Dickcissels fart. At least, that’s the sound they make when flying over. I learned this in a conversation at Maine Audubon last week. I’ll bet you’re wondering how a conversation about farting dickcissels developed.
A dickcissel is a grassland bird of Middle America. It’s a sparrow-like bird in the cardinal family that looks like a meadowlark. In other words, it’s a weird mix of characteristics. I saw my first dickcissel in Tennessee 20 years ago. I have seen a few in Louisiana and maybe one in Texas. That’s all.
Dickcissels collect into huge autumn flocks and migrate to South America for the winter. But some get kind of lost and wander — even into Maine. Two dickcissels have been frequenting a bird feeder in Wells for most of this month. Doug Hitchcox heard one fly over while leading his weekly walk at Maine Audubon’s headquarters in Falmouth. Doug is Audubon’s chief naturalist.
In conversation, Doug mentioned he heard the flyover. I confessed I didn’t know what a dickcissel flight note sounded like, because I had very little experience with this species. He explained it was a very distinctive: “fppt” — a flying fart. In the history of bird call descriptions, this one takes first prize. I will remember the sound a dickcissel makes for the rest of my life.
Wayward dickcissels often end up associating with flocks of house sparrows, so I keep an eye on flocks of house sparrows during winter — even though they are the commonest of common birds, prone to hanging around McDonald’s parking lots. Someday, I’d like to see a dickcissel in Maine, and now I know what to listen for.
I am an idiot savant, the Rain Man of bird sounds. I have very little book learning about avian fauna in general, but if a bird makes a noise in Maine, I usually know what it is. So it surprised some people in the conversation that there were bird sounds from away that I didn’t know. In truth, I’m always learning. For 30 years, Maine Audubon has been part of that learning experience. Nowadays, I get to share that learning. Two opportunities are coming right up.
On Sunday, the Penobscot Valley Chapter of Maine Audubon is leading a boat trip out of Roque Bluffs to explore the coves around all the islands in the area. While the goal is to get a count of the winter waterfowl returning from the arctic breeding grounds, we’re really just out for fun. It’s good practice. If participants can’t tell the difference between a distant horned grebe and a red-necked grebe or the difference between a common loon and a red-throated loon or the difference between the three scoter species, they sure will by the end of the trip.
On Friday, Nov. 20, I’ll be presenting a program at Fields Pond Audubon Center in Holden, disclosing all my favorite winter birding locations. By the end of the program, I will have no secrets left. Fledgling birders often are surprised to find out how good cold weather birding can be. The coast is livelier in winter than summer. Lots of Canadian breeders infiltrate our woods and fields this time of year. I’ll explain it all. The 7 p.m. event is free.
Most other chapter events are free, too. It’s hard for nonmembers to keep up with it all. Members receive newsletters and email updates. The email alerts are especially useful, because some great opportunities develop after the latest newsletter goes to print. The place to start is maineaudubon.org. Becoming a member automatically gets you enrolled with a local chapter, if there is one. There are five chapters covering most of Maine’s long coast, from the York County Chapter in southern Maine to the Fundy Chapter in Washington County. A sixth chapter, Western Maine Audubon, serves that side of the state, and the Penobscot Valley Chapter serves much of this side.
Most of what Maine Audubon offers to the public is geared toward fledgling birders. Many skills regarding bird finding and identification are easier to learn than most people think. Whether it is spring warbler walks or autumn boat trips, it’s handy to have an experienced birder along to point out the key field marks. And, speaking for myself, it’s a lot of fun to help new birders develop their skills. Frankly, experienced birders don’t need me.
Plus, I’m always learning from my association with other birders at Maine Audubon. Take dickcissel farts, for instance.
Bob Duchesne serves as vice president of Maine Audubon’s Penobscot Valley Chapter. He developed the Maine Birding Trail, with information at mainebirdingtrail.com. He can be reached at email@example.com.