Common Yellowthroats

“Wichety, wichety, wichety,” a bird sang from deep within the bramble. Mud sucked at my boots as I took two steps closer. The unseen bird changed from its song to a sharp “Chedp.” I heard it call three more times before the bird popped into sight and perched on a raspberry branch. “Chedp, chedp!” It scolded.

Common Yellowthroat

Common Yellowthroat

Its black mask, erect tail and its sharp scolding call made the bird seem bigger, and certainly bolder, than its one-third ounce weight warranted. Clearly I’d gotten too close. I suspected its mate and nest were hidden deep in the bramble. As I backed away, I admired its bright yellow throat which stood out in contrast to its black mask. The bird dropped back into the thicket. Who would have guessed that with its yellow throat and black mask it could disappear so completely back into the brush. I could still hear its angry, “Chedp!” I smiled and imagined the bird trying to say, “Move along. Don’t make me come back out there!”

The Common Yellowthroat (photo by Matt Tillett) is a sparrow sized bird that migrates here from Central America, the Caribbean, and the Southern United States. It prefers brambles and thickets for its nest sites and seems to especially like damp, wet places. This is one of the more common warblers in our area and across the United States. “Common” does not mean it’s easy to see. Its small size, the brambles where it lives, and its olive-green color makes it difficult to find. Listen for its song or it’s bold, almost aggressive chip-call when an intruder gets too close. With a little patience, you may get a glimpse when this little bird to pops into sight. 

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Black Throats

“Was that a zee, zee, zee, zreeeeee or, zee, zee, zee, zee, zoo, zee?” This is how I spend too much of my time strolling through the woods here in Western Maine.

“I don’t know. Let’s keep moving. Bugs are biting.” My wife stood with her hands on her hips a few yards up the trail. Our dog seemed to give me an impatient eye roll too. They both like birds, but this was not their idea of a “hike”.

Suddenly, a small bird popped into sight. It was a slate blue color on its head, back, wings and tail with a black throat and face and stripes down its side. “Zee, zee, zee, zreeeee”, it sang as it attacked a caterpillar on the underside of a leaf. As it gobbled it down, I saw the tell-tale white triangle on its wing.

Black-throated green warbler

Black-throated green warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

Black-throated blue warbler

“Black-throated Blue Warbler” (Photo by Sharp), I yelped as my wife headed down the trail without me.  These birds swarm into mixed conifer and deciduous forest from the Caribbean and Mexico during the spring. The Mahoosuc region is at the heart of their preferred nesting territory. They are small and, once the leaves are out, they are easier to hear than see. Females don’t sing and look entirely different. They are olive green, and the only way I can identify them is that little triangle of white on their wing. Some birders call it a “handkerchief”.

As I hurried to catch up, I heard a higher pitched song. “Zee, zee, zee, zoo, zee.” I had passed into a patch of hemlock. I couldn’t find this singer, but I was pretty sure this was a Black-throated Green Warbler (Photo by Russ).

It also heads to our area to nest. As its name implies, it has olive-green across its head, back and rump. It has a bright yellow face and a yellow wash across its belly. Its throat is black. It has streaky spots of black down its side, as well.

I can’t tell the difference between Beethoven’s Fifth and Mozart’s Requiem. In the same way I struggle to distinguish between the Black-throated Blue and Black-throated Green Warblers. The habitat of these birds overlaps, and they are abundant in our woods during the spring and summer. The next time you are hiking, listen for their song. There’s a good chance you’ll hear one or the other. The challenge is determining which one!

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Brown Creeper

 I was starting to shiver and, still, I had not found the bird twittering and singing in the tree no more than 20 feet away. It was one of those “mild” March days that tricks you into thinking that spring is just around the corner. Snow was melting, and the sun was shining. In fact, for the rest of the country, spring was already underway. I had spoken to my parents in Mississippi that morning, and they bragged about the jonquils and forsythia in their yard. Yet, here in Western Maine, we were still in winter’s grip with high snow banks and a cold wind blowing. I had stopped by Valentine Farm Conservation Center for a quick visit. I had dashed from the car to the offices without putting on a heavy coat. As I passed the bird feeders, I heard a twittering that I recognized but seldom heard until this time of year. It was a sound of spring, and it came from a small bird known as a Brown Creeper (photo Alan Vernon).

                The Brown Creeper is a shy bird that lives in our area year-round. Finding this bird isn’t easy. It is usually solitary but, occasionally, will forage alongside chickadees and nuthatches. It is well camouflaged with shades of brown and speckles of cream white. And, like its name, it creeps around and up tree trunks and large limbs probing with its long, curved bill for spiders and insects. It blends in so well that it is easily mistaken for a loose piece of bark or a leaf fluttering in the wind, as it flies from one tree to another.

                Its song is a high tinkling melody that I never expect to hear in late winter. But, that is what stopped me as I dashed past the bird feeders. I stopped and searched for the bird singing from a pine tree right in front of me. I’d been there 20 minutes and was on the verge of giving up. The bird kept up the musical twitter, and right as I was about to head inside, I caught a quick glimpse of the little Brown Creeper as it followed a couple of chickadees and a nuthatch over into the nearby hemlocks. 

                So, listen for this little songster this time of year. Your best bet for seeing it is before leaf-out in the early spring.

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James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Yellow Warbler

As the days grow longer, a mass migration of millions of birds is set in motion. 350 different types of birds, many from the tropics, move into North America to find mates and raise their young. The Western Maine Mountains are the destination for a large number of these birds and have led some to refer to our region as a “baby bird factory”. April is a good time to prepare for the arrival of these visitors from away. Clean out your bird boxes and feeders, and brush up on their songs and field markings. May and June are just around the corner, and we are about to be invaded.

                Early arrivals include American Woodcock and Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. In fact, these birds, along with some ducks and mergansers, have already moved into our area. Soon, Maine’s state bird, the Common Loon, will move from the coastal waters to our lakes and ponds. Great Blue Herons and Turkey Vultures along with a number of different Hawks are among the larger, more visible visitors who will move in. Watch for Chimmney Swifts, Barn Swallows and Tree Swallows who will soon be swooping over fields and yards eating insects by the pound.

Yellow warbler (Photo credit: All About Birds)

Yellow warbler (Photo credit: All About Birds)

However, a host of other birds sneak into our area. Many thousands migrate at night and disolve into the woods and marshes often before they are noticed. Tropical warblers, the color of jewels in yellow, blue, orange and green, are small and blend in completely once trees have leafed out. These include Black-throated Blue, Chestnut-sided, and Yellow Warblers (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClaurren) along with the Common Yellow-throat and can be found on almost any visit to Valentine Farm Conservation Center. A little later, toward June, we host Rose-breasted Grosbeaks, Scarlet Tanagers and Indigo Buntings. If you don’t know these birds, look them up and you will be amazed that such bright colors are flitting in the woods around you. Or join us on our next bird walks, May 25 and June 1, 8:00 a.m. at Valentine Farm.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org

Global Big Day

Hermit thrush

Hermit thrush

May 4th is designated as a Global Big Day. This is a day when citizen scientists around the world take time to document as many birds as they can. The Global Big Day is organized by eBird which is a database maintained by Cornell Lab of Ornithology. It allows ordinary citizens like you and I to track the birds we see. The Lab uses the database for research on birds. 

                During the first weekend in May 2018, more than 30,000 people around the world participated in the Global Big Day. After it was over, 7,000 different types of birds were documented worldwide. Here in Oxford County, a group of 15 “citizen scientist” documented 25 different types of birds at Valentine Farm in only 2 hours. We were delighted with mixed flocks of warblers including Yellow-rumped, Black-throated Blue, Black-throated Green mixed in with Blue-headed Vireos, a Hermit Thrush (photo by Matt MacGillivray) and Ruby-crowned Kinglets.  At times, the birds hopped on the trail and swarmed the low branches just feet away, seemingly oblivious of our group. It raised the question, “Why were all these birds together?”

We don’t really know the answers to questions like these, but science has given us some clues.  It turns out, it is not uncommon for mixed flocks of birds to be migrating together at night.  A number of factors from genetics, weather and geographic features can funnel species together as they move north. Under certain conditions, exhausted birds will land together in these concentrated flocks and are sometimes referred to as “Fall Outs” by birders. After resting and feeding, these birds move on, dissolving into the northern forests.

Although we never know what will show up this May 4th, it is always exciting. You are invited to join us for a bird walk at 8:00 am. We need citizen scientists like you to help us document the birds at Valentine Farm Conservation Center (VFCC). No matter your skill level, you are likely to learn something new. And, with a little luck, you’ll see some amazing birds.

Speaking of learning something new, join us at 5:30 – 7:30 on May 3rd, at VFCC for a class where we will review the migrants we expect in our area at this time of year. It is free and appropriate for all levels of birders. 

 James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

The latest article in our Bird Notes series by James Reddoch

Moving North

At this time of year, many New Englanders head to warmer places. “Snow Birds”, as they are sometimes called, head south when the snow flies. Of course, here in Bethel, we attract more than our share of people who have come north in search of the snow. Maybe those are the true “snow birds”.

Tufted Titmouse

Tufted Titmouse

There is, however, a different group of north-bound birds which have steadily pushed into our area over the past few decades – but they are not coming for the snow. Scientists suspect milder winters and the popularity of bird feeders are two reasons which may allow some birds to expand their range and over-winter here in the north.

In Bethel, the Northern Cardinal is now routinely seen. It first arrived in southern Maine in the early 70s. Cardinals are ground-feeding birds that prefer yards and field edges. Most ground feeders migrate south to avoid deep snow. Yet, this bright red, crested bird is found year-round in town or at Valentine Farm. If you, like me, live farther from town and are surrounded by deep forest, you may not see this bird at your feeders.

Another north-bound bird is the Tufted Titmouse (photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClaurren). This small, crested bird mingles among chickadees and nuthatches and is a regular visitor to feeders. Different from cardinals, the titmouse sticks to mature forest as it has pushed northward.

This past fall, two titmice appeared for the first time at my feeders. One, a newly fledged chick, begged to its parent. Clearly, these titmice had successfully nested close to my house. I haven’t seen them all winter, but it will be interesting to see if these birds begin to appear more regularly in upcoming springs and summers – a sure sign that they have established a breeding population in my area.

These examples show why watching birds can be so exciting. In fact, by reporting the birds you see at your feeders to an online, citizen-scientist database, like Cornel Lab of Ornithology’swww.ebird.com, you can help document the changing range of birds like cardinals and titmice. By studying the data reported by birders, scientists can gain insights into the impact of a changing climate and evolving forests in our region.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Yellow-bellied Sapsucker

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 If you are my age, you’ll probably remember the episode of the Beverly Hillbillies when Miss Jane Hathaway appears in birdwatching attire in search of a Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. The idea of this ridiculous character searching for a bird with such a ridiculous name seems like a scene that could only come from the pen of a comedy writer. That episode is probably why several of my non-birder friends think I made the name up. But, there really is a bird called the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker. Here, in Western Maine, it can be found without too much work.

                Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers (photo by Charles J. Sharp) are a migratory woodpecker. As their name suggests, they rely on tree sap for food. Oddly enough, their name is also confusing because their bellies aren’t really yellow. At most, they have a yellowish wash.

These birds leave our area in the fall and spend the winter in warmer areas only to return when sap begins to run in the spring.  In fact, some historians speculate that this bird may have led Native Americans to discover maple syrup.

                Yellow-bellied Sapsuckers are among the early spring arrivals. They establish a home range where they gouge out and tend small holes in trees in order to feed on tree sap. They spend all season maintaining these “sap-wells”. In addition, the sap-wells attract insects which provide the bird with protien and other nutrients needed during nesting season.

Scientists have noted a range of other birds, as well as squirrels, which have learned to rely on the sapsucker’s work. In particular, the Ruby-throated Hummingbird seems to time its migration with the sapsucker. In this way, this nectar sipping hummingbird can arrive in our region long before the first flowers bloom.

                If you are in the woods early this spring, listen for this woodpecker hammering away in an erratic, morse-code style tapping. You just may catch a glimpse of Miss Jane Hathway’s much sought after Yellow-bellied Sapsucker.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

 

Wild, Open Space Remains Important to Kirk Siegel

Kirk Siegel has always been involved with the outdoors.He spent four years competing for the U.S. Biathlon Team, 10 years teaching and coaching cross-country skiing at Gould Academy, and 18 years doing real estate and conservation law in South Paris and Bethel. Executive director of the Mahoosuc Land Trust since January 2018, Siegel is working to conserve the 500-acre Ginny McCoy property in Gilead, Bethel and Newry. He lives in Albany Township with Martha, his wife of almost 27 years, and they still find time to ski. Their daughter, Molly, works in rural development on Isle au Haut, and their son, Andrew, is a sophomore at the University of Vermont.

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I was born in the Lake Tahoe area in Truckee, California, right up in the high Sierras near Donner Summit. My parents ran the ski lodge at Walt Disney’s Ski Resort called Sugar Bowl. When I was about 3, my parents let me walk on skis a couple 100 yards from our house to the lift with skiers all around me.

My parents met at a ski resort called Alta. My mom, who was from St. Louis, Missouri, was an accomplished powder skier in her early 20s. My dad, who was from Salt Lake City, lost his leg in a skiing accident when he was 26. He had a below-the-knee amputation, but he learned to ski again and skied until he was 80. Without me realizing it, my dad became an inspiration of how not to let adversity slow you down.

After Sugar Bowl, my dad was the manager of Mountain Operations at Park City. Then when I was going into the first grade, my dad became the marketing director at Waterville Valley in New Hampshire.

We moved to North Andover, Massachusetts, when I was in third grade. It was really hard to leave the beautiful mountains. I could not get back to the mountains fast enough.

When I was 13, I got a scholarship at Holderness in New Hampshire. Holderness is right near Waterville Valley and adjacent to the White Mountain National Forest. There was an outing club, ski team, ski jumping, and cross-country. It was heaven.

Though I was a mediocre downhill ski racer and a terrible ski jumper, I was a cross country runner. Junior year, when I started figuring out that I was an OK cross-country skier, I saw a picture of a biathlon race in a ski racing magazine. I was captivated. I stuck the article up in my room. I said, “I want to do that.”

I went to Dartmouth, where I ended up being a Division I cross-country skier. The new coach was a former Olympic biathlete. It took a couple of years, but eventually a few of us talked him into coaching biathlon.

I was on the U.S. Biathlon Team for two years while I was in college and two afterward. I tried out for the Olympic Team in 1984, but I did not make it. I came to work at Gould three days after the Olympic trials as an intern in the English department and a cross-country ski coach.

Though I had only been to Maine one time in my life, Western Maine was a perfect place for me. It had a combination of the mountains and the ski world that I grew up in. It was also far enough from suburbia to be an inspiring place to live, with enough of an economy to support an interesting community.

I had always been interested in working with young skiers. I’d had a tremendous opportunity to compete and travel internationally when I was on the national biathlon team. It seemed natural to want to give back. Gould gave me a chance to keep my hand in a sport I really loved. I also discovered the Mahoosuc Region.

One thing that came out of being a young, single faculty member with an interest in the outdoors and conservation was being involved with local organizations. One of those was the Mahoosuc Land Trust.

One day after a small group of us founded the land trust, we were messing around with legal documents. I realized none of us were attorneys. That I got me interested in law school.

I went to the University of Maine School of Law in 1994. I really liked law school. I’d had 10 years off. I was hungry to learn and excited to be a student again. I love to read and write and discuss issues. I did not find it to be drudgery. It sounds boring, but I found it challenging and exciting to develop the ability to think and write clearly and analyze problems and issues, things that are useful in any part of your life or profession.

I spent my first year out in a clerkship with the Maine Supreme Court with Justice Robert Clifford. Then, I practiced real estate and conservation law, which I sometimes did outside of Oxford County. I also did a lot of pro bono work for land trusts.

In 2017, when the position of executive director of the Mahoosuc Land Trust opened up, I applied. I started the job on Jan. 1, 2018. I really liked practicing law, but it was a great move for me.

The Western Maine Mountains are a globally important region from an ecological standpoint. The five million acres that comprise it are part of the largely unfragmented forest that runs across New Hampshire, Vermont, New York and into Quebec and the Maritimes, the largest (such forest) in the Eastern half of the United States. It’s just so important to have connected landscapes where wildlife and habitat can move. It is super important to our region, our state, and our planet.

By Pam Chodosh, Advertiser Democrat, April 4, 2019

The World Is Our Classroom

Author, Cindy Ross to speak Thursday, April 11, 7:00 p.m.

McLaughlin Auditorium, Gould Academy

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Cindy’s story begins in the Rocky Mountain wilderness on a unique and extraordinary journey: two parents leading their young children 3,100 miles on the backs of llamas. This Canada-Mexico trek illustrated to Cindy and her husband what experiential education can do. Inspired by the experience, they went on to create a new way of supplementing their children’s education, focusing on two arenas for learning: the natural world and travel.

In this age of world connection, it is important to raise broad-minded and empathetic children who are knowledgeable about other cultures. To accomplish this goal, Cindy chose an unorthodox approach: she orchestrated learning opportunities for her children, Sierra and Bryce, in twelve countries. The family traveled the world, moving about on foot and bicycle, living simply and intimately. But just as important, and more accessible for many parents, were the opportunities for learning closer to home.  

These adventures brought intangible gifts: values—such as compassion, empathy, resilience, self-reliance, and gratitude, among others— not always fostered in a traditional curriculum but crucially important to raising children.

By sharing her story, along with honest insights from her children about the importance of their unusual education, Cindy aims to empower parents to believe they can be their children’s best and most important educators. It is for parents who are seeking inspiration, who love a good story, and who are looking for an unorthodox way to raise the happiest, healthiest, and brightest children they can.

About the Author:

CINDY ROSS has written about raising children alternatively, via outdoor adventures and travel, for a variety of publications, including the Los Angeles Times, the Toronto Star, and Backpacker magazine. The author of six published books, she has lectured on the virtues of this educational approach and its effects on children’s creative minds and their thirst for learning for twenty-five years. Cindy lives in New Ringgold, Pennsylvania.

Blue Trickster

I had just spent 30 minutes trying to find a red-tailed hawk in the tree above me. It was a weak call but clearly a hawk. The bird seemed to be moving from branch to branch. Finally, I found it. Except, it wasn’t a hawk. A blue jay peered down at me and made the call. I could see a twinkle in his eye and was convinced he was laughing at me.

Blue jays, a family member of crows and ravens, are one of the most identifiable birds in our area. They regularly come to feeders and will even steal dog food, if we leave it out. Jays spend a good deal of time finding and storing food for later. In fact, they are known for their ability to remember the location of thousands of acorns, beechnuts and other foods they stash during the fall. They are also not above stealing from each other, if they find these hidden treats. Another trick they have learned is to make a hawk call to scare other birds into dropping food and fleeing.

Blue jay

Blue jay

Some people don’t like blue jays because they are aggressive toward other smaller birds. And, it’s true, blue jays can be bullies, going so far as to rob eggs and chicks from other song birds during nesting season.

Still, I like these bold and dashing birds. One reason is the habit blue jays have of gathering together to chase away predators. This is a behavior known as “mobbing”. For several weeks now, a group of blue jays start their morning screaming at something in my back yard. I can’t resist it. When I hear them start their daily commotion, I rush out to see if they’ve found a hawk, an owl or some other interesting predator. And, every morning, I find them fussing at some poor, beleaguered squirrel they’ve decided they don’t like. I don’t know what that squirrel does to make them so mad. Then again, maybe it’s not the squirrel. Maybe they know they can trick me into coming out in my slippers and pajamas. Sometimes I swear I see a twinkle in the eyes of one of those blue tricksters.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Winter Irruptives

Merriam Webster dictionary defines irruptive as “a sudden sharp increase in the relative numbers of a natural population. . .” Winter in Maine often sees irruptions of a variety of birds which range from Alaska to the Canadian Maritimes.  These birds include Pine Siskins, Common Redpolls, Evening Grosbeaks and two crossbills. For these birds, it’s all about the seeds.

Evening Grosbeak

Evening Grosbeak

One of my first winters in Maine, I had some of these birds regularly visit my feeder. Growing up in Mississippi, I seldom, if ever, saw these birds and was delighted to think they were common in Maine. Unfortunately, since that early winter, they seldom visit and I haven’t seen an Evening Grosbeak in seven years.

So, where do they go? Have you ever noticed that White Pines produce a lot of cones some years while other years are modest? This same cycle happens with many other trees, including oak and beech. If you’ve noticed these cycles, you can bet these birds have noticed too. 

When I moved to Maine, I learned a new word from hunters and foresters - “mast.” Mast, in this case, are the fruit, nuts or seeds of a tree. A good “mast year,” produces a super-abundance of seeds and may attract these visitors. Here is a quick summary of each:

Pine Siskin: This bird may remind you of a dull, female goldfinch. Look for a streaky brown and black bird with yellow-to-white bars on its wings. Its underparts are streaked in brown as well.

Common Redpoll: This small bird is brown streaked on top and lighter underneath. Males have a raspberry patch on their forehead and raspberry on their throat to their chest.

Evening Grosbeak (pictured): This large, chunky bird is bright yellow with black and white highlights. If this bird visits your feeder, you won’t soon forget it. In our area, there’s no other bird this big and this yellow.

Crossbills: There are two types. Red Crossbills (pictured) and White-winged Crossbills. The males are reddish with black, white and brown highlights. The females are olive. What sets them apart is their beak. The upper bill crosses the lower one. This allows them to pry open cones for the seeds. Look for them in the tops of pine, spruce or fir trees.

Keep watch for these unique visitors. They irrupt into our area, especially during high, mast years. (Information sourced from www.birdsna.org.)

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Valentine Farm at, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Rush Hour on Vernon Street

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I think I surprised Donna Corriveau when I stopped by unannounced one cold December morning. She was shoveling snow from her porch, and I thought it would be a good time to find out how she attracted so many birds to her yard. As I explained the reason for my visit, I could see a hairy woodpecker and a blue jay at one feeder a few feet over her shoulder. Chickadees and nuthatches were busy at another. Like every other time I drove by, Donna’s yard was full of birds. In fact, I had recently waited as a long line of turkeys crossed Vernon Street for a visit.

Donna uses a few feeders to convert her entire property into a café for birds. She scatters cracked corn on the ground for turkeys and doves. She mixes un-popped popcorn and bread in a feeder, which the woodpeckers and jays enjoy. She has suet in another feeder and black sunflower seeds in yet another. 

She’s been doing this for 22 years. The result is a yard full of birds and a potential traffic jam due to all the turkeys crossing the road.

Why does she do it? Simple - she takes great pleasure in sitting in her chair with a cup of coffee and watching what shows up. Over the years, she’s seen some interesting things, including 52 turkeys during one visit! When turkeys show up, crows do, too. “The crows like to torment the turkeys.” She’s counted over 60 crows at one time.

A raven once hung around imitating the scream of a fisher cat. Another time, a turkey climbed onto a dirt flower bed and peered through the window. “It was like he was asking me to bring him food.”

Sometimes a goshawk shows up. “It’s terrible,” she said. “I don’t like it when he carries off my birds.”

Most of us will never feed birds at the scale Donna does. She buys popcorn by the case and goes through 20 pound bags of cracked corn every few weeks.

However, take a tip from Donna. Try sunflower seeds in a feeder.  Scatter some corn. Then, get a cup of coffee and see what shows up. Oh, and next time you drive down Vernon Street, watch out for turkey rush hour. It just means Donna’s feeding her birds. 

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust, which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Little Tin Horns

On one of my first visits to the Mahoosuc region, almost 30 years ago now, I watched a Red-breasted Nuthatch hiding sunflower seeds in the crevices of a massive white pine growing alongside Hutchinson Pond. As a flatlander, it felt a long way from Mississippi where I had grown up. The “yank, yank, yank” of that little nuthatch was like a tune played on a little, tin horn. It has stuck in my head to this day and is how I learned to identify the difference between the Red-breasted Nuthatch compared to the White-breasted Nuthatch who’s call is a more nasal, “Quank, quank, quank.” Both of these species occur commonly in the Mahoosuc region. The Red-breasted Nuthatch prefers fir and hemlock forest while the White-breasted seems to occur more widely. Both species come regularly to feeders.

A distinct behavioral characteristic of all nuthatches is that they perch and climb in a head-down position. They use their wedged-shaped bills to pry or hammer open seed and to probe tree bark for insects and spiders. Both nuthatches can be found traveling in loose, mixed flocks, especially in the winter, along with chickadees, kinglets and downy woodpeckers.

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The White-breasted is the larger of the two. It has grey and black wings and back. Its face is white with a black cap extending down to the back. Its throat, belly and flanks are white, but it has a rusty, brown wash under its tail. They may blend in with the chickadees at your feeder if you aren’t watching closely.

                The Red-breasted Nuthatch has a gun-metal grey back and wings. The top of the bird’s head is complicated in appearance and is black on top bordered by white stripes on both sides. The bird has a broad, black eye-stripe with grey/white cheeks and throat. Its belly and sides are a rusty red.

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According to Birds of North America Online that the Red-breasted Nuthatch is known to collect and smear sticky sap around the holes they excavate and use for nesting. Red-breasted Nuthatches are said to be more nomadic, with populations visiting into one area for a time only to move on to another region later. Therefore, you may hear this bird and its little tin horn more some years compared to others.  (Information sourced from www.birdsna.org.)

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. Mahoosuc Land Trust celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit us at Valentine Farm, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about an upcoming event or to contact James send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Hairy or Downy?

Several woodpecker species live in Maine year-round. Downy and Hairy Woodpeckers are among the most common and often visit feeders for sunflower seeds or suet. Both species sport a black and white checkered pattern on their wings, with a white throat, chest, sides and belly. Males have a red patch on the back of their head. Juveniles may have some red feathers on their forehead.

Whereas most birds have three toes with two pointing forward and one back, woodpecker’s feet are “zygodactyl” with two toes pointing forward and two pointing backward. Their stiff tail feathers give leverage as they grip the sides of trees. Their bills are shaped and used like a chisel to hammer holes or flake bark looking for insects. Both species have long, barbed tongues which flick into crevices, holes and tunnels for insects.

To the casual observer, these two species are virtually identical. So, how do you tell a Hairy from a Downy?

The Downy is a petite bird with a small beak. It can forage on small stems, twigs, fruit or seed clusters. The Hairy is bigger and heavier and cannot manage these acrobatic moves easily. So, where a bird is foraging may give you a clue. Also, experienced birders tell me they can identify the differences based on their calls, with the Hairy making a stronger, “Peek, peek.” The Downy’s call is a shriller, “Pik, pik.” I don’t trust my ear to hear these difference, but it is fun to try.

The best method for confidently identifying these two is by their bills. The Downy’s bill is tiny. When seen in profile, its bill is about half the length of the bird’s head. The Hairy’s bill is much larger. Its length is about the same as the length of its entire head. Of course, this trick only works if you get a good look at the bird’s profile. The good news is that these birds are easier to observe at the feeder or through binoculars than many smaller, faster moving birds.

Fill your feeder with black sunflower seeds and you are sure to find one or both of these species as regular visitors. Practice observing their beak proportions and you’ll become an expert in no time. (Information sourced from www.birdsna.org & The Sibley Field Guide to Birds mobile app.)

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at Valentine Farm, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Hairy Woodpecker

Hairy Woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

Downy woodpecker

Raven or Crow?

“How do I tell the difference between ravens and crows?” This question was asked during a recent birding class at the Mahoosuc Land Trust and one I hear a lot. So, I thought I would offer a few tips.

Ravens and crows, both members of the Corvid family, are large, black birds. Both occur commonly in our area. Several tips help distinguish Common Ravens from their more often seen cousins, the American Crow.

Ravens are more reclusive and tend to avoid populated areas. Ravens are larger and heavier. Their bills are notably bulkier, and they have elongated feathers on their throats which are sometimes called “hackles”. A raven’s call is a throaty, “Gronk” versus the crow’s signature, “Caw”. A caution here – both birds are vocal and make different sounds and calls. Both have been documented imitating other animals and birds.

Raven or crow?

Raven or crow?

Both birds are strong and acrobatic flyers, often seen wheeling and cavorting in the wind. Ravens, however, can soar like a hawk for long periods. Crows can only glide for short periods without flapping. When seen flying, raven’s tails are often a give-away. A raven’s tail feathers form a wedge shape like in the picture above, whereas a crow’s tail is squared-off.

These are the primary clues I look for when I spot a large black bird here in our area.

James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston, leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust which celebrates 30 years conserving the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit Mahoosuc Land Trust at 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or at www.mahoosuc.org. To learn about upcoming events or to contact James, send your emails to info@mahoosuc.org.

Chickadees the Size of House Cats

“It’s a good thing Chickadees aren’t the size of house cats!” I don’t remember where I read this, but I smile when I refill my feeders and am scolded by an impatient, food-line of Black-capped Chickadees which call my yard home. I doubt I’d be as bold if, in fact, they were the size of cats. Even at their small size, these birds do not find me intimidating. One year, a Chickadee, probably a youngster, repeatedly landed on my hand as I filled the feeders. This kept up for twenty minutes until another, in my mind, more experienced bird appeared. The new arrival scolded us until my new friend flew away. Over the next few days, I looked for him but he never came back to feed from my hand. Scientists tell us not to attribute human characteristics to animals, but I can’t help it. I think that scolding Chickadee was the youngster’s mother, aghast to find her child taking seeds from a stranger. In any event, I am lucky that she weighed-in at under half an ounce and wasn’t the size of a house cat. I don’t think I would have gotten off with just a Chickadee-cursing, if her size matched her personality.

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Black-capped Chickadees live year round in our region and can be heard and seen on almost any walk, whether in the woods or down a side walk. Brian Sullivan on Birds of North America Online reports that males are slightly larger than females. But, to my eye, it is almost impossible to tell one bird from another as they dangle from cones and branches in a big white pine or move, conveyer-belt fashion, back and forth to my feeders.

Bernd Heinrich in his book, Winter World, describes how Chickadees often are found moving about in loose flocks with other types of birds. So, if Chickadees are around, look for other birds which may be nearby including White and Red-breasted Nuthatches, Downy Woodpeckers and Golden-crowned Kinglets. Safety may be one reason these birds flock together. Loud Chickadees may serve as an early-warning-system for the flock. In fact, I’ve learned to look for predators when I hear scolding Chickadees. Recently, at Valentine Farm, angry Chickadees led me to a Norther Saw-whet Owl hiding in a hemlock a few feet from the trail. I wouldn’t have seen it without the mad-as-a-house-cat personality of the Chickadees. (Information sourced from www.birdsna.org & Winter World, Heinrich, 2004.)

 Mahoosuc Land Trust celebrates its 30th year working to conserve the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit us at Valentine Farm Conservation Center, 162 North Road Bethel, ME or atwww.mahoosuc.org to learn about how you can join us for a hike or attend an upcoming event.

 James Reddoch, of Albany Township and Boston leads birding events for the Mahoosuc Land Trust. He can be reached at info@mahoosuc.org.

Why Birds?

There are a host of reasons to pay attention to birds. Watching tree swallows sail over a meadow, or listening for a ruffed grouse’s drumming from deep in the forest can bring pure joy.

Paying attention to the birds around us is also a way to access the wild world we enjoy here in the Mahoosuc region. Hearing a loon for the first time can be as exciting as seeing a moose. When yellow-bellied sapsuckers return in the late winter, you know that sap is running.

Common Loon with chick

Common Loon with chick

Maybe more important, birds can be a good indicator of change in the world we share with them. Like the old saying, “the canary in the coal mine” birds can signal when something is wrong. The World Wildlife Fund in its 2018 paper, Living Planet, reported a 60% drop in animal populations across the planet in recent decades. And, birds have not been immune. The 2018 State of the World’s Birds report states that 1,469 types of birds are threatened with extinction. 

Here in the Mahoosuc region, loon populations are being watched closely to protect the waters on which they rely. Many of the birds that migrate to our region from the tropics are undergoing dramatic drops in their populations. Understanding these trends isn’t just for the birds. If birds are doing poorly, it is a good bet that the air, water, soil and forest we share may be threatened as well. 

Birders can help. More and more they are reporting their sightings to scientists who use the information to gain insights into trends and patterns. This is often the first step in finding solutions. Here are few success stories:  

  • Nesting bald eagles are regularly reported along the Androscoggin when, just a few decades ago, they had almost entirely disappeared.

  • · Wild turkeys, once absent from New England, are now common. I recently had to stop my car on Vernon Street because a flock of almost 30 turkeys were crossing the road.

  • · Dick Albert of Fryeburg tells of how in the last five years sandhill cranes, a wading bird larger than a great blue heron, has returned to nest along the Saco where they had been absent for decades.

    If you are interested in learning more about birds, watch for upcoming events sponsored by the Mahoosuc Land Trust. On January 12th, I am teaching a Beginning Birder Class. It’s free and will provide tips designed to help all birders but is designed for beginners. Call (207) 824-3806 To find out more and register.

A Landscape of Superlatives

“The Western Maine Mountains region is a landscape of superlatives.” That is how Janet McMahon, writing for the Maine Mountain Collaborative, opened her recent paper describing our corner of Maine.

Golden-crowned kinglet

Golden-crowned kinglet

Those who live and visit here know this to be true. Mahoosuc Bird News periodically focuses on those “superlatives” by highlighting birds (and our other non-human neighbors) of the Mahoosucs. 240 different kinds of birds have been reported in Oxford County. Many travel here hundreds, even thousands of miles in the spring to raise their young. Others, like the Golden-crowned Kinglet, weighing scarcely more than two dimes, have found a way to survive our long winters.

Our area is home to some of the last remaining tracks in the Eastern U.S. which can host populations of large mammals like moose and bear. There are many unique plants and birds. For some, like the Boreal Chickadee which typically lives further north in Canada, we are at the extreme Southern point in their range. We truly live among “superlatives.” So join us as we explore the nature around us – who they are, where they can be found and what we can do to ensure they endure for generations to come.

Now for those Golden-crowned Kinglets - this tiny bird lives year-round in our region. It prefers hemlock and spruce forest. Kinglets are olive-green above and paler below. They sport two white bars on their wings and what I call black and white racing stripes on their head.

When alarmed, the males display an orange patch on the top of their head. This patch can be concealed. Females only show a yellow wash. Because of their size and the dense forests they prefer, they are hard to find. They constantly seek insects to eat in order to survive through long winter nights in Maine.

Kinglets are known to travel in mixed-flocks with other small birds. They may find security following the much noisier chickadees, which scold any threat. To find Golden-crowned Kinglets, first search online and listen to their high, soft song.  Then, the next time you are out and surrounded by a flock of chickadees, listen for tsee-tsee-tsee-tsee-teet-leetle. Once you hear them calling, a little patience may reveal this “superlative” of the Mahoosucs urgently seeking food for the cold night ahead. (Information sourced from www.birdsna.org).

 

Mahoosuc Land Trust celebrates its 30th year working to conserve the natural areas of the Mahoosuc Region. Visit us at Valentine Farm Conservation Center, 162 North Road, Bethel, ME or atwww.mahoosuc.org to learn about how you can join us for a hike or attend an upcoming event.

Welcome to Mahoosuc Bird Notes, written by James Reddoch, MLT member and bird enthusiast. This is the first of a year of weekly articles celebrating everything birds.

Volunteers Prep for Black & White 2 Peak Challenge Sept 23

Volunteers from Mahoosuc Land Trust and Chisholm Ski Club and an Outward Bound group from Lowell, MA, worked together to clear downed trees, brush, and leaves over approximately two miles of the Black and White Trail.  The trail, which connects the land trust's preserve at Whitecap Mountain with Black Mountain is the route for the upcoming September 23rd Black and White 2 Peak Challenge, an annual 8.7-mile foot race organized by Black Mountain of Maine.  Information is available at www.skiblackmountain.org or by calling (207) 357-8844.

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