Between Hog Island and Mount Desert Island on my two week stay in Maine, I spent a full day out on the Orono Bog just northwest of the City of Bangor. I love bogs and fens, due in part to my former assignment as park manager at Brighton State Park in Vermont. The University of Maine and the Orono Land Trust work in partnership to make this massive raised bog accessible to everyone and I was lucky to meet the director Jim Bird on duty there this morning.
|An overcast day with storms predicted for the afternoon made this visit a wonderful study in muted colors.|
The bog is traversed by a twisting and turning mile-long boardwalk that makes the experience of bog-hopping less bouncy and wet, but the walkway wobbles and pitches giving the hiker the sense of walking on water - which they are. Altitude is everything and even just a few inches of hummock or mound can decide which types of plants can grow where. Many of the hummocks are grown-over stumps from when the peatland was logged. Grey birch, a pioneer tree/shrub of the hummocks, is slowly being replaced by black spruce and I could spot the skeletal remains of the once-dominant but miniature forest among the tamarack and evergreens.
|Pitching and tilted, the boardwalk threads a dry path through the peatlands.|
The bog is a remnant wetland from when the great ice sheets were withdrawing far to the north. Maine was completely covered in ice 15,000 years ago but the bogs, kettle ponds, lakes, and eskers are plentiful reminders of just how recent this event was! A well-raised bog like the Orono is built of several feet of sphagnum moss that has grown here for thousands of years and it rises in the middle giving the center about a foot of elevation and beautiful multi-colored moss lawns. The bog surface can support the weight of a deer or a few people carefully making their way across, but in thin areas it is easy to break through. The center of the bog sits over fifteen feet of submerged peat and four to eight feet of water hidden below.
|Jim Bird, Director of the Orono Bog Boardwalk.|
All kinds of mysteries surround bogs, including ghost stories and creepy tales, but the fact is that anything breaking through the peat surface and drowning below is well preserved. Several 'bog men' have been found in the great peatlands of Scotland and Northern Europe as well as many ice-age animals here in North America. The acidic water and lack of oxygen preserves tissue perfectly - even tatoo patterns on humans - and I wondered if I might not be walking over a long extinct mammoth or its human hunter? At any rate, the bog fully supported a large snowshoe hare as he raced down a well-worn path in the moss and leatherleaf below one of the observation platforms. Too fast for my camera.
|Pete Tipper, traveling birder from Ontario.|
I met a summer traveler at one of the viewing platforms - Pete Tipper from Ontario. He is touring the Eastern States for the summer and had a list of birding hotspots he wanted to visit in his 1984 camper van. I shared some of my favorite places in the Mid-Atlantic with him (Bombay Hook and Prime Hook in DE as well as the Lower Susquehanna River Hills in PA- of course!). We chatted for some time about the sites I'll have to see in his neck of the woods. We both found the Orono Bog using the excellent Maine Birding Trails website and pdf.
I circled back around the long boardwalk again - my second mile for the morning and ran into John Green, Massachusetts Audubon naturalist and free lance wildlife photographer. He was on an organized trip for Mass Audubon and was enjoying photographing the fringed orchid in blossom around the moat rim of the bog.
|John Green, Jr., Massachusetts Audubon naturalist.|
We started chatting about our summer adventures and I mentioned I'd just come off of Hog Island. Well, his eyes lit up and he started telling stories - a little teary eyed - about how the Hog Island experience changed his life. He was even invited to teach there, which he did for two semesters, the first African American instructor to serve there. From his time in the Army in Alaska to his years as a teaching naturalist near Philadelphia, he is a natural educator in every sense of the word.
The hummocks, some of them only inches higher than the surrounding moss lawn, were where all the action was. Birds, dragonflies, snowshoe hare, red squirrels, and even a shrew occupied a larger hummock that I spent a good half hour watching. The black spruce, though diminutive in size, was most likely decades old. The mineral poor waters and slow rate of nutrient release from the dead plants around the trees resulted in very slow growth. John pointed out that a three foot high black spruce may be well over fifty years old!
|Measuring the water below the moss lawn.|
As I was looping around for a third time (I really can't get enough of bogs!) a large family with strollers and several teenagers came barreling down the boardwalk. Although there is one sign at the entrance to the natural area that warns against running, jogging, or jumping on the pathway this group clearly didn't see it. It goes without saying that the floating sections of the boardwalk began to sway and buckle, nearly pitching the family off into the bog! The ripples (more like shock waves) of their grand entrance were felt all the way around - causing one concerned birder far ahead of me and John to holler back "Knock it off!" I noticed the hummock trees were swaying just as we were, leaning left and right as the waves of water passed unseen underneath.
|Layering black spruce on a hummock.|
The sphagnum moss as it grows upward helps to blanket the lower branches of the black spruce and cause it to layer into the peat below, creating whorls of new trees around the parent. Almost all of the hummocks had tiny forests encircling the main tree, including tamarack and some maples closer to the main woods edge.
|Tamarack or Larch.|
The tamarack or larch lent a yellowy green cast to the hummock forests. Come fall when the deciduous trees drop their leaves for the winter, so too will the tamarack, one of the only coniferous trees besides bald cypress to do so. The yellows of the tamarack were offset by the bright red sphagnum and brilliant pitcher plants that filled the moss lawns between the hummocks. These insect-catching plants were everywhere in great abundance and added more mystery to the bog. I could hear a deep buzzing of some trapped bee or fly caught in the neck of the 'pitcher' of one plant.
|Red Sphagnum and Pitcher Plant.|
Sneaking around in the densest of hummocky growth were Lincoln's Sparrows. It's been awhile since I've heard their songs so I quietly played some calls on my phone (Cornell's Merlin app - it's free) and even though the human family passing my spot didn't hear the songs, a nearby Lincoln's Sparrow did and immediately topped a black spruce to give me a check-over.
I don't think it's right to lure birds with taped calls, so I quickly put the phone away - but was treated to a full five minute display of songs, calls, chucks and chips, and nervous sparrow energy as the bird tried to figure out where this mysterious interloper had gone!
|Common Whitetail Dragonfly (female).|
Bogs are dynamic ecosystems despite their great age. They represent the end of life for a glacial pond or lake that gradually filled in with mosses and plant matter to completely close over the open water. The moss covered depression receives all of its water from snow melt or rain. Because of the extreme acidity of its waters, bogs are home to those plants and animals that can tolerate the extreme conditions. Leatherleaf, cranberry, carnivorous sundew and pitcher plant, Labrador tea, and many species of moss.
The forest that surrounds a bog is equally unique. It often contains a circular moat that grows thick with wetland trees like red maple, birch, and dense understory shrubs. The wet forest floor contains hummocks as well, but these sprout bunchberry, wildflowers and lichens. On my several trips around the bog I re-entered the woods to the dozens of hermit thrushes singing their emphereal songs behind curtains of Old Man's Beard, an aboreal, wispy grey lichen. Short summers and very cold temperatures the rest of the year make for a challenging environment, but there are many animal and bird species that thrive here.
By noon (and my third and last time around) the boardwalk was crowded with people. I went back to the lodge and kiosk at the start and spoke to Jim about the project and partnership to protect and promote the bog. He's been at this for a long time and wishes he had more volunteers to come out and walk the path, speak to people about protecting the resource, and to help with maintenance projects.
|Moss Lawn over a deep pool of water.|
The University of Maine provides lots of help and conducts plenty of research in the area, but Jim would like to see more of the public get involved. He worried about vandalism, poaching (deer and bear), and unintentional damage to the bog plants by curious visitors. "We need a more engaged pubic, a more knowledgeable public," he said. The Orono Land Trust and the University of Maine do offer guided walks, bird outings, and school field trips. But Jim wants to see more people taking a vested interest in the bog project.
|Pitcher Plant flower high above Black Spruce mat.|
"Bogs are not unusual in the state," Jim explained, "But the Orono has the distinction of being vast and beautiful and very accessible to a nearby city. The potential for creating advocates for northern ecosystem preservation is immense here, but it is not a case of build it and they will come. There's a lot of work that goes into creating a 'bog fan base' and then building long-term stewardship for this and other ecological treasures that define the northern landscape."
Be sure to check out the excellent fly-over film made via drone - it's an embedded link on the UMaine website for the bog walk:
Learn more about the Orono Land Trust, an important partner for conservation land acquisition and easements. http://oronolandtrust.org/
The Maine Birding Trail: http://www.mainebirdingtrail.com/