Thank you, Hidden Valley Nature Center! COVID-19 brought my wife’s and my long anticipated holiday of birds and nature exploration in Argentina to an abrupt, military-lockdown driven end. We were exploring the Andes when the Argentine government closed airports and road travel due to the impending viral pandemic. During the next 10 days of lockdown, we had access to trails behind our cabin that climbed into the forested Yungas of the southern Andes. I was hiking and seeking out the unique flora and fauna of this region. To say that I was a happy camper was an understatement. Given the uncertainty of the pandemic, the government response, and being outsiders, I finally agreed to return to Maine when the U.S. embassy arranged a charter flight to rescue stranded Americans.
Our five-hour drive took a nerve-wracking 10 hours, through 11 military and police checkpoints. Frequent phone calls needed to be made, as officers had no idea how to handle us. Fortunately we started our day at the local health clinic, where we received a certificate of good health. By the fifth checkpoint, I had my story down, shouting out in Spanish and waving papers before they could begin their interrogation. We arrived at the airport to find all passengers for this, the only flight of the day, waiting outside the terminal in the drizzle. Everyone was given masks and had their temperatures taken before being allowed to enter.
We were stunned to waltz right through Miami customs without a temperature check or any queries concerning our health or recent travels. After a full flight with everyone in masks, it came as a shock to see so few in America. As we locked down for two weeks upon our arrival in Maine, I received a request from my neighbors to help on a bird-related forestry study that needed to be conducted at Midcoast Conservancy’s flagship property in Jefferson. Hidden Valley is a sprawling network of trails through a variety of forest habitats. The Audubon Society is looking at various types of forest management and their impact on bird life. My task was to find eight marked sites on the property and record all birds seen or heard during a 10 minute period. I was asked to do multiple early morning surveys during late May and June. I said yes to the project as a favor to my neighbors. What transpired was amazing.
I stopped pining for the mountains and birds of Argentina and embraced this opportunity to slow down, embrace the stillness, listening to the wonderful diversity of birds found at HVNC. I have recorded over 60 species on my visits. My mornings usually began well before 6 am, so I almost always had this beautiful preserve to myself, with an occasional greeting from an overnight guest using one of the available huts or campsites.
I look forward to learning how this lovely tract of forest compares with other study sites. And I will continue to visit HVNC for the birds, the solitude and the beauty of the Maine woods. We have an amazing resource here in mid-coast Maine that had me embracing my early return home.
Howie Nielsen is a world-class birder; he lives in Whitefield.