Consider bird watching. Once thought of as a hobby for elderly folks of the nerdier sort, in 2011 it was the subject of a comedy starring Owen Wilson. Mick Jagger and Paul McCartney are both said to be fans of this pastime that originally gained popularity in Victorian England with the publication of such books as Birds through an Opera Glass (1889), but today counts one out of every five Americans as a participant.
My interest in bird watching emerged from my passion for hiking. If I took a guided bird tour, I reasoned, I could add to my basic knowledge and get even more out of my day hikes in Acadia National Park in Maine. So, we signed up with The Natural History Center in Bar Harbor.
We arrived early for our 8am appointment, and with more than a little excitement, sat waiting on the bench on Firefly Lane opposite the Bar Harbor Village Green gazebo.
A few minutes later the owner of the center, Rich MacDonald, pulled up and we were off to the first of six stops on the three-hour bird watching tour of Mount Desert Island. As we drove, Rich introduced himself.
“I grew up in western New York, the oldest son in the family. We had a dairy farm and cheese shop. 37 types. But I was an academic, and although I was supposed to take over the farm, my father encouraged me to pursue my passion.”
That was biology and ornithology, in particular. After ten years as a field biologist with The Nature Conservancy and a stint in consulting, Rich met his wife, Natalie Springuel, also a naturalist, who was a Master Maine Guide for sea kayaking. They moved to Mount Desert Island and opened The Natural History Center four years ago.
As Rich parked the van at Hadley’s Point, the northernmost point of the island, the wind picked up. The yellow leaves of the nearby poplars rustled, as chickadees chirped from somewhere within the grove. Rich positioned his scope beside the van, which sheltered us on this breezy, but bright October morning. Although we were novice bird watchers, we knew this was not the best time of year for birding. Sure enough, the first birds Rich’s scope picked up bobbing around in Eastern Bay were herring gulls—common to every beach and, well, garbage lot.
Rich got excited. “What do you see?” We peered through the scope. Then we saw it: a bright red spot on the bill. Only when a chick pecks it, Rich explained, does the mother regurgitate food to feed it. “That red dot is key to survival.” It turns out a Dutch scientist won a Nobel Prize for these findings about “signal stimulti.” I knew I’d never look at herring gulls the same.
We moved on, sighting yellow legs, red-necked grebes, Canadian geese, a bald eagle, several types of ducks, and mosquitoes of avian scale. The anecdotes about bird behavior, habitat, and history accumulated even faster than the checkmarks on the birding list.
We saw a mourning dove, which prompted Rich to tell us the story of its relation, the passenger pigeon. In the 19th century a pigeon migration, in flocks numbering in the billions, was such a spectacle that John James Audubon described it as “darkening the sky.” These pigeons are extinct today.
“I see mourning doves pecking at the gravel on the carriage roads,” I said to Rich.
“Eating little stones helps them grind things in their stomachs,” he explained.
“What kind of spruce is this?” I asked.
“Black spruce. It’s the most common in Maine.”
It was clear we were in the company of a passionate expert. It’s no wonder that the hedge fund elite hire him to guide extended hiking and kayaking trips. Even more, it fits that he would be the naturalist for Garrison Keillor on the cruises of National Public Radio’s A Prairie Home Companion.
Yes, birding with Rich MacDonald was another victory for the nerds.
And I was right. A walk in the woods is great. When you know what’s singing in the trees, it’s even better.
The Natural History Center is located at 6 Firefly Lane, Bar Harbor, Maine, (207) 801-2617.