This spring, I have often bicycled by the old Messalonskee Lake boat launch off Route 27 by Hammond Lumber in Belgrade village – not to be confused with Belgrade Lakes village six miles north on Route 27. Most days, birders with binoculars or spotting scopes scrutinize the marsh or shoreside trees by the launch – a busy birding destination in central Maine.
Because of invasive milfoil in this lake, the state has closed the boat ramp to boaters with trailers for fear of spreading this aquatic plant to other water, but birders can park in the roomy parking lot and watch myriad bird species on shore or from carry-in canoes, kayaks or small boats.
Sandhill cranes (Grus canadensis) rank as a big draw here, an impressive creature with a 4-foot body, 77-inch wingspan and more than 10 pounds – a lotta bird.
Sibley translates the sandhill crane’s voice as a “… loud, resonant wooden-sounding bugle with rattling or rolling quality.” Peterson claims this bird makes “a shrill, rolling garooo-a-a-a.”
My introduction to sandhill cranes came on a lowering day in Belgrade village, when a pair stood in a field just north of the Belgrade Central School’s playground on the west side of Route 27. Their height astounded me. Dim backlighting made the birds look over 6 feet tall – a surreal experience.
Later, I talked with a wildlife biologist in Bangor who said Belgrade is “sandhill-crane central,”– but this location offers other bird species.
Back in April, I was in the launch parking area with my back to the water, fiddling with a bicycle derailleur. A woman at the ramp next to the water hollered to me while pointing at a bald eagle (Haliaeetus leucocephalus) flying near me, quartering away with a fish in its talons.
After the eagle disappeared, she invited me to look through her spotting scope at a sandhill crane in the near distance. The powerful lens showed just the bird’s neck and head, including the iconic red crown, as a bicycling morning quickly turned into a memorable birding experience.
A few years ago, I wrote about a kingbird that birders watched from the Route 27 bridge over Belgrade stream. Each day, as the kingbird perched high in a red maple to watch for flying insects, folks took advantage of the predictable bird. It may have been the most-watched kingbird in central Maine that year. New kingbirds annually perch here.
Casual observers notice kingbirds (Tyrannus tyrannus) without realizing their identity because we often spot the “small” bird, flying and darting around crows and hawks, obviously harassing these predators.
A kingbird does look somewhat diminutive next to crows or hawks, but the adult male’s length actually measures 81/2 inches, with a wingspread of 15 inches and weight about 11/2-ounces – a little larger than a 7-inch eastern bluebird but smaller than a 10-inch robin. But a kingbird does look diminutive when diving at a hawk or crow in a wide-open sky.
The south end of Great Pond also has black terns (Chilidonias niger), a state-endangered species. The adult breeding black tern sports a black head and underparts. The back, wings and tail are dark gray. Maine lies on the northern edge of black-tern habitat, and many knowledgeable birders think the Messalonskee boat launch may be the best spot in the state to view them.
In my opinion, birders fall into three distinct categories:
• I belong to the first group. Within sight of our home windows, we hang seed feeders, suet blocks and nail a halved orange and apple above a perch (a dowel in a pole works fine) to attract orioles and cardinals. Myriad species forage at the feeding stations, and we might watch yellow-bellied sapsuckers in a hedge, bluebirds in shade trees and so forth.
• Some birders have feeders around their houses but also travel in Maine with quality binoculars and a spotting scope, visiting places such as Messalonskee Lake’s south end, Sears Island and Mount Agamenticus – places that wind up in Maine or New England birding guidebooks. These folks often talk about life lists for birding. A serious hobby indeed.
• Affluent, dedicated birders have home feeders and travel around Maine, the United States or the world in search of birds. When I look at birders with expensive optics at the Messalonskee boat launch, it always reaffirms how dedicated some folks are about this fast-growing spectator sport.
This fun pastime fills four seasons, and right now is the time to enter the birding world and find out what’s causing all the excitement.
Ken Allen, of Belgrade Lakes, a writer, editor and photographer, may be reached at: