Wednesday, January 7, 2004

Enjoying wildlife in a winter wonderland

Published in the Current, the American Journal, and the Lakes Region Suburban Weekly

There’s plenty to do outdoors during the winter, even if you’re not a downhill skier or a snowmobiler. Taking it slow – walking, snowshoeing or cross-country skiing – can be a great way to explore Maine’s winter and learn more about the wildlife all around us.

If you’re into birding, “the Scarborough Marsh is a good place to go,” said Phil Bozenhard, a wildlife biologist for the state Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

There are plenty of birds to be seen, including waterfowl. “Occasionally you’ll see a hawk or an owl flying around,” Bozenhard said.

Naturalist Margi Huber at Maine Audubon notes that Casco Bay is also a wonderful place to see all kinds of birds. “I think we forget what a jewel we have out there.” You can take walks along Portland’s East End Beach, which has a flat walking path, often packed down for skiing or plowed. “You’ll see a lot of birds in half an hour,” Huber said.

If you’re lucky, you may spot a peregrine falcon that roosts on the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Portland and is often spotted near the B&M Baked Beans plant.

Another great place is Two Lights State Park in Cape Elizabeth, where “sometimes you can see owls and hawks” in the back area of the park or watch seabirds from the cliffs, which are kept clear of snow by the wind.

At Pine Point Beach, you can see eiders and even loons in winter plumage. “The loons winter on the coast of Maine,” Huber said.

On the Westbrook-Portland line is the Fore River Sanctuary, along Outer Congress Street, which includes trails for snowshoeing and skiing and plenty of trees and water for spotting all kinds of bird life.

Up in the Lakes Region are some other excellent spots for checking out freshwater birds. Behind the fire station on Route 202 in South Windham, “there’s an opening in the Presumpscot River” where a hooded merganser often hangs out. “What you want to look for is open water,” Huber said.

Near the Gambo Dam, also on the Presumpscot, an eagle has been wintering there for a few seasons. You may see other birdwatchers while you’re out on these trips, so feel free to ask them about other good spots. If you’re looking for a particular bird, check out Maine Audubon’s Web site at It has a “bird alert” list that’s regularly updated with bird sightings throughout Maine.

Birds may be easier to spot in the sky and because trees have lost their foliage, but some mammals are also very active in winter. Many of them can be found along the sides of rivers and lakes throughout Southern Maine, as well as in wooded areas.

While the animals themselves may be elusive, winter is great for checking out tracks.

“A day or two after a new snow is probably the best time,” Bozenhard said. If the snow is too powdery, though, “they all look the same,” because loose snow fills the small parts that allow the tracks to be differentiated.

“It’s more interesting when you’re out there and you can identify the tracks,” he said. “It gives you a little bit of satisfaction in knowing what you’re looking at.”

Animals you may see tracks from include big ones like moose and deer, through coyote, fox, fisher and mink to small animals like squirrels, rabbits and snowshoe hares.

Some good spots to follow tracks include the Steep Falls Wildlife Management Area in Standish and Morgan Meadow Wildlife Management Area in Raymond, Bozenhard said. They have hundreds of acres to explore, including snow-covered roads and trails.

Guided adventures
If you’re looking for an expert to help you navigate and understand the winter wildlands, Maine Audubon is running several programs that may interest you. All require advance reservations, so call 781-2330 ext. 215 for times and fees.

On Saturday, Jan. 10, a family nature walk called “Surviving Winter” will teach adults and kids about how animals make it through the cold season.

On the same day, you can take a guided ferry cruise on Casco Bay to look at water birds, including possibly a glimpse of a bald eagle.

The following Saturday, Jan. 17, Maine Audubon is holding a workshop for outdoor artists, teaching not only basic landscape drawing techniques, but also how to adapt outdoor artwork to winter’s cold.

On Saturday, Jan. 24, a tracking program will teach everyone in the family how to identify tracks and other signs left behind by animals. Children
can make a plaster-of-paris mold of a track as part of the workshop. It also includes an outdoor nature walk to practice identifying tracks.

Also that day, a birding expedition will visit local “hot spots,” including Back Cove, Willard Beach, Portland Head Light, Two Lights State Park and Kettle Cove, to look for a wide range of water birds.

On Saturday, Jan. 31, you can take a nature walk around Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm sanctuary in Falmouth to look at how plants handle the winter, and how to identify them in their winter disguises.