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The off-season sights and sounds of Acadia National Park
Hari Sreenivasan: Maine is known as Vacationland. The nickname is even on the state's license plates. Few places in the state attract more visitors than scenic Acadia National Park on Maine's coast. By this time of year, many of the seasonal businesses have closed and the tourists have thinned out. But that doesn't mean there isn't a lot to see, including some stunning backdrops and plenty of birds-- if you know where to look and listen.
How many species of birds do you think you've seen in this area?
Rich MacDonald: It's probably in the high sixties in just this area, just this area, like on a four-hour walk on a two-mile loop. So we're going at like half a mile an hour.
Hari Sreenivasan: Wow.
On a seasonably wet and chilly day earlier this week, field biologist Rich MacDonald took us on a tour of some of his favorite places to look for birds in Acadia National Park.
So when you listen, you can hear different birds. Are you hearing any right now?
Rich MacDonald: Yeah. So I would say most of my bird watching is actually bird listening. And so I'm hearing the chirping of a black chickadee. He was over here doing this little ditty. Let's just listen for a moment. See if I hear anything else. There's a really, really faint, high-pitched. [Vocalization]. And it's like it's hard to hear with the rain pattering on the ground and in our jackets, but that's a golden-crowned kinglet. It's a little bird…
Hari Sreenivasan: MacDonald has been birding for most of his life, and leads tours in Acadia - and before the pandemic - all over the world. He's also a big proponent of birding locally.
Rich MacDonald: Anywhere you go, you'll find birds…
Hari Sreenivasan: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which protected birds migrating in the United States, MacDonald spent 2018 cataloging as many birds as he could in his home county of Hancock, Maine, which includes the park.
MacDonald published a book about his year of intense birding called, "Little Big Year, Chasing Acadia's Birds."
Rich MacDonald: In the course of the year, I saw 268 species of birds, and most of them were things you would expect to see. But some were uncommon, or some were even downright rare. Rare for this area, not rare on the planet. And I think maybe the biggest message was that, you don't have to get all these exotic locations, which is really fun to do. Yeah, but we saw a lot of really good birds here.
Hari Sreenivasan: But for MacDonald, it doesn't have to be a rare bird. He says that he gets a lot of pleasure out of seeing common ones. Most people, they look at that cluster and they say, Oh, just seagulls.
Rich MacDonald: Yeah.
Hari Sreenivasan: What do you see?
Rich MacDonald: So I look at it right off the bat. I see two particularly large gulls that have white heads and white underneath and black backs. And those are called great black-backed gulls. OK, it's the largest gull in the world.
Hari Sreenivasan: Oh wow.
Rich MacDonald: And then surrounding it are some other pretty good-sized gulls, large gulls, but not as large and not all herring gulls and you see different colors. In fact, I look at my binoculars, I can see at least three juvenile great black-back gulls.
Hari Sreenivasan: So not even a seagull is boring.
Rich MacDonald: No, I think seagulls are fascinating. Seagulls are fascinating. People talk about how chickadees are so common. Oh, it's just another chickadee. But the chickadees are really cool. Let me tell you about any number of stories about chickadees, but every bird is interesting and unique in their own way. If you look for it.
Hari Sreenivasan: MacDonald is in the midst of another year-long birding project right now - one inspired by the realization of just how environmentally taxing his last annual project was.
Rich MacDonald: At the end of the year, I drove six thousand three hundred ninety miles and I was really kind of disturbed by how much I drove locally birding in one year. So I swore that I was going to do it differently another time and I would do it as a zero-carbon birding, which I'm doing that this year. So I'm only counting birds this year when I leave my house under my own power, by bike, walking, carrying my kayak the quarter-mile down to Northeast Creek and paddling into the ocean. So you'll see a lot of different birds that way and and show you that you can see almost as many birds under your own power as you can driving.
Hari Sreenivasan: With a little less than two months left in the year, MacDonald has already seen more than 250 species. To go with the zero-carbon theme, he's incorporating research on climate change into the project, which will also be his next book. As in almost every corner of the earth, global warming is being felt here, changing the food habitat and ranges of birds.
Rich MacDonald: People come here and always ask me, we want to see puffins. Where do we go to see puffins? We're seeing puffins starting to struggle because we're at the southern end of their range and puffins for forever have been feeding the young a small little kind of almost eel-like fish called a sand lance. And that's kind of a big part of their diet. And the young can swallow it down. Because of the warming Gulf of Maine, and the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than almost any other saltwater body on the planet, so we're finding fewer sand lances and we're finding more fish that are similar length but are fatter called butterfish. And the puffins, adults, are feeding the young butterfish, and we're finding the young puffins are often choking on these fat butter fish. So we're seeing reduced numbers of puffins fledging in this area. Again, we're at the southern edge of our habitat range, so we expect to see some fluctuation - puffins expanding further south or further north. But this is a real problem and that's purely due to global warming.
Hari Sreenivasan: His tour business took a big hit during the pandemic in 2020, but MacDonald says that tourists have come back in force this year. Acadia has had a record number of visitors, part of a pandemic-related trend of people wanting to get outdoors.
Rich MacDonald: It's kind of exciting in that we're getting more people into the park who are going to hopefully love the park and appreciate it and want to become stakeholders in and conserving natural lands. I'm taking a lot of people out there that are really unfamiliar with the natural world, and they're so excited to learn about it and that's great.