Cooler weather, shortened days and brilliant fall colors aren’t the only things heralding the changing of seasons. The presence of migratory birds tells its own story.
Migration has been ongoing for many weeks now; although many bird populations have already passed through or departed, numbers of species are still being reported in certain areas of the state. Shorebirds and songbirds — two of the earliest to begin migration — are still being counted, while others have just recently begun in earnest.
Sparrows are everywhere, it seems. Every morning on the walk from the parking lot to work, I pass a power-line clearing and a small drainage pond with grassy banks. As I pass, sparrows erupt from the grass in every direction. It was a challenge to get a close-enough or long-enough look to positively identify them before they scattered. I did get lucky once, when I saw one before it saw or heard me. I was able to identify it as a savannah sparrow.
Although savannah sparrows do breed throughout Maine, I seem to see them only during migration. At this time, they gather in large flocks, which may include other sparrows, such as song sparrows and swamp sparrows.
When I first started birding, I remember being thrilled when I learned how to identify savannah sparrows. They were distinct enough from the other three, more common sparrows I had learned: song, swamp and chipping sparrows. Their upper chests so finely streaked with brown, clean white underbodies and their yellow eyebrow stripe and pale crown stripe made them seem exotic by comparison.
At this time of the year, these sparrows are feeding on the abundant seeds of grass and herbs along roadsides, meadows, marshy areas, fields and sand dunes. Or, as I had the privilege to observe, along power-line clearings and near drainage ponds.
This area in back of where I work is its own little birding hotspot, for I’ve observed kestrels, cormorants and spotted sandpipers there in recent weeks. Earlier in the week I had an especially nice surprise.
As I was leaving work, I saw a very large, light-colored bird fly by the foyer windows. Rushing outside, I saw the bird alight in a sparsely leafed birch tree that bordered a large patch of woods including white pine, oak and maple trees.
The bird had the shape and build of a red-tailed hawk but not the distinctive red tail of an adult of this species. The bird was perched with its back toward me, and I prayed it would stay put as I passed by on my way to my car. Luck was with me — it did not spook at my close proximity, and I clearly saw its finely streaked belly band. It was a juvenile red-tailed hawk; young birds do not acquire their characteristic red tails until their second year.
Putting more distance between myself and the hawk so as not to interrupt its hunting, I observed it for a short time. The day took on a surreal quality: while the presence of this young raptor marked the true season, the bright, sunny, unusually warm day gave the illusion of spring. Adding to that, incredibly, was the song of a pine warbler drifting from the forest.
Sometimes warblers and other birds may sing snatches of song during migration, faint whispers that recall late spring and early summer. It was easy to fall under this spell, and for a second I could imagine it really was spring again — until I turned around and realized I had scattered a small flock of sparrows gathering for migration.
This time, it was impossible to identify any of them, as I was blinded by the afternoon sun already low in the sky — yet another reminder of the true season.