Whether it’s birds or insects, naturalist seeks to spark people’s interest

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In Orland’s Great Pond Mountain Wildlands preserve, Bar Harbor-based naturalist Rich MacDonald and other birders set off in search of night hawks, chuck-will’s widow, whip-poor-wills and other nocturnal birds and other wild creatures. OUT & ABOUT PHOTOS BY PIPER CURTIN.

Two silhouettes dance across the orange sky at dusk in Great Pond Mountain Wildlands in Orland. “Night hawks!” Rich MacDonald exclaims. A hush falls in the meadow as we watch the shadows, swoop, flap and disappear into the dark treeline. Moments later a steady, rhythmic song can be heard from the nearby forest, “Hear that? It’s a whip-poor-will singing ‘whip-poor-will, whip-poor-will’” says the naturalist. We all nod our heads to the beat of the avian song.

The Chuck-will’s widow can be heard singing its name on summer nights. The bird catches a wink during the day. GETTY IMAGES PHOTO.

A night hawk and whippoorwill are just two among dozens of birds one can hear or see on a guided tour with the field biologist and co-founder of The Natural History Center in Bar Harbor. MacDonald recently published a book, “Little Big Year” about the 268 different species of birds that he saw in Hancock County in just 365 days. He and his wife Natalie Springuel and their team offer birding excursions of all levels, modes, locations and seasons. Outings can take the form of kayaking around Mount Desert Island, tidepooling along the Schoodic Peninsula or hiking Acadia National Park’s hiking and carriage trails.

“We are so lucky in Maine we have so much protected land. It’s good for birding and botanizing” sums up MacDonald. Because all the center’s tours are private, there is “infinite flexibility”, and outings can be tailored to fulfill visitors’ vacation goals. For example, the bird-watching guide recalls a tour the other day. “The guy gave me a long list of all the birds he wanted to see. We were able to run around find all but one of them.”

Naturalist Rich MacDonald shows a Jonah crab to a junior naturalist while exploring tidal pools on Mount Desert Island.

A tour, though, is not just about bird identification. A gifted storyteller, MacDonald entertains his guests with tales of adventures only a naturalist could have.

“I tell stories, and they vary depending on what I am seeing” he says. “We could drive down the same road every day for seven days and every day I would have a different story.” It could be a wetland, or an oak tree, the sound of a hermit thrush or the slow plodding of a porcupine. The other guides on the team are just as personable and excited to share their knowledge of coastal Maine’s ecosystems with children and curious adults alike.

Downeast Audubon Treasurer Katherine Stuater enjoys the Center’s tours. “It’s always nice to go out with someone who knows more than you do and have another set of eyes and ears.”

Rich MacDonald’s wildlife knowledge and insights is not limited to Maine. Before COVID-19, he ventured to Antarctica every year for about a month.

MacDonald’s wildlife knowledge and insights is not limited to Maine. Before COVID-19 struck, he ventured to Antarctica every year for about a month. He is currently planning a week-long trip in Newfoundland.

In coastal Maine, visitors can witness the next migration of birds starting from mid- to late August. Hundreds of species of birds start their great odyssey to winter in warmer climes. A tour with the natural History Center could ignite inside an inquisitive traveler a newfound love of the natural world.

Participating in the Great Pond Mountain Wildlands excursion, aptly named Robin Silberstein recalls the bird that first sparked her interest in the avian world. It was “the scarlet tanager, it is pink and red all over, just very dramatic,” she remembers. “Spark bird” is an actual term among birds. It refers to the very first bird that fired a birder’s drive to search out feathered creatures.

Find your spark bird, or spark salamander or conifer by looking more closely on a guided tour with The Natural History Center where they will “try to find the thing that resonates. To arrange a tour, call (207) 266-9461, email [email protected] and visit thenaturalisthistorycenter.com