Standing on a thick branch of a white birch tree, my right arm wrapped around its trunk, I looked down over the wetland, searching for the long neck and sharp beak of a great blue heron. The giant bird had soared overhead while my co-worker John Holyoke and I had been standing on the side of the road at the south entrance of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument on Aug. 10, and we watched as it disappeared somewhere in the tall grasses and dead trees lining Sandbank Stream.
We’d been looking for moose, but during our two-day exploration of the conserved land, we had no luck finding the hulking creature. We did, however, find proof of its presence. Moose tracks could be found stamped into the gravel of Katahdin Loop Road — a 16-mile road that forms a loop through the south end of the monument — and piles of moose droppings were scattered along the trails we walked.
The heron was nowhere in sight. I dropped down from my perch on the tree and scrambled up a steep slope to the road, where I waved at two passing trucks. I then walked up the road to where John had parked his vehicle.
“No luck,” I told John as I climbed into the passenger side of his SUV.
We had multiple assignments to fulfill while in the national monument, and finding and photographing wildlife was one of them.
As we continued driving along Katahdin Loop Road, I stared out the open window, searching the wetland below through gaps in the trees — and there it was, the heron. John pulled over and I jumped out of the vehicle, managing to snap one photograph of the bird with my 300-mm lens before it took flight and headed upstream, toward Deasey Ponds. I was surprised I’d disturbed the animal from so far away, but from my experience, great blue herons are easy to spook. They have great eyesight and need plenty of space.
When it comes to watching and photographing wildlife, it’s tricky to decide how close to approach an animal. There is a “rule of thumb,” a trick that I learned while attending a Leave No Trace course a few years ago. You hold your thumb up in front of your face, arm outstretched, and it the creature your watching can’t be covered entirely by your thumb, you’re too close.
That’s a great start, but it’s not that simple. Different animals detect and tolerate human presence in different ways. For example, the heron clearly detected me and decided to flee, even though I certainly could have covered the bird with my thumb from my location on the road. A moose, on the other hand, probably wouldn’t have even known I was there — unless it caught my scent. Moose have a great sense of smell and terrible eyesight.
But again, we didn’t see a moose. And we would have settled for a black bear, but we didn’t see one of those either. We did, however, notice several piles of bear scat on the trails and the loop road. It being the height of blueberry season, the scat was dark blue and filled with berries.
While the large, iconic creatures of the north Maine woods refused to make an appearance during our trip, we spotted plenty of other wildlife in the national monument.
“I’ve seen more snakes today than in the past 20 years,” John said as we walked along an easy hiking trail along an esker, a glacial deposit of sand and gravel that forms a steep ridge.
We saw at least five garter snakes of various sizes during our two-day trip, as well as a wood frog and two young toads. Every time I heard a rustle by my feet, I bent down to find either a frog or a snake making its escape. We also spotted a variety of songbirds, many of which were listed on the new interpretive map of the Katahdin Loop Road released last week by the nonprofit group Friends of Katahdin Woods and Waters National Monument. The map is available online and at several locations near the national monument, including the Patten Lumbermen’s Museum.
The most exciting wildlife sighting during the trip, for me at least, was an insect.
We had stopped to photograph a sign on the loop road when a flurry of orange drew my eyes to the wildflowers in the ditch. With my camera, I slowly crept forward to find a monarch butterfly posing on a cluster of white flowers. (I later double-checked to make sure the butterfly wasn’t a viceroy, a species that looks a lot like a monarch but has some differences.) Once quite common in Maine, monarch butterflies have all but disappeared from the state in recent years. Entomologists say their decline is due to several factors, including deforestation of their wintering habitat in Mexico and pesticide use throughout the United States.
This year, monarchs may be having a bit of a comeback. In the spring, monarchs migrated to the Charlotte Rhoades Park and Butterfly Garden in Southwest Harbor for the first time in eight years. So understandably, I was excited to spot one up in national monument, feeding on the wildflowers lining the logging roads.
As we drove the entire loop road, I saw at least two more monarchs, along with a variety of other butterflies, moths and bees. The experience reminded me that sometimes, when wildlife seems scarce, you just have to take a closer look and it’s right under your nose.