Pine and spruce trees towered above the trail strewn with pine needles. Clover and mossy banks flanked the winding path where birds’ melodic songs echoed in the air, the gentle thud of falling rain kept time, and the sounds of Route 3 fell away.
Only a couple of minutes from Hannaford, Shaw’s, L.L. Bean and other stores lining Ellsworth’s High Street, Birdsacre Stanwood Wildlife Sanctuary is a wild haven removed from all the cars and people continually flowing through the city in summer.
The former home of self-taught ornithologist and photographer Cordelia J. Stanwood, the nonprofit organization serves as a nature center and wildlife refuge dedicated to Stanwood, who spent much of her life on the 200-acre property and devoted her energies to recording, researching and preserving the birdlife and flora and fauna there.
The sanctuary boasts a network of interconnected trails that wind through the woods, cross streams, traverse wetlands and pass by a duck pond and pools. Admission is free, but donations are welcome.
Born in 1865, Stanwood or “Cordie,” as she was called, was the daughter of a sea captain and granddaughter of a wealthy merchant from Nova Scotia’s Cape Breton Island. A well-educated woman, she initially worked as a schoolteacher and administrator, but a nervous breakdown brought her home to Ellsworth in 1905.
Stanwood’s ancestral home and its woodland became the 39-year-woman’s own refuge and set her on a course tirelessly documenting in words and photos the life cycle of chickadees, bluebirds, hermit thrushes and other birds.
“When the thrush sings, I desire to live in a small, scrupulously neat camp, open to the sun and the wind and the voices of the birds,” the avid birder once wrote. “When the thrush sings, I would like to spend eternity thus, listening to the song of the thrush.”
Birdsacre President Grayson Richmond keeps Stanwood’s spirit alive at the sanctuary, where he rehabilitates injured owls, hawks and other birds and teaches the public about Stanwood’s life with the help of volunteer staff.
Birdsacre receives injured birds from local veterinarians or whoever finds them. The creatures are cared for and released back into the wild. Birds whose injuries would hinder survival are kept in enclosures and cared for diligently.
“When you get to release something, it’s great,” Richmond said. “That’s the goal.”
“The Little Gentleman,” a one-eyed, 13-year-old, northern saw-whet owl, is a favorite among school groups. The 8-inch bird of prey sat comfortably on Richmond’s hand while he spoke about the owl’s habits. The bird cocked its head so it could focus on what was right in front. Its one, unbelievably round eye bore into his surroundings, a cautious and curious golden gaze. His small, black talons were sharp to touch, but didn’t hurt as they clamped around a finger. Richmond said he is comfortable holding the tiny predator without a glove; however, he is aware that the saw-whet’s talons have the ability to swiftly pierce the skin, like eight long needles.
“The Little Gentleman” is just one of the sanctuary’s permanent residents. The number of resident birds in enclosures fluctuates, but is usually no more than two dozen, Richmond said. Birds undergoing rehabilitation are in private quarters until they are released or deemed too damaged to return to the wild.
At Birdsacre, another draw is Stanwood’s clapboard house. After her death in 1958, Grayson Richmond’s grandfather Chandler Richmond spearheaded a campaign to acquired the property and establish the Stanwood Homestead Museum opened. The classic rural Maine house opened seasonally until it was heavily damaged by fire in 2014.
Since then, volunteers have worked tirelessly to resurrect the structure that sustained extensive smoke, fire and water damage.
“It’s been a slow process,” said Diane Castle, Richmond’s aunt as she carefully cleaned heirloom pieces. Her hands were clad in bright yellow rubber gloves.
Antique silver spoons shined and were awaiting proper placement. Furniture was side by side, like a home-version of Tetris. The piano once again is in working order after a volunteer restored it for his Eagle Scout project. The wallpaper was scrubbed, but an unmoved frame hides an oval smoke stain. The staircase was completely rebuilt, but gone is the worn center on each tread stepped upon by Stanwoods for generations.
Besides local residents and out-of-state visitors, Birdsacre and its rehabilitated birds also attract artists including East Blue Hill art educator and children’s book illustrator Rebekah Raye. She has visited Birdsacre many times over the past 30 years.
“[It’s a] beautiful place in the middle of the city to find peace,” she said. “I love the people who work there who love the owls and birds.”
Raye believes Birdsacre is an invaluable resource, and often holds art classes or private lessons there.
“Whenever I go, I come away and I feel so much more peaceful,” she said.