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Saturday, January 22, 2022

Off-season sights and sounds of Acadia National Park

Transcript

Hari Srinivasan: Maine is known as the Land of Vacations. This nickname is even on state license plates. Few places in the state attract more visitors than the scenic Acadia National Park on the Maine coast. By this time, many seasonal businesses had closed and the number of tourists had declined. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t much to see, including stunning scenery and plenty of birds – if you know where to watch and listen.

How many bird species do you think you have seen in this area?

Rich MacDonald: Probably well over sixty here already, in this area, for example, during a four-hour walk on a two-mile loop. So we’re going at about half a mile an hour.

Hari Srinivasan: Blimey.

Earlier this week, on a seasonally wet and chilly afternoon, field biologist Rich MacDonald took us on a tour of his favorite bird hunting spots in Acadia National Park.

Therefore, when you listen, you can hear different birds. Can you hear anything right now?

Rich MacDonald: Yeah. So I would say that most of my birdwatching is actually listening to them. And now I hear the chirping of a black tit. He was here doing this little ditty. Let’s listen for a minute. Let’s see if I hear anything else. There is really very, very weak, high. [Vocalization]… And it looks like it’s hard to hear when the rain hits the ground and in our jackets, but this is the king with the golden crown. It’s a bird …

Hari Srinivasan: McDonald has been birding for most of his life and has been touring Acadia – and before the pandemic – around the world. He is also a big supporter of local bird watching.

Rich MacDonald: Wherever you go, you will find birds …

Hari Srinivasan: To commemorate the 100th anniversary of the Birds of Transfer Treaty that protects birds migrating in the United States, MacDonald spent 2018 cataloging as many birds as possible in his home county of Hancock, Maine, including the park.

MacDonald published a book about his year of intense birdwatching called “Little Big Year, Acadia Bird Chasing.”

Rich MacDonald: I saw 268 bird species throughout the year, and most of them were what you would expect to see. But some of them were unusual and some were quite rare. A rarity for this area, not uncommon on the planet. And I think perhaps the biggest message was that you don’t have to go to all these exotic places, which is really interesting. Yes, but we saw a lot of really good birds here.

Hari Srinivasan: But for MacDonald, it doesn’t have to be a rare bird. He says he enjoys regular meetings a lot. Most people look at this cluster and say, “Oh, just seagulls.”

Rich MacDonald: Yeah.

Hari Srinivasan: What do you see?

Rich MacDonald: So I look at it right away. I see two particularly large seagulls with white heads, white underneath, and black backs. And they are called the big black-backed gulls. Okay, this is the largest seagull in the world.

Hari Srinivasan: Wow.

Rich MacDonald: And then other rather large gulls surround him, large but not so large, and not all herring gulls, and you see different colors. In fact, I look through binoculars and see at least three young large black-backed gulls.

Hari Srinivasan: So even a seagull is never boring.

Rich MacDonald: No, I think seagulls are adorable. Seagulls are mesmerizing. People talk about how common tits are. Oh, it’s just another tit. But the tits are really cool. I will tell you as many stories about titmouse as you like, but each bird is interesting and unique in its own way. If you are looking for it.

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Hari Srinivasan: McDonald is now in the midst of yet another yearlong bird-watching project, inspired by the realization of just how sustainable his last annual project was.

Rich MacDonald: At the end of the year, I drove six thousand three hundred and ninety miles and was really a little concerned about how much I drove for local birds in one year. So I vowed that I would do it differently next time and do it as a zero carbon birdwatching, which is what I am doing this year. So this year, I only count birds when I get out of the house on my own, bike, walk, carry the kayak a quarter of a mile to North East Creek and swim into the ocean. This way you will see many different birds and show you that you can see almost as many birds as you can drive.

Hari Srinivasan: In just under two months of the year, MacDonald has already seen over 250 species. To continue the theme of zero carbon emissions, he is incorporating climate change research into his project, which will also be his next book. As in almost every corner of the Earth, global warming is felt here, changing the habitat and habitats of birds.

Rich MacDonald: People come here and always ask me, we want to see dead ends. Where do we go to see puffins? We see puffins starting to fight because we are at the southern end of their range, and puffins have always fed young small eel-like fish called sand spears. And that’s a big part of their diet. And the young can swallow it. Because of the warming, the Gulf of Maine and the Gulf of Maine are warming up faster than almost any other salt water body on the planet, so we find fewer sand spears and more fish of the same length but thicker, called butterfish. … Adult puffins feed young puffins with oily fish, and we have found that young puffins often choke on these oily oily fish. Thus, we are witnessing a reduction in the number of winged dead ends in this area. Again, we are at the southern edge of our range, so we expect to see some hesitation – puffins expand further south or further north. But this is a real problem, and this is purely due to global warming.

Hari Srinivasan: His travel business was hit hard by the 2020 pandemic, but McDonald says tourists are back this year again. Acadia has had a record number of visitors, part of the pandemic-related trend of people wanting to go out.

Rich MacDonald: This is kind of exciting as we are attracting more and more people to the park who will hopefully love the park, appreciate it and want to become stakeholders and conserve natural lands. I take a lot of people who are really not familiar with the natural world and they are so excited to know about it, which is great.

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