Last weekend I went with my Grandfather and my Dad up to our family's hunting camp in Shirley, Maine. The camp sits on the edge of Shirley Bog
, a very quiet and pristine lake that eventually turns into the Piscatiquas River. Now, I'm not much of a hunter (the last thing I shot at Shirley was a red squirrel, and I cried my eyes out afterwards), but I knew that the boreal forests of central Maine would be a great opportunity to see some birds...and I was not disappointed.
My target species were: Crossbills (my arch enemies...they've eluded me several times), Spruce grouse and Gray Jay. With luck, a couple days spent trouping through the high Maine forest would bring me across these birds.
After arriving on Sunday night and getting camp ready (which included severing the head of a coyote we found shot by the side of the road near the camp. Yes, that's right. My Grandpa [who is a Maine outdoors legend, by the way. Former State Attorney General and the guy who, among other things, helped pass the first law requiring hunters to wear bright orange] wanted to preserve the skull...) we set out bright and early Monday morning.
I had barely wiped the crap out of my eyes when, on the short drive to the hunting spot, I saw a large brown bird on the side of the road. Spruce Grouse! Are you kidding me? It was a female bird, and, true to her nature, she let me get quite close and take some great pictures before scooting into the trees (Grandpa said 'they're called Foolhens because, when you're hungry, you can whack 'em with a stick'). It was an excellent way to start the morning, and little did I know that things were going to get even better.
About .5 miles after the Spruce Grouse we stopped at the grassy path we were going to start to hunt down.
As soon as I shut the door I looked into the trees and saw three large-ish gray birds coasting in. Well whaddya know, Gray Jays! Beautiful birds. I would see a bunch more over the next day-and-a-half, and I liked the way they would coast around, pausing on a perch for a few seconds before leisurely moving on.
OK so at this point I'm feeling pretty excited about seeing two of my target birds in the first, like, 4 minutes of the day. But, there's more! The first batch of Gray Jays had just cruised off when I saw another bird, with a long black tail and black wings, land on the top of a nearby pine tree. Tanager? I thought to myself. Wait, hooked bill! Face mask! A Northern Shrike! I've wanted to see a shrike forever and never even thought about it for this trip, but there it was, moving from high perch to high perch in the forest. Unreal.
So, I got 3 life birds in the first 10 minutes of my time in the boreal. I would also add my first Snow Bunting (just sitting in the gravel road!) and first-of-year Raven, Ruffed Grouse, Horned Lark, Boreal Chickadee and, just as cool, a Moose.
I concluded the trip with a ton of great birds seen, and zero internal moral battles about having to kill a deer...because we didn't hear or see a thing. Even more importantly, I got to spend time with my Dad and Grandfather and walk through some pristine woods. I'm telling you, if you are one of those birders who is caught up in listing and need a reality check, come and take a walk in the woods in Northern Maine. No sounds except the chirping of chickadees and the crunching of leaves...I felt so glad to be in such a remote, unspoiled area. I know this is birdDC, but in those woods I was damn proud to be a Mainer.