I’ve mammalwatched twice in Maine. I visited the Portland region in July 2006. And I returned to Bar Harbour in September 2014.
South West Maine
People sometimes ask me why I like mammal watching. While most seem to understand the thrill of seeing an Elephant or a Tiger in the wild, there seems less conviction in their nods when I try to capture the excitement of finding a rare species of rat in the trap, or the thrill of crawling through a culvert to look at a bat. Funny that. At this point I change tack to explain that mammalwatching takes me to some fabulous places and introduces me to some great people. My first trip to Maine was no exception.
I’d never really considered Maine as somewhere I needed to visit. But in May 2006 I met Will Richard, a Maine-based photographer and arctic expert, when I was on Baffin Island. Will encouraged me to visit, and so I did a couple of months later.
Will was away but he put me in touch with Richard (“Dick”) Anderson, a former head of the Maine Audubon Society and a Maine environment commissioner. Dick in turn contacted Don Mairs, who’d spent a lifetime observing Maine’s wildlife, and was one of those rare individuals who seemed expert in everything from insects through to mammals.
For reasons best known to themselves, Dick and Don went to considerable lengths to help find me as many mammals as they could. Dick, and his wife Patricia, also put me up and fed me, while Don, and his wife, Nan, gave me lunch after we’d spent an enjoyable hour trying to encourage his Little Brown Bat colony to show itself. What can I say! If you think Americans are some of the friendliest people on the planet, then you ain’t seen nothing til you’ve been to Maine.
I arrived late on a Saturday afternoon and Dick had already set a few traps around the place for small mammals and Star-nosed Moles. We set another 30 traps around Dick’s home in Freeport. The weather was abysmal – torrential rain that began at 3 p.m. and continued for 13 hours.
The next morning we’d caught some White-footed Mice in woodland, and a Meadow Vole, yep … in a meadow, which were both new to me.
We also caught a Star-nosed Mole overnight but sadly it drowned in the trap. We’d set the traps in mole runways just under the surface: and though the soil was well drained, the exceptional rainfall was too much for the ground to cope with. I was sad for the mole and desperately disappointed not to have seen a live one. It is one of the most extraordinary animals I’ve ever seen and looks like an extra from Monsters Inc. A creature that had been put together from bits of other things. We set more traps for the moles which we checked every couple of hours for the next 24 hours but we didn’t get another one. Dammit.
Though I’d only planned to stay for a day I decided to stay for two to try to see a mole and catch more small mammals.
Don had a colony of Little Brown Bats living in the paneling of his garage so I headed over there and, after some strategic use of a hammer and a ride-on lawnmower, some of the bats showed themselves.
We set more traps that evening and the next morning we’d caught more White-footed Mice and a Meadow Vole plus a couple of chunky Northern Short-tailed Shrews. I thought the first shrew – which we caught in a mole trap – was in fact a mole until I got a decent look. To add insult to injury the shrews are tricky little buggers to handle: too small to get a decent grip on the back of their head, but large enough to hurt and draw blood when they bite. My fingers were sore for a few days and I later found out that their bit is mildly poisonous.
On the drive up to Quebec I spent a bit of time looking for Mink near Belgrade Lakes. But I saw only a couple of Eastern Chipmunks. I kept an eye open for Martens and Fishers as I was driving through northern Maine (both around though not easy to spot). A White-tailed Deer ran across the road.
So Maine is now firmly on the list of places to return too and I’m hoping Dick and I can arrange a chance to go looking for Fishers and Martens in the winter, plus of course I wont rest til I see a Star-nosed Mole. Thanks again to Dick & Patricia and Don & Nan.
I returned to Portland in early September 2014 to look for Atlantic White-sided Dolphins. This is a species I had look for – and failed to see – on at least seven trips in Scotland, Quebec, Nova Scotia and Massachusetts.
A few days before I was travelling I called a bunch of operators up and down the north east coast. They’d seen dolphins once or twice that week off of boats coming out of Rye Harbor, New Hampshire and Bangor, Maine. No one in Maine I spoke to knew much about what was around north of Bar Harbor. So I asked Tom Goodwin from Ocean Explorations in Tiverton, Nova Scotia, who I had seen to see Right Whales with in 2010. He was seeing White-sided Dolphins often, and if I hadn’t already bought my air ticket to Portland, Maine I think I would have flown to Halifax, Nova Scotia instead to go out with Tom.
But I had bought my ticket and it was too far to drive from Portland to Tiverton. In any case Bar Harbor Whale Watch told me they had seen the dolphins the day before I was travelling and that they were seeing them at least one trip in three at the moment. The biggest problem was the weather and the forecast for Saturday was bad.
Sure enough the Saturday trip was cancelled, as were trips out of Bangor and probably elsewhere. So I took a look through a foggy Acadia National Park and set some traps on the edge of town. I caught a couple of White-footed Mice and a Meadow Vole, but none of the Southern Red-backed Voles I was looking for. The only mammals I saw in the park were some Grey Squirrels and Harbor Seals.
The weather on Sunday was much better and the trip left at 11 a.m. heading 25 miles out to the Mount Desert Rock Lighthouse, where the whales usually gather. There were plenty of Harbor Porpoises on the way, and close to the lighthouse we saw a Minke and then a Fin Whale. I spotted some dolphins about a mile away and the Captain drove over for a look. They were, as I’d hoped, a big pod of Atlantic White-sided Dolphins, my 50th species of cetacean. Beautiful things and quite acrobatic, at least until the boat got closer.
We stayed with them for 20 minutes before returning to look at the Fin Whale, which we followed for an hour or so. The dolphins remained where we left them though we didn’t return for another look.
There were also plenty of Grey and Harbor Seals around the island.
The day before I arrived the whale watching boat had been looking for a Blue Whale, reported by a lobster fishing boat, and had stumbled on a Sperm Whale instead. Both species are rare in these waters. Humpbacks are common and Right Whales are seen from time to time.
Late August through October in Bar Harbor seems to offer a reasonable chance to see White-sided Dolphins, if the weather is good. Though Tiverton, Nova Scotia might offer slightly better odds, especially as Tom’s boat can be chartered to go look especially for this species. I also saw White-beaked Dolphins off Tiverton in 2010 which I don’t think are often (ever?) seen from Bar Harbor.
Southport Island, 2021: brief note from Vladimir Dinets with mammals including Harbour Seals and Meadow Jumping Mice.
Maine, 2019: brief note from Andrew Block on 14 species seen during 2.5 weeks including Moose, Snowshoe Hare and Woodland Jumping Mouse.
USA, 2016: Samuel Marlin, several trips & 25 species including Moose and Southern Bog Lemming in New England, and Kit and Island Foxes in California.