Best Birding in the Royal River Watershed

The Royal River watershed is home to many amazing natural wonders including a whole host of birds. Derek Lovitch of Freeport Wild Bird Supply and author of How to Be A Better Birder (March 2012, Princeton University Press) and Birdwatching In Maine: A Site Guide (April 2017, University Press of New England) has helped us compile the best birding in the Royal River watershed.  Enjoy!

Old Townhouse Park, North Yarmouth

Alder Flycatcher

Owned and managed by the Town of North Yarmouth, Old Town House Park (“OTP”) is one of the 201 best birding sites in all of Maine that is featured Derek Lovitch’s book, Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide (April 2017, University Press of New England). Complete coverage of when, how, and why to bird there can be found in the book. Most of OTP is further protected by a Conservation Easement held by the US Fish & Wildlife Service.  The Royal River Conservation Trust holds additional Conservation Easements both upriver and downriver, protecting habitat. Bobolinks fill the fields from late May through late July. Thanks to a town ordinance and conservation easement terms, the fields cannot be mowed for hay until the vast majority of Bobolinks have fledged young. This yields a healthy and sustainable population of this beautiful and declining blackbird – the males of which sport a “reverse tuxedo.” But don’t overlook the subtle beauty of the golden-buff females, which may be mistaken for large sparrows.

The OTP is also known amongst birders for hosting both Willow and Alder Flycatchers in the breeding season (late May or early June through August), affording opportunities for close studies. They are best identified only when singing or calling; they look virtually identical!  The summer season also features numerous Warbling Vireos and Baltimore Orioles in the riparian strip, and Blue-gray Gnatcatchers have bred here.

Spring, and especially fall, migration can be fruitful, with the late fall “sparrow season” perhaps the most interesting. Winter can be very quiet, but Northern Shrikes are regular here in most winters. In other words, the OTP is worth a visit throughout the year.

For more information regarding trails, maps, rules & regulations and conservation visit: Old Town House Park.

Mèmak Preserve, North Yarmouth

RRCT and the Gervais family chose the name “Mèmak” for this preserve in North Yarmouth, meaning Pileated Woodpeckers (plural) in Native American languages, noting legends that the birds are symbols of friendship and luck.

A healthy mix of coniferous trees throughout the preserve, including the locally-declining Red Pine, provides a wealth of cover and food resources for a variety of bird species. This diversity of cone-bearing trees yields a steady food supply for resident species such as both Red-breasted and White-breasted Nuthatches, Tufted Titmice, and our state bird, the Black-capped Chickadee. In winter during an “irruption,” check the woods for “winter finches” arriving from the Boreal, some of which may linger if the respective favored cone crop is abundant that season, such as Pine Siskins and Red Crossbills.

The easy walk allows for relaxed study of breeding species, including a variety of warblers. Black-throated Green Warblers and Ovenbirds dominate, but in the heavily coniferous component there is a territory or two of one most beautiful of our warblers: the Blackburnian Warbler. Meanwhile, as you approach and parallel the powerline cut, listen for Prairie Warblers “singing the scale,” the happy greetings from Chestnut-sided Warblers, and Eastern Towhees reminding you to “drink-your-tea.”

About 125 feet into the woods from the parking lot, on the left side of the trail, is a prime example of the deep, rectangular holes drilled by the preserve’s namesake, the Mèmak. Look for these tell-tale signs of Pileated Woodpeckers throughout the preserve, and listen for the loud, resonant drumming in spring echoing from the shadows. For more information regarding trails, maps, rules & regulations and conservation visit: Mèmak Preserve

Morgan Meadow WMA, Gray and Raymond

Owned and managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife, Morgan Meadow Wildlife Management Area (WMA) is one of the 201 best birding sites in all of Maine that is featured in Derek Lovitch’s book, Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide (April 2017, University Press of New England). Complete coverage of when, how, and why to bird there can be found in his guide. Located in both Gray and Raymond, the WMA includes the height of land between the Royal River watershed and the Presumpscot River watershed.  The meadows themselves drain toward the Presumpscot.

A number of “southern” bird species reach the northern limits of their breeding range in southern Maine, and several can be found here. Yellow-throated Vireos are numerous along the shorelines, Louisiana Waterthrushes breed most years, and in some years, several pairs of Blue-gray Gnatcatchers breed here. You’ll also find impressive numbers of more widespread species, such as Least Flycatcher, Warbling Vireo, 10-12 species of warblers, Wood Ducks and Hooded Mergansers, and much more.

Spring migration can also be stellar here, especially in late April or early May when epic numbers of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers often concentrate in the trees and ground at the water’s edge. Some of my best days ever of warbler diversity in Maine have occurred here in mid-May.

For more information regarding: maps, trailheads and more information go to: Morgan Meadows Wildlife Management Area (Maine DIFW)

Spear Farm Estuary Preserve, Yarmouth

Belted Kingfisher

Spear Farm was on the cusp of inclusion in the book, Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide (April 2017, University Press of New England), by Derek Lovitch.  He stated that Spear Farm Estuary Preserve would certainly merit inclusion if page count was unlimited! While the action peaks during spring migration, this preserve offers year-round birding opportunities. And you’ll often see our store’s free Saturday Morning Birdwalks here in prime seasons.  Owned and managed by the Town of Yarmouth, the Preserve is protected by two Conservation Easements held by the Royal River Conservation Trust.

A variety of micro-habitats each offer the chance of a variety of species.  Beginning at the parking lot, walk counter-clockwise, staying straight at the barn and into the field. On a cool spring morning, linger here for migrants working the sunny edge, before heading into the woods. Migrants can be anywhere in the trees spring and fall, but the best time for warblers in the woods is when the Red Oaks are blooming in mid-May. The flowers offer nectar which attracts insects, but also this is a time when moth caterpillar “budworms” come out en masse to eat the soft, young oak larves. These fat- and protein-rich juicy caterpillars are critical for refueling migrants, especially those that are still a long way from their breeding grounds. The timing (phenology) of this smorgasbord is critical for tired and hungry waves of long-distant migrants. Unfortunately, Climate Change is throwing off this timing, with oaks blooming both earlier (in warm springs) – but sometimes later (in cold, wet springs) – than the return from Central and South America of our “Neotropical migrants.”

If you can take your eyes and ears off the treetops, be sure to peak into the saltmarsh, where a few Nelson’s Sparrows might breed, but also where spring and fall duck migration can be quite good. The marsh has also produced two surprising rarities: Seaside Sparrow and Marbled Godwit, both in spring, and both very rare in Maine.

Continuing on the trail to the freshwater pond, migrants often increase near its edge. Large numbers of Palm and Yellow-rumped Warblers can aggregate here in late April and early May, and all of Maine’s regular warbler migrants can be seen here in May. In spring and summer, the pond often hosts Wood Ducks, Green and Great Blue Herons, and Belted Kingfishers. Keep an eye out for the state Endangered Black-crowned Night-Heron roosting in the trees from early May through October.

When the tide is out, check the mudflats along the river for migrant shorebirds; numbers of Semipalmated Sandpipers, Semipalmated Plovers, and Lesser Yellowlegs in particular can be impressive here from early August through mid-September. For unknown reasons, shorebirds are mostly rare here in spring migration, with the exception of the most common species such as Greater Yellowlegs.

Ospreys and Bald Eagles are often seen along the river in summer, and eagles can be seen throughout the year when the river remains open in the depth of winter.  Speaking of, in late fall and early spring – just before and after freezing, respectively – waterfowl numbers (both dabbling and diving ducks) can be quite good, and are always worth a check. In winter, when the river freezes off of the Town Landing, check here for the “Merganser Hat Trick:” all three of North America’s mergansers, Common, Hooded, and Red-breasted.

Continue through the woods – Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds, Gray Catbirds, and Veeries are among the most numerous breeding species, always pausing to check the remaining apple trees (bird magnets!), especially during spring migration.  Note the dominance of the invasive Glossy Buckthorn and bush honeysuckle in the understory – a real problem for maintaining bird – and all other – biodiversity here. Happily, efforts are underway to start addressing the problem, which is already paying dividends. For example, Chestnut-sided Warblers are back breeding in the stretch of Black Cherries and other young trees cleared of Asiatic Bittersweet along the river’s edge.

For more information regarding trails, maps, trail head, rules & regulations visit: Spear Farm Estuary Preserve.

Runaround Pond Recreation Area and Chesley Meadows Preserve, Durham

Wood Ducks

When RRCT opened new trails at Runaround Pond in 2017, birding opportunities sans boat increased considerably at this park, owned and managed by the Town of Durham.  Next door, RRCT continues to expand its Chesley Meadows Preserve with only the most primitive access. The new pond-side trail from the town’s parking lot can be rewarding during migration, especially when Red Maples are in bloom and Yellow-rumped, Palm, and other earlier migrants are arriving en masse. The trail on the other side of the road passes mostly through drier woods – with Hermit Thrushes, Black-throated Green and Pine Warblers a’plenty in the breeding season – but the scrubby wetlands along the backside of the trail deserve more attention. In summer, Alder Flycatcher and Veery breed, but the edge could be productive during spring migration.

The stream below the dam looks perfect for Louisiana Waterthrush, but one has yet to be recorded here. It’s worth looking for them in late April through May, when they are most vocal, as this species is not as rare in Maine as conventional wisdom suggests. Whether they are increasing their range due to climate change, or have simply gone undetected as birders go to the same few “traditional” spots for them instead of searching prime habitat, this section of stream looks like it is due for a pair.

From a canoe or kayak, birding opportunities are much expanded. Wood Ducks, Mallards, Alder Flycatchers, Eastern Kingbirds, and probably a pair or two of Green Herons and Hooded Mergansers breed here. Great Blue Herons and Belted Kingfishers often forage along the edge, while aggregations of swallows can be significant – led by Tree and Barn, but sometimes also including Bank, Northern Rough-winged, and Cliff – especially on cool and wet days in early summer. Mallards, American Black Duck, and Canada Geese are regular, while Ring-necked Ducks, Green-winged Teal, and Pied-billed Grebe occasionally pay the pond a visit in spring and fall.  Overnight visits on the far end of the pond are delightful for a modest rate at Maine Forest Yurts.

After exploring the pond and trails, it’s worth a walk east to the open fields. Make a left onto the snowmobile trail (often very wet) or walk Davis Road north to Chesley Hill Road. A vagrant Lark Sparrow was found here in April of 2015. The fields in this area host breeding Bobolinks and Savannah Sparrows, and perhaps Eastern Meadowlark. It can also be very good for sparrows and raptors during migration. Horned Larks are regular from late fall through early spring, occasionally mingling with Snow Buntings. A Rough-legged Hawk overwintered here in 2017-2018, and Northern Harriers are regular when the snow is not too deep. Keep an eye out on exposed perches for Northern Shrike.

Turning onto the snowmobile trail west into the Chesley Meadows Preserve off Davis Road requires boots in spring and tick-proofing in summer, but the effort is worth it. Alder, Least, and Great-crested Flycatchers breed here, and so too does American Woodcock and perhaps Wilson’s Snipe. Could Sora breed here as well, and how often do irruptive winter finches visit the tamarack cones?

Thanks to Dan Nickerson for sharing some of his sightings and additional insights into birding here.

For more information regarding trails, maps trailheads and conservation visit: Runaround Pond and Chesley Meadows.

Intervale Preserve and DIFW’s Thurston Meadow, New Gloucester

Horned Lark

Parts of the bird-rich area of New Gloucester’s Intervale have access challenges, but a few locations offer wonderful chances to sample its birdlife.  Beginning along Route 231, check the fields – especially in April and August – for Sandhill Crane; a pair or two now breed annually in the area and can be seen feeding in the fields on occasion. In May, when fields are still flooded from spring rains, check the edges of any large puddles carefully for a wide range of migrant shorebirds, including both Lesser and Great Yellowlegs, Least Sandpipers, and Wilson’s Snipe (which remains to breed).  If there are any puddles in recently-mowed or overturned fields from late July through mid-September, check them carefully for a wider array of southbound shorebirds including Pectoral Sandpiper, and perhaps – if you’re really lucky – Buff-breasted and Baird’s Sandpiper or American Golden-Plover.

The same strategy and selection of possible species can sometimes be seen by walking the quieter Woodman Road northeast to the edge of MDIF&W’s Thurston Meadow which nearly abuts RRCT’s Intervale Preserve. Bobolinks, Savannah, Song and Swamp Sparrows, Alder Flycatchers, and multitudes of Yellow Warblers and Common Yellowthroats line the road, and in winter, look for Horned Lark, Snow Bunting, and perhaps even Lapland Longspur among them.

The best way to get off the road for a spell is from the short and easy ½ mile loop trail from RRCT’s Intervale Preserve parking area off of Rte 231, just east of the train tracks next to the Royal River (note: there is absolutely no trespassing along the tracks). A dry trail through a small patch of upland forest offers access to the edges of the dense alder-dominated swamp, chock-full in breeding season of Alder Flycatchers, Veeries, Yellow Warblers, Common Yellowthroats, Swamp Sparrows, and Northern Waterthrushes. You may also encounter the likes of Warbling Vireo and Canada Warbler. Listen also for Black-billed and rarely, Yellow-billed Cuckoo as well.

A paddle up or down stretches of the river from the various access points is likely to produce many of these same species, but perhaps also Green and Great Blue Heron, American Bittern, Sora, and in any marsh areas with cattails, Virginia Rail.

For information regarding trails, trailheads, rules & regulations and conservation visit: RRCT’s Intervale Preserve.

Knight’s Pond Preserve, North Yarmouth & Cumberland

Green Heron

At 300 acres including a 46-acre pond and scrubby marsh, opened to the public in the fall of 2015, the new Knight’s Pond Preserve has begun to develop a loyal local birding following. Extensive trails pass through a variety of habitats, with a good diversity of breeding birds.  The two-town Preserve is owned and managed by the Towns of Cumberland and North Yarmouth, the Federal Aviation Administration, Royal River Conservation Trust, and the Chebeague & Cumberland Land Trust. The ridgeline trails along Blueberry Hill and Bruce Hill pass through a locally-rare stand of Shagbark Hickory; this tree reaches the northern limits of its natural range here in southern Maine. Look for Scarlet Tanagers, Red-eyed Vireos, Ovenbirds, and other common breeding species here as you make your way to the powerline cut where one finds Prairie Warblers, Eastern Towhees, and plenty of Common Yellowthroats and Gray Catbirds.  The upland woods offer easy access to a variety of the area’s common breeding species.

Derek Lovitch found a pair of Louisiana Waterthrushes in the outlet stream in 2016 (but hasn’t encountered them since) as it crosses under Greely Road Extension, the best birding – unsurprisingly – is around the edge of Knight’s Pond itself. Beginning with ice out in early spring, Ring-necked Ducks, Mallards, and Canada Geese begin to return. By late April into the first week or two of May, large numbers of Yellow-rumped and Palm Warblers concentrate along the pond’s edge, especially when Red Maple are blooming and freshwater Chironomid midges are hatching. Midge hatches sometimes attract large numbers of swallows – especially Tree and Barn – in the first half of May, occasionally punctuated by Bank, Cliff, and Northern Rough-winged.

In the second half of May, most migrant warblers are feeding in oaks, but cool and damp mornings often bring many species to the low scrub along and around the pond. Up to 18 species can be recorded here on a good morning.

In summer, Wood Ducks (and likely a pair of two of Hooded Mergansers), Green Herons, Eastern Kingbirds, and Belted Kingfishers call the pond home, with Great Blue Herons and Ospreys regular visitors to do a little fishing (or, in the case of the herons, likely a lot of frogging, too).  Derek Lovitch author of: Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide (April 2017, University Press of New England)  recorded state-Endangered Black-crowned Night-Heron here once in late summer, and August post-breeding dispersal sometimes deposits a Great Egret or two.  Swallow numbers build again in early August, and the occasional migrant shorebird pops in, especially Solitary and Spotted Sandpipers (also seen in spring).  If water levels are low enough to produce a muddy edge, look for both Greater and Lesser Yellowlegs, Least Sandpiper, and perhaps others.

Fall migrant songbirds are less attracted to the pond’s edge, but mixed-species foraging flocks can be encountered anywhere. Look for almost any migrant joining the resident flocks composed of Black-capped Chickadees, Tufted Titmice, Golden-crowned Kinglets, both Red- and White-breasted Nuthatches, Brown Creepers, and/or Hairy and Downy Woodpeckers.

Almost any duck may drop in during October, with a few lingering until the pond re-freezes. Come winter, a stroll or cross-country ski outing will yield few birds away from the aforementioned mixed-species foraging flocks, but look for Pine Siskins and Purple Finches in Eastern Hemlocks and Common Redpolls in Speckled Alders in some winters. For more information regarding trails, trailheads, rules & regulations and conservation visit: Knight’s Pond Preserve.

Littlejohn Island Preserve, Yarmouth, and Sandy Point Beach on Cousin’s Island

Common loon family

Attached by causeway to the larger and more well-known Cousin’s Island, Littlejohn Island Preserve is underutilized by birders, especially during fall migration. The Preserve is owned and managed by the Royal River Conservation Trust.  Parking is strictly limited, please respect all postings; well-maintained trails offer access to widely varied shoreline jutting into Casco Bay.

Nearby, the Town of Yarmouth’s Sandy Point Beach (see Birdwatching in Maine: A Site Guide) on the northwest corner of Cousin’s Island has become a world-renowned destination to observe – under specific conditions, especially light northwesterly winds – to observe the “Morning Flight” of migrant songbirds. Also called “morning redetermined migration,” the Morning Flight occurs in the first few hours of daylight as birds that have been migrating all night compensate for wind drift (especially), look for better habitat with less competition and predators, and prepare for the next leg of their journey. Birds over the Casco Bay Islands – or, originally, further out to sea – begin to work inland after sunrise, island-hopping their way back to the mainland.

While Sandy Point concentrates migrants due to its geography and proximity to the mainland, those migrants are being funneled there from many islands, including Littlejohn Island. Birds departing the northwest side of Chebeague Island or hop-scotching their way from various smaller islands to the north and east, arrive at this corner of Littlejohn. Some may fly right overhead, continuing to follow the islands towards Sandy Point, while others may stop to rest and refuel in the woods of the Littlejohn Island Preserve.

While these birds are arriving along a broader front than those departing at Sandy Point, the Morning Flight Phenomenon can be sampled here as well, so almost any migrant songbird might be detected. Furthermore, when wind or weather conditions (like a shift to southerly winds or dense fog) reduce birds’ desire to continue their morning redetermined migration, a wide variety of species can be found in the treetops here, often hours after the action at Sandy Point has wound down.

In summer, at Littlejohn Island Preserve, look for common breeding species such as Black-throated Green and Chestnut-sided Warblers, Blue-headed and Red-eyed Vireos, and many others. And don’t forget to scan the water: Common Eiders, Black Guillemots, Ospreys, and Bald Eagles are all common here spring through fall, and Common Terns often forage around the island in the summer months.

And speaking of eiders, winter concentrations of this glorious seaduck can be impressive here. In late fall through mid-spring, they will be joined by good numbers of Long-tailed Ducks, Buffleheads, Common Goldeneyes (and very rarely, the state-Endangered Barrow’s), Red-breasted Mergansers, Surf Scoters, and Common Loons. Look also for Horned Grebes, Black and White-winged Scoters, concentrations of Mallards, American Black Ducks, non-migratory Canada Geese, and Red-throated Loons. Especially when ice build-up begins to concentrate the waterfowl, Bald Eagle numbers can build – sometimes reaching double-figures here. Futhermore, in winter, concentrations of Herring, Ring-billed, and Great Black-backed Gulls should be carefully sorted through for Iceland – and rarely, Glaucous – Gulls.

For more information regarding maps, trails, parking, rules & regulations and conservation visit: Littlejohn Island Preserve.   Sandy Point Beach on Cousin’s Island is mapped as part of Yarmouth’s West Side Trail and also as part of the Royal River Water Trail:  Yarmouth Town Landing to Casco Bay segment