Sunday, July 5, 2020

Nesowadnehunk Lake, Baxter State Park,
and the Katahdin Range (Maine)
25 June – 3 July 2020

    East face of the Mount Katahdin Massif. Note remnant patch of snow remaining in upper center right.

My plans to drive to Arctic Canada commencing in late June were crushed by the provincial governments of Yukon and Northwest Territories, who politely asked me to stay in the USA and not come to Canada. So I put off that big trip to the summer of 2021.

But I was already 100% packed for a wilderness field trip, and I was itching to get into the cool and wet boreal forest. As a consolation, I planned a trip to the Adirondacks, to camp at Brown Tract Pond Campground and spend time in the nearby spruce bogs in search of American Three-toed Woodpecker—a bird that seems to be slowly disappearing from the Adirondacks. I had not seen this species in the Adirondacks since the 1970s, only last glimpsing the bird in northern Ontario in 2015.

    View to Nesowadnehunk Lake and the Wilderness Campground in the center foreground of the Lake. Vista from summit       of Doubletop Mountain.

I then learned from the NY State Department of Environmental Conservation that the Brown Tract Campground would remain closed for an indefinite period. Strike two!

    Lesser summits west of Katahdin. Doubletop is the highest summit, on the far left. Campground in foreground.

Then I recalled my splendid sojourn at an isolated spot in northern Maine back in June 2018 at the Nesowadnehunk Lake Wilderness Campground, situated just west of Baxter State Park. This is an area famous for the elusive American Three-toed Woodpecker. I did not manage to see the bird in 2018, but hope springs eternal!

    Barn Swallow resting near its nest on campground office.

I rung up the Campground, and spoke to Jana, who assured me that the campground was open for business and that I was welcome to come tent-camp at the north end of their facility, where the spruce forest meets the lake.

    Hawkweed blooms in profusion in the Nesowadnehunk Field of Baxter State Park (note Canadian Tiger Swallowtail). 

I was already packed. So I got the thumbs-up from my wife Carol to go, and I departed early the next morning, headed north and east to Maine. The one-way drive is more than 800 miles, the route taking me right up through New York City.

    Black-and-White Warbler female.

On Day One I made it as far as Waterville, Maine, where I stopped for a much-needed night’s rest. Early the next morning I made the final four hours drive up through Bangor and Millinocket. I then took the Golden Road, the Telos Road, and the Turnpike Road, (all three are gravel backwoods logging roads), which come to a spruce-clad dead end at the Nesowadnehunk Lake Wilderness Campground.

    Distant view of the west face of the summit area of Katahdin, shot from Mount Coe.

The Lake was created many decades ago from the damming of the Nesowadnehunk Stream. Many streams and lakes were dammed during the heyday of the logging of these great north woods. Most remained dammed. The Nesowadnehunk (pronounced “Shouadneyunk”) is mentioned several times in Thoreau’s book The Maine Woods, which describes his three field trips (1846, 1853, 1857) to the region of Katahdin and the surrounding Penobscot River waters.

    Common Goldeneye hen, a breeding species in the area.

I brought The Maine Woods with me once again on this trip and read it on nights and on rainy days when I was stuck in my tent... It is enlightening to read this book in the Maine woods! Thoreau gives the reader a lot to think about: wilderness, logging, Moose-hunting, native American issues, the march of civilization, and more.

    Labrador Tea flowering on the summit of Mount Coe.

I was back at Nesowadnehunk to spend time searching for the American Three-toed Woodpecker. I was confident that I had learned my lesson from the last visit, and that I would now indeed, locate this conifer forest will-o-the-wisp, while also seeing lots of other interesting wildlife.

    Chipping Sparrow adult collecting food for its nestlings.

But I had many additional plans. I had my bike and intended to use it traveling far and wide on the dirt back roads in the Park and to the west of the Park.  I also planned to canoe the Lake (the campground has canoes for hire). And I had my sights set on several summits west of Katahdin. I had no plans to climb the big peak, mainly because it was too distant, and, moreover, its summit area was closed to climbers because of covid-19.

     Banded (or White) Admiral, was abundant along the roads of Baxter State Park in late June.

The Campground is set in a remnant forest of Black and White Spruce stands right along the west side of the Lake, which provides a wonderful vista up to a number of lesser mountains that lie in the Park. I set up campsite between two patch of spruces right on the lake at the northern terminus of the campground, which is mainly populated with long-term campers who set up their RVs and use these as summer camps. The campground also has some 10 rustic cabins, 3 lean-tos, and several additional camping sites.

    A young Snowshoe Hare

I started each day by bicycle-birding the Black Spruce flats of the Turnpike Road (just to the west) and the Park’s Tote Road, just to the east. Both provided ready access to nice boreal conifer forest bursting with birdsong in the early AM.

    A stand of mature White Spruce long the eastern shore of Nesowadnehunk Lake.

First light came at 4:40am, at which time the American Robins and American Crows would sound off, waking me up.

    Adult male Blackpoll Warbler in a Balsam Fir at Teardrop Lake.

The warbler song soon followed, along with the White-throated Sparrows and Swainson’s Thrushes.
Much of the landscape to the west of the Campground (private landed owned by a timber company) had been harvested for pulpwood, the results of which can be readily seen on Google Maps. For better or worse, this extractive activity creates a diverse mosaic of forest and nonforest tracts, which offers varying opportunities for the birds and for birding.

    Canada Jay juvenile along the Turnpike Road

The Park has not been logged in the many decades since the Park's establishment (though “scientific logging” operations take place in a 30,000 acre patch in the northwest corner of the Park). The Park area accessible to the Tote Road is a mix of boreal conifer forest of spruce, fir, cedar, and tamarack, as well as deciduous forest that features primarily Yellow Birch, Sugar Maple, American Beech, and a number of lesser species.

    American Black Duck

These two habitats support very distinct bird faunas. I was most interested in the birds of the conifer forest, of course, because that was where the American Three-toed Woodpecker would be lurking, along with a number of other interesting boreal bird species: Spruce Grouse, Olive-sided Flycatcher, Black-backed Woodpecker, Boreal Chickadee, and about 10 additional specialties.

    Boreal Chickadee

One great way to see a wide array of habitats is to climb a mountain. I thus planned to make a climb every other day: first Doubletop Mountain, then Mount Coe, and finally South Brother (from lowest to highest). I could easily bike to the trail-heads for these three summits, which all provide ready views east to mighty Katahdin (which still exhibited snowpack in spots high on the mountain’s eastern face).

    A ball of butterflies visiting Coyote scat on a gravel road in the Park.

I did not realize it at first, but I had this whole section of the Park to myself. Overnight camping was closed because of the virus, and there were no day-trippers reaching this isolated corner of the Park. There was only the single ranger operating the Nesowadnehunk Field Campground. That was Laura Whitney, who had been stationed here in isolation for the preceding month, sharing the habitat with the Coyotes, Black Bears, and Moose.

    Doubletop Mountain, viewed from the summit of Mount Coe.

My three climbs were superb, each unique in its own way. The first two climbs (Doubletop and Mount Coe) I did without meeting anyone on the trail. During the third climb (South Brother) I met two parties. The solitude was sublime. Late June in Baxter Park without humankind is special. I would arrive back at my camp exhausted but elated by the experience. Happily, I did not repeat the “tumble” I took on Katahdin back in August 2014.

    Golden-crowned Kinglet with cap erected in display

This trip was the fifth in a series of field sojourns in boreal conifer forest, part of a long-term study that I hope will lead to a book on the subject. I am particularly interested in the ecology of spruce and fir and their importance to the boreal birdlife. Here in Maine, Black Spruce prospers in bogs and near timberline atop mountains. Red Spruce is found in the mountain uplands, mixed with the hardwoods, and White Spruce seems to like well-drained streamside flats. Balsam Fir seems to associate with all three spruces from top to bottom, and is something of a junior relative to the more robust spruces.

    The shy and reclusive Fox Sparrow, is a commonplace nester in the Katahdin area, both in the lowlands and heights. Its         distinctive loud and musical song is the give-away.

I had hopes of spending time with Spruce Grouse, but I had to be satisfied with Ruffed Grouse with broods of young. My search for the American Three-toed Woodpecker was unsuccessful. In fact, I did not encounter its close cousin, the Black-backed Woodpecker, until my final morning in Maine. Both encounters with the latter species (more common than the ATTW) was in spruce woods near camp.

    Northern Parula Warbler in song

Other boreal-nesting birds I encountered included Evening Grosbeak, both crossbills, Fox Sparrow, Philadelphia Vireo, Blackpoll and Bay-breasted Warblers, Boreal Chickadee, and Yellow-bellied and Olive-sided Flycatchers.

    Philadelphia Vireo at Teardrop Lake on the slopes of South Brother

Even though I spent a lot of time in its prime montane conifer habitat, I heard only a single call note of a Bicknell’s Thrush—these birds seem to be silent during the nesting season.

    Common Loon on the Lake, photographed from my campsite

Moose were everywhere in evidence. I encountered Moose tracks and scat on every trail I walked, even at high elevation. I saw a cow Moose feeding along side the lake; I biked up to one along the Baxter Tote Road; and I heard one clomp by my tent early one morning (that was a surprise). I biked up to a single Black Bear along the Turnpike Road; it retreated into the thicket of Black Spruce and Balsam.

    A cow Moose on the Tote Road in the Park

Snowshoe Hares were commonplace, especially at the Campground--both adults and youngsters. I was disturbed to see that many were heavily infested with ticks.

    Evening vista of Mount Strickland from my campsite on the Lake

I was surprised to see Common Loons come visit the protected cove waters of the Campground every day, wending their way among the fishing boats in search of Brook Trout. They seemed entirely at ease with these motor boats. 

    Note the 4 engorged ticks on the left side of this Snowshoe Hare youngster's head (to the reader's right)

Canada Jays were common in the conifers, moving about in family groups with their dusky-colored young.

    Swanson's Thrush gathering food for its nestlings

The biting insects were there—mosquitoes, black flies, deer flies, and Moose flies. I brought home quite a few itchy black fly bites, but the insects don’t really bother me, and I come to accept them as part of the experience. There is something alluring about the Great North Woods, and it keeps calling me back...

     Tree Swallow pair at a nest box at the Campground


  1. Love the butterflies...another splendid journey...

  2. amazing adventures and excellent photos Bruce - thank you for sharing during these wacky times - best wishes, and keep exploring - Jennifer

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