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Transitions

By James Reddoch


We are at that point of every year when we transition. It is not the only transition of the year, but it is a big one. It is the time when winter with its long nights, howling winds, and brutal temperatures fights against the melting ice, plumping tree buds, and lengthening days of spring.    

Jennifer Chase spotted this large flock of more than 100 Bohemian waxwings

During winter, roving flocks of non-migratory birds band together and forage over large distances looking for the scant food they need to survive. Even after the vernal equinox, pine siskins clean out my feeders almost daily. The flock of over 100 Bohemian waxwings that had been reported all winter in Bethel was seen again by Jennifer Chase in the Bryant Pond area in late March. Don’t they know it is spring?


As these birds disperse further north, our resident birds can be heard singing to attract a mate. Male wild turkeys begin to strut and gobble. Black-capped chickadees sing “hey-sweetie” more often. Downy and hairy woodpeckers begin to drum their love song tapped out in morse code. At the same time, birds we have not seen since last fall begin to appear. Recently people have reported the first American woodcocks, redwing blackbirds, turkey vultures, and northern flickers. With ice-out coming early on many ponds and lakes, common loons have already started to appear in some parts of Maine. This changing-of-the-guard is all part of the season’s transition.  

A migrating bird that arrives early has the advantage of picking the choice breeding territory. But arriving early is also a serious gamble.

Transition, however, can be a dangerous time. Mild winters like the one we just had can sometimes be a tease. A migrating bird that arrives early has the advantage of picking the choice breeding territory. But arriving early is also a serious gamble. A storm that drops two to three feet of snow like we had in late March can spell disaster. Emily Ecker and Marcel Polak reported a winter wren skittering across the deep snow after this last big storm.


Contrary to their name, most winter wrens leave Western Maine during our coldest months. They don’t always go far. There are regular winter reports of them in Southern Maine on the eBird citizen science website. And field guides show that many of these tiny forest birds are content to spend their winter just a little further south in Massachusetts and other eastern states. So dealing with fickle winter weather is something they must know. The challenge remains, will the bird Emily and Marcel saw be able to find the food it needs or did it make a grave miscalculation in coming north this early? 


Unfortunately, migrating birds face new challenges from the compounding changes to our climate and less predictable weather patterns. Scientists are scrambling to understand these changes and encourage citizen scientists to share their collective observations on websites like eBird. More work is needed, but our input can help  reveal trends that show how birds are responding. In the meantime, let’s hope that Emily and Marcel’s intrepid winter wren lives up to its name and has the skills to find its way in these times of transition. 


Sources:

  • Sallie J. Hejl, Jennifer A. Holmes, and Donald E. Kroodsma, Winter Wren. Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Birds of the World Version: 1.0, March 4, 2020

  • eBird. 2021. eBird: An online database of bird distribution and abundance, www.ebird.org/explore

  • Sibley, David, 1961. The Sibley Field Guide to Birds of Eastern North America. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2003.

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