What’s out there?
The Major Gregory Sanborn Wildlife Management Area (WMA), previously the Brownfield Bog WMA, is managed by the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW) for waterfowl and upland game. The WMA is primarily characterized by floodplain wetlands of the Saco river, but in the higher and drier areas, a rare pitch-pine scrub oak barren ecosystem is carefully managed through prescribed fire and timber harvesting. This specialized forest management promotes habitat for rare, threatened, and endangered Lepidoptera (moths, butterflies, and skippers) only found in a few places in the state.
The WMA is a popular spot for waterfowl hunting in the fall, but if you find yourself here in early June, and you will discover plants and wildlife at an important transitional period between the tail end of spring and the very beginning of summer. At this point in the growing season, only a few fern fronds have yet to unfurl, and while the white flower bells of leatherleaf have already dropped their petals, you can still find many delicate pinkish-purple Rhodora flowers surrounding their long and spindly filaments. Male bobolinks and red-wing blackbirds are busy singing to defend their territory, while females quietly build nests and gather food. Both species may have more than one brood per season, so this is a busy and energetically costly time of year. On my recent trip, I found all of these things and more. The bog, surrounding wet meadows, forests, and the slow, meandering stream running through it all were full of life.
The Brownfield Bog, located in Brownfield, Maine, is actually comprised of multiple bogs, ponds, and streams. The closest bog, Bald Bog, is accessed via the Old Course of the Saco River as shown in the mosaic interpretive sign in the parking area. About three-quarters of a mile down Bog Road off Route 160 is a dirt parking area that can fit about five cars. Down one of the short, well-worn dirt paths to the water, I found plenty of blueberry and huckleberry bushes lining the sides. At this time, the white (blueberry) and red (huckleberry) flowers are still waiting for visiting pollinators. Because these bushes rely on bees to reproduce, swapping pollen from flower to flower and exchanging genetic material in the process, there would be no berries for birds, bears, or people without them. Pretty neat when you think about it like that, right? Side note – in doing some light huckleberry research, I came across an article by the National Park Service on some interesting work going on in Glacier National Park. The article discusses research on huckleberry ecology, phenology, and abundance in Montana. It’s a fun read with audio clips throughout.
More Life Abounds
Once at the end of the trail and in the water, I was greeted by a picturesque view of Pleasant Mountain and a vast expanse of water filled with broadleaf arrowhead, American white water lily (Nymphea odorata), yellow pond lily (Nuphar lutea), and blue flag iris (Iris versicolor). Dragon flies and tree swallows zoomed in all directions, frogs scattered, disappearing with a “plunk!”, and turtles slinked their sun-drenched bodies back into the water. Sitting low in the kayak, I became fully immersed in the environment.
Further out from shore is a 75-acre island dominated by leatherleaf (Chamaedaphne calyculata) with a few spindly trees scattered throughout. This slightly raised island supported by thick layers of peat and sphagnum moss is Bald Bog. A short paddle across the water, and tamarack will reveal itself along with black spruce snags and a few stunted eastern white pines trying their best in this saturated, acidic environment. An upland species, eastern white pine is severely out of place in the middle of a bog. Nonetheless, they sprout up here and there when a cone finds a high enough spot in the bog called a hummock to take root. None will grow much higher than 5 ft and will eventually die before they can reproduce. Stunted black spruce trees are also found in the middle of bogs, but in greater abundance. These trees and tamarack are well-adapted to bogs, but may only grow to 5-10 ft whereas the same species growing in drier soils reach 30-50 ft.
Birds on the Bog
Away from Bald Bog and further up the Old Saco River, I watched a female red-wing blackbird hop from lily pad to lily pad gathering insects for her brood while a male chattered away from the tops of shrubs and cattails. Red-winged blackbirds only weigh 1.1 – 2.7 oz and appear weightless on the pads. As stated on the interpretive sign, over 130 nesting boxes are installed on trees and posts throughout the WMA. Wood ducks, which unlike most waterfowl nest in trees, are common occupants. Each summer, wildlife biologists from the MDIFW monitor the wood duck population by conducting nest checks and installing new boxes as needed.
As I made my way further up the meandering stream, the channel narrowed and the curvature became tighter. Sitting low in the kayak, I was completely hidden by tall wet meadow sedges on either side. I was admiring the tranquility of the meadow when suddenly, a large bird took flight out of the marsh. It flew in the opposite direction from me, so I was only able to get a brief glimpse at its wings, legs and backside. However, the color and size was unmistakably a Sandhill Crane. I was blown away! It was so unexpected I didn’t have time to take a picture, but I was able to snag my binoculars in time to get a closer look before it was around the corner and out of sight. These birds can stand as tall as 4 ft and weight up to 10 lbs. It was likely foraging when I flushed it. Sandhill Cranes are uncommon in Maine, but since the first breeding pair was documented in 2000, more have been popping up throughout the state. It’s unclear if this individual was a breeder or stopover migrant, but a pair has been consistently spotted for multiple seasons in Fryeburg, ME which is the next town over, only a few miles from Brownfield.
This quote from All About Birds does a nice job of describing their allure:
“Whether stepping singly across a wet meadow or filling the sky by the hundreds and thousands, Sandhill Cranes have an elegance that draws attention. These tall, gray-bodied, crimson-capped birds breed in open wetlands, fields, and prairies across North America. They group together in great numbers, filling the air with distinctive rolling cries. Mates display to each other with exuberant dances that retain a gangly grace.“
While a scene like this might never play out in Maine, it’s thrilling to know that bogs and wetlands in our state may host more breeding pairs in the future.
1 thought on “Brownfield Bog”
What a fun read. Looks like you had a fun day at the WMA. I wanted to see why it was renamed. My assumption it has to do with a memorial to the late Warden Sanborn.
“Sanborn, 47 and a native of Fryeburg, was a 23-year veteran of the Maine Warden Service, most recently its second in command.”
Enjoy your posts, looking forward to the next adventure.