A Year In Maine: Birding through the seasons
In this four-part series Ed Jenkins describes moving to Maine and a year of yard birding, season by season.
MOVING TO MAINE
After moving to Falmouth, Maine, in October 2018, birding the yard (or ‘birdwatching in the garden’, to our British readers), quickly became a key part of my daily routine. Having moved from urban Winnipeg, Canada, this was the first time I’d had my own yard since childhood. On the day we moved into the new place, one of the first birds we found was a yellow-billed cuckoo quietly sitting in a trailing vine, partly concealed by leaves. Taking this to be a good omen, I made our first yard bird list.
I spent the fall working on my master’s thesis at a white wooden desk in the single first-floor room, writing and re-writing paragraphs about analyzing stable-isotopes in seabird blood to learn about their diet, before flying back to the University of Manitoba to defend my thesis just before the holiday. After a short visit to England to see family I was back in Maine and preparing to apply for a US residency permit, the so-called ‘green card’ that would allow me to live and work in the country.
What followed was a long period of time, almost 10 months, where I could not work, but could not leave the country. To all intents and purposes, I was a hostage of the immigration system, while I went through the slow process. Having a single vehicle between us and living relatively far from any amenities, I spent most of that time at home, working on publishing my research, and, increasingly, dealing with the lack of control I had over my situation. However, I've always found spending time outside to be a reliable source of healthy energy and mental equilibrium, the combination of exercise, exposure to the elements, and observing wildlife helpful in uncertain times.
Luckily, the 1.45 hectares of yard, with its smooth lawn, overgrown flowerbeds, mature trees, and two small ponds, was a constant source of amazement and I got to know every part of it intimately. We quickly realized that this small patch of partially tended earth with its four borders of trees and shrubs was well-placed for attracting wildlife. Lying just north of a large lake, and at a slight elevation above its surroundings, migrating birds often accumulated in the tall white pines, or around the pond taking turns to drink from its edge. At the highest point there is a patch of exposed granite, weather-worn and flaky, where one can sit away from the long grass and its ticks, with a decent view over the farmhouse, the barn, and surrounding trees, on three sides. The huge weeping willow over the pond sheltered a family of yellow-bellied sapsuckers in the summer, the reed-lined pond hosted visiting beavers, and the murky, vernal pool in the woodlot at the back was set around with dead boles, home for a pair of Eastern bluebirds in the early spring.
OUR FIRST WINTER IN MAINE
Between our arrival in late October and the start of winter in December, we recorded 63 species in or from the yard, including that unexpected yellow-billed cuckoo. The warblers had already mostly passed through, (we only found palm and yellow-rumped warblers), but sparrow migration was in full swing, with 10 species including white-crowned, fox and American Tree sparrows feeding under the apple trees. Snow arrived in mid-November pushing flocks of Canada Geese south looking for ice-free grazing, and the hardiest raptors, including a single northern goshawk. In late November the large flocks of slate-coloured juncos and American robins finally moved on, leaving the yard silent.
Winter is long and cold in Maine, especially to those of us used to the mild, damp winters of southern England. While not as long or nearly as cold as those which Winnipeg experiences, where I had spent the past two winters, the volume of snow was initially shocking, and only the hardiest creatures remained during this period. On most days the bird species seen could be counted on one hand, comprising of black-capped chickadee, tufted titmouse, white-breasted nuthatch, northern cardinal, and up to four of the non-migratory woodpeckers (from smallest to largest: downy, hairy, red-bellied and pileated). However, short visits from more exotic birds from the northern boreal forests such as pine and evening grosbeaks, common redpolls, and on two occasions, northern shrikes from the Canadian tundra, which proceeded to terrorize the local chickadees, kept the birding interesting. We chose to support a single bird feeder (offering sunflower seeds), but aside from a brief visit from a red-breasted nuthatch, and one two occasions, a barred owl that sat out in the open in broad daylight above it, only the local chickadees and titmice profited.
Spring was just around the corner however and we quickly learned what a fantastic spot our yard could be for birds migrating northwards.