Sandhill Cranes

Sandhill crane

Sandhill crane

The first time I saw a Sandhill Crane, I was riding cross-country on a bus. I don’t know what state. It was flat, probably Kansas or Nebraska, and the big, gray bird was the tallest thing on the prairie. I was a budding birder and struggled to contain my excitement.

The next time I saw a Sandhill Crane (photo by Steve Emmons) was 10 years later on the Gulf Coast of Mississippi. A subspecies of Sandhill Cranes resides there. At the Mississippi Sandhill Crane National Wildlife Refuge, I watched a 3-foot tall mother striding through the grass. She was gray with brown highlights and a crimson patch on her forehead. She probed the high grass for insects and frogs. As she moved my way, I saw she was followed by two colts - Sandhill Crane chicks. They were rusty brown all over. When their mother probed the ground, the colts would rush to see what she had found. I couldn’t believe my good fortune to be able to watch this magnificent bird so closely. Sandhill Crane populations had been hit hard and few were found along its eastern flyway when I was young.

I’ve seen them a couple of times since. The last time was on a trip to Alaska a few years ago. But for me, this bird has always been an example of the adventure that birding offers. These are birds I have always had to go elsewhere to find. Sandhill Cranes spend most of their time moving around the interior of North America where, during migration, they congregate in massive numbers. Due to conservation efforts, even cranes in the east have started to recover. Even so, they aren’t known to nest in abundance in New England.  

Well guess what. . .According to Doug Albert, that has changed. Doug’s family runs the Maine Turf Company in Fryeburg. He reports that cranes now nest routinely on islands in the Saco River. The Turf Farm is managed as a bird and wildlife friendly, and Doug monitors the area as an official nesting site for Sandhill Cranes in Maine.

Doug and his family have invited us to come view Sandhill Cranes October 26th. Last year 36 cranes congregated at the Turf Farm in advance of migrating south for the winter. We are hoping the same will happen this year and give us good views. To join us, please call the Mahoosuc Land Trust at (207) 824-3806 for details.

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.

Cedar Waxwings

At this time of year, one of the most common birds in the field at my house is the Cedar Waxwing (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren).  Although considered a songbird, they are one of the few birds that do not have a recognizable “song”. Even so, I often hear them before I see them because of a high, wheezy whistle from the flock.

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Waxwings are slightly smaller than a robin. Their body, head and crest is a soft, velvety brown. Their tail and wings are gray to black. They wear a black mask over their eyes. The tips of their tail feathers are yellow. If you look close, you can often see a bright yellow to red dew-drop of wax that accumulates at the end of their secondary wing feathers. The color depends on what they eat. Cedar Waxwings never fail to bring a smile to my face. They remind me of little clowns moving around in little groups from the pines to the high grass in my field. 

 Cedar Waxwings are nomadic and considered to be the most frugivorous bird in North America. Frugivorous means they eat predominantly fruit. They are generally found in small flocks. This is because they move around looking for trees, shrubs and plants with ripe fruit. They concentrate in these areas until they’ve eaten all that is available. Fruits they eat include the low-bush blueberries in my field. They also eat wild cherries, crabapples, wild cranberries, serviceberry and cedar berries (where it gets its name) and many others. Waxwings are considered to be critical in helping “spread” seeds of many of our wild, fruiting plants. Of course, you know what “spread” means. Let’s just say, don’t park your car near a cherry tree if you have Cedar Waxwings around. 

As the weather turns cold, they move a little further south, but many stay in southern Maine all year. Here they may rely on non-native, ornamental plants we seem to prefer in our yards. As a result, Cedar Waxwings aide in the spread of problem plants like Russian Olive, Japanese Honeysuckle and Oriental Bittersweet. But don’t blame the waxwings. They can’t distinguish nuisance plants versus good plants. The burden is on us to manage these problem plants. One easy step - use native plants in our yards. If not, who knows what Cedar Waxwings will take a liking to and then “spread” on your car and the surrounding fields and woods. 

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.

Fighter Jets in the Forest

The woods are quieter this time of year - partially because many birds have moved south. But I have another theory. Birds of prey are migrating this time of year, too. Hawks, eagles and falcons prefer the day. Most song birds migrate at night. That is probably not by accident. Darkness allows songbirds to avoid predators. And avoiding predators may be a reason birds sing less in the fall, especially since Accipiters are on the prowl.

Cooper’s Hawk

Cooper’s Hawk

Accipiters are hawks that prefer to eat other birds. They are built for hunting in the forest. They have short, wide wings and long tails which makes it easy to dart in and around tree branches like fighter jets. There are three Accipiters that nest in our area.

Sharp-shinned Hawks are the smallest Accipiter. These are a little larger than a robin. They feed almost exclusively on small birds. Cooper’s Hawks (Photo by H. Gilbert Miller) are a crow-sized version of the Sharp-shinned Hawk. These two can be difficult to tell apart without a little study. Both have brown to slate colored uppers. Their throat and breast are covered in rusty bars. Their tails have black bars. Cooper’s Hawks are larger and, as a result go, after larger birds. Have you ever had birds disappear from your feeders for a few days? It could be an Accipiter lurking nearby.

The third Accipiter is the Northern Goshawk. This is a big hawk that lives here year-round. It preys on woodpeckers, crows and grouse. It also takes squirrels and rabbits. Goshawks are secretive and prefer the deep forest. However, last year my wife and I were sitting on our deck late one afternoon when a large bird flew by our faces so close, we felt the pressure from its wings. It was a Goshawk. The birds on our feeders scattered. A dove was the target. It crashed into low blueberry bushes barely escaping. The Goshawk pulled up like a fighter jet and banked over the yard looking for another target. All was silent. With a fierce glance our way, it flew slowly back into the forest. It all happened in a matter of seconds. Our hearts were pounding. If we were startled, I can’t imagine what that dove felt like.

So, the next time you visit Valentine Farm Conservation Center, consider that many of our songbird friends are there, but they are moving silently because they know what’s lurking – Accipiters!

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.

Another Unusual Bird

Valentine Farm Conservation Center (VFCC) is turning into a good place to find interesting birds. This year, migrating shore birds have stopped over in the flooded fields as they headed toward the artic where they nest. Great Horned Owls successfully raised two chicks deep in the woods. Veery and other thrushes have been common and are likely nesting. An American Kestrel, a small falcon, was recently reported. And, 19 different types of warblers have also been documented. An unusual warbler for our area, the Prairie Warbler, was also located this summer. The Prairie Warbler (photo by Mike’s Birds), with its worldwide numbers in decline, warrants a closer look.

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Prairie Warbler males have a bright yellow face with a black streak under the eye like some football players wear. Its underparts are yellow with a black collar and streaks down its side. The top of its head, nape and back is olive. It has chestnut streaks between its shoulder blades. It’s an attractive bird, and its song is a distinct, “Zee, zee, zee, zee, zee” moving up the music scale. Maine is not typically considered part of its range, but they have been reported in our area from time to time over the past few years.

Prairie Warblers don’t really live on the prairie. They spend their winters in southern Florida, Central America and the Caribbean. They spend spring and summer in the South Eastern U.S. They prefer scrubby fields, coastal dunes, open pine forest, cutovers and field edges.

This male sang and sang probably hoping to attract a mate. We have no evidence that he was successful or hung around for long, but it was nice to have this unusual guest to Western Maine. I wish him well in his travels and invite you to come check out what else may be visiting 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 toinfo@mahoosuc.org.

 

Ground Peckers

Brrrrrrrptap-tat-tat-tat-tat. . . .brrrrrrrrrpatap-tat-tat-tat-tat!” It was 5:30 am, and the rapid-fire hammering on metal erupted again and again as I walked my dog on an otherwise silent street.

It’s a sound I listen for each spring. A woodpecker, slightly larger than a robin, is a regular visitor to a metal chimney cover at a particular house in my neighborhood back in Medford, MA. This seems to be how this bird announces its presence in the area. It alerts other males that he’s back. It lets any females in the area know that he’s available. Then again, maybe he just likes annoying the humans that live in that house. Can you imagine what they must think? Several days in a row each spring they are awoken by the machine-gun rattle from this bird on their chimney. I can almost see the twinkle in that bird’s eye. “Brrrrrrrrrrptap-tat-tat-tat-tat,” he does it again.

Northern Flicker (picture by dfaulden

Northern Flicker (picture by dfaulden

This mischief is caused by a Northern Flicker (photo by dfaulder), a woodpecker occurring throughout the U.S. The bird has striking plumage with a mix of gray and buff-brown on its head and face and brown all over with black stripes on its wings and black spots on its chest. A distinct white patch on its rump stands out when it flies. In the east, flickers have a yellow wash on the underside of their wings, which is visible when they fly. Flickers in the west have red on their under-wing. Growing up, these birds were thought to be two distinct types of birds. I have several old field guides which list the “Red-shafted Flicker” and the “Yellow-shafted Flicker” separately. Today they are considered regional differences of the same bird. 

A flicker’s preferred food is ants. This leads to them spend more time on the ground compared to other woodpeckers. This ground-probing results in some calling them, “Ground Peckers”. 

Flickers are cavity nesters which means each year they excavate nest-holes in dead or dying trees. These holes provide a safe place to raise their young. They continue to provide important shelter after the flickers have left. Other creatures like chickadees and flying squirrels use these holes as nests and winter shelter for years to come. This is one of the reasons scientists recommend leaving standing dead trees, if they don’t create a danger. Plus, leaving some dead snags for woodpeckers to hammer on keeps them from performing their spring drumming concert on your chimney cover.

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 toinfo@mahoosuc.org.

Tree Swallows

Years ago, my wife and I took a ride along the coast. We ended up at Parker River National Wildlife Refuge on Plum Island in Massachusetts. It was late fall and a cold, blustery day with occasional snow flurries – not a good day for bird watching. As we drove down the access road along the marsh, a flock of birds suddenly appeared out of the reeds and swirled around us. The birds, many hundreds, swirled in a tight cloud around and over the car. They were so close I stopped the car and we watched, mesmerized as the birds, like leaves in the wind, swirled. How they avoided colliding with each other or our car is a mystery. I’m sure this all happened in 30 seconds or less, but it seemed like forever. Almost as quickly as they had appeared, they dropped into the reeds along the road. We were left with the windblown snowflakes where before our vision was almost blocked by a mist of green and cream-colored birds. In all of my years of bird watching, I don’t think there are many experiences more spectacular than what we saw that day.

Tree Swallow (photo by Peter Wilton)

Tree Swallow (photo by Peter Wilton)

Since then, I’ve learned that these birds, Tree Swallows, migrate south in loose, sometimes large flocks and at dusk, seek roost sites. Reeds in marshes are good habitat for these migrating birds. Tree Swallows (photo by Peter Wilton) are iridescent green on their head and back. Their underparts are a soft white. They migrate into our area during nesting season and can be seen catching insects over fields, ponds and marshes. When you see one tree swallow, there are usually more. When nesting, the breeding pair can often be accompanied by other non-breeding birds.

Tree Swallows get their name because they nest in holes and other cavities in trees. Although they use old woodpecker holes, they also readily use nest boxes. At my house, I put up nest boxes for Bluebirds. The Bluebirds visit every year but never nest. The Tree Swallows are more aggressive and tend to win the right. Each year when I clean out these boxes, I can always count on finding large white feathers woven into the Tree Swallow nest. They use feathers of other birds to line their nests.

                Visit Valentine Farm this time of year for a chance to observe these birds pirouetting above the fields or peeking from a nest box.

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 toinfo@mahoosuc.org.

Watermelon Tourmaline

Ruby-throated hummingbird

Ruby-throated hummingbird

One of my great pleasures is sitting on my back deck with a cup of tea early in the morning. The best way to wake-up is by watching and listening for my wild neighbors as the day breaks.  It was on one of these mornings when I was visited by a flying bit of watermelon tourmaline. A Ruby-throated Hummingbird zipped by. This wasn’t unusual. A hummingbird feeder hung from the deck a few feet away, and they are routine visitors.

Ruby-throated Hummingbirds (photo by Joe Schneid) are the only hummingbird known to breed in Maine. They come here in the early spring and make a living off of sap from our trees, until the first flowers bloom. These are amazing birds at so many levels. Weighing in at only 1/10th of an ounce, they fly here from as far away as the tropics. Many make non-stop flights across the Gulf of Mexico on their way north. Their wings beat at roughly 53 times per second, and their ability to hover and fly backwards seems to defy physics. The iridescent green feathers of their head, back and tail makes them the gemstones of the bird world. Males have a throat patch, known as a gorget, that can flash ruby red if the light is right. Maine’s state gemstone is tourmaline. To me, male hummingbirds are Western Maine’s watermelon tourmaline come to life. 

On this morning, I was wearing a red shirt and sat watching and listening with my fingers laced across my belly. The hummingbird came back. It stopped and hovered 12 inches from the tip of my nose. His red gorget flashed as he scolded me with an electric buzz. Then, to my surprise, the tiny bird swooped in and probed between my laced fingers. It happened so fast, I didn’t have time to react. He then swooped back six inches from my face and chattered more sharply. This time he seemed mad. I don’t think he liked being tricked. I must have looked like a very large, red flower to him. His reprimand complete, he zipped off into the morning.

Since that time, I don’t wear red shirts on my deck anymore. I’m not sure why. It’s not because I think it does harm. Maybe I feel bad about tricking hummingbirds. Then again, maybe, just maybe, I’m a little afraid of being scolded by these little tourmaline gems. 

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 toinfo@mahoosuc.org.

Opinionated Woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

Pileated woodpecker

“There goes a pileated woodpecker,” mother blurted out to the ladies she was hosting for dominos. The large woodpecker had flown to a big pine no more than 30 feet from the sliding door where they were sitting.

“Opinionated woodpeckers? What is that?” one of the ladies exclaimed. Seems none of them had heard of, much less seen, a pileated woodpecker.

These large, crow-sized birds sport a distinctive, red crest and have a loud, rattling call.  Woody Woodpecker seems to have been modeled after this bird. Pileated means cap or crest. These charismatic birds prefer deep, mature forest where they look for trees, both standing and downed, which are infested with insects on which they depend. Carpenter ants are said to be a favorite. These woodpeckers move from tree to tree where they cling, turning their head from side to side as they listen for insects moving deep in their tunnels. Once the insects are located, the woodpecker goes to work chiseling out large chunks of wood until it finds the insect track. Several large pines at Valentine Farm Conservation Center bare elongated holes excavated by pileated woodpeckers as they follow the insect’s path. Fresh chips are occasionally found, indicating a recent visit. 

These birds stay in Oxford County year round and can be easier to see when there are no leaves on the trees. In the spring, these birds set up breeding territories. The males attract mates by drilling on trees, poles and houses – anything they find to make a shattering sound that can only be appealing to a potential mate. I remember reading articles years ago about the difficulty power companies were having in the south because these woodpeckers were destroying the wooden pole towers used for some high-tension wires. The poles were replaced with metal towers which seemed to delight the woodpeckers even more. They could be heard for miles hammering away on the metal structures advertising their availability.

This is not unusual and, during breeding season, the males will look for material to hammer on that will make the loudest sound for advertising their availability. It seems the ladies in my mother’s domino group may have been right. These birds may, in fact, have opinions about the best way to attract their mates.  

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 us 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.

A Bird of Summer

Spring mornings are the best time to hear and see the largest variety of songbirds. Male songbirds arrive as early as possible to set up and defend their territory. Song is a tool they use to attract mates. Though both male and female songbirds have a variety of calls they use to communicate with each other, it is primarily the males which are known for their singing. As the day wears on, these songsters tend to quiet down. As spring turns to summer, females are sitting on nests or caring for hatchlings, and there seems to be fewer reasons for the males to sing – at least that seems to be the trend for most. However, as the midday heat of summer arrives, there are some birds which continue to sing.

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One of these rule breakers is the male Indigo Bunting (photo by Kevin Bolton). This sparrow-sized bird can be found in overgrown fields, hedgerows and forest edges. The adult males are a brilliant blue. I can count on finding at least one Indigo Bunting singing from the top of a pine in the field at my house. I can also find them in the thicket along the corn field edge at Valentine Farm Conservation Center. This bird has a high, melodic song that it repeats over and over from a high perch. I don’t have to get up early to hear or see them. These guys will continue to sing well into the day and well into the summer.

Females are a very plain brown, which can be confused with other sparrows. In fact, the blue which the males are known for, does not come from an actual “color” within the feather. I’m told there is no blue pigment in their feathers. It’s all about how the light reflects. Think of how a prism works. A prism breaks a beam of light into its component parts. In the same way, light reflected off of the male Indio Bunting’s breeding feathers can show up as a deep, rich blue.  Sometimes, however, these same Males will appear black depending on the lighting. Interesting? Yes, but regardless of how it works, nothing delights me like seeing this bright blue bird singing from a high pine with the summer sky as its back drop.

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 toinfo@mahoosuc.org

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

Eastern Phoebe

For the past few weeks, we’d been avoiding using our front door. It’s because the resident Eastern Phoebes (Photo by Andy Reago & Chrissy McClarren) have returned. In the past, I had watched them build their moss-covered nest. I recently learned the female does all the nest building. The male often follows her back and forth like a puppy as she does all of the work. This year the phoebe re-used last year’s nest under the eaves of my front porch. We didn’t want to disturb them, so we tried to avoid using the front door while she sat on four eggs.  

                Surprisingly, this mother seemed unperturbed by our comings and goings. This tolerance of humans and their willingness to nest on man-made structures has helped this bird thrive. We’ve had them at our house every year for the ten years we’ve lived here. Watch around houses, barns and sheds in your area. Chances are you have a pair, too.

                The male continues to hang around like a father in waiting. I’m glad to have him. He has several perches around the house from which he sallies out to catch flying insects and then quickly returns. This gives me time to study him closely.

Phoebes are not very dramatic birds. They are a drab brown on top and buffy white with a faint, olive wash underneath. They look similar to other types of flycatchers. However, phoebes have a behavior that is distinct from other flycatchers. It constantly bobs its tail. This is a surefire way to identify this bird.

Once the eggs hatch, the male does get to work helping his mate feed the rapidly growing chicks. The pair work hard to collect enough insects. As they grow, the chicks begin to overflow the nest.

Now, one thing I’ll admit is a nuisance about these birds. . .they make a mess under their nest. The chicks hang their little bums over the edge when they poop. The parent’s preferred flight path to the nest also becomes clear because it too is marked with excrement.

After they fledge, we relax and go back to using our front door. I get out the hose and clean up the mess. To me, this is a small price to pay for all the insects this little family eats during their time at my house. And I get to pretend I played a small role in helping raise this family. 

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.

Thrushes

Hermit Thrush

Hermit Thrush

Recently, sitting on the back deck, my wife and I watched a pair of Eastern Bluebirds checking out the nest boxes we have in our field. Several American Robins probed the grass close to the house in search of worms. And, as the sun started to set, the forest around us came alive with the flute-like song of three Hermit Thrushes. They took turns singing their chorus. A robin added its song, and the bluebird couple occasionally contributed a bubbly call. We sat frozen. It was a private symphony in our own backyard. 

All three of these songsters are in the thrush family. Four other thrushes, sometimes referred to as spotted thrushes, are known to nest in the Mahoosuc region. Along with the Hermit Thrush (photo by   Matt MacGillivray), these include the Wood Thrush, Veery and the less common Swainson’s and Bicknell’s Thrush. If you don’t know the song of these birds, search for recordings online. The American Robin and Hermit Thrush are the ones I hear most often, and there’s a good chance that one of these visits and sings in a yard or forest close to you.

Each of these thrushes occupy a slightly different slice of the environment around us. Robins like our yards. The Veery likes brushy wetlands. Hermit Thrush prefer early successional growth of mixed forests. The Bicknell’s Thrush, one of the thrushes of most concern in the Mahoosucs, lives only on the tops of our highest mountains. In its case, changing temperatures are impacting the plant and insect life on tops of these mountains. The concern is, with these changes, this bird will abandon our area at some point in the future.

For most thrushes, however, their biggest need is healthy forests with a variety of habitat. A good resource to help with this, especially for woodlot owners, is titled A Land Manager’s Guide to Improving Habitat for Forest Thrushes.  It can be downloaded for free from Cornell Lab of Ornithology’s website at www.birds.cornell.edu . 

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.

Maine Breeding Bird Atlas

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Recently, Mac Davis took me around Songo Pond looking for signs of nesting birds. He showed me an agitated pair of Merlins, a small falcon, that had been visiting the same pines for a week. He pushed our canoe up into a brushy area where we watched a pair of cat birds. One kept bringing his mate a leaf, twig or tuft of moss. We saw a pair of loons but, Mac explained that although loons regularly visit the pond, they’d only attempted to nest once in over forty years he’d lived on the pond. There were many other birds that we documented. Several showed signs they were getting ready to nest.  And, that is exactly what we hoped to observe. Mac is one of over a thousand of volunteers who are engaged in a massive project to document breeding birds in Maine, and he invited me to join him as he collected data on the block he is monitoring.

The Maine Breeding Bird Atlas began in 2018 and goes through 2022. Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife implemented this study.  The last Maine Atlas was conducted 33 years ago, and the goal is to update our understanding of birds and the environment throughout the state. It follows a standard protocol, which has been developed and used by other states and around the world. Volunteers pick a survey block and are asked to report the birds they see along with a “breeding behavior code”. There are 23 codes. Some are used to indicate possible nesting. Some codes are for behavior like the Merlins where nesting is more probable. The cat birds carrying nesting material, however, receives a code that confirms nesting has begun. 

It is a big job and requires the help of hundreds of citizen-scientist volunteers like Mac. If you are interested, you can read more by visiting the Maine Bird Atlas page on the www.Maine.gov site. You can select a block to monitor, or join us at Valentine Farm Conservation Center on a bird walk. Any data we collect is entered into this study.

As Mac steered the canoe back to his dock, we saw three birds sitting on a float. They were Spotted Sandpipers, a bird that breeds in our area. Breeding code “H” which indicates a bird in appropriate habitat.

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.

Peregrine Falcons

Peregrinations-that’s a word you don’t hear very often. It means a long and wandering journey. There is one bird that it might be worth a wandering journey to glimpse – the Peregrine Falcon.

Peregrine Falcon

Peregrine Falcon

The Peregrine Falcon was completely exterminated in New England by the early 1960s. In the 1980s and 1990s, Maine released 144 captive-bred birds at eight different locations in the state. High cliffs found in Oxford County provide prime habitat for these birds. The first successful nest site for the reintroduced birds was in Oxford County! Since then the Peregrine Falcon has made a slow but steady return. This year, approximately 35 pairs are being monitored across the State. Still, as the biologists who work to protect this bird will tell you, it is an uncommon and can be challenging to study.

Lesley Rowse, an Albany resident who served as the District Biologist for the White Mountains National Forest, volunteers to monitor Peregrines in the Mahoosuc Region. She monitors three sites in Oxford County. The Peregrine pair mate for life and scrape out nests or “eyries” on cliff ledges. Lesley observes the nests from afar to determine if the pair has chicks. She reports both parents care for the chicks who stay in the nest for about six weeks. After the young learn to fly the family will stay near the cliff until fall when they will migrate south for the winter.

In the past, Lesley has also helped band young falcons before they leave the nest. Extreme care must be taken to ensure that they do not stress the adult birds. As important as it is for the scientists to collect data, the last thing they want is for the parents to abandon the eggs or chicks. In fact, studies have shown that falcons in remote areas like ours are easily disturbed by humans. There is some concern that recreational rock climbers can accidentally disturb nesting peregrines unintentionally.

Peregrines specialize in hunting medium to large birds like blue jays, woodpeckers and ducks. These falcons are often described as the fastest animal in the world because they can reach speeds over 200 miles per hour when in a dive, also called a “stoop”.

If your peregrinations take you by high cliff ledges, keep an eye out for this hawk-sized bird. In flight, watch for its long wings which taper to a point. Also, look for its mutton-chop sideburns. (Photo by Juan Lacruz).   

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.

 

Conservation Easement on Historic Hastings Dairy Farm

From left to right: Mac Davis (MLT), Sonny Hastings, Bonnie Pooley (MLT) and Chris Franklin (Maine Farmland Trust)

From left to right: Mac Davis (MLT), Sonny Hastings, Bonnie Pooley (MLT) and Chris Franklin (Maine Farmland Trust)

One of Bethel’s oldest farms is now permanently conserved by Mahoosuc Land Trust (MLT). On May 24th, Maine Farmland Trust (MFT) assigned a conservation easement to MLT on 173 acres of the dairy farm owned by Robert W. “Sonny” and Betty Ann Hastings. In 2016, the Hastings worked with MFT, a statewide land trust founded to protect farmland, and MLT to donate an easement and ensure that their farm would be available for farming forever.

The Hastings Farm has been owned and farmed by the Hastings Family for more than 200 years, and includes some of the finest agricultural soils in the State, located in the rich intervale of the Androscoggin River. Until recently, the Hastings operated a dairy farm, but now lease the fields to another farmer who grows potatoes and corn.

 The Hastings decided to donate an easement on the farm because of the family’s long legacy on the land, and because of Sonny’s late sister, Ann Morton.  Ann was a leader in the community, and a Mahoosuc Land Trust board member.  After learning about the ways that conservation can support farmland, Ann suggested to Sonny that the farm where they grew up as children should be conserved.

 “Mahoosuc Land Trust and Maine Farmland Trust worked together with the Hastings to protect this farm to honor the farming tradition of this community and protect soils with the capacity to grow food for people for centuries into the future,” said MLT Board President, Robert O’Brien.The conservation easement prevents the 173.9 acres from being subdivided or developed, but allows buildings necessary to support agricultural operations in a designated farmstead area.

From the inception of the project, MFT and MLT worked collaboratively, according to MLT Executive Director, Kirk Siegel.  “MFT used its extensive experience in farmland protection to work with the Hastings to finalize the conservation easement,” said Siegel.  “We are super happy to continue the relationship with Sonny and Betty Ann, and glad to be able to commit to enforce the protections in perpetuity.” 

hastings farm.jpg

 MFT Project Manager for Oxford County, Chris Franklin, shared his enthusiasm for the project saying: “Working in partnership with local land trusts enables local oversight of the property, while addressing the essential task of meeting our statewide goal of securing the future for farming on properties such as the Hastings Farm.”

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.

Brown_creeper_%28Certhia_americana%29.jpg

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.