Spy Seabirds - from Land
Like all good things, Glen Mittelhauser began working as a biologist at a remote coastal bird refuge by accident.
“I went to The College of the Atlantic for graduate work and fell in love with the area, and just never left,” he said of landing in quiet Gouldsboro more than two decades ago. “It fell in my lap.”
The downeast region, with its rugged beauty and windswept coastline, is prime habitat for birders and nature lovers including those like Mittelhauser, who make their living by protecting it. A naturalist for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge in nearby Milbridge, and founder of the nonprofit Maine Natural History Observatory, Mittelhauser tracks coastal plants and birds, writes field guides, and engages in scientific monitoring of the area’s wildlife.
“I was looking for good weather in December to get out on the water, but there wasn’t any,” he said of one current project, which consists of going out in a skiff, trapping purple sandpipers on the offshore ledges, and taking blood samples to test for avian influenza, the contagious bird flu that has health experts concerned about a possible pandemic among humans. While no local birds have tested positive, catching them is quite a feat.
“We tried everything,” said Mittelhauser, who is compiling the research for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which manages the refuge. “It took years for us to figure it out.”
The key turned out to be a net gun. Imagine a shotgun with four barrels and a net rigged between them. Each barrel is connected to a weight. Fire the gun, and the blast sends out the weights along with the attached net.
“We zoom around in skiffs, look for flocks of shore birds, and creep up to them as close as we can get just off these ledges, and fire off these nets,” he explained. “A lot of birds fly out from under it, but we do capture some.”
Important as such work may be, it doesn’t keep Mittelhauser, his artist wife, Penelope Tingle, and their two adolescent children, from enjoying the area’s undeveloped expanse, which is a rest stop for migrating birds. With forty-nine offshore islands, more than 8,000 acres, and five parks, the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge provides prime habitat for an abundance of wildlife including common and endangered birds. While game hunting is allowed in certain areas, much of the land—salt marshes, pine stands, hay fields, heaths, bogs, and cobblestone beaches—is protected and contains numerous trails.
“I spend a lot of time at Petit Manan Point, the most visible refuge access point,” he said. “I take my kids down there a lot, sometimes for field work, but for pleasure as well. There are a lot of great hikes along the shore.”
The point, consisting of 1,991 acres and over ten miles of ocean shoreline in nearby Steuben, is a birder’s paradise. Harlequin ducks, those hard-to-pin-down purple sandpipers, and an occasional snowy owl are some of the more unusual fowl visitors are likely to spot during the months of winter cold.
“At some point in March, April, or May, they’ve got to head off to the arctic,” Mittelhauser said of the elusive migratory owls. “They’re tricky to see. They are this little white blob in the distance, and then suddenly, they’re not there. You’ve got to be fairly observant to pick them out.”
February is a tricky time of year to find a day when it’s pleasant enough to venture out. The point can be bitterly cold as well as hard to reach with winter snows. While the shoreline itself remains largely clear, visitors are advised they may need skis or snowshoes to reach it, about two miles in along the Shore Trail. One of Mittelhauser’s favorites is along a fairly protected old road that heads north toward Lobster Point.
For those hardy enough to make the trip, the rewards are well worth it — even in winter.
“You can see a whole lot that you can’t see anywhere else,” Mittelhauser affirmed. “So, for a biologist, it’s fabulous.”
Where to eat:
“At home,” according to Mittelhauser, who said he and his family buy most their food wholesale off a truck through a local cooperative. As for dining out, there are few options near the refuge. In summer, the area sports a number of farm stands or, you can pick up a sub sandwich or hot dog and coffee at Young’s Market, on Route 1 in Gouldsboro, year round.
This time of year, you may want to pack a lunch or head ten minutes east to Milbridge, which offers goodies from char grilled steaks and steamed mussels to sumptuous desserts at the popular dinner spot 44 Degrees North Restaurant and Pub, 17 Main St., 207-546-4440.
Other than that, Mittelhauser confesses, he doesn’t really know. Others in the area suggest Chase’s Restaurant, 193 Main St., Winter Harbor, 207-963-7171, a local grill and fried food hangout that is open from breakfast through dinner. Another option, if you are heading up the coast, is to pick up something in sprawling Ellsworth, a shopping and dining destination about forty-five minutes away.
What to do:
The headquarters for the Maine Coastal Islands National Wildlife Refuge, 207-546-2124, is located on Water Street in Milbridge. The office is open Monday through Friday, but printed materials and maps are available at all times. The main parking area and trailheads for the Petit Manan Refuge is on the Pigeon Hill Road, off Route 1 in Steuben.
While Gouldsboro lacks a formal downtown—other than perhaps the post office—Mittelhauser recommends area farms for their produce and entertainment. While the offerings are more abundant in summer, you can catch a sleigh ride at Darthia Farm, 51 Darthia Farm Rd., Gouldsboro, 207-963-7771, when the weather is right (call in advance).
To learn about everything from wood lots to large carnivores, Mittelhauser recommends a visit to Eagle Hill, 59 Eagle Hill Rd., Steuben, 207-546-2821, a station for the Humboldt Field Research Institute, which regularly presents a variety of educational lectures, movies, and workshops seeking to bring art and nature together. Call for a list of upcoming events including a plant identification class being taught by Mittelhauser scheduled for this summer.
Places to roam:
The nearby Schoodic Peninsula, just south of Route 186, offers easily accessible views of the blustery Atlantic.
“A lot of locals go there,” Mittelhauser said. “When the waves are up, you can drive down to Schoodic and watch them”
Shared by the towns of Gouldsboro and Winter Harbor, the Schoodic Peninsula is the only portion of Acadia National Park located on the mainland and offers easy access to the scenic shore.
Meadow Rue Merril is a freelance writer who lives in Brunswick. E-mail suggestions for the Ask A Local travel column to email@example.com.