I am writing this column from the deck of Inn on the Harbor in Stonington. The inn is on my Top One list of favorite inns in Maine. A black guillemot is swimming among the lobster boats. Common eiders loaf beyond the guillemot. Common terns are diving in the distance. Three different species of gull are roosting near the pier. It is last Friday, and I am here to kick off the annual Wings, Waves, Woods birding festival.
But this is decidedly not how my day began. It began in Bangor City Forest, where I met Aislinn Sarnacki at 7 a.m. We both write about our adventures here on the Outdoor pages of the Bangor Daily News. She finds hikes; I find birds. One day, months ago, we pondered, “what if we combined the two?” So we waited for the warblers to return, and we hiked.
We stopped at every singing bird, which means we barely hiked. Most migrants had just returned over the previous 48 hours, and they were in full voice, staking out territories. It is the fate of outdoor writers to spend their lives outdoors. When you hike as much as Aislinn does, you encounter a lot of birds you don’t know. Sooner or later, the urge to learn them becomes compelling.
I stacked the deck. By suggesting a walk in Bangor City Forest, I was choosing a spot where I already knew the location of nearly every bird. Our first close encounter was with an ovenbird, exactly where he is every spring, just beyond the picnic tables. This ground-dwelling warbler sang from the edge of the path, then popped into plain view, and sang again. Couldn’t miss him.
Several male black-throated green warblers got busy sorting out territories. They alternated squabbling, then ignoring each other while feeding, then squabbling again.
Just above them, a northern parula sang. That attracted the irritation of two other males, and another fray began. It wouldn’t take long for all the males to settle into territories they could defend, but for the first few days after arrival, warblers aren’t too sure who owns what. Neither are they too sure who’s toughest. Battles are brief and tentative.
We moved on, but not far. A snowshoe hare was munching grass near the Orono Bog Boardwalk cabin, and as we stopped for photos, a chorus of birds erupted overhead: pine warbler, blackburnian warbler, and red-eyed vireo. A northern waterthrush sang from the wet area. We watched the robin nesting on the left side of the cabin, then smiled at the eastern phoebe nesting on the right side, and then entered the boardwalk.
The first interpretive sign marks where Canada warblers can be heard. Right on cue, one sang. Then another. Beyond the pair, a black-and-white warbler squeaked. White-throated sparrows joined the chorus.
We reached the split where the loop returns. The first palm warbler of the morning sang, but it was hidden in the foliage above us. We ignored it, knowing that there would be plenty more in the bog. Golden-crowned kinglets were up next, and as we neared the clearing, two common yellowthroats were heard dueling. Both were on territory about 40 yards apart along the edge of the woods. They were advertising their willingness to defend their territory if the other encroached.
A Lincoln’s sparrow sang, but too far away for observation. We walked on, where another was singing much closer. Lincoln’s sparrows can be a tad reclusive, but this chap was sitting high on a bough, belting out his tune. Lincoln’s sparrows are northern bog birds, and don’t nest much below Bangor, so this was a pleasant treat.
We finished the boardwalk and ambled a few hundred more yards on the main stem of Bangor City Forest. A northern waterthrush gave good looks. A magnolia warbler snuck into close view, posing. We teased a Nashville warbler into view.
I doubt Aislinn has ever featured a shorter hike, yet seen so many birds. The woods are absolutely alive with song this time of year. But unless you know what you’re hearing, it’s hard to grasp the overwhelming variety that Maine enjoys. Fortunately, there are festivals.
The second of three coastal festivals kicks off today (Friday, May 26). The Down East Spring Birding Festival begins at noon at the Cobscook Community Learning Center in Trescott. I’ll be the opening act at noon, with my presentation on Birding By Ear. The Acadia Birding Festival is next weekend. Celebrate peak birding season, going on right now.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.