As I was about to walk into work one morning last week, several crows began cawing loudly as they flew toward a stand of white pine trees across from the entrance. The person behind me commented, “That’s often a sign of spring, isn’t it?”
Not necessarily — but I didn’t want to disabuse the man of his wish; besides, I really didn’t have the time to explain. I was actually thinking it was more a sign of a raptor in the vicinity, remembering the spectacle of crows mobbing a bird of prey recently at Maine Audubon’s Gilsland Farm Audubon Center in Falmouth.
As part of my resolution to seriously get back into birding — instead of just noting birds while out doing other things — I had gone to Gilsland Farm hoping to exercise some of my rusty and neglected birding skills. This I was able to do immediately upon arrival.
As I approached the Audubon Center, I noticed a lot of bird activity around the feeding station to the left of the building. I saw the usual suspects: black-capped chickadees, tufted titmice, even a few song sparrows. But there was one sparrow I didn’t immediately recognize. Its chest, underside and sides were unstreaked, its crown was a deep chestnut and it had a chestnut eye-stripe and auricular patch.
At first I was perplexed; then I noticed the two-tone beak and the dark spot in the middle of its chest. It was an American tree sparrow, a winter visitor that breeds in northern Canada and Alaska.
American tree sparrows can often be found in winter at backyard feeders and gardens, gleaning seeds such as that of pigweed, ragweed and crabgrass, as well as sunflower and millet seed.
I remember the first time I’d learned to identify this beautiful sparrow was during a Christmas Bird Count in Orono; this bird is pretty much expected during this count, as well as during the annual Great Backyard Bird Count, which occurred last weekend. This year, Maine participants submitted 90 checklists that included this bird; a total of 377 tree sparrows were reported throughout the state.
After observing the tree sparrows and other birds at the feeder for a while, I headed out on the trails. I started out on the Pond Meadow Trail and eventually ended up over on North Meadow Trail. Hoping to see at least one bird of prey that day — there had been reports of at least two types of raptors on the farm within the last month or two — I thought the day was a bust as I headed back through North Meadow. That’s when the cacophony of crows alerted me that something was up.
The crows were dive-bombing a large raptor — I guessed red-tailed hawk — perched in a deciduous tree on the bluff overlooking the Presumpscot estuary in West Meadow. Knowing I’d probably not get close enough in time to get a better look and positively identify the raptor, I stayed put, hoping the hawk would take flight and decide to cruise over the meadow I was in.
Eventually I gave up, as the crows seemed to do. After harassing the raptor, which refused to budge, the ebony birds took off toward the southern end of the farm and I headed back toward the parking lot. That, of course, was when the hawk decided to move.
I had just turned around for another peek at the hawk when I saw a flash of bright chestnut as it passed behind a stand of trees — I was correct; it was a red-tailed hawk. It appeared to be heading toward the marshy area near North Meadow. Had I remained where I was, the hawk probably would have flown right over me.
More patience definitely would have paid off in that case.