How to Photograph Wildlife in Acadia National Park, USA
Acadia National Park is well known for its beautiful North Atlantic coastline, but is also an exceptional place to view many of Maine’s wildlife species.
Peregrine falcons, the fastest animals in the world, circle above the cliffs looking for prey while river otters hunt for fish in the coastal waters. Majestic bald eagles soar overhead while the haunting calls of common loons echo across the lakes. With some patience, a trip to Acadia can be very rewarding for wildlife photographers.
Hopefully this wildlife photography guide to Acadia National Park will inspire you to head out there with your camera.
The habitat of Acadia National Park
Acadia hosts a deceptively wide range of habitats considering its small size. It is a mixture of boreal and eastern hardwood forests, which means that wildlife photographers can find species from both habitats scattered throughout the park.
The eastern half of the island is a mix of hardwood, spruce, and fir forests. This is the result of a large wildfire in 1947, while the western half is predominately spruce and fir. Marshes, bogs, and swamps offer water-loving species a place to live and breed, and meadows and barren mountaintops provide a home for those species that like a wide, open view.
The Wildlife of Acadia
Although Acadia National Park lacks the charismatic megafauna seen in Yellowstone National Park and other parks in the American West, it is still a good place to view many of Maine’s smaller wildlife species.
Black bears, and Maine’s iconic moose, are rarely ever seen on Mount Desert Island, but other smaller mammals like foxes, deer, porcupines, beavers, mink, otters, and seals can be seen in the park. Birds are plentiful, and over 330 species have been recorded in Acadia.
Most of the wildlife is elusive and hard to find, thanks to Acadia’s dense and wild forests, but there are many locations across the park that offer good wildlife viewing.
What you can expect to see
Mount Desert Island may be too small and developed for large mammals like moose and bear, but deer are a common sight across the island and are relatively tolerant of people, thanks to a lack of hunting.
Places like Great Meadow, the Jesup Path in Sieur de Monts, and the wetland next to Schooner Head Road just before the Sand Beach Entrance Station are good places to look for deer, especially in the fall when the velvet has fallen off of their antlers.
Here are a few other mammals you may come across in the park:
- Beavers can be found in many of the ponds and wetlands, such as Witch Hole Pond, Beaver Dam Pond, and The Bowl.
- Porcupines can occasionally be seen crossing the Loop Road or sitting in trailside trees dining on leaves.
- Otters and mink can sometimes be seen in the Tarn and along the coast.
- Red squirrels are very common in the spruce and fir forests, and can often be heard chattering angrily at intruders.
The waters off of Acadia’s coastline are home to harbor and grey seals, as well as humpback, finback, and minke whales.
From the coast, both species of seal can sometimes be observed either in the water or hauled out on offshore ledges, but the best way to see them and other ocean-dwelling wildlife is to take a boat cruise from one of the towns surrounding the park. These tours offer trips to see lighthouses, whales, pelagic birds, nesting puffins, and more.
Since most of these sightings will be at a distance, longer lenses will be the most useful. Keep in mind that if you book a boat tour, you will have to handhold your camera while the boat is rocking beneath you, so lighter kits may be preferable over your longest and heaviest lens.
A telephoto zoom lens like a 100-400mm or 150-600mm offers more flexibility in case of close-up encounters, eliminating the need to change lenses and risk getting salt spray inside your camera.
For those interested in smaller marine wildlife, Acadia’s coast is home to countless tide pools of varying sizes that can be explored when the tide is low. Forty miles of rocky shoreline and a 10-12 foot tidal range allow for an expansive and diverse intertidal zone. Here you can find barnacles, rock crabs, small fish, sea stars, anemones, and much more.
The Seawall, Wonderland, and Ship Harbor region is one of the best areas in the park for tide pooling because the shoreline has a very shallow slope, resulting in a very wide and reasonably flat intertidal zone.
Otter Point and parts of Ocean Drive offer some additional tide pooling spots, although the shore is steeper and requires much more care when moving around. The Bar Island sand bar is accessible from Bridge Street in Bar Harbor for 1.5 hours before and after low tide, and offers very easy access to tide pools at the cost of bigger crowds.
The compositional opportunities in the intertidal zone are endless. You can get close and focus on single or small groups of organisms, zoom out and show a wider view of a tide pool, or use any of these elements as an anchor for a wide angle landscape image.
The ideal equipment for photographing the intertidal zone varies depending on what you want to photograph, but in general a macro lens or short telephoto lens with a close minimum focus distance will work well for tight shots, while standard and wide-angle zooms or primes will work well for wider compositions. A polariser filter can help to cut glare on wet surfaces, and can also help you get a better view into the tide pools by reducing or eliminating the reflection of the sky.
A tripod is also recommended, especially if you want to maximise your depth of field in a macro image by closing down the aperture or focus stacking. A tripod with legs that can be locked at different angles can be helpful when trying to get a level platform among the rocks of the intertidal zone, as can a tripod that doesn’t have a centre column (which sometimes gets in the way when trying to get your tripod low to the ground).
Mornings, evenings, and overcast days are the best times to photograph the tide pools, but make sure to check the tide chart to make sure the tides are in your favor.
Birds of Acadia National Park
Acadia is one of the premier parks in the United States for birding and bird photography, and each season has its own highlights.
Spring offers the chance to see northern birds as they migrate along the coast to their breeding ranges, and in the fall you can see them on their return journey. Cadillac Mountain hosts a hawk watch in the fall, which counts the number of raptors that fly over on their way south.
The park truly comes alive in the late spring and summer when a host of singing and chirping birds, from tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds to peregrine falcons, arrive to breed.
Birdwatchers and photographers brave enough to come in the winter can observe many ocean-dwelling birds like eiders, guillemots, harlequin ducks and common loons in the coastal waters, particularly during storms when come closer to shore for shelter.
Snowy owls can occasionally be seen on some of the highest mountain summits and the islands next to the Schoodic Peninsula.
Where to find wildlife in Acadia National Park
While birds can be found anywhere in the park, here are a few locations that offer better than average viewing opportunities.
Echo Lake isn’t the only lake where common loons breed in the summer, but it is the lake where it’s easiest to photograph them. The Park Service maintains a nesting platform for one of the resident pairs of loons, which is easily visible from Echo Lake Beach.
This particular pair of loons is very tolerant of humans, and will sometimes bring their chicks alongside drifting kayaks or even right up to the beach where people are swimming.
The eggs generally hatch sometime in early July, but can vary year to year. The young will only ride on their parents’ backs for the first week or two of their lives, but will stay with them until the fall when the parents start moving out to the ocean.
Sieur de Monts
The Sieur de Monts area sits at the junction between three different habitat types, which means you can find birds from all three in a relatively small area.
The forest around the nature centre is a mixture of mature pines, hemlocks, and hardwoods – and a swampy paper birch forest where you can find birds like yellow-rumped and palm warblers, red-eyed vireos, and barred owls.
To the north is Great Meadow, where you can find song and swamp sparrows and see raptors as they fly over the meadows in search of prey. To the south lies The Tarn, where you can find wetland-loving species like common yellowthroat or red-winged blackbirds.
Wonderland, Ship Harbor, and Seawall
The diversity of habitats in the Wonderland, Ship Harbor, and Seawall area allows for a wide range of bird species. The wooded trails to Wonderland, Ship Harbor, and the Hio Road are great for warblers like northern parula, black-throated green warblers, and other birds that like dense forests or brush.
The coastal areas offer great views of gulls, flocks of sea ducks, and the occasional bald eagle or osprey. If you watch carefully, you may see shorebirds like purple sandpipers or even a migrating black bellied plover picking their way through the intertidal zone.
You can also walk along the road next to the Big Heath to get bog-loving species like yellow-bellied and olive-sided flycatchers. Make sure to watch for traffic as the road is curvy and cars tend to drive fast.
Ocean Path, between Sand Beach and Otter Point, is a great place to scan the ocean and look for eiders, guillemots, cormorants, and other sea birds.
Keep an eye on the skies for passing eagles, osprey, or peregrine falcons, and watch the woods on either side of the road for thrushes, warblers, and other songbirds.
Schoodic Peninsula offers many of the bird viewing opportunities of Mount Desert Island, but without the crowds.
Scan the ocean from any of the roadside pull-offs and Schoodic Point for common eiders, black guillemots, and northern gannets.
Take a walk on the trails or wood roads to see forest dwelling species like magnolia warblers, golden-crowned kinglets, or hermit thrushes.
The Carriage Roads
The carriage roads offer an easy way to get around, whether you’re hiking or biking. Witch Hole Pond, Aunt Betty Pond, and Eagle Lake in particular offer scenic loops with great bird photography possibilities.
Essential camera gear for photography in Acadia National Park
Photographing birds in Acadia is just like photographing birds anywhere else when it comes to gear and technique.
For the most part, you will find yourself using your longest lens. Lenses from 400mm to 600mm or more will be the most effective with the majority of the birds you encounter, and a zoom such as a 100-400mm or 150-600mm is useful for friendlier birds like the Echo Lake loons.
A tripod with a gimbal head is helpful in getting sharper images and taking the weight off your arms, but can also be a hindrance when it comes to fast moving warblers and songbirds that rarely stay still long enough to get a tripod set up.
Lenses with Vibration Reduction/Image Stabilisation will improve sharpness when hand-holding, especially in lower light environments like the forest where your shutter speeds may have to be reduced.
Read more: The Real Reasons Your Photos Aren’t Sharp
A camera with good high ISO performance can be a benefit when photographing species like barred owls, which tend to be most active at dawn and dusk and are generally found in older and darker patches of forest.
Shutter speeds of 1/1000th of a second or faster are ideal for fast-moving subjects, but you may have to go below that if conditions aren’t great.
Tips for photographing Acadia’s Wildlife
Patience and persistence are key when it comes to photographing Acadia’s wildlife. Many of the mammal species are very elusive and spend most of their time in the thick forests, while many birds may be only a few feet away but blocked by brush or branches.
If you have a target species you would really like to photograph, do some research to determine what habitat it prefers and where that habitat is in the park. Learning the calls or tracks and signs of your target species can also increase your chances of getting a photograph, as it is much easier to locate and track animals by their calls or prints than by sight in Acadia’s dense forests.
In general, early mornings are the most productive for wildlife photography. Birds are most active during this time, and a lot of mammals are most active at dusk and dawn. The light is softer and easier to work with than the bright and harsh light of midday, and the golden glow of first light adds an extra pop to your images.
A lot of interesting atmospheric effects like mist and fog occur more often in the morning, which can add an element of interest to your images.
Overcast conditions can extend the amount of time you are able to stay out photographing by softening the light and eliminating dark shadows that make midday photography less desirable, although you may find yourself boosting the ISO to compensate for the dimmer conditions.
It is also important to dress appropriately for the weather. Nothing is worse than having to abandon an animal you’ve spent hours getting close to because you’re too cold to operate the shutter.
Especially in colder months, the clothes that you’re comfortable hiking in will not be sufficient to keep you warm if you’re sitting motionless for hours waiting for that brief moment of action. Bring extra layers, and invest in hand warmers if your hands tend to get cold easily.
Most importantly, make sure you put the welfare of your subject before your desire to get a picture. As hard as it can be to step away from a subject without a good image, it’s the best option if your subject is showing signs of stress or changing its behaviour as a result of your presence.
Every animal is different, so take the time to observe your subject and see what it’s comfortable with. You’re more likely to walk away with a good image with natural behaviour if you spend a lot of time slowly making your way towards your subject, and making yourself look non-threatening, than if you quickly and loudly walk straight up to them.
Despite its fame as a landscape photography destination, Acadia National Park is packed with exciting wildlife waiting to be photographed.
The calls of warblers echo through the treetops as foxes prowl through the brush below. Flocks of sea ducks shelter from winter storms along the rugged coast while seals search for fish beneath the waves.
From barnacles in tide pools to bald eagles soaring overhead, Acadia has something to offer all wildlife photographers.