The best things in life are free. Maine Audubon is about to begin its very popular series of morning bird walks. The first of 14 walks will take place Saturday, May 3, at Hirundo Wildlife Refuge in Old Town.
Most of the walks are scheduled from 7-8:30 a.m., which is no accident. The timetable allows participants to squeeze in a little birding before work, and most are at locations where someone can leave early if the boss is a stickler for punctuality. Two of the walks are on Saturdays. In addition to Hirundo next week, Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden will include a walk as part of its International Migratory Bird Day festivities on May 10. One walk is in the evening to watch the spectacle of chimney swifts swirling over Bangor before they pop down a chimney to roost.
Nearly all of the walks are in the immediate Bangor area, but there is a surprising amount of variation among them. The walks will hit urban, suburban and woodland habitats. Some walks will peek into streams, some will skirt marshland and some will traverse open fields. A list of all the walks can be found at the Penobscot Valley Chapter website at maineaudubon.org/pvc.
Two of the walks are co-sponsored by Bangor Land Trust. The Northeast Penjajawoc Preserve is near Roland J. Perry Bangor City Forest and shares some of the same habitat features. But it is lightly traveled, and minor changes in elevation produce subtle differences in habitat and wildlife diversity. The West Penjajawoc Grasslands Preserve is located off Essex Street, and it couldn’t be more different. Here, bobolinks rule the open fields. This type of grassland habitat has largely succumbed to housing subdivisions, so we should count ourselves lucky that some of it has been conserved.
There are several reasons these walks are so popular. There’s something for everyone. Fledgling birders enjoy learning from experienced birders, but it can feel a little intimidating sometimes. It’s easier to fit into a group with a wide range of birding skills. For intermediate birders, there’s the thrill of learning about new local sites to explore. For the experienced leader, it’s the joy of sharing one’s passion.
It’s also a good tune-up. Even experts get rusty over the winter. Sometimes my memory needs a little jogging when I hear an unusual bird for the first time each spring.
In fact, even the birds get rusty over the winter. Many have to relearn their own songs. When our birds go south, they do not defend territories or attract mates. For many months, they don’t sing. When they first return, they can be pretty lousy singers. Frankly, some of these birds are an embarrassment to their species.
I’ll be leading walks around Essex Woods in Bangor and down the road to Leonard’s Mills in Bradley. I get a special pleasure out of these walks because — how should I put this? — I’m lazy. Most of the birds are in the exact same place every year, so I don’t have to work too hard to find them. This surprises people. Beginners tend to think that birds are randomly scattered around the forest. In reality, each species favors a particular habitat, and they will return to these same spots each year. If misfortune befalls one migrant, another bird takes his place.
There’s one hard rule for these walks: no pets. It’s hard to see a bird when it is being chased off by a friendly cocker spaniel.
There are several soft rules that I just made up.
Make your guide work. Ask questions. Probe for the clues that led to an identification. Let the leader know when you didn’t get a good look.
Take the time to try other people’s binoculars. Get help adjusting your own, if needed.
Limit non-birding conversation. Leaders often find birds by hearing them, which can be difficult in a noisy crowd. Actually, I find that these things usually sort themselves out. The walks are sociable events spent with like-minded people, so lots of conversation is normal. The listeners tend to bunch up front, near the guide. The talkers tend to lag behind. Everybody wins.
People in front see more birds than the people in back. Some views are fleeting, such as when a merlin flashes by the trail. Stay close to the leader for more sightings.
Don’t be afraid to misidentify something. It’s the fastest way to learn. If you don’t have enough of your own mistakes, you can borrow some of mine.
Bob Duchesne serves as a Maine Audubon trustee and vice president of its Penobscot Valley Chapter. Bob developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. Bob can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.