Fall Foliage (and birds) Tour,
Unlike me, my wife is retired. As a result, she always wants to “go someplace.” She forgets that my schedule isn’t nearly as wide open. But I agreed to take a few days off and go wherever she had in mind. She suggested we drive up to North Conway, NH and check out the foliage. The foliage part sounded fine, but I’m not sure about North Conway. If I want to see bus tours and hordes of people from all over the world, I could simply stay on Cape Cod. But a deal is a deal, so I began packing the car. I also did a quick search of the area’s birding sites. A few hours of birding makes every trip a little better…at least it does for me.
The drive to North Conway took a bit longer than it should have because we had to make a quick side trip to Maine. Why Maine, you ask? To get a box of “potato donuts,” of course. Yes, you read that right. Somehow they’ve managed to take two of Maine’s best foods, potatoes and donuts, and combine them into one delicious round treat, and I can’t get enough of them. We stopped at a shop, bought a dozen assorted flavors and headed for New Hampshire. I’m not sure how it happened, but by the time we reached the NH border, the box only had crumbs left in it. (Don’t judge me.)
The yummy donuts ended up being the highlight of our first day. Heavy rain forced us to spend the rest of the day inside, milling about in the dreaded outlet stores with the bus people. But the next morning was sunny, so we crossed back into Maine and headed for the Sanborn Wildlife Management Area. This reserve is just south of the town of Fryeburg. Fryeburg is famous for its annual fair and not, as it turns out, for inventing Frye Boots or fried dough. I didn’t know much about this sanctuary beforehand, but it had to be better than spending any more time in the outlets. It was way better.
The minute we started down the narrow road we were greeted by juncos, our first of the season. Then my wife told me she could hear “barking dogs.” I laughed and pointed out that the barking dogs were actually a pair of ravens squawking in a nearby tree. (Her vocalization ID skills need work.) The Saco River borders the property on the west side and the east side is mostly wetlands, so it’s probably buggy in the warmer months, but there were no bugs on this cool fall day. Instead of bugs, we saw lots and lots of Wood Ducks, Hooded Mergansers, a kestrel, a harrier and a Red-tailed Hawk that had just grabbed a squirrel (no cheering please). But our most interesting sighting was a huge flock of Yellow-rumped Warblers that were landing and feeding right “on the water.” Apparently, there was submerged vegetation just below the surface and it seemed as if the warblers were actually walking on water. It was a pretty cool sighting, but now that I’m trying to describe it, I think you had to be there.
On our way back to the car we met a woman who told us that she had just seen several Sandhill Cranes feeding in a potato field north of Fryeburg. Those were two good tips in one. Not only might we see an unusual bird, but we’ll also get to visit a potato field. What a day! (What’s next? A trip to a donut ranch?) She told us to drive to the junction of River and Harbor Roads. The cranes would be across from a “red barn.” We thanked her and hopped into the car. But we quickly realized there was one small problem with her directions. Every farm in the area has a red barn. How would we ever find the right red barn and thus the cranes? No problem; I was sitting next to a bird bloodhound. The minute we turned down River Road my wife calmly announced, “There they are.” (How does she do it?) On the far side of the field were three, no ten, make that thirty-one four-foot-tall Sandhill Cranes. Holy smoke! When did Maine get so many cranes? It seems, while I wasn’t paying attention, a pair of Sandhill Cranes began breeding in Kennebec County. That was back in 2001 and the birds have been spreading throughout the state ever since. I’m not sure why the big birds have suddenly found Maine to be so attractive, but I think it has to do with potato donuts.
After watching the cranes for a while we started driving back down the road when suddenly my wife yelled, “Stop!” I hit the brakes, wondering what she had spotted this time. Was it an eagle or an owl? Nope. It was a pumpkin farm. Shaking my head, I pulled over. While she was inspecting each and every pumpkin, I took a quick walk through the nearby field, where I found, appropriately enough, a flock of Field Sparrows. Then, even more appropriately, a fox ran right in front of me. How about that? Oh, wait. I forgot to mention we had stopped at “Foxdale Farm,” which is why seeing a fox there was so…oh, forget it. I’ll get it right next time.
We spent the rest of the day taking photos of foliage and working our way to Whitefield, NH. We had booked a room in the historic Mountain View Grand Hotel. At first it looked a bit too plush for my taste, but after I learned that the Marx Brothers had stayed there, I was cool with it. Also, the property features miles of trails. The resort calls them cross-country skiing trails, but to me they will be early morning birding trails. At least that was my plan. When we woke up it was pouring rain again and the forecast was for the rain to turn to snow. Snow? In October? We took it as a sign that we should pack up and head back to balmy Cape Cod. Although, on the way home we made a quick detour into Maine and picked up a dozen…well, you know.