Spring Warblers in the Rangeley Lakes Region

I grew up in Maine, in the southern part of the state right outside of Portland, our largest city. Though I spent most of my time in close proximity to the coast, I really fell in love with nature every summer when my parents took my siblings and I up to Kennebago Lake, in the heart of the Rangeley Lakes region. We would swim, kayak, hike, and just relax for weeks, kids being kids! We had no television and no internet up there, so we often felt cut off from the outside world, but in a positive way.

It was only fitting then that I would first fall in love with birding while on a summer trip back to Kennebago. Unfortunately, by the time I began to bird I was already 23, out of the house and embarking on my first job out of college in Washington, DC, hundreds of miles away. I birded in the city and in the Mid-Atlantic, but it was nearly a year before I could return to Maine to bird again, in May. Lucky for me, May is the best time to bird.

My mother and I woke up just as dawn was beginning to look for birds on one of our first mornings beside the lake. I was only just beginning to get comfortable with identification, and had started taking my camera everywhere in the hopes of seeing a new bird.

kennebago, nature, landscape

Kennebago Lake.

A May dawn in May is eaaaaaarrlllyyyy. Though it was barely 5:30 a.m. the sun was already bright and shining, reflecting off the misting lake and nearly blinding me with its golden light. To truly bird the dawn, I would have had to raise myself at 4:30, but as it was I began pulling on my hiking boots and checking my camera battery.

Sometimes it’s difficult to find other crazies willing to wake up with the sun to look for birds. Luckily for me, my mom was just one of those nuts, and she was already awake and drinking coffee as I struggled into my clothes. Though summer had begun, it was chilly outside, and I pulled on a fleece and a baseball cap before heading outside. We looked like quite a pair, dressed for a hike and decked out each with cameras and binoculars.

We had a particular woody spot in mind, and so we quietly headed down the dirt road as the sun ascended. Kennebago Lake is remote, surrounded by dense woods on all sides. The cabins and camps hug the lake and the road, and after that it’s just trails and the occasional logging areas. East and West Kennebago Mountains rose behind the lake, reflecting their blue-green forms on the water below. It was and is a beautiful place.

The bird life had already picked up. Red-eyed Vireos were singing their characteristic three note song as we passed, and even though we could see their silhouettes from the tops of pine trees we continued on. Past Black-capped Chickadees, past Tufted Titmice, past a host of other species we went, because we had a target bird family in mind: the warblers.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter colors.

Yellow-rumped Warbler in winter colors.

Before beginning my birding adventures I never knew warblers existed. “How is that possible?” I ask myself now. Though they are small, they are absolutely stunning, coming in a wide array of blues, greens, yellows, oranges, and reds. Neotropical migrants, they spend the winters in Central and South America, basking in the warmth of tropical forests before making their spring migrations every year to North America, feasting on insects while raising their small families. Some travel thousands of miles to reach their breeding grounds – even more impressive when you consider that most warblers can easily fit into my palm.

Though most American birders try to catch warblers as they migrate through, here in Maine we have the distinct pleasure of watching them all summer long as they build nests, lay eggs, and care for their young.

As we journeyed to our special spot of woods, the ease of birding was obvious. Unlike later in the summer, the trees were still mostly bereft of leaves. The green buds had burst and the new leaves emerged, but they were small, contrasting their bright hue against the dark bark of their trees, but not yet obstructing the view of the branches. Birding in May was amazing simply because we could see the birds better.

Seeing is one thing, but hearing the birds is another. In spring the males are still trying to attract mates, and they will sing their little hearts out until a mostly drab colored female takes a fancy to them. Following songs right to the birds is one of my favorite ways to search, and I hoped it would be fruitful that morning.

kennebago lake, nature, landscape, maine

Kennebago Lake.

We passed gurgling brooks cascading down the hill towards the lake, winding through the mixed conifer and deciduous forest. Beautiful white birch trees stood out from shadows of the woods, while pines and spruce trees sat back in deep green tones. Chipmunks and Red Squirrels were also awake, tittering at us if we walked to close. I am ashamed to say I have more than once mistaken a squirrel rattle for that of a bird, only to be surprised when a furry creature emerges beneath the underbrush when I was fully expecting a feathered one.

The spot we were aiming for was just inside the edge of these woods, on the border of land owned by Grants Kennebago Camps, a sporting camp on this fly-fishing-only lake. The camps were on the water, small one and two bedroom cabins painted a brownish hue and covered with red-shingled-roofs. There were over a dozen in all, as well as a larger office and dining room, serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner for the guests. When I was little we used to stop at the front desk to buy candy and little toys, though those items have now been replaced with toiletries and fishing equipment. There’s even a little playground and swing-set in a grassy clearing, meant for families and their children. We climbed up past the playground and into the trees.

The environment had suddenly changed. Morning sunlight was all but covered by the canopy – even without full-grown leaves – and the ground was cold and wet. Another small stream rushed past us, and we paused on an old wooden bridge. We had made it.

For a moment we heard nothing except the dripping of dew to the ground and the stream to the side of us. Pursing my lips, I made a small, pshh pshh pshh sound, and waited.

I didn’t have to wait too long. The forest almost exploded with movement around us. Where once there had been silence and calm was now alive with wings and tails and bird calls. Half a dozen warblers had emerged out of the air, and were examining the strange intrudors in their midst.

I had no idea what to focus on first. It was still almost impossible for me to identify a new bird without a photograph, so both my mother and I rapidly popped off our lenses and hastened to snap a few shots.

There was just one problem: warblers hate to be still. These were no different; one moment I had my eye on a brightly colored male on an exposed branch, the next he had hopped ten yards up into the tree and was obscured by the trunk, the next had alighted to a small bush 180 degrees directly behind me. Trying to follow one bird I was forced to whirl around and around and around, until I nearly slipped in the mud and went toppling over.

My frustration mounted. My mother felt even worse; while I had a camera with a relatively quick shutter speed, hers was notoriously slow to focus, and she was having an even harder time taking photos. We needed a new plan.

Since only my camera seemed capable of managing any shots, Mom put hers aside and instead took up her binoculars.

“Yellow guy, right to your left, in the fir tree,” she told me rapidly, pointing to where she had last seen the bird (pointing is a big no, no when birding, but we were left with no choice).

I spun around and snapped a few photos, just managing to capture a few less-than-crisp images before the bird was off again. Grayish back, yellow belly, a necklace of dark spots, and a comically yellow eye ring: we had a Canada Warbler in our midst.

Now that Mom could be on the look-out with me, we operated efficiently. She would find the bird and follow its speedy movements while I tried to keep up with the camera. A bright orange throat and characteristic tail feathers revealed a male Blackburnian Warbler, another yellow belly but with long black stripes and white wing-bars was a Magnolia Warbler. Still another male with yellow shoulder patches and a yellow behind turned out to be the Yellow-rumped Warbler, affectionately known as “Butterbutt.”

After what seemed like hours, but could only have been a few minutes, the birds grew tired of us and zoomed off to nest building or mate courting or insect finding, and we were left along in the quiet of the woods once more. We took another moment to catch our breath, exchange grins, and continue on up the trail.

Erika Zambello

About Erika Zambello

Erika Zambello is a writer, birder, and photographer, born and raised in Maine. She has a bachelor’s degree in Government and Anthropology from Cornell University, and a master’s degree in Environmental Management from Duke University, specializing in ecosystem science and conservation. Her love of the outdoors was inspired by her childhood in Maine, and she returned for her National Geographic Young Explorer grant in 2015-2016.