of a large feeding group.
Day 3, 07thJuly 2021. Vinalhaven and Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge
Today had us all excited as we were to catch a ferry over to Vinalhaven Island where we would meet up with the amazing Captain John Drury for an afternoon boat trip out to Seal Island National Wildlife Refuge. Before catching the 10:30 ferry out of Rockland, we made a quick stop at Wharton Point where we noted Bobolink, Eastern Kingbird, American Goldfinch and some beautiful scenery. From here it was off on our adventure to Vinalhaven! The ferry ride over offered us our first chance at some seabird species, so of course we were kept busy scanning. We saw several nice birds such as Laughing Gull, Black Guillemot, Common Loon and Wilson’s Storm Petrel, however most of these views were a bit distant, and so we hoped to improve upon them later.
We made it onto Vinalhaven and after a bit of lunch, we headed off towards the docks to meet up with Captain John Drury and board the Skua, his 36-foot vessel. On our way out, we really enjoyed chatting with John as his knowledge and personality are unmatched and he was a true highlight of the trip. We spotted several Northern Gannets, a few Harbor Porpoises and eventually became surrounded by a feeding group of Wilson’s Storm Petrels which was an awesome experience. Eventually we arrived at Seal Island and immediately were greeted by Atlantic Puffins, Razorbills, Common and Arctic Terns, and Great Cormorants. We did a full loop around the island taking in the scenery and birds before we anchored the boat and waited for the star to hopefully arrive. As time was passing, John did a bit of fishing, again adding to the fun and experience and then all of the sudden, boom, Troppy had arrived! This Red-billed Tropicbird is quite a marvel as it has returned to this area for 17 years now and we watched as it chased terns and was chased a bit in return. What an incredible bird and an unforgettable experience. With that, we started our way back to Vinalhaven where we didn’t see any new species but did enjoy the scenic route and setting sun over the amazing islands in the Gulf of Maine.
“Troppy” the famous, Red-billed Tropicbird of Seal Island.
Day 4, 08thJuly 2021. Back to the mainland and Mount Desert Island
We enjoyed a nice breakfast spread at the Tidewater, our local accommodation on Vinalhaven, before heading back to the mainland of Maine via a ferry ride. Similar to our ride the previous day, the ferry netted us Black Guillemot, Common Eider and the usual gull suspects like American Herring and Great Black-backed Gulls. We eventually made it back to Rockland and started our journey towards Ellsworth and Mount Desert Island. After enjoying a flyby Bald Eagle at lunch, we spent the afternoon on the west side of the island exploring Seal Cove and Seal Cove Road. These areas produced our first mixed flock of the trip with species such as Black-capped Chickadee, Brown Creeper, Black-and-white, Blackburnian, and Myrtle (Yellow-rumped) Warblers, American Redstart, Common Yellowthroat, and Red-breasted Nuthatch. A bit further along the road we encountered a pesky Blue-headed Vireo calling but only giving brief views as well as a small group of Black-throated Green Warblers. It was a very pleasant afternoon of birding on Mount Desert Island. In the early evening we headed up to the top of Cadilac Mountain to enjoy some great views out over the water, including Acadia, and Bar Harbor down below. We also managed to spot a few Dark-eyed Juncos but the wind was really strong and kept a lot of birds down, so we headed back for dinner.
This Winter Wren showed nicely for us after so many of them being heard through the woods.
Day 5, 09thJuly 2021. Acadia National Park and Hurricane Elsa
We started off early in the hopes of getting some birding in before Hurricane Elsa made her way to Maine, as forecasts were indicating. We headed straight to Sieur de Monts Springs in Acadia National Park, one of the best birding locations in the park. As we arrived in the parking lot, I received the call that our second boat trip was indeed cancelled, an expected call and really it would have been hard to top our boat trip with John. So we were off on the trails, with no rain yet, exploring the mixed forest and picking up some lovely birds such as Barred Owl, Winter Wren, Wood Thrush, Ovenbird and Red-eyed Vireo. Towards the end of the trail, we were treated to a lovely sighting of a Stoat (Ermine/Short-tailed Weasel) as it bounced around from tree to tree. As soon as we loaded back into the van, the rain started, so we headed off to a delicious brunch full of blueberry pancakes and waffles. From here we continued and drove the park loop of Acadia hoping for a break in the weather, but the rain was strong, and the fog was thick. We eventually decided to take the afternoon to do some laundry and relax a little as a nice halfway point in the tour and knowing we couldn’t beat the rain and storm.
Day 6, 10thJuly 2021. Messalonskee Lake and Boy Scout Road
Today we said our goodbyes to the coast and headed inland towards the mountains and boreal forest of interior Maine. To break up our drive, we stopped at Messalonskee Lake, a unique location with several key target species that strangely aren’t easily found elsewhere in the state. Here we encountered many great species including Sandhill Crane, Black Tern, Warbling Vireo, Least Flycatcher, and Purple Martin. After lunch we headed to Boy Scout Road for a fun afternoon of birding. This location is in the middle of nowhere and includes some nice bogs and forests, with minimal human traffic through it. We scored more great species such as Nashville Warbler, Red-breasted Nuthatch, Alder Flycatcher, Downy Woodpecker and Northern (Common) Raven. On our way back to town, we cruised down highway 16, also known as Moose Alley to locals, so of course we had our eyes peeled. About halfway down the road we spotted a beautiful female (cow) Moose!! These giant animals are always a huge highlight and command distance and respect. What a perfect ending to a day of birding and nature exploring.
This gorgeous Moose felt comfortable with us around and allowed some amazing views.
Day 7, 11thJuly 2021. Maine, New Hampshire, and Vermont birding
There are not very many locations in the US where you can bird three different locations and be in three different states, but today we did just that. Our first stop was a quick one back at Boy Scout Road in Maine to check if the birding was any different in the morning. Along the way we spotted another Moose on highway 16 but this time it disappeared quickly into the woods. Boy Scout Road produced much of the same from the previous evening with a picturesque Great Blue Heron and a Northern Waterthrush as new highlights. From here we ventured across the state line and into New Hampshire to bird along East Inlet Road. This area is very far north and approaches the Canadian border. Birding started off rather slowly with Swainson’s Thrush and Black-throated Blue Warblers singing in the dense woods. It wasn’t until our way back out that things started to heat up. It started with a Yellow-bellied Flycatcher and soon after a small group of quizzical Canada Jays, coming in to inspect us. Finally, right at the end of the road, an incredibly accommodating Ruffed Grouse posed beautifully for us allowing prolonged looks before scurrying away into the brush.
Our last stop of the day was just barely into Vermont at Moose Bog. This amazing and unique habitat is always a joy to wander through and bird. Down on the boardwalk through the bog, things were particularly birdy, and we had several great species including Olive-sided Flycatcher, Eastern Kingbird, American Bittern, Hooded Merganser, and a pair of American Beavers swimming in the water. Someone had sprinkled some seeds out along the railing and a cute, Red-breasted Nuthatch came down for a visit as well as a terribly angry Red-winged Blackbird wanting some free food. On our way back out of the bog we spotted a large Hairy Woodpecker and a Winter Wren singing his heart out like they so often do. This completed our three-state birding day and we headed to our hotel and dinner for the evening.
This Ruffed Grouse was a lifer for everyone on the trip!
Day 8, 12th July 2021. Mount Washington and back to Portland
Today was spent climbing to the top of Mount Washington, the tallest summit in northeastern USA. We worked our way up to about 4,000 feet (1,220 meters) to the preferred habitat of our top target for the day. Unfortunately, it didn’t show at our first stop and besides a White-throated Sparrow, all we encountered were a face full of gnats! We carried onwards to the next pull off location and here the birding picked up immensely. It wasn’t long before the target Bicknell’s Thrush was spotted off in the distance, but it did take some time before we all enjoyed closer looks. In addition to the thrush, we scored goodies such as Blackpoll Warbler, Dark-eyed Junco, and Purple Finch. The real highlight however might have a been a hilarious Pine Siskin constantly flying in and checking us out, only to swirl in a circle again back overhead. We all enjoyed a good laugh at this funny behavior and watched a group of four siskins forage in the stunted growth trees. We eventually made our way up to the summit and the Alpine zone where we found a nice (American) Buff-bellied Pipit. Once back down from the mountain we headed back towards the coast of Maine.
Our final birding stop of the trip was at Wells Preserve. This lovely park has a nice trail showcasing different habitats from woodlands to a saltmarsh and eventually down to the ocean. On our way to the beach, we encountered several interesting species including Cedar Waxwing, Snowy Egret, Least Tern, American Black Duck, and Brown Thrasher. We did a bit of scanning on the ocean and bagged all three US scoter species, Black, White-winged and Surf Scoters, all new for the trip! On the way back we spotted a Chestnut-sided Warbler, always a welcome sight. It was now time for our final dinner together as a group and a recap of the trip and our favorite birds and moments.
This brilliant Canada Jay was a favorite of the trip.
Day 9, 13th July 2021. Departure day
After a bit of breakfast, it was time to say our goodbyes after an incredible trip full of many birds, mammals, scenery, and memories. The favorite species for the group were Atlantic Puffin, Ruffed Grouse, Canada Jay, Winter Wren, and Razorbill.
Please see the downloadable PDF above for the full species lists. This is a sample trip report. Please email us ([email protected]) for more trip reports from this destination.
‘Maine is beautiful, whether you’re on the shore or inland, and this tour showed us the best of both. Experiencing the variety of habitats with a knowledgeable guide and great companions was just what we needed after a year of not travelling. Jacob was a great leader for our group, making sure we saw the birds we wanted, but also on the look-out for mammals or letting us slow down to enjoy the wildflowers.’
‘Jacob is an excellent birder and has great people skills. Both are needed in a good guide. He knew his stuff and put up with all the joking but was serious when it came to the birds. Would definingly tour with him again.’
‘Every aspect of this tour was great. First of all, you must have cornered the market on great young tour guides, because Jacob was wonderful. Obviously an excellent birder, he was patient with us over 70 crowd members (we teased him about “nobody over 70 ever again”), enthusiastic and had a great sense of humor. He is very easy to be around, making all feel comfortable.
Of course, the pelagic trip was, for us, the high point. We would suggest that you make the trip to Vinalhaven a regular part of the tour, and add Captain John Drury a must. He was a real character, and took special pains to make sure we saw all that we could see…even the Red-billed Tropicbird.
And the trip up Mt. Washington was so very interesting, with all the vegetation changes as the altitude changed. AND we got the Bicknell’s Thrush!
“Maine, from the mountains to the sparkling waters” perfectly describes this tour, as it encompassed a wide variety of habitat and birds. Definitely a “must” if you want to see some hard-to-get species.’
Joyce and Bill