A Year in Maine: Birding through the seasons
In this second installment of a four-part series Ed Jenkins describes moving to Maine and a year of yard birding, season by season. Read the first part about winter here.
SPRING FINALLY ARRIVES!
In the mild south of the United Kingdom where I spent the majority of my childhood we'd get, on average, 23 days of snow a year, most of which would not settle but melt away by mid-morning. My new home of Portland, Maine, on the other hand receives an average of ~62 inches of snow per winter, with snow on the ground for many months on end. Keep that in mind when I say I was extremely relieved to see the temperatures start to rise and the snow begin to melt in my yard this spring!
Birding had been slow, pickings were slim, and the yard list was sitting at a modest 67 species from our arrival on the 17th of October, 2018, through to the end of February 2019. Then March arrived, the migration season slowly kicked into gear, and things got interesting. First on the scene were ring-billed, herring and great black-backed gulls, even though we are over 8 miles from the coast. High flying, often pale specks against the sky, they soared overhead, joined toward the end of the month by cacophonous Canada geese and the first sharp-shinned and cooper's hawks. Turkey vultures appeared, large shadows coasting across the brown grass that was now appearing from beneath the snow. One morning a gentle breeze from the south piqued my curiosity and I spent a morning in freezing temperatures hoping for north-bound raptors, rewarded by the first red-shouldered and red-tailed hawks of the year and then a single rough-legged hawk, an elusive winter visitor, passed overhead without a single flap of its wings, a vision of the wild north in suburban New England.
Then April rolled around bringing warmer temperatures and the ice on the pond finally melted, attracting mallard, wood duck and, to my delight, 6 hooded merganser that stayed a week diving for fish. Migrant songbirds also began to move through Southern Maine bringing some much appreciated colour. Delightful mixed flocks of ruby and golden-crowned kinglets, and palm, pine and myrtle warblers tumbled through the still-bare tree tops, gorging on the earliest insects, while icterids such as common grackles, brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds quickly filled the soundscape, a pair of blackbirds taking up residence in the phragmites around the pond. Sparrows too began to appear in force, the newly revealed earth attracting fox, song and swamp sparrows, while slate-coloured junco numbers swelled to a high of 51, and a field sparrow remained in the yard for a week, a surprise due to their preferred habitat of open grassland scrub. On four mornings an American woodcock flushed from underfoot, invisible until almost stepped on, and the calls of killdeers floated by on the breeze. Raptor passage began in earnest in April too, with Osprey and northern harriers circling high over the yard, joined by passing bald eagles. Then, on April 16th, during a warm morning spent lying on my back on the mossy granite, the broad-winged hawks arrived. Small, stubby-winged hawks, they migrate in groups from South America and are recorded in their thousands at well-known raptor watch-points. On that day I counted 106 broad-winged hawks in multiple small groups, some so high I could not see them with the naked eye, and therefore certainly missed many more.
My first May birding in coastal Maine was truly incredible. By the end of April I'd seen 92 species in the yard, and just 31 days later, the last day of May and of spring too, that number had jumped to 130. Each day my wife would go to work and I'd attempt to write up my research, usually failing utterly to ignore the mixed flocks moving through the newly-leafed trees, or the increasingly complex dawn chorus. Every time I went outside I seemed to see new visitors. As often is the case in North America, warblers were the centre of attention, and at least 22 species passed through our yard, from abundant American redstarts, common yellowthroats, magnolia warblers and northern parulas, to more elusive ovenbirds, and prairie warblers. A single bay-breasted, black-throated blue and mourning warbler were more of a surprise, especially the male mourning warbler that spent a morning skulking in a brush pile. Red-eyed and blue-headed vireos joined the warbler mixed flocks too, as did small empidonax flycatchers including a single willow, alder and yellow-bellied flycatcher (painstakingly confirmed by call), as well as many tiny least flycatchers. Larger flycatchers too such as Eastern Kingbirds and great-crested flycatchers made brief appearances, along with larger songbirds like rose-breasted grosbeaks, scarlet tanagers and Baltimore orioles. Thrush passage was very hard to observe, with fleeting glimpses of veery and hermit and swainson's thrushes, often at first light. May too saw the arrival of tiny ruby-throated hummingbirds buzzing around the apple trees, while chimney swifts, high enough to be barely discernible specks, scythed through the air high overhead.
By the end of May bird activity had settled down, with many species having passed through on their way to breeding grounds further north. Some had stayed, however, setting up territories in and around the yard itself. Eastern phoebes, American robins, yellow-bellied sapsuckers and gray catbirds were building nests, the eastern bluebirds were already incubating, and a swirling, noisy colony of barn swallows had taken up residence in the eaves of the old disused barn.
Next week, I'll describe birding through the summer, and how my yard list developed post-migration.
By Ed Jenkins