I had some questions about the phenomenal growth in enthusiastic people interested in serious birding in recent years.  And with that, Birding Festivals have been appearing everywhere, including in Maine. The Acadia Birding Festival in May is Maines most well-known and attended, attracting over 300 birders.  It has been going on successfully for at least 25 years now.

Enter the recently completed 1st Annual (I hope the first of many) Rangeley Birding Festival.  The fine people associated with the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, and especially their executive director, David Miller, made a few phone calls to birding authorities in the northeast and found that we had prime habitat for some fairly rare bird species, and would be a location that had a good chance of drawing serious birders to the area, especially in early June.

Pete McKinley, climate adaption ecologist with The Wilderness Society, shares his vast bird identification knowledge with enthusiasts on his Saturday morning bird walk at the Perham Stream Birding Trail in Madrid

Now, I have always considered myself pretty good at identifying birds…especially if I had a good field guide handy to look up a bird”s defining characteristics as found with my binoculars.  We have a well-worn Peterson Field Guide to the Birds that I started marking up in the early ‘80s. with species identified beyond a reasonable doubt along with the date and general location where my sighting took place.

After a recent count done after a trip this winter to south Florida and the Dry Tortugas NP whereby a half dozen new species for me were added; my total species in the Eastern United States came to 218.  If I got around to adding additional species in my relatively new Sibley’s Guide that includes western North America birds it would bring me to about 250 total species I would guess. Not nearly as many as the dedicated birders have in their “life list”, yet I am reasonably proud of my modest number, at any rate.

Motionless birders quietly listening and visually scanning the thick boreal forest of Saddleback Mountain just to the east of the top of the highest chairlift of the currently dormant ski area. The rare Bicknell’s Thrush had just been sighted by Nini Christensen, a Maine Certified Naturalist and driving force for environmental education at the Rangeley Lakes Regional School

By participating in three distinctly different birding trips among a half dozen or so this past weekend during the festival convinced me that I am not close to being a serious birder.  My method of finding a new species with my eyes first, and confirming key characteristics with my trusty waterproof binoculars puts me squarely in the freshman class of birders.

If one wants to be a truly serious and accomplished birder, you need to be able to identify the smallest of treetop warblers and the like….by their audible songs and calls even before they find them in their higher order binoculars.  I clearly have a way to go if I should decide to really take birding seriously. It is quite a commitment of time and resources as well.

And I also found that if it is something one finds that you really enjoy,…put birding high on your list of priorities.  It is a great and purposeful way to travel around the country (and even the world) and you will get a great education regarding bird behavior and ecology as well as that of the rest of the natural world for that matter, not to mention the wonderful like-minded people you will meet during your travels.

We reached the summit of Saddleback Mountain on an essentially windless and beautiful Sunday morning for successful birding and wilderness appreciation Allen Wicken

Here is a listing of some of my main “take-aways” from this past Rangeley Birding Festival weekend:

•There are some outstanding experts here in New England who welcomed the opportunity to share their skills and techniques with anyone who attends a birding festival in the Rangeley Lakes Region.
•I found their expertise’, and the insightful questions and comments from most attendees to be a real learning experience for anyone else signed up for a given walk or hike.  My future hikes in the wilds of this area, or wherever my travels take me, will take on a new level of inquisitiveness regarding the natural world around me.
•Birders are, by and large, really nice and thoughtful people who enjoy sharing their love for the outdoors and specifically their love for observing the habits and habitats of birds with others.
•I found the excitement of seeing and/or hearing a rare local species (such as the Bicknell’s Thrush found in the highest wooded boreal levels of Saddleback Mountain) to be a truly rich experience.  And the excitement demonstrated by the serious birders is truly infectious.

I ended up participating in three walks/hikes on Saturday and Sunday: 1)  A great walk at the Perham Stream Birding Trail in Madrid (near both Perham and Orbitan streams on the southern side of Saddleback. 2) One of the Saturday afternoon trips on Rangeley Lake with Kevin Sinnett on his new Oquossoc Lady II that can carry 29 passengers!  We saw loons, mergansers, and a nesting eagle high in a White Pine. Those from “away” clearly enjoyed these signature species of our lakes and ponds, and 3) A hike up the ski trails of Saddleback in search of some hard to find species (we were more than successful thanks to the expert bird expert/researcher leading the hike all the way to the mountain’s summit.

All were great experiences, and it was clear that the serious birders loved all that Rangeley had to offer in terms of their birding experience as well as the hospitality of the merchants and restaurant owners in town.  I fully expect that most will be back for the 2nd Annual Festival next June.

For me and many other locals, the crowning touch for the weekend was the Saturday evening event at the Rangeley Inn which included the awarding of the first John Bicknell Conservation Award presented to Carson Hinkley of Madrid, the creator and steward of the outstanding Perham Stream Birding Trail on his 7th generation family homestead.

For all those who knew the very kind John Bicknell and his work establishing the Audubon International Certified environmental features at Mingo Springs Golf Course, and the Mingo Springs Trail and Bird Walk surrounding that 18-hole course, know the dedicated and beautiful stonework and flower beds he created throughout the course.  John’s wife Martha, and eldest daughter Sarah, were in attendance for the presentation…which made the event and award presentation even more meaningful….and memorable.

All in all, the Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust, and their partners, the Maine Audubon Society and the Freeport Wildbird Feed Supply Co. are to be commended for bringing this first (of many I suspect) Rangeley Birding Festivals to these western Maine lakes and mountains.  It is one of those “blue chip” events that will help keep Rangeley at the forefront of Maine’s long list of fine destinations available to visitors and residents alike.

We need to write, otherwise nobody will know who we are.

Garrison Keillor

Per usual, your thoughts and comments are always welcome.  Jot them down on a 3”x5” card, attach it to a first edition (2000) copy of The Sibley Guide to Birds and slip it inside the log door on our mudroom on the rockbound west shore of Gull Pond…or simply fire off an email to [email protected]

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